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Video: Benghazi, Hagel, foreign policy and Obama’s second term

updated 1/30/2014 2:11:15 PM ET 2014-01-30T19:11:15

MR. CHUCK TODD: Good Morning. It’s Super Bowl Sunday and here in Washington some big showdowns are on the horizon. Defense cuts, immigration reform, gun control. We’ve got it all covered this morning including the big game tonight. Bob Costas of NBC Sports is going to be here to talk football and player safety issues.

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But we want to start with a Washington battle on full display this week when the president’s pick to head the Pentagon, former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, came under fire from members of his own party during a very contentious confirmation hearing.

(Videotape; Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, Wednesday)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Name one person in your opinion who’s intimidated by the Israeli lobby in the United States Senate?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Are we right or wrong? That’s a pretty straightforward question.

SEN. TED CRUZ: Senator Hagel, please answer the question I asked. Today, do you think unilateral sanctions would be a bad idea?

(End videotape)

TODD: All this raising questions about how effective Chuck Hagel will be if confirmed as secretary of defense. Earlier this weekend I sat down for a rare joint interview with the top military leadership, the outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey.

Secretary Panetta, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS. General Dempsey, welcome. Thanks for being here. Let me start with the man that is poised to take your place. He underwent on Thursday a pretty tough round of questioning. He seemed to struggle with a lot of the answers. This is, of course, Chuck Hagel, the former Republican Senator from Nebraska. I want you guys to take a look at some of his answers.

(Videotape; Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, Wednesday)

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: I should have used another term and I’m sorry. I would-- I would like to go back and-- and change the-- the words and the meaning. The bigger point is, what I was saying, I think-- what I meant to say, should have said, is recognizable. It’s been recognized, is recognized. Well, I said it. And I don’t remember the context or when I said it. Well, I have said what I said. I’ve said many, many things over many years. That’s what I should have said. And thank you.

(End videotape)

TODD: Secretary Panetta, many of those answers did not satisfy a lot of Republicans. Senator Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri is going to vote no. He said, “His answers… were simply too inconsistent, particularly as they related to Iran and Israel.” Marco Rubio said, “I have been deeply concerned about his previous comments.” John McCain, “The fact that he wouldn’t answer a straightforward question was disappointing.” John Barrasso, “He appeared weak and wobbly.” Are you concerned?

MR. LEON PANETTA (Secretary of Defense): Well, everyone you quoted from is a Republican, and it’s pretty obvious that the political knives were out for Chuck Hagel.

TODD: And that’s what you think it was.

MR. PANETTA: Well…

TODD: You know, this was totally personal, totally partisan?

MR. PANETTA: You know, look, what disappointed me is that, you know, they-- they talked a lot about past quotes. But what about what a secretary of defense is confronting today? What about the war on-- in Afghanistan? What about the war on terrorism? What about the budget sequester and what’s-- what impact it’s going to have on readiness? What about Middle East turmoil? What about cyber attacks? All of the issues that confront a secretary of defense, frankly, those were-- we just did not see enough time spent on discussing those issues. And in the end, that’s what counts.

TODD: And you’re fully confident Chuck Hagel is prepared to take your place?

MR. PANETTA: Absolutely.

TODD: General Dempsey, were you-- he brought up the issue on Afghanistan.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff): Mm-Hm.

TODD: We did a word count. Something like 37 mentions of Afghanistan in an eight-hour hearing and nearly 130-- more than 130 mentions of Israel. Do you think-- you agree with the Secretary that the-- the questioning was not directed in the right place?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, I mean I was-- I was somewhat surprised at the things that weren’t discussed in depth. But-- and I’m always concerned when Afghanistan is in prominent in any conversation we’re having as Americans because we’ve got 68 thousand young men and women serving there.

TODD: Are you confident of-- of Chuck Hagel? Have you spent a little bit of time with him? Are you guys confident you can be a part-- that you guys have to have this partnership as Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, this is-- whether you like each other or not, are you confident you can have a good partnership with him as you have with Secretary Panetta?

GEN. DEMPSEY: I spent some time with Senator Hagel-- well, I have spent time with Senator Hagel including when he was teaching over at Georgetown on strategic issues. And in-- in prep-- in helping prepare him for his confirmation hearings, we had several opportunities to talk about strategy. And I found him well-prepared and very thoughtful about it.

TODD: Was his answers to you better than the answers you saw there?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, I’m not going to grade his homework. But I will say that in my conversations with him, he was well prepared, articulate, concise...

TODD: And you’re confident that he can do the job?

GEN. DEMPSEY: I’m not going to speak about confidence. He’s-- he could be my boss. And then when is the last time you saw a subordinate discuss their confidence in their potential boss? But I think he’s got great credentials. My personal contacts with him have been very positive. And if he’s confirmed, I look forward to working with him.

TODD: Secretary Panetta, Senator Lindsey Graham said he is going to hold up Chuck Hagel’s nomination until you go on Capitol Hill and testify in a Benghazi hearing. I know that Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services announced that there is going to be a Benghazi hearing, I assume you’re going to be at that hearing.

MR. PANETTA: I-- I suspect it. You know, we’re-- we’re…

TODD: If invited, you will testify.

MR. PANETTA: We will-- we will if we’re invited that we’ll-- we’ll have the opportunity to testify and we look forward to it. We,--you know, the Defense Department has been up there participating in most of the hearings. And so we look forward to presenting what-- what we know about what took place.

TODD: What more can be done from your perspective on the Pentagon’s role in securing our embassies? We just had a near suicide attack, if you will, suicide bomber, embassy in Ankara, Turkey just last week. What can be done more that isn’t being done now?

MR. PANETTA: Well, the important things to do are first of all you’ve got to build up the host company-- the host country capacity. In the end, these embassies do depend on host country, the details that provide security so you’ve got to have-- you’ve-- you’ve got to try to develop that.

