America's hands-off approach to the Middle East

This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," August 24, 2013. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

PAUL GIGOT, HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," growing chaos in the Middle East as new evidence points to chemical weapons used in Syria. And Egypt titters on the brink of civil war. How should the U.S. respond?

Plus, fresh outrage over the NSA's surveillance programs after the White House releases secret court rulings.

And President Obama says he's on a personal mission to make college more affordable. We'll tell you what he's got planned.

Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.

Growing concern both here and abroad about America's hands-off approach to the Middle East as new evidence of chemical weapons used in Syria surfaces and Egypt moves closer to civil war.

Amir Taheri is a syndicated columnist and the author of 11 books on the Middle East. He joins me now from London.

Welcome back to the program. Great to have you here.


GIGOT: Good. Let's look at Syria first. A year ago, I think it was, the president famously, President Obama, famously said the use of chemical weapons would be a red line that Syria shouldn't cross and would have consequences. What is Bashar Assad's calculation that he would cross -- be willing to cross that red line?

TAHERI: Well, he started by small-scale attacks and nothing happened. What happened recently was the sixth attack and now a pattern is emerging. Each attack has been bigger than the previous one, with the exception of just one in the middle. So he has been testing both the international public opinion, the United States resolve and also how far he can go inside Syria. Now we can establish that pattern quite clearly.

GIGOT: So it is -- so he figures he's testing the U.S., testing the world and they are not responding, so he's going to keep pushing ahead to do what he needs to do to prevail.


GIGOT: That's how you would see it?

TAHERI: Yes. Also, you know, in every case, government media asked supporters of the government, to leave the areas targeted before. Sometimes they waited several weeks and then attacked. In every case, the aerial attacks were places picked by the opposition, by the rebels, as their administrative centers. Assad does not want to let the rebels create a government, a phantom government, if you like, or a parallel government. So we know it is clear that it is part of an overall military strategy on his part.

GIGOT: Now, sources inside of the Obama administration are now leaking that the president is considering the use of force in the wake of these chemical attacks. Do you think that that would make a difference? And should the United States enter militarily in response to these attacks?

TAHERI: The first thing to do is to make the United States position politically clear. The United States has lost a lot of credibility in the Middle East recently. People hesitate to take it seriously as a major power. And it has proved to be a fickle friend. The president says something, then nothing happens and so on. You know you have to restore confidence first, you know, before we can discuss the use of weapons. Otherwise, you know, if you fire a few rockets as President Clinton used to do in Afghanistan, and then sit back, that would be quite useless.

GIGOT: But when you say establish, re-establish political credibility, what do you mean? Do you mean side with the rebels, for example, and say, look, we are going to enter more -- more assertively on their behalf?

TAHERI: Well, first of all, no. To take a clear political position, I'm saying that we cannot, as the international community, allow President Assad to continue killing his people. That it is clear that the attacks were done by him. There's ample evidence. President Obama knows that. The French, the British, they have given him lots of evidence. The latest attack is enough to assign a team of American experts to study the area and you will find out that the attack has happened.

GIGOT: Right.

TAHERI: But President Obama is hiding behind the Russia's President Putin. In fact, two of them are working together in this sense. Putin threatens to veto and Obama says because of the threat of veto I can't do anything.

GIGOT: So you would put together -- if you were President Obama, you would put together a coalition with the French and the Turks and the Saudis and others that would intercede in Syria more assertively on the part of the rebels? That's what I'm trying to get at you from you. Would you pick one side here and intervene?

TAHERI: I -- well, if you want the clear things to do, first of all, you know to organize the refugee areas in Iraq and Jordan and Lebanon, in Turkey and so on, protect them against President Assad's attacks, to create a no-fly zone in areas liberated by the rebels, especially in the Kurdish areas of Syria so that president cannot use his Russian-made air force to bomb them. And then to try to tip the balance of armament in favor of the rebels by giving them some weapons with which they can defend themselves. You know, we are not talking of invasion by American troops, you know, any direct military participation by the U.S. But you know, indicating that the U.S. is not on the side of President Assad and is on the side of the rebels, and will not tolerate that situation (ph).

