Video: Kerry plays Hardball!

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updated 11/17/2005 11:54:21 PM ET 2005-11-18T04:54:21

Vice President Dick Cheney has attacked Democratic senators who voted for the war and are now opposed to it.

One of those senators is John Kerry.

MSNBC-TV's Chris Matthews spoke with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) about those comments and the run-up to the war in Iraq.   Kerry said,  "there were a whole series of occasions where [the administration] took evidence, took the best light of the evidence only, kept the worst or alternatives from Congress and fed the American people with the imperative for war."

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, HARDBALL: Thank you, Senator Kerry, for having us to your Capitol office.  You made a very strong statement in a press release last night.  You said, "It's hard to name a government official with less credibility on Iraq than Vice President Cheney."  Why'd you say that?

SEN. JOHN KERRY, (D) MASSACHUSETTS: I said that because I meant it.  He is the person who stood up and talked about how Iraqis met with the people who hijacked the airplanes.  The intelligence community never shared that information.  He personally, and his small group of people, according to Colin Powell, former secretary of State's own chief of staff, sort of took over and became a cabal that ran American foreign policy.

He opposed the inspections, going to the United Nations.  And he, together with the president, provided America with intelligence that was not shared by the intelligence community, and they misled America.

Now Dick Cheney, a man who had five deferments in the course of the Vietnam war, if he's going to challenge me with respect to my support for the troops, that's a debate I'm prepared to have with him anywhere at any time.

MATTHEWS: Are you surprised that the president himself went after you personally last Friday?

KERRY: I'm not surprised by anything from this White House.  I learned that during the course of the campaign.  I'm sorry for America that on Veterans Day, a day that is sacred to veterans and certainly not a day for attack politics, the president not only engaged in attack politics, but continued to distort, continued to misrepresent to America my position, the position of the United States Congress.  Point blank.  The United States Congress did not get the same intelligence that was available to this administration, and for them to say so is to continue to mislead America.

MATTHEWS: What's the difference between what you believe Dick Cheney had in hand when he pushed for the war, and what you had in hand when you voted to authorize the president's use of force if necessary?

KERRY: Well, I'll give you a number of examples:  In the State of the Union message, the president of the United States used information about nuclear materials and Saddam Hussein trying to get them from Africa.  Three times the White House had been told by the CIA, in writing and verbally, that is not accurate, don't use that intelligence.  They used it.  They didn't tell Congress it wasn't accurate.

Likewise when they announced to people that they had the delivery ability for weapons, biological and chemical weapons, within — I think it was — 45 minutes, if I recall, but less than an hour.  That was not shared by members of the intelligence community, and it was not shared with Congress that the intelligence community disagreed.

When they said that there were poisonous gas and bomb-making training given by Iraqis to al Qaeda, that was not accurate.  It was discounted by the Defense Intelligence Agency.  They never told us about the discount.

There were a whole series of occasions where they took evidence, took the best light of the evidence only, kept the worst or alternatives from Congress, and fed the American people with the imperative for war.

MATTHEWS: Why did they have their on the war, that they would this sort of thing?

KERRY: I personally believe now, the evidence is clear as we've looked at any number of things.  I mean, it's amazing to me that the memos from Great Britain, from Prime Minister Blair's cabinet have not received more analysis here, because they talk about how people within that cabinet believed the intelligence was being shaped to try to fit the mission.

And I think that the decision was fundamentally made that they wanted to remake the Middle East, remove Saddam Hussein, have a foothold in that part of the world, and they naively and inaccurately believed the intelligence people like Chalabi and others.  And it was a cause of many people like Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith and others.  This was the course they wanted to go on, and Vice President Cheney was pushing it very hard.

MATTHEWS: So it was ideology rather than fear of an attack by Saddam Hussein in this country?

KERRY: I think the initial idea clearly began to be worked on, and then they began to massage Video: McCain plays Hardball the different components of how do you persuade people it's the right thing to do.

The weapons of mass destruction were a legitimate concern.  I am not saying — and I said it on the floor of the Senate.  I stand by what I said on the floor of the Senate.  Saddam Hussein who was allowed to develop these weapons, or if he grew his arsenal, was a threat to the United States.