TODD: Not-- this shouldn’t be more marines? This shouldn’t be more-- more..,

MR. PANETTA: No, no. That’s, you know-- let me get through the rest of the points.

TODD: Okay. All right. Sorry.

MR. PANETTA: The second is you got to harden these embassies as much as possible. And the third is that we’ve been working with the State Department to-- to determine whether additional marines ought to be assigned to that area. And in the end, then, you know, the final alternative is our ability to respond in having our troops in a position where they can respond quickly. But I have to tell you, a lot of that still is dependent on whether intelligence tells us that we’ve got a big problem and gives us enough warning so that we can get to the place so that we can respond.

TODD: Did you have enough time to get there in time? You didn’t have enough warning (Unintelligible) Benghazi?

MR. PANETTA: No, we did not.

TODD: And is there anything that could have been done better on the intelligence front, you think that could have given you more time to do something or is this something that, you know, this is-- this is what happens in a place like Libya that right now is an unstable state?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, we-- we’ve learned a lot from the Benghazi incident. And we-- as the Secretary said, we work with the State Department and, you know, kind of surveying those parts of the world where-- where there’s a new norm, if you will, of-- of instability in terms of, you know, discussing the intelligence apparatus. It’s pretty easy to talk about the intelligence failures. We don’t talk much about them many times when we have intelligence and we’re able to stop or prevent, disrupt an attack so, of course, we should continue to learn from these events.

TODD: Is-- is Turkey a success? What-- what-- the stopping of, you know, he was stopped at the perimeter. Is that-- should we see that as a success?

MR. PANETTA: Well, I think-- I think the fact that that was at the perimeter, the fact that he got-- he got nowhere close to where the embassy was, I think that was a-- a good security in terms of preventing it. The fact that we, you know, we were able to locate that down that had (Unintelligible) on it and be able to respond to that is an example of good intelligence being able to guide us so that we could prevent something more serious from happening.

TODD: So when we invited you, we knew you guys were in charge of military, in charge of the Defense Department. We also didn’t realize you were in charge of our economy. Just this week, the-- the new gross domestic product number came out, and it turned out-- here’s the AP headline, of all places, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot that said, defense cuts cause economy to shrink, a plunge in defense spending helped push the economy into negative territory for the first time since mid-2009. Defense spending plummeted more than 22 percent, the steepest drop in more than 40 years. Nearly all those cuts were in services, such as weapons, maintenance and personnel support. Secretary Panetta, this is even before those automatic sequester spending cuts kick in in March. These are the cuts that you guys agreed to back in 2011 that finally kicked in. What-- what’s going-- first of all, is sequester going to happen?

MR. PANETTA: I certainly hope not. If-- if Congress stands back and allows sequester to take place, I think it would really be a shameful and irresponsible act.

TODD: But are you preparing for it?

MR. PANETTA: We have to prepare for it because, you know, there are members up on the Capitol Hill that are saying, oh, no, we’re going to stand back and let sequester happen. Let me tell you, if sequester happens, it is going to badly damage the readiness of the United States of America. We have the most powerful military force on the face of the earth right now. It is important in terms of providing stability and peace in the world. If sequester goes into effect and we have to do the kind of cuts that will go right at readiness, right at maintenance, right at training, we are going to weaken the United States and make it much more difficult for us to respond to the crises in the world.

TODD: I want to show you. This is what President Obama-- his last campaign promise to the American people, the final debate, this is what he had said about sequester.

(Videotape, Third Presidential Debate, October 22, 2012)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: First of all, the sequester is not something that I proposed. It’s something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen.

(End videotape)

TODD: He said it will not happen. You’re preparing for it to happen. It seems-- Paul Ryan was just on MEET THE PRESS last week and he said it’s mo-- more likely to happen than not. In your-- in your view, is this going to happen?

MR. PANETTA: In a world of responsible politics, it should not happen.

TODD: In-- okay.

MR. PANETTA: It should not happen.

TODD: We don’t live in that world right now.

MR. PANETTA: No, unfortunately that’s right.

TODD: Are you-- is this-- are you assuming this is going to happen?

MR. PANETTA: No. Look, we’ve got to plan for that possibility. Because there are so many members that are saying, you know, we’re going to let it take place. But I have to tell you, it is irresponsible for it to happen. I mean, why-- why in God’s name would members of Congress elected by the American people take a step that would badly damage our national defense? But more importantly, undermine the support for our men and women in uniform. Why would you do that?

TODD: General Dempsey, explain-- you have said this would be catastrophic. You have talked about this idea of a hollow force. But explain specifically, sequester-- are we less safe?

GEN. DEMPSEY: We will become less safe.

TODD: How?

GEN. DEMPSEY: I’ll tell you how. We-- first of all, it’s not just sequester. That’s the piece of this that’s been missing in the discussion. We’re also operating under a continuing resolution. The accumulative-- the combined effects of sequester and-- and the continuing resolution creates a magnitude of cut in the last half of the year we have to absorb 52 billion dollars when you count the effects of both sequestration and-- and continuing resolution in the last half of the year. When some of that money is already committed and the only place you can go and get it under that circumstance is readiness. It’s operations. It’s maintenance and it’s training. And by the way, the civilians that you hear talked about as potentially being furloughed…

TODD: We’re talking about 800,000.

GEN. DEMPSEY: That’s correct.

TODD: I believe 800,000 you guys are already preparing in the Defense Department...

GEN. DEMPSEY: We are-- and they will lose two days per pay period, 20 percent less pay for the rest of the year and these are not people living in Washington, D.C. There’s this notion that that’s probably okay because they are just a bunch of white-collar bureaucrats. These-- the 86 percent that will be affected that live outside of Washington, D.C., are in our schools, in our clinics, in our motor pools, in our depots, in our factories. This will affect the entire country and it will undermine our readiness for the next several years.

TODD: The two of you are very passionate about this. Secretary Panetta you have been-- I know you’re making phone calls on Capitol Hill. The president did public stop in Las Vegas, talked about immigration, he’s going to talk about guns next week. Has he been out there enough on this, publically trying to build support to get Congress to do something?