GIGOT: All right. That sounds like an intervention on the side of the rebels, if not U.S. troops on the ground.

Amir Taheri, thank you very much for being with us.

TAHERI: Well, it is -- it is -- it is intervention lite in effect.


GIGOT: All right. Thanks.

When we come back, new details spark new outrage over the reach of the NSA's surveillance programs here at home. But just how worried should we be?


GIGOT: Fresh outrage this week over the scope of the NSA's surveillance programs, with the Wall Street Journal reporting Wednesday that the agency system has the capacity to reach roughly 75 percent of all U.S. Internet traffic. That news comes as newly declassified documents show that the NSA inadvertently collected as many as 56,000 domestic e- mails and other electronic communications per year between 2008 and 2011, an error the agency reported to Congress and to the FISA Court.

Joining the panel this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor, Dan Henninger; columnist, Mary Anastasia O'Grady; editor, James Taranto.

So, Dan, how concerned should we be about these latest revelations?



Now let's just posit, I'm an anti-terror absolutist, OK? The premise here is that the NSA exists to prevent mass murder by Islamic terrorists. That's their job. I'm glad they are doing it.

Now, it seems to me the question is, what exactly is the problem here with the NSA? If I may analogize it, law enforcement agencies like the FBI or police departments, they have the capability clearly to do awful things. The police carry guns and billy-clubs. If they wanted to walk down the streets pistol-whipping and hitting people they can do that. They have the ability. They don't. Why don't they do it? Because there are laws and rules preventing them from doing it. There are laws and rules preventing the NSA from doing these awful things. There's no evidence that they have done it. There's never been a single identifiable example of a person who was -- e-mail was read or damaged by the NSA.

GIGOT: Do you buy that analogy of the police? Give them guns and you can abuse guns, but where they don't, or if they do, they are punished to the -- have the capacity, the NSA, to listen in on 75 percent of our online communications?

MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY, COLUMNIST: I don't buy that argument. This is about collecting information. We have a government that has repeatedly undermined our trust in Washington. And they're saying, don't worry, we have this covered. It is very hard for -- to put the American people in a position where they have to choose whether they will trust this government or, if they don't, they are going to be accused of, you know, not helping on the war on terror.

GIGOT: All right, Mary, so the 75 percent figure is a capacity figure. It's what they are capable of doing. And it's not that -- we kind of knew they had that, something like that capacity.


GIGOT: The NSA respondent and said, look, we don't listen to that. We have access, really, to about 1.6 percent that we really look at of these communications and much a smaller fraction. And by the way, these are foreigners were listening in on.

O'GRADY: The point is that the government also is not supposed to let high-powered weapons go into Mexico. It is not supposed to have the IRS targeting political enemies. It is not supposed to abandon men in the field in Benghazi. There's lots of reasons why the rules, as we so confidently look at them and say, you know, that this protects us, might not be backed up. I mean, you know, there are --


GIGOT: Then would you pull the -- would you stop doing this?

O'GRADY: I would not stop doing it, but I think Ray Kelly was right when he said, look, the Obama administration could have been a lot more transparent about what is going on here. Be straight with the American people. Tell them that their e-mails may be captured in this sweep. I think that American people can handle that. What they can't handle is secrets held by the Obama administration, which they don't trust.

GIGOT: Ray Kelly, the New York police commissioner.


JAMES TARANTO, OPINIONJOURNAL.COM EDITOR: Well, may heart is with Mary here and my head is with Dan. Like Mary, I distrust the government. I particularly distrust this administration.

On the other hand, as far as these new revelations, OK, we now know 75 percent of the e-mails. If you go back and read a story in our newspaper in 2008, what we have learned is entirely consistent with that.

GIGOT: Right.

TARANTO: It describes the scope of the way this operation works normally. That, and the Snowden details have only put a little bit more specific detail to it.

GIGOT: Right.

