updated 1/13/2006 9:13:21 AM ET 2006-01-13T14:13:21

Guests: Michael Rubin, David Kay, Russ Tice, Ed Meese, Harold Ford

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Will Iran sue rival Iraq as the major focus of U.S. fear?  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening, I‘m Chris Matthews.  America was shocked to learn from “The New York Times” that the National Security Agency was spying in President Bush‘s direction on Americans with suspected al Qaeda contacts.

Tonight, we‘ll meet one of the anonymous sources who broke that story.  But first, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on the United Nations today to address Iran‘s defiance and demand that the country stop its nuclear program.  Britain, France, and Germany also agree.  The issue needs to be referred to the security council.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE:  There is simply no peaceful rationale for the Iranian regime to resume uranium enrichment.  We‘re gravely concerned by Iran‘s long history of hiding sensitive nuclear activities from the IAEA in violation of its obligations, its refusal to cooperate with the IAEA‘s investigation, its rejection of diplomatic initiatives offered by the E.U. and Russia, and now its dangerous defiance of the entire international community.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  In a moment, Michael Rubin, a former Bush Defense Department Iran analyst and former U.N. weapons inspector David Kay.

But let‘s begin tonight with NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent, Andrea Mitchell.  Size up the danger here right now for an international incident with Iran‘s nuclear program moving forward.

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Iran is still several years away from crossing over that threshold.  They are now about one step away, according to most nuclear experts from solving the remaining problem that they would have to solve.

And then after perhaps five years, according to the latest intelligence experts in the United States government at least, in contrast to more alarming prospects from Israeli intelligence, about five years from now, Iran could have the bomb.

This certainly moves it a ratchet up.  The entire world is now aligned against Iran and interestingly, even Russia‘s foreign minister on the phone today with Condi Rice was supportive of this effort to move to the U.N.

The problem is going to be China.  As you know, Chris, China is just soaking up Iranian oil because of its huge economic growth and development.  And it is not going to want to move to sanctions.  Oil markets were jittery today, they pushed prices up, spiked about 11 cents up to about $64, $65 a barrel, just on the possibility of oil sanctions. 

But no one really believes that the U.N. Security Council is going to move that route.  Perhaps diplomatic sanctions, more crying out against Iran.  But economic sanctions would be a very tough issue for the U.S. to win, not only with Europe, Russia, but particularly with China and the veto.

MATTHEWS:  Andrea, you and I grew up with a country that had to rely on MADD, mutually assured destruction.  We had the Soviet Union in the late ‘40s developing a nuclear that had hydrogen bomb potential.  And then China of course developing to some extent, a smaller program.  And we had got used to European powers like the French having a weapon, certainly Pakistan, certainly Israel.  What is the usefulness?

I don‘t want to sound too compliant here, but what would be the usefulness of Iran having a bomb?  If it attacked Israel, Israel would have no reason not to eliminate Iran.  But do we think they‘re crazy, I guess to put it bluntly?

MITCHELL:  Well, you know, Iranian foreign policy has been a little bit hard to understand for quite some time and most particularly with its new president, denying the Holocaust, saying that it wants to wipe Israel off the map. 

There‘s a lot of nervousness about Iran.  This is not just his policy,

though.  This is the policy of the Mullahs, the Ayatollahs.  And the issue

is whether Iran would be far more aggressive in its foreign policy, knowing

with us knowing that it has a bomb or that it is close to having a bomb. 

And with us having no nuclear—no military, I should say, option. 

Because here you have a situation where we‘re spread so thin in Iraq and Afghanistan on Iran‘s two borders, Iran is feeling threatened by the U.S. presence in both places.  But Iran knows that we don‘t have the military resources to take on Iran.  Neither does Israel. 

Israel would have to go to airspace that we controlled in order to get to Iran.  No one thinks that there is a way of even pinpointing or knowing where Iran‘s secret nukes really are buried.  So even though we know the general area where its main facilities are, we don‘t think that anyone has perfect intelligence that would permit any kind of military strike. 

Without a military option, the only recourse is diplomacy, so now you have George Bush, in his second term, trying to use the United Nations Security Council and back Iran off.  He‘s going exactly the opposite route that he went with Iraq, and ironically, doing it with, as U.N. ambassador, the most hawkish of all of his non-proliferation advocates, John Bolton.

MATTHEWS:  Well is it—I‘m glad to hear this in a weird way because I‘m afraid there might be one of these, you know, Guns of August situation where one country does something because it thinks the other one might do it and then you end up with a catastrophe.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But I want to ask you—if you were talking now to somebody on the hard right in Israel, maybe even to the right of Bibi Netanyahu and Likud, does anybody believe it‘s feasible that a smart attack, a surgical attack, could take out the danger there, for Israel and for the region and for us?  Does anybody believe it‘s doable?

MITCHELL:  No one believes it‘s doable.  I‘ve spoken to intelligence experts from Arab countries, from Israel, and also from the United States, as recently as this week. 