MR. PANETTA: Well, you know, the president is very concerned about this. He has proposed that we do a budget deal involving four trillion dollars. He has put specific proposals on the table. You know, as somebody who has worked with budgets throughout my life. In order to deal with the deficit problem, you’ve got to deal with entitlements. You have to deal with revenues. And you have to deal with discretionary. All of that has to be part of a package.

TODD: But is he doing enough?

MR. PANETTA: Well, I think he’s pushing as hard as he can.

TODD: Can he be more public?

MR. PANETTA: Well, you know, look. The president of the United States has indicated the concern about sequester. He’s indicated his concern about maintaining a strong national defense and he’s proposed a solution to this. The ball is in Congress’ court. They have got to take action to delay sequester.

TODD: All right, I want to move on to some of the hot spots. We’re going to start in North Africa, a lot of news this week that’s been going on there. Here’s the AP headline. U.S. limited in fight against North African militants. The United States is struggling to confront an uptick in threats from the world’s newest jihadist hot spot with limited intelligence and few partners to help as the Obama administration weighs how to keep Islamic extremists in North Africa from jeopardizing national security without launching war. We want to put up a map here and explain to people where this is--Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Mali, Niger. Secretary Panetta when-- when I read about the idea that were-- we don’t have enough intelligence, we’ve known about al Qaeda in North Africa since before 9/11. This is-- the original safe haven of Osama bin Laden was in North Africa. Did we drop the ball?

MR. PANETTA: You know, when al Qaeda attacked the United States on 9/11, and it became clear that we had to go to war on terrorism against al Qaeda, we focused on al Qaeda’s core leadership and where they were at. And we’ve done that. We’ve gone after them in the FATA and Pakistan, we’ve gone after them in Afghanistan, we’re going after them in Yemen, we’re going after them in Somalia. Yes, AQIM is out there.

TODD: It’s been out there a long time, right? This is not new.

MR. PANETTA: It has been out there. But in terms of the threat we were facing, clearly the threat was coming from core al Qaeda leadership, which was planning attacks, continuing to plan attacks, in the United States of America. And that’s where we focused our main effort. Obviously, there are other elements of al Qaeda that are out there. You know, we knew that AQIM was out there. But we also were focusing on where the main threats were coming from. In Yemen, for example, they were actually putting bombs on planes to come to the United States. So we focused on Yemen. Same thing is true for Somalia. Now AQIM is out there. They try to establish the base of operations, that’s serious. I’m glad that France took the steps they did. We are now working with France to make sure that al Qaeda has no place to hide even in North Africa.

TODD: General Dempsey, is AQIM here, al Qaeda in North Africa, the number one national security threat in the United States?

GEN. DEMPSEY: No, I wouldn’t describe them as the number one national security threat, but they-- they’re a threat that is localized, becoming regionalized and left unaddressed, will become a global threat. By the way, to the secretary’s point and yours about did we miss something here, let’s think about what’s changed over the last three or four years in that region. The-- the regimes that used to maintain control over that space that would in fact be part of the solution of keeping al Qaeda and its affiliates at bay, are no longer there. The Arab Spring has stripped that away. And what we’ve got is a period of ungoverned space, or we have a-- I mean, the period at which-- at which geography is less governed than it used to be. That’s why this has become a-- a near term problem.

TODD: You know, he brings up the Arab Spring, Secretary Panetta. This is the-- the issue here of what is our policy, North Africa and the Middle East? Is it stability or is it democracy? We’ve been on the side of these democratic movements in Libya, in Egypt, but it’s brought instability and it’s brought more danger.

MR. PANETTA: Well, that’s what change is all about. And that’s what we’re seeing in-- in that part of the world, is a tremendous amount of change. I mean, our-- our hope is that-- that change can move in the direction of providing greater democracy and greater stability. That’s what you hope for, for these countries. That’s what you hope for-- for the people.

TODD: It’s less stable in other way.

MR. PANETTA: But well, there-- there is instability associated with change, and that’s what we’re seeing in these key countries and that’s what’s creating some of the opening that General Dempsey talked about.

TODD: All right. I want to move east here to Iran. You have said a couple of times that you did not believe the Iranians were pursuing a nuclear weapon, that they have been pursuing the capabilities on-- on nuclear energy or whatever these nuclear, not pursuing nuclear weapons. Are they pursuing nuclear weapon? Are you confident they’re-- are you still confident they’re not pursuing a nuclear weapon?

MR. PANETTA: Right. What I’ve said, and I will say today, is that the intelligence we have is they have not made the decision to proceed with the development of a nuclear weapon. They’re developing and enriching uranium. They continue to do that. They continue to work and developing…

TODD: Why do you believe they’re doing that?

MR. PANETTA: …in their capability.

TODD: Why do you believe they’re doing that?

MR. PANETTA: I think-- I think the-- it’s a clear indication they say they’re doing it in order to develop their own energy source. I think it is suspect that they continue to-- to enrich uranium because that is dangerous, and that violates international laws…

TODD: And you do believe they’re probably pursuing a weapon, but you don’t-- the intelligence doesn’t know what…

(Cross talk)

MR. PANETTA: I-- no, I can’t tell you because-- I can’t tell you they’re in fact pursuing a weapon because that’s not what intelligence says we-- we-- we’re-- they’re doing right now. But every indication is they want to continue to increase their nuclear capability. And that’s a concern, and that’s what we’re asking them to stop doing.

TODD: General Dempsey, Se-- Senator Hagel said he was briefed-- his first trip to the Pentagon, he was briefed on the potential plans to-- military plans to deal with Iran should they cross this red line and-- and-- and be seen as pursuing a nuclear weapon. You have been very careful. Do we have the capability to stop this militarily?