The issue is, was the only way to respond to that threat the way the president chose to?  And in fact, the president promised he would respond differently, Chris.  He told Americans in his speech in Cincinnati, war is not inevitable, that if in fact we go, we will plan carefully.  He said we would go with our allies, and he said we would go as the last resort.

The fact is, we did none of those things.  We clearly didn't plan carefully.  We didn't go with a whole pack of allies the way his father did, and he certainly didn't go as a last resort.

MATTHEWS: Last night Vice President Cheney said there were a few opportunists, he called them, back home who are suggesting that our GIs were sent into battle for a lie.  Is that a fair characterization of what you are saying?

KERRY: No.  I didn't say — I never used the word that they were sent into battle for a lie, but they were — we were misled as a nation.  Yes we were misled.  On his face we were misled.  There were no weapons of mass destruction.  By anybody's simple definition, if you think you're doing one thing and it's not there, you're misled.

The question is were you misled intentionally.  And to what degree did they distort evidence in order to force that issue?  Now, I also have to tell you, the president says to all of us, we're going to take the United Nations seriously and we will go through the inspections process, and we are going to plan carefully and really build a coalition.

Then you believe one thing.  You think that if you go to war, you'll go to war a certain way.  But in fact, they didn't do those things.  The president didn't even accept his own State Department's detailed plans for how you manage post-war Iraq.

And so they misled us with respect to the planning, misled us with respect to the numbers of allies that would be involved, misled us with respect to the inspections.

Now, I said during the president debates, when the president said, well, if he thinks those are mistakes, how can he lead?  Well, I've always said we need to try to be successful.  We need to support the troops.  We need to back those troops up.  And the way you support them is by giving them the best policy possible.  That means, as I've laid out, we need to shift more rapidly the responsibility to Iraqis to begin to provide their own security.  There's no excuse for Americans to be engaged in some of the activities they're engaged in over there.  We could pull them back into a more rear guard, garrison kind of deployment.

We need to pull back, I think, 20,000 extra troops that were put in for the referendum and for the election.  My benchmark is not that you pull them out automatically, but that if the election is successful, and I believe it will be, we will achieve that benchmark.  And then you don't need the 20,000 extra that you put in for that purpose.

You've got to set benchmarks.  Every time you say to the Iraqis, take as long,  we're going to be there as long as you want, you say to the Iraqis, aha, we can take as long as we want.

MATTHEWS: Right.  What do you think of General Casey — George Casey — saying that it takes on average nine years to defeat an insurgency?  That's a hell of a benchmark.  Are we willing to stay for nine years?

KERRY: Not in the current construct, nor should we in the current construct.  I mean, if you do what we're doing today, and it's nine years, the American people are not going to support that.  I think most people I talk to in the military don't believe our military can withstand that, because you have a certain recycling and redeployment and training.

MATTHEWS: Should we be there in any form nine years from now, still having military troops in Iraq, nine years from now?

KERRY: Certainly not a combat kind of operation.  It's conceivable you could have some sort of small assistance or training, but I would hope not.  I would hope the United States of America would have done its job.  I think you can do this within the next 12 to 15 months, and that's the plan that I've laid out.

If you set — not specific — this is where frankly the president, the vice president and his supporters distort this issue.  They try to say to America the Democrats want to just cut and run.  No, we don't.  We want to succeed.  And we believe we have a better plan for success. 
Our plan for success is to set benchmarks of achievement which you reach.  And as you reach those benchmarks of achievement, you can draw down American forces.

And it's only by setting that responsibility on the shoulders of Iraqis that you will begin to have them actually assume that responsibility.

MATTHEWS: Do you have a sense now that so much information is getting out now about the, really, questions — and they're hard questions — about the WMD case, the connection with 9/11, all the interesting finessing that went on before the war.  Do you think if it had, the public would have been better off with an election where they knew more?

KERRY: Absolutely.

MATTHEWS: Would they have voted differently?

KERRY: America is always better off with information.  That's who we are.  We are a democracy that thrives on the truth.  And the American people were not given the whole truth.