No one thinks that is doable, but they may threaten that, just as part of this nuclear dance.  But again, mistakes can happen.  This is a very dangerous part of the world.

MATTHEWS:  Does Cheney agree with that?  Because maybe—I don‘t want to put words in his mouth, his words are tough enough, but he‘s talked about—or his people have—he‘s talked about the possibility of Israel acting in this desperate regard.  Has he made it clear he doesn‘t think so, that it‘s feasible in any kind of attack, any military option?

MITCHELL:  His most recent words on this subject were two days ago in a telephone with Tony Snow, a radio interview.  And what he said was that we need to look at tough economic sanctions at the U.N., that that should be the first option.

MATTHEWS:  OK, Andrea, great report.  Thank you very much.  From the State Department, Andrea Mitchell.

Joining me now is Michael Rubin, who followed Iran‘s nuclear program for several years at the Pentagon during the Bush administration.  And on the phone we have former U.N. weapons inspector David Kay.  I want to start with Michael.  Let‘s just get to the politics of this.  Why does this country want a nuclear weapon?

MICHAEL RUBIN, FORMER BUSH PENTAGON IRAN EXPERT:  Iran wants a nuclear weapon.

MATTHEWS:  Why?

RUBIN:  A lot of people will say it‘s for external reasons.  It‘s not.  The Iranian regime realizes it‘s unpopular and if they have—with its own people, perhaps 80 percent of Iran‘s people don‘t believe in the Islamic revolution.  They don‘t believe in theocracy anymore. 

They figure, and Andrea put her finger on it, that if they have a nuclear weapon, they are can do whatever it takes and conventionally, you could have a Tiananmen Square in Tehran and so forth and the outside world can‘t intervene because Iran will have this deterrent.

MATTHEWS:  Really?  It‘s not to try to muscle their way around the Middle East?

RUBIN:  A lot of it‘s prestige.  A lot of it‘s being able to muscle their way.

MATTHEWS:  Right, like Pakistan has.  Well, Pakistan has its own reasons, they want to be able to threaten a much larger country.

RUBIN:  Well it‘s great you bring up Pakistan, because when Pakistan tested its nuclear bomb, what all the Iranians said was, “It‘s not a coincidence they tested it 30 miles from our border, rather than 30 miles from the Indian border.”  So from an Iranian prestige standpoint, this became an issuer and the Iranian government‘s simply masterful.

MATTHEWS:  So this is keeping up with the Joneses?

RUBIN:  To some extent it is, but there‘s different motives here, there‘s motives which are voiced to the outside world and then there‘s motives on the inside.

MATTHEWS:  Third world countries, as we know, like—people that are in desperate shape have to have a pride problem.  They want to prove to the world they‘re a first-class nation.  They don‘t like the phrase third—in fact, they‘re very sophisticated.  You were there.  What‘s it like in Iran?  It‘s not like what we think of as a third-world country, is it?

RUBIN:  No, Iran is extremely cosmopolitan.  The Iranian people want nothing more than to be embraced by the outside world.  When you talk to Iran...

MATTHEWS:  ... They want to be European, basically.

RUBIN:  They want to be European, exactly.  I mean, Iranians talk about how back in the 1960s, they‘d hop on a motorcycle and drive from Tehran to Paris, getting Visas at every border and they lament they can‘t do that anymore. 

If you ask Iranians, should Iran have nuclear power?  The answer is “Yes, we deserve of it.”  If you ask the question a different way, do you trust the Islamic republic with nuclear weapons?  The answer is no, so so much of this depends on how you frame the question.  But you have to keep into account Iranian nationalism.  Iranians are a very proud people.

MATTHEWS:  How do you explain what seems to be the unnecessary anti-semitism.  I mean, all Arab leaders are anti-Israel, I suppose it‘s fair to say, to some extent.  Maybe not Jordan or Egypt officially, but I can understand the demagoguery, how it would work in an unhappy country.  But why the crazy stuff, like denial of the Holocaust?  They‘re claiming—you know, all these claims that he‘s made.

RUBIN:  This is the difference between the regime and the people.  When I was in Iran, I actually used to go to synagogue in Tehran and in Isfahan.

MATTHEWS:  And they‘re still open.

RUBIN:  They‘re still open.  Iran actually has the second-largest Jewish community in the Middle East, which is also...

MATTHEWS:  ... So they weren‘t purged like other Arab countries purged the Jews out?

RUBIN:  No, not to the same extent.  It used to be 120,000, now it‘s down to around 20,000.  But the key is, the Iranian people are quite embarrassed by the rhetoric of their government.  And you‘ve actually had demonstrations, teachers unions, for example, who weren‘t getting paid that marched through the streets and said, “Forget about Palestine and think about us.  We want our wages, stop funding these other guys.”