GEN. DEMPSEY: We have the capability to-- by the way, Iran is not just threatening the region through its acquisition of nuclear weapons. They-- they’re-- they’re very disruptive and-- and malicious influence in-- in Syria. They-- they smuggle weapons. They’re active-- they’re active in any number of ways. We have the capability to-- I have-- we have the capability to provide options to the president in-- in any number of scenarios to include their acquisition of nuclear weapons.

TODD: So because you were careful before never to say you wanted-- as you see it-- you wanted them to think that we did, but you were careful never to say you were-- so we have the capability to stop this?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, you know, stopping is a decision they would make in a-- in a political sense, the same-- the same way that other nations make decisions. We could-- we could…

TODD: You have the military plans to get…

(Cross talk)

GEN. DEMPSEY: To destroy their capability but intentions have to be influenced through other means.

TODD: Secretary Panetta, Afghanistan and the withdrawal. You know, we heard the White House say there was a zero option on the table. Is that a serious option? No troops in Afghanistan after 2014?

MR. PANETTA: You know, the-- the president has made clear in Chicago that we are committed to General Allen’s plan in Afghanistan. And it’s a plan that’s working.

TODD: He’s calling for more than-- yeah…

MR. PANETTA: We’ve made-- we’ve made good progress.

TODD: …quite a few troops.

MR. PANETTA: But in Chicago, we also said that we are committed to an enduring presence. And I-- and I believe that the President of the United States is going to do everything possible to implement the Chicago agreements.

TODD: So we-- we should expect to see thousands of troops, maybe not 10,000, but thousands of troops in Afghanistan, General Dempsey, after 2014?

GEN. DEMPSEY: What you should expect to see is that we will live up to our commitment to Afghanistan to maintain a long term partnership, relationship, help them continue to develop. The decision on numbers hasn’t been made yet. You can also count on us to match the mission to the number of troops and to keep three things in equilibrium as we get there. One is the mission. Second is retrograde. We have a significant challenge of retrograding equipment and people out. And the third one is our-- the protection of the force.

TODD: What is the mission?

MR. PANETTA: The mission in Afghanistan is to establish a secure and capable Afghanistan that can govern itself and ensure that al Qaeda never again establishes a safe haven in that country.

TODD: Right. I-- I want to show you a travel warning that came out this week. The State Department put this travel warning and I know that Afghanistan is not a big tourist spot. But this is the travel warning they put out. “Afghan authorities have a limited ability to maintain order and ensure the security of Afghan citizens and foreign visitors.” This is right now. If they can’t secure their own citizens now, do we think it’s going to change in a year and a half?

MR. PANETTA: No-- but, no-- Chuck let’s face it, there’s a war going on in Afghanistan. This is not-- you know, this is not your peaceful little paradise, you know, where tourists can go there to sunbathe. This is a war area. And, you know, the fact is we’ve made good progress in the war. We’ve been able to have 75 percent of their population now under Afghan control and security. We’ve been able to diminish the Taliban’s capabilities. Violence has gone down. We’re also developing an Afghan army that has increased its operational skill to provide security. So we’re on the right path towards trying to give Afghanistan the opportunity to govern and secure itself.

TODD: General Dempsey, quick-- very quickly, women in combat…

GEN. DEMPSEY: Mm-Hm.

TODD: …implementing that--is there some movement on Capitol Hill to pass a law to make sure you don’t change standards, somehow lower standards?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah.

TODD: Do you think that’s good legislation?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, they-- they can legislate if they like. They don’t have to do that because…

TODD: You’re not going to change standards?

GEN. DEMPSEY: We’re going to make sure that we have got the right standards for the right job that maintain the readiness of the force. My primary responsibility is the readiness of the force and I would do nothing to allow that to be undermined. By the way, there’s also requirement as we open up occupational specialties to report to Congress…

TODD: Mm-Hm.

GEN. DEMPSEY: ...and they would have the opportunity to ask us what we’ve done to standards. Look, this-- this really is about changing the paradigm from one of exclusiveness to inclusiveness to do the best job, to make the best force for joint force 2020, which is where we’re looking. We have got to get from here to 2020, make sure we have got the right talent in the force. And this is part of that.

TODD: Zero Dark Thirty. You-- you’ve-- we’ll-- we will show a little bit here. We’ve got James Gandolfini of course most of us just call him Tony Soprano playing you as CIA director. There you are out there. I won’t ask you to comment on the acting, but there’s been a serious debate about-- the movie seems to say-- seems to indicate that enhanced interrogation techniques or torture was used to get information to get bin Laden. Is that true?

MR. PANETTA: Well, you know, first of all, it’s a movie. Let’s first remember that.

TODD: Okay.

MR. PANETTA: I-- I lived the real story with the bin Laden operation.

TODD: Well, then tell us what-- what…

MR. PANETTA: And the real story is that in order to put the puzzle of intelligence together that led us to bin Laden, there was a lot of intelligence. There were a lot of pieces out there that were part of that puzzle. Yes, some of it came from some of the tactics that were used at that time, interrogation tactics that were used. But the fact is, we-- we put together most of that intelligence without having to resort to that.

TODD: And you think you could have gotten it without any…

MR. PANETTA: I think we could have gotten bin Laden without that.

TODD: All right. It’s a-- it’s a big weekend. There’s a big contest a lot of people are talking about.

MR. PANETTA: Go 49ers.

TODD: It’s-- it’s the contest that-- that has to do with Clinton or Biden…

MR. PANETTA: Oh.

TODD: …2016. You’ve been close to both of them, Secretary Panetta. I’ve got to ask you, who’s ready to be commander-in-chief tomorrow?

MR. PANETTA: I think both of them. I’ve worked with both of them. You know, if they make the decision that they want to be commander-in-chief, I think they’re both qualified to do it.

TODD: What’s their distinctive strength?

MR. PANETTA: I think distinctive strength for Joe Biden is-- obviously as vice president, knowing the world, knowing the issues involved, knowing what it means to-- to govern from-- from that perspective. And for Hillary Clinton, she knows it from every angle now, having worked in the White House, been a part of that, and now as secretary of state knowing the world.