MATTHEWS: Well, it's so long ago, I mean, you voted in 2002 to authorize the use of force if necessary.  And then in the 2004 election, for two years, everything seemed to be under wraps.  And it's only now, post-election, that this stuff is getting — was there an attempt to
keep everything really secure, these cases for war that turned out to be questionable solid and secure for all these months?  Why are we getting the information now?

KERRY: I think it's pretty obvious, Chris, why it happens now.  The Republicans stonewalled for a year and a half the investigation of the Intelligence Committee into this question of manipulated evidence.  Only after the Democrats shut down the Senate last week into secret session did we force their hand with respect to that.  Now the fact is, that during the election, I pointed out the failure of Tora Bora.  And I think I was the first United States senator to stand up and say, this administration allowed Osama bin Laden to escape through their clutches.

And more and more evidence has come out since then, contrary to what they even said in the campaign.  That in fact, it was, I think, incompetence, bad judgment, and bad decision making that allowed Osama bin Laden to escape.

MATTHEWS: In the fall of 2001, right after 9/11, we all knew by reading the newspapers, and even more, that al Qaeda had locations in Somalia, Sudan, the Philippines, and of course, in Afghanistan.

Why didn't the United States Senate say, why don't we track down al Qaeda, get that job done?  While we pacify some of the Arab world, instead of going out and starting a war in Arabia — in Iraq, which probably cost us more terrorism?

KERRY: Well, many of us argued at the time that that was the more important effort.  That the real war, I said during the campaign again, I said, wrong war, wrong place, wrong time.  I was criticized for saying that.

MATTHEWS: Are you still right?

KERRY: Yes, I am right.  I am right that the right war was in Afghanistan.  The right time was then.  And the place was obviously Tora Bora and the other places where we should have apprehended and broken the back, entirely of al Qaeda.

More importantly, even the terminology of the president, to scare Americans so that the war on terror, which they now started not to use.  I pointed out during that time, is not correct.

Terror is a tactic. Terror is the tactic.  The war is against the extremism and the ideology and the people who engage in these kinds of tactics.

And that is something that is spread much wider and was not in Iraq at the time that the choice existed for us, whether to go to Iraq or whether to complete the task in Afghanistan and hunt down al Qaeda.

MATTHEWS: How did you react when you read that that woman in Fallujah and her husband?  He had come back with some bodies of people that were killed as we were retaking Fallujah at that time.

They go into Jordan and they try to blow up a hotel, because she's angry about the way we treated her hometown in Fallujah.  Are we creating more terrorists?

KERRY: Many people have argued throughout this.  And again, I think I've said this before.  That some of what we are doing, winds up, inevitably.  General Casey has said this.

Some of our generals who have obviously been right on hand and who are living with this day to day, believe that the overall presence of American troops and some of the things that we've had to engage in, alienate Iraqi people.

Go into, I mean, when an American soldiers winds up going into a Muslim home and engaging in a search mission, it's highly, culturally difficult for us to be able to make that something that works well.

MATTHEWS: Right.

KERRY: Which is why I keep saying that you've got to get this structured in a way that its Iraqis going into Iraqi homes.  Iraqis policing Iraqi streets.  We're there to back them up until we can have sufficient confidence.  But clearly, there are terrorists in Iraq today that were not there before.

MATTHEWS: Does the president believe, watching him all these years, that it's like an ethnic group.  There's a certain number of people who are terrorists, and we simply have to wipe them out and we win the war.  Does he look at it that way?

KERRY: I can't tell you, Chris.

MATTHEWS: No, do you look at it that way?

KERRY: Obviously not.  The war on terrorism — war on terror.  I mean, the war against the extreme Muslim ideology, extremists, is far more complicated than that.

It has differences in different countries.  What's happened is, because of this war in Iraq, they found a common linkage with each other.  And there's been a much greater empowerment if you will, of their ability to go out and recruit people and engage in tactics that before, they weren't able to or didn't even know how to.

MATTHEWS: The president's been speaking very strongly...

KERRY: ... and the intelligence, that's not me talking.  The intelligence community will tell you that.

Watch 'Hardball' each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 

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