TARANTO: In addition, the revelations about the court admonishing the NSA suggests that there is a mechanism for dealing with error at least and potentially abuse.

GIGOT: And the administration released the court rulings, declassified them themselves. This is not a leak.


GIGOT: So it -- it got the information out there. And it does show that the -- that there is a process by which mistakes, overreaching is corrected.

HENNINGER: Yeah. It was human-operator error. It was not intentional evil, grabbing e-mails and reading them. They worked with that judge, if you read down to the bottom of the statement. And they corrected the problems to the satisfaction of the court. And the court said problem solved.

GIGOT: Is your problem, James, that it's this president? Or is it the programs themselves? I want to ask Mary that, too.

FREEMAN: Well, I -- I mean, I have a basic distrust of the government. I think a healthy skepticism of our government is part of the American way. And, yes, I'm particularly mistrustful of this administration for the reasons that Mary gave.

On the other hand, we have, as Dan says, no evidence that the NSA has been corrupted in the way that, say, the IRS was.

GIGOT: You know, Mary, the specific abuses of the IRS bother me a lot more than this because you have a case where -- cases where the government did specifically attempt to punish individuals for their political beliefs. In this case, NSA, we don't have any examples of that.

O'GRADY: I think most Americans would feel better that you don't give the opportunity to someone in government. Because, you know, James Madison pointed out this is not about individual human beings. This is about creating a system that you don't have to depend on this person or that person being trustful but that the system itself would control any kind of abuse against individuals.

And the other thing is that this information can get into the hands of other people. It is not just the government. I think the Edward Snowden case is a perfect example.

GIGOT: Quickly.

HENNINGER: We have more to fear from criminal actors than the operators of the NSA.

And, Mary, you can't have your cake and eat it -- you cannot have a big data system like that finding terrorists and do the search and do the things you are suggesting. You either want the program or you can't.


O'GRADY: Be straight with the American people.

GIGOT: All right, thank you both.

Still ahead, college students head back to campus with a record number now relying on federal financial aid to meet skyrocketing costs. But, fear not, President Obama says he has a plan to make tuition more affordable. They details are next.



PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: At a time when a higher education has never been more important or more expensive, too many students are facing a choice that they should never have to make. Either they say no to college and pay the price for not getting a degree, and that's a price that lasts a lifetime, or you do what it takes to go to college but then you run the risk you won't be able to pay it off because you have so much debt.


GIGOT: President Obama, Thursday, at the State University of New York in Buffalo, rolling out the administration's new plan to curb college costs. The president's two-day bus tour comes as a new Department of Education report finds that, for the first time ever, a majority of undergraduates are receiving some kind of federal financial aid with a record number of students taking out loans and a record number defaulting on those loans.

We are back with Dan Henninger. Wall Street Journal assistant editorial page editor, James Freeman; and editorial writer, Allysia Finley, also join the panel.

James, for five years, I have been listening to president say he is making college more affordable, and now he tells us it is unaffordable.



I've got to pay close attention because he has done the big tour saying how his plan is making college easier to afford and now we hear that we can't afford the trillion dollars of student loans that out there. Of course, you remember, three years ago, he put through a plan to increase the federal balance sheet by a trillion dollars with these loans.

GIGOT: With those student loans.


GIGOT: So what's going on? What's the politics here?

FREEMAN: Well, I think people are hoping that basic economics will -- now that it is asserting itself, will be also appreciated by the White House. You have for years now a situation where the government subsidizes college education and now is shocked that the prices are rising. Haven't done so much to pump them up with these grants and loans. I think that the hope is that there's a market solution as opposed to beating up colleges.

GIGOT: The administration used the figure this week -- since 1983, fees, tuition at four-year colleges have gone up 257 percent basically in 30 years. Much faster than inflation or middle class incomes. Why is that happening?

ALLYSIA FINLEY, EDITORIAL WRITER: Look, the government keeps on pouring more money into higher ed, keeps on pouring in subsidies, the colleges are pocketing the money, raising costs. Is this really unexpected?