TODD: General Dempsey, you want to piece this, Biden or Clinton, huh?

GEN. DEMPSEY: I…

TODD: Yeah.

GEN. DEMPSEY: …I’d like to see which of the Harbaugh brothers are going to come out on top.

TODD: Gentlemen, thank you both for being here.

MR. PANETTA: Thanks Chuck. Nice to be here.

TODD: And as Secretary Panetta prepares to leave government service again, we spent some additional time with him on PRESS Pass to talk about that long career as a congressman, budget director, White House chief of staff, and director of the CIA. He also weighs in on what the current issue of TIME magazine calls the Rise of the Drones, and he has some surprising suggestions for the president going forward. You can watch the full interview on our website, that’s at meetthepressnbc.com.

Coming up, the Hagel confirmation hearing. Was it political grandstanding or a poor performance? Plus, what led the White House to release this photo of the President--apparently skeet shooting on his birthday last year. I’ll ask former Obama White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, when he joins the rest of our political roundtable; the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Ralph Reed; the national Hispanic co-chair for John McCain’s 2008 campaign, Ana Navarro; and David Brooks of the New York Times. And later on, this Super Bowl Sunday, Bob Costas on the future of the game itself.

(Announcements)

TODD: Coming up, will we see an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws this year? The issue now front and center in the agenda as a bipartisan group of senators introduced a framework for reform this week. The president even hit the road to Vegas to lay out his broad principles. But he issued this warning.

(Videotape, Las Vegas, NV, Tuesday)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We can’t allow immigration reform to get bogged down in an endless debate. And if Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away.

(End videotape)

TODD: So given all that, what are the prospects for a deal and how are both sides positioning themselves? Our political roundtable is here to weigh in after this short commercial break.

(Announcements)

TODD: We are back with our roundtable. Joining me now, former Obama press secretary and senior adviser to the president’s 2012 re-election campaign, Robert Gibbs; Republican strategist, Ana Navarro, who is the national Hispanic chair for the McCain campaign 2008; New York Times columnist, David Brooks; and founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Ralph Reed. Welcome all at the Super Bowl Sunday.

MS. ANA NAVARRO (Republican Strategist): Thank you.

MR. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, New York Times): Thank you.

TODD: David, I want to start with Chuck Hagel. You heard what Leon Panetta said, the political knives were out. How much of it was politics and how much of it was a poor performance by Chuck Hagel?

MR. BROOKS: It was him. You ever had this nightmare you’re back in college, you’ve been nominated to be the defense secretary, you haven’t done any of the studying all term, and the confirmation hearing is in five minutes, it looked like that. It looked like that, a guy unprepared. Unprepared even to defend himself look strong. He’s being attacked. His integrity is being attacked. His honesty is being attacked. Hit back. Demand some time, defend yourself. You’ve got to do that because you’ve got to have the confidence of the president when you get the job and I think he’s going to get the job. You got to have the confidence of the generals in the building. And so this is a problem. If I were Chuck Hagel, I’d go to the president right now and I’d say, do you still have confidence in me? Do you think I can do the job? Privately.

TODD: You-- you would offer to potentially withdraw?

MR. BROOKS: I think you’ve got to if you think you’re not going to be effective because of what’s happened. Now, I’m not saying the answer is yes, but I think you got to go back and ask privately the-- that question.

TODD: You know, Ana, a lot of the conversations that-- that the White House is trying to say is, this was all politics. Let me play a clip of your-- of your old boss questioning Chuck Hagel.

(Videotape; Armed Services Committee, Thursday)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): Were you correct or incorrect when you said that the surge would be the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam? Were you correct or incorrect? Yes or no.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: My reference to the surge being the most dangerous…

SEN. MCCAIN: Are you going to answer the question, Senator Hagel? The question is, were you right or wrong? That’s a pretty straightforward question.

SEN. HAGEL: Well…

SEN. MCCAIN: I would like the answer whether you were right or wrong, and then you are free to elaborate.

SEN. HAGEL: Well, I’m not going to give you a yes or no answer on a lot of things today.

SEN. MCCAIN: Well, let the record show that you refuse to answer that question.

(End videotape)

TODD: Ana, now viewers may not know the history here a little bit between Chuck Hagel and John McCain. They were very close friends in 2000. Not so in 2008 when it was clear Chuck Hagel, at least his wife was supporting Barack Obama and Hagel wasn’t endorsing John McCain. Was that personal?

MS. NAVARRO: I don’t think so at all. Look, anybody who ever saw John McCain grill Donald Rumsfeld or Secretary Baker during the 80s on Central America knows that this isn’t-- this is John McCain. This is his job. They are there to advice and consent, not to rubber stamp. And if they are not going to get the scrutiny and the tough questions now, when are they going to get it?

TODD: Why was he so much tougher on Hagel than John Kerry?

MS. NAVARRO: Because-- because-- because there are so many inconsistencies…

TODD: They have the same pos-- they have the same position on the surge.

MS. NAVARRO: That is because of the inconsistencies with Hagel. I have never-- I don’t remember a hearing where there were clarifications to clarifications that then had to be clarified. When there were so many, I regret having said that-- when there were so many what I meant to say, what I should have said, because he was doing a terrible job, because he’s not giving answers. John Kerry gave answers. We just saw an interview with Leon Panetta where he gave answers. He answered masterfully. We saw three tough hearings this week. We saw Secretary Clinton go through Benghazi. We saw John Kerry go through a hearing. And we saw Chuck Hagel. And you cannot compare the first two to Chuck Hagel. After I watched the hearing, I remembered, you know, the lyrics of that country song. “You mean I shaved my legs for this.” You mean we’re having this huge fight over this guy who cannot even articulate our policy towards Iran?

TODD: Robert.

