Week In Politics: West Virginia Chemical Spill And The NSA

Originally published on January 17, 2014 6:20 pm
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And now to our Friday political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

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

BLOCK: We seem to hear the president today in constitutional law professor mode again trying to thread the needle between competing interests, trying to find a balance, say, between secrecy and oversight, between security and core civil liberties. E.J., did his directives today, do you think, strike the right balance?

DIONNE: I am broadly sympathetic to his trying to walk down the middle of the road on this, but I think that this will not satisfy civil libertarians. My colleague, Greg Sergeant, a blogger at The Post, I think put it really well. The president is mostly concerned with how you collect this metadata and he's trying very hard to put more rule of law around this.

And I think it's a good thing, for example, that a panel of outsiders will represent the public before the FISA court. But for civil libertarians, the issue is whether you should collect this metadata at all. So I think he's put some restrictions here to restore the legitimacy of the program, to have some privacy protections. I think he went out of his way to make concessions to our allies who are very upset about this. But this argument is going to continue.

BLOCK: David Brooks, some national security advocates would say these things go too far. Maybe we're loosening the boundaries too much.

BROOKS: Yeah. I think if you had to measure the pain on both sides of this debate, I think the civil libertarians are feeling a little more pain than the national security people and everyone's critical because that's our job. But I think he leaned a little in the national security direction. He feels the pain of the civil liberties. He understands the concerns. But he clearly is the guy who's been a consumer of intelligence for the past six years, getting the daily intelligence briefs, sitting atop the institutions and ultimately, I think, his loyalty and his interests were aligned to the institutions he runs, and he probably made those people at the NSA pretty happy.

DIONNE: In fact, if I could just underscore, I thought you were absolutely right to pick that soundbite where he went out of his way to say, I've learned nothing that our intelligence - that shows me that our intelligence community is indifferent to civil liberties or sought to violate the law. He really leaned, I think, more in that direction.

BLOCK: I was interested to hear President Obama today mention Edward Snowden. He said he wasn't going to dwell on his actions or motivations, but he did go on to say this.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If any individual who objects to government policy can take it into their own hands to publically disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe or conduct foreign policy.

BLOCK: On the other hand, David Brooks, would any of these reforms that we're talking about today have come about without Edward Snowden's disclosures?

BROOKS: Maybe not as fast. It's indisputable that Snowden started the debate and he did some good service. Nonetheless, I remain convinced he's a selfish narcissist and you can't run a government this way. You can't have 28-year-olds deciding on their own that a policy set above their level is going to be destroyed by them. Whistleblowers are right to blow the whistle when somebody's doing something illegal. They're not right to blow the whistle when somebody's conducting policy, which has been decided by a process, and Snowden was narcissistic and really community-destroying in the way he went about it.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne?

DIONNE: Two things. One is this speech would not have been given without what Edward Snowden did, and I think everybody has to acknowledge that. I think the second thing is journalists in general are in a peculiar position when they knock leaks because we live on leaks.

Having said that, he did violate the law. And I think we should be thinking more about this private company he worked for, what kind of security check did they do on Snowden. And I think that is disturbing. Nonetheless, I think especially if you're a journalist, you have to come down and say there's a real problem with condemning a leaker when he produced so much information that the public clearly wanted to have.

BROOKS: We live off gossip, but that doesn't mean we like gossipers. We're in a dirty business.


DIONNE: An essential business.

BLOCK: Point taken. I want to switch gears here and talk about a big story in West Virginia with ramifications far beyond that state. It's the chemical leak that had tainted the water supply there for hundreds of thousands of people. In this case, it was a chemical plant near Charleston, and apparently government regulation and inspection of this facility was nonexistent.

David Brooks, I'd be curious for your thoughts on this. Does it point to the need, do you think, for greater government regulation or, as some Republicans are saying, is this simply a matter of enforcing regulations that are already on the books.

BROOKS: Yeah, I think this is a case where, you know, I'm generally for local control and federalism. But this clearly is a case where federalism is not effective. In a lot of cases, the local regulators are, frankly, more interested in economic development, beholden to local interests, and sometimes you do need federal regulators. That doesn't mean you have to go whole hog and start destroying industries, but in some cases the regulators from Washington are just more removed from the local bigwigs than the local regulators, and you have to have some federal role. And I think that's true in education policy, as well as in this case.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne, are there big gaps that you're seeing that this story has revealed?

DIONNE: Hugely, and I welcome David to the ranks of those who support regulation in the public interest.

BROOKS: Don't get carried away, E.J.


DIONNE: There's been a lot of - there's been a lot of good reporting: Elizabeth Shogren here; Steve Mufson at The Post. Elizabeth pointed out that we haven't updated the Toxic Substances Control Act since 1976. You look at this plant. Senator Jay Rockefeller noted it hasn't been inspected since 1991, 23 years ago. The tanks here were built in the 1940s and 1950s.

This shows a huge hole in regulation both in terms of the law that exists and in terms of enforcement. What I fear is we - whenever we face a thing like this we say oh, this is terrible and then don't act afterward. I hope this leads to some action.

BLOCK: Do you see any indication that it will, David?

BROOKS: I suppose it will. You know, but let's not fetishize regulation. It's - this is a matter of balance.

DIONNE: I knew you'd have to switch sides before this was over.

BLOCK: He's backing down.


BROOKS: I'm seeking moderation between cost and benefit. And so, you know, the regulations, they're not wholesale good, they're not wholesale bad. It's a question of each individual case. West Virginia is a state that's economically hurting, and so it's just a question of finding that balance.

DIONNE: When you can't drink the water, something's wrong with the regulation.

BROOKS: I agree.

BLOCK: A point of agreement as we end our conversation. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution; David Brooks of The New York Times. Thanks so much to you both.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.