GIGOT: Is it -- sort of normal incentives if you are going to get -- push more money into an industry, you're going end up people -- the cost of that industry -- that product or service going up.

FINLEY: That's right. These colleges are using the money basically to finance these mega-stadiums, these nice dorm facilities along with these really high salaries for these executives.

GIGOT: Proliferation of administrators as well as part of the problem or not?

FINLEY: That's probably one of the biggest drivers is that -- at some colleges, there are more administrators than there are faculty.

GIGOT: James, the president's plan, what's he going to do about it?

FREEMAN: Yeah, basically, what he is going to do is start ranking colleges based on how much educational bang for the buck they deliver and then tying aid to those rankings. In other words, if the government thinks that you, college, or you, university, are doing a good job at a low cost, then they will reward you with more funding. And they will take away funding if they think you are not giving students a good deal.

I hope all of those people in college campuses who have done so much to support President Obama realize the grave threat this is to American education. You might have possibly, I would hope, an interesting coalition where you get academic leftists and people on the right who don't like government interference saying this is not another industry that Washington ought to take over.

GIGOT: He is an optimist, isn't he, that that will happen?


That's why we love you, James.


HENNINGER: But there is a problem at the center. Parents are finally pushing back against the incredible costs --

GIGOT: Right.

HENNINGER: -- they have been paying for all he is years. So finally, the fat is in the fire. The question is, who is going to get into the solution quicker, the president, the government, or the private sector?

GIGOT: Does the president's plan have a chance to work, Allysia, do you?

FINLEY: Well, the problem is because the president's plan is essentially to allow these students to default on their loans or forgive their loans after 10 years. That's his income-based repayment plan.

GIGOT: That's what happens, if you decide to go to work in the non- profit sector or for government, you can actually write off your loans after 10 years.

FINLEY: 10 years. So --


GIGOT: What happens if you are somebody like you who went to work for the private sector? You don't get that same benefit, do you?


FINLEY: No, unfortunately.


FREEMAN: -- of journalism are hurt.


FREEMAN: But I think -- I think that tells you what the danger is on this ranking, though. The president made it very clear, government is now saying, we're going to give you a good deal on loans if you do non-profit work or you work in government. The same danger on the course side, on the academic side. Governments judging colleges. Are they going to be deciding which courses to teach?

GIGOT: All right, James.

Thank you all.

We have to take one more break. When we come back, "Hits and Misses" of the week.


GIGOT: Time now for "Hits and Misses" of the week -- James?

TARANTO: Paul, a miss to the Department of Health and Human Services and its medical research arm, the National Institutes for Health. This week, an NIH researcher claimed that the sequester forced him to end a research project aimed at curing blindness and kill his test subjects, adorable bunny rabbits. I can't vouch for whether this research is really vital or the bunny rabbits are really cute, but I do know that the -- earlier this month, it was reported that HHS is preserving from the sequester cuts all Obamacare outreach efforts. So I think we can agree that those are the wrong priorities.




O'GRADY: Paul, this is a hit for Eric Holder, the attorney general, for his announcement that he will initiate more probes in the large financial firms that played a role in the subprime financial crisis. And I'm excited about this because I know for sure this means he is going after Fannie Mae for its role in the junk bonds. And also it is possible that he's going to go after Citibank where his treasury secretary used to work.

HENNINGER: Surpassing Freeman in the optimist --


HENNINGER: Paul, a hit for two slivers of evidence that the culture may not be doomed yet. The first is that Anthony Weiner, the New York mayoral candidate, who was in first place, after his recent -- shall we say -- revelations, is in last place. The second one is that Oprah Winfrey this week was going to interview the troubled actress, Lindsay Lohan. And by TV's measurement standards, nobody showed up to watch. Now some may say we are just bouncing off of the bottom of the culture. But I'm going to allow myself a ray of hope.

GIGOT: Who says conservatives are pessimists?


I mean, this is good-news August here on this show.

All right. Thank you all.

That's it for this week's show. Thanks to my panel, and especially to you for watching. I'm Paul Gigot. I hope to see you right here next week.

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