MR. ROBERT GIBBS (Fmr. White House Press Secretary, 2009-2011/Fmr. Senior Adviser, Obama 2012 Re-Election Campaign): No, let’s be clear. I mean if you--

TODD: Well, it was not-- this was-- this performance was not good.

MR. GIBBS: Let’s split this into two things because I want to build off something that Ana just said. If you turned on C-SPAN and hadn’t watched TV in the intervening six years, you’d think we’d had 150 thousand troops parked right now in Iraq. The next defense secretary is not going to deal with Iraq and the surge. This was a vanity thing for John McCain to try to prove to a former friend who disagreed with him that he was right on the surge and that Chuck Hagel was wrong.

TODD: What should Hagel have said? What would you have told Chuck Hagel to say in response?

MR. GIBBS: I-- I think he said correctly, we’re going to let history judge Iraq, because quite frankly Chuck Hagel could have said, you know, Senator McCain, I think I might have been wrong on Iraq. Were you wrong on Iraq? Here’s the question. None of that is-- none of that is anything that the next secretary of defense is going to deal with. But hold on. Let’s split this into two buckets. So there was the totally superfluous questions that quite frankly-- again, not going to bear a big measure on what the next defense secretary does. The-- the disconcerting thing obviously that, for anybody to watch, it was he seemed unimpressive and unprepared on the questions that quite frankly he knew was coming.

TODD: He had mock hearings. Going to what David said, should he go to the president and say…

MR. GIBBS: No.

TODD: …do you still have confidence in me?

MR. GIBBS: Again, I’m reminded three weeks into the first term of the Obama administration. Tim Geithner gives a speech at the Treasury Department about our banking industry and how to save it. Three weeks into the administration, three weeks into his tenure, the market dropped 382 points.

TODD: It wasn’t…

MR. GIBBS: Two weeks ago, Tim Geithner walked out of the Treasury Department, four years later, as one of the most influential treasury secretaries in the history of our country. So it-- we get into all of these kerfuffles about one hearing or a few answers. Chuck Hagel is an infantryman who’s had to execute the orders of the secretary of defense and the commander-in-chief and understands what those people go through and he’s going to be a good secretary of defense.

TODD: Ralph, I know we talked about this. Bill Kristol wrote the following, comparing Harriet-- Chuck Hagel to Harriet Miers and almost calling or daring Democrats and liberals to do what conservatives did with Harriet Miers when she was nominated to the Supreme Court by George W. Bush in 2005. He writes, “Conservatives and Republicans had no grudge against Harriet Miers. They simply thought she wasn’t a first-rate candidate. They were confident that Bush, the Court, and the country could do better. It wasn’t pleasant in 2005 for conservatives and Republicans to oppose a nominee, in this case a close friend of a president they supported. It certainly wasn’t pleasant to seem to give any comfort to the president’s critics. Still, to use a corny but apt expression, it was the right thing to do. And a willingness to do it was a sign of health of American conservatism.” You think the-- are you surprised more Democrats aren’t publicly raising concerns?

MR. RALPH REED (Founder & Chairman, Faith and Freedom Coalition): I am surprised, and I think privately it-- it’s, you know, it-- it’s window rattling. How much Democrats behind the scenes are saying that this was an abysmal performance by Senator Hagel. He’s the wrong man for the wrong job at the wrong time. And by the way, there were far more questions about the issues that prospectively he would deal with as secretary of defense than his record. The reason why his position on the surge in Iraq is so critical is because it speaks to his judgment. But when it comes to Iran, let’s remember, Chuck, he voted against designating the-- the Iranian revolutionary guard as a terrorist organization at a time when the intelligence was clear that they were killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq. This is somebody who wants to command U.S. troops. The revolutionary guard is killing our troops and he voted against calling it a terrorist organization.

(Cross talk)

TODD: David and Robert, I want you both to tackle something here. Wait, it’s the confidence-- he may get confirmed, David, but will he have the ability to go back before that Armed Services Committee and sell cuts to the Defense Department?

MR. BROOKS: Well, he will if he has the ability to do it. That’s what we don’t know. We don’t know…

TODD: Yeah. And that’s the key question.

MR. BROOKS: …whether he has the ability. So look what the next defense secretary is going to have to supervise massive defense cuts. With vested interest, he’s going to have to make core-- key decisions, do we do long-term technological advance or we do short-term readiness, these are going to be tough questions with tough constituencies. You have to be able to present leadership and toughness. Now he is personally a tough guy. I’ve seen him oppose the Iraq war with other Republicans. He has personally has that kind of courage. But can he project that kind of resurge and show mastery of the building, that’s-- is really…

TODD: Rob-- Robert, very quickly, the ability to be a salesman…

MR. GIBBS: Absolutely.

TODD: …a politician.

MR. GIBBS: Let-- let’s-- let’s divide politics from-- from all of this. You know, Ralph just said this was about judgment. And-- and-- and then David just said opposing the war in Iraq takes courage. I think the notion in some ways to say because Chuck Hagel doesn’t believe what John McCain says…

TODD: Right.

MR. GIBBS: …you question his judgment. I think for somebody that-- that-- that carried a gun in the jungles of Vietnam, I’m going to trust their ability besides a group of politicians.

TODD: All right. I want to…

MS. NAVARRO: Hagel doesn’t believe what he said 10 years ago and 12 years ago.

TODD: …I want to move on. I want to change topic, I want to go to immigration. Here is Chuck Schumer this week on the issue of immigration.

(Videotape, Monday)

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): For the first time ever, there’s more political risk in opposing immigration reform than in supporting it.

(End videotape)

TODD: Ana Navarro, you were closely advising Marco Rubio, who’s a part of this group with bipartisan group of senators. Is Chuck Schumer right? Do you buy that that there is more political risk opposing it than supporting it?

MS. NAVARRO: I think there’s political risk on both sides. And I’m very proud of what Marco Rubio is doing on stepping outside of the political safe zone, of really going out on a limb and leading. I think he’s making a big difference and how this-- how this issue is being received by the conservative base. He is a Hispanic Republican. They give him deference because of that. He also is very popular with the conservative base and put a lot of time and effort into selling these principles, explaining these principles before they were announced, a week or two weeks before they were announced. He was on the radio. He was on TV all the time explaining it to the conservative base and also in Spanish to the Hispanic community. It needs to be supported by both.

TODD: You know, Ralph, National Review respectfully came out against Marco Rubio’s plan. This is what they said. “He’s wrong about how to go about repairing our immigration system, wrong to think that an amnesty-and-enforcement bill at this time will end up being anything other than the unbuttered side of a half-a-loaf of bread. And there is no reason to make a bad deal for fear of losing a Latino vote Republicans never had. You were part of the Bush re-elect team. They did get a big chunk of the Latino vote. This seemed a-- this editorial seemed a little bit off on recent history.

MR. REED: Well, the Republicans have now lost four out of the six presidential elections since the Berlin Wall fell. And the only two that they won, the candidate was somebody from a border state, with Mexico, who said that family values don’t end at the Rio Grande, and whose vision for the future of the country…

TODD: You work with a lot of social conservatives. Is that message going to work?

MR. REED: Well, I think so, and I’ll tell you why because first of all, the devil will be in the details, if I can use that metaphor.

TODD: Yeah.

MR. REED: But people of faith are commanded by scripture. Both Old and New Testament to welcome the foreigner and show compassion for the immigrant, but there’s a corollary responsibility, and that is the immigrant from ancient times with the Israelites all the way to today is to obey the law and show respect for the customs of the nation in which they resided. So, for example, you’ve got a million people who are spouses or children of people who are here legally.

TODD: With green cards.

MR. REED: Seeking a green card…

TODD: Right.

MR. REED: Two hundred thousand of those are minor children. We don’t believe, Chuck, that somebody who’d violated our laws as their first step on the road to becoming an American should take precedent over those minor children entering the country.

TODD: Is this going to work?

MR. BROOKS: Yeah take this from the sacred to the refrain.

TODD: Yes.

MR. BROOKS: You know, I have been so frustrated this week. We’ve got an aging society with stagnant education levels. Out there, there is this global pool of talent who will start-- if they come here, they’ll start more jobs than natives. They’ll pay more taxes than they receive. They’ll create a much more dynamic economy. And the last week in Washington, we’ve been side tracked off this potential to actually give some growth to our economy by issues of how many links are in the chain we’re going to build in Mexico.

TODD: Right. How many drones…

MR. BROOKS: What’s going to trigger what? Do-- does gay marriage affect all this? It’s like this moral capital of obtuseness. I mean, this is really our only shot at getting a growing economy. I think the senator has done an outstanding job of putting this attempt to win the race for moral-- global talent out there, and we are debating sanct…

(Cross talk)

TODD: I-- I’m not-- It does seem like the political-- politics of this is coming together. Robert, we have you here. I want to quickly talk about guns in this respect. Here’s the president, a picture of him skeet shooting. We know that there had been a kerfuffle, this idea is was he really-- the president said in an interview that, yes, he had fired a gun. Yes, he had done skeet shooting. I do have to ask you, have you seen him skeet shoot?

MR. GIBBS: I-- I have not, but, you know, he-- Camp David for him is a private retreat that he spends most of the time with his family. I don’t think it’s whether or not the president shoots a gun regularly or even if he shoots it well.

TODD: So, why-- why the White House participate in the conspiracy essentially by feeding the beast?

MR. GIBBS: Oh Chuck because all you said in the briefing room as you used to when I was there and ask us for photo evidence for anything that the president says or does, but let’s not-- but let’s not-- I mean, the big political development this week in-- in the debate on guns was that the NRA came out in favor of criminals having access to any weapon they’d like to in our society, walking back the same congressional testimony that they gave after Columbine that having a universal background check to make sure that a criminal doesn’t have…

TODD: We’re going to…

MR. GIBBS: …access to a semi-automatic weapon. I mean, that’s-- that’s the real event that happened this weekend.

TODD: We’re going to show-- I want to show a little bit of this ad. I'm going to just roll it through here. Michael Bloomberg is putting up a Super Bowl ad, Ralph Reed and Ana, about putting off-- they supporting the universal background check bill, showing testimony of Wayne LaPierre in 1999 supporting a universal background check. Here is a little bit of that ad.

(Videotape, Political Ad)

WOMAN: The NRA once supported background checks.

MR. WAYNE LAPIERRE (National Rifle Association, May 27, 1999): We think it’s reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show. No loopholes anywhere for anyone.

(End videotape)

TODD: All right. I’ll admit I need quick answers here. Can a southern Republican vote for the background check bill and get re-elected?

MR. REED: Well-- well look, a licensed gun dealer at a gun show already does a background check. That’s already going on. So what we’re talking about is antique and special collectors and private sales. I think that’s going to be very difficult to legislate properly without killing gun show.

TODD: Ana there is an urban rural split almost more so than they are inside the Republican Party than anything else. Urban Republicans from our own town of Miami, more supportive of this idea.

MS. NAVARRO: Yes. But I think both the southern Republican and the urban Republican should all be voting for universal background checks. Look, Connecticut was a game changer. We need to understand that. The gun issue is here. It’s not going away. Every other day, we are hearing about a tragedy on the news. And people keep asking, what are we doing about it? Republicans and the NRA should be part of the solution, should be part of the conversation, not just say no. And universal background checks is something that there could be consensus on.

TODD: All right, guys, I have to leave it there. Sorry, Robert. I’ll get you-- I’ll get you again. I-- I don’t get. You used to be able to cut me off. So, now I get to cut you off every once in a while.

MS. NAVARRO: Is it fun?

TODD: Yeah, it is fun. Next up, it’s Super Bowl weekend. We’re talking football. Bob Costas of NBC Sports is here. We’re going to get his thoughts on the culture and safety of the game right after this.

(Announcements)

(Videotape, Friday)

MR. ROGER GOODELL (NFL Commissioner): The changes we are making are having a positive impact. The game is exciting, competitive, tough, and safer. We’re making the game better by also evolving to a health and safety culture. That is a big priority.

(End videotape)

TODD: And we’re back with Bob Costas of NBC Sports. Bob, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

MR. BOB COSTAS (NBC Sports): Hi Chuck.

TODD: He said the game is evolving to a culture of health and safety, which is another way of saying it’s not there yet.

MR. COSTAS: Oh, it’s definitely not there yet, but I think Goodell actually is well intentioned…

TODD: You do think he is?

MR. COSTAS: Yes, I think he is absolutely well-intentioned as a human being. I think he has made significant, positive strides. Obviously, as a businessman, he’s got to be concerned not only with the lawsuits which could wind up costing hundreds of millions, maybe even potentially billions of dollars. Now, the NFL is well-heeled, but these lawsuits are a serious thing with more than 4000 former players involved and probably more to come. And the other thing he has to be concerned about is the present generation and future generation of parents saying, look, we’re longtime NFL fans, but knowing what we know now, we’re not going to let our son play football. When I first posed that question to-- to Goodell…

TODD: To him, yes.

MR. COSTAS: ….nearly three years ago, people looked at me like I had two heads.

TODD: And then here you have the president. This is what he said in an interview with New Republic, “I’m a big football fan. But I have to tell you, if I had a son, I’d think long and hard before I let him play football. I think those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably have to change gradually.” There’s one study by USA Football, by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association that found an 11 percent decline in youth football participation. I can tell you, I have a five-year-old son. Every gathering of fathers, we have this conversation.

MR. COSTAS: And a lot of present players, including players like Bernard Pollard of the Ravens and Bart Scott of the Jets among the hardest hitters in the league…

TODD: Ed Reed this week said…

MR. COSTAS: …have already…

TODD: …he agreed with the president.

MR. COSTAS: Yeah.

TODD: And this is a guy that gets fined all the time.

MR. COSTAS: Ex-- exactly. Exactly. Thomas Jones recently retired, one of the toughest players in the league. He told me this past week that when his Bears played the Colts in the Super Bowl, I gave him a hypothetical. If a teammate of yours has a chance to sack Peyton Manning and he simply sacked him, but he could have legally splattered him, would he-- would you have been disappointed in that teammate? He said yes, I would have wanted him to splatter Peyton Manning and knock him out of the game. In the next breath, he says I’m going to donate my brain, however, to be studied afterwards because I understand the effects of the game. And to me, Chuck, here’s the key thing. No matter how hard Goodell and company try, and no matter how sincere they are to eliminate things like bounties. And more important to eliminate the obvious illegal hits to the head and encourage lowering the target and no head-to-head contact, the way football is played, even legal hits are frightening.

TODD: They’re faster. They’re stronger than they were even 10 years ago.

MR. COSTAS: Bernard Pollard’s hit on Stevan Ridley of the Patriots in AFC Championship game not only was a completely legal hit, it was celebrated as the essence of football. His coach, John Harbaugh an admirable man, can be heard on NFL film saying, BP, BP, that’s the way the game is played. And yet that hit is no less barbaric and no less dangerous than one that would get you suspended.

TODD: So, who takes the leadership role here? Is it the players? I say this. Alex Smith is the backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers in this game because he was out with a concussion.

MR. COSTAS: Correct.

TODD: He will not-- what player will self report? They are going to lose their starting job if they self report on this front. So, if the players aren’t going to do it, is it going to take more people like the president speaking out, the Congress? Teddy Roosevelt made the NCAA safe-- created the NCAA because of football deaths. Is that what it’s going to take?

MR. COSTAS: Well, DeMaurice Smith, the head of the Players Association is pushing for increased safety measures. And next year there are going to be independent neurologists on the sidelines that can diagnose and potentially treat concussions as they happen. But one of the things we have to keep in mind is this that all the research shows that it isn’t just the diagnosed concussions, it’s the hundreds if not thousands, of sub-concussive hits…

TODD: That they couldn’t diagnose 10 years ago.

MR. COSTAS: Exactly. Those are the ones that actually cumulatively take a greater toll than the concussions. Junior Seau, who killed himself, shot himself in the chest so they could preserve his brain…

TODD: Could save his brain.

MR. COSTAS: …just like Dave Duerson did, never had a diagnosed concussion in his entire career.

TODD: Is football going to go the way of boxing? And then let me ask you this. If football overcompensates on the safety front, do they risk an MMA version of football that actually becomes more popular?

MR. COSTAS: If they overcompensate…

TODD: Yeah.

MR. COSTAS: …on-- well…

TODD: It’s too safe, and you see suddenly people embrace…

(Cross talk)

MR. COSTAS: …well-- well, they-- they-- they start a different kind of league.

TODD: Yeah.

MR. COSTAS: They start a-- uh, a parallel league. I don’t know. I guess there are some people who unlike me-- I like football despite its violence.

TODD: The violence. Yeah.

MR. COSTAS: A lot of people like it primarily because of the violence. But I will say this.

TODD: All right.

MR. COSTAS: For all the drama, the excitement, the strategy, all the appealing things about football, the way football is currently played in the NFL is fundamentally unsustainable.

TODD: Bob Costas, I’m going to leave this part of the conversation here. We’re going to take a break. We’re going to be back with more in just a moment.

(Announcements)

TODD: Bob Costas, there’s much more we’re going to want to get to, including the latest news about A-Rod, performance enhancing drugs in baseball and football, but we are out of time. We’re going to take you to the web for a Take Two Web Extra, which you can find on our website later this afternoon. That’s all for today. David will be back next week and he'll have an exclusive with House Republican Leader Eric Cantor about the future of the GOP and whether Congress can find any areas to work together with the president. That’s next Sunday. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.

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