MATTHEWS:  So the argument that somebody might make which is that the only one that talks about nuclear weapons is somebody that has nothing else to lose, because you don‘t want to talk about a nuclear war, which would be an exchange of nuclear weapons, obviously, in the region or globally.  So you‘re, in other words, you‘re telling me in so many words that Iran has something to lose?

RUBIN:  It‘s a distraction.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s a fairly happy country, people are OK...

RUBIN:  ... It‘s not a happy country.  One of the questions I‘ll always ask when I go is how many times—to an average person on the street—can you eat meat, for example?  It‘s very simple.  Can you afford it?  Oil is $65 a barrel or whatever, but the money isn‘t trickling down.  Corruption is a huge problem.  The Iran-Iraq War was fought between 1980 and 1988. 

When I would talk to people from towns that were destroyed, in 1999 when I was last in Tehran, they would say, look, they keep building mosques.  The government keeps building mosques, and what we need are schools and hospitals.  There‘s a lot of dissatisfaction and the Iranian government is creating a distraction. 

MATTHEWS:  You‘re a good guest. 

Let‘s go to David Kay right now.  David, what do you know about the Iranian nuclear program right now, its weaponization? 

DAVID KAY, FMR. U.N. WEAPONS INSPECTOR:  I don‘t think we know very much, except that it‘s got a long history, at least 18 years of clandestine effort.  The difficulty you‘re talking about it right now, is look, we‘re under the burden of having gotten it seriously wrong in the case of Iraq. 

The U.S.-controlled agents in Iran is, as far as one can tell from the outside, as bad a situation as we had in Iraq, meaning we don‘t have any, and we rely primarily on dissidents.

So I don‘t think we know with a great deal of specificity anything about the weaponization program except that they‘ve spent a lot of money and they‘ve done a lot of the right things leading up to one. 

MATTHEWS:  What about the things—we were led into a war, to some extent, with the nuclear weapons argument with Iraq.  I would say it was the central deal-maker for most middle of the roaders in this country, because we looked at aluminum tubes.  We always talk about a deal with Niger.  Is there anything that‘s parallel to that now with regard to Iran where we can say they‘re headed toward nuclear weapons? 

KAY:  Well, there‘s a lot more specificity, because in fact, the Iranians finally admitted that they had this long centrifuge-based program and the U.N. inspectors have had access to it. 

Now there‘s still the same question, which in some ways is similar to Iraq, of the uncertainty as to whether what you‘ve seen is everything they have or only a small portion that they‘ve decided to show you.  But what they‘ve shown is a quite extensive program. 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s the leap between—I know when we had the Manhattan Project in the 40s, which was successful by August of 1945, you know, you had the nuclear technology, thanks to Einstein and Tower (ph) and the rest, but weaponizing it, creating a bomb you could drop somewhere across the Pacific, how big a leap is that part of it, just putting it into a bomb? 

KAY:  Well, just putting into a crude device is not a very big leap any longer, and one of the unknowns about Iran is their basic centrifuge technology was sold to them by A.Q. Kahn of Pakistan. 

Now, we know A.Q. Kahn sold others the same package, but also sold them a design for a nuclear weapon, a Chinese-derived design that the Pakistanis first used.  It‘s a crude but quite adequate weapon.  Elegance in weapons design mostly involves size.  It would be large, but it would still work. 

MATTHEWS:  Would it be airborne? 

KAY:  That Pakistani design certainly can be airborne, yes. 

MATTHEWS:  So it‘s not just the ability to create a package and put it on a barge and take it ...

(CROSSTALK)

KAY:  No, it‘s a weaponized design. 

MATTHEWS:  So they can actually deliver this by air? 

KAY:  Now, we don‘t know that he sold it to the Iranians.  The Iranians have said no, no, no evidence.  But we know he sold it to everyone else he sold the same technology package to. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you accept the framework of the range of about a five-year goal here that they would have one by five years from now? 

KAY:  Look, the problem with timelines on this is the unknowns are still considerable.  I think the five to seven years is a reasonable one, but quite frankly, if I were their neighbor, with their current political leadership, I would be awfully uncomfortable with that answer. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Well, we know what neighbor is most worried, it‘s the neighbor that he keeps targeting verbally and the old situation we know about in the Middle East between Iran and Israel.  If—do you accept what Andrea said in her report, that there is no feasible military option here for Israel or for us or anyone else who would like to knock out that weapons program? 

KAY:  Look, there is no feasible option at an acceptable cost.  You know, he talks about wiping Israel off the map.  Do we have the military power to wipe Iran off the map?  Sure we do, but the costs of that, both political and in military terms, would be so high, I think it‘s not reasonable. 

There is no acceptable military solution that does not involve and it would have to involve the U.S., a very heavy cost, particularly now with our engagement in Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  But you mean by cost, meaning you‘d have to bomb a lot of territory to be sure you hit it? 

KAY:  You‘d have to bomb a lot of territory, you‘d have to use rather large weapons to be sure ...

MATTHEWS:  Bunker busters?

KAY:  ... and you‘d have to be prepared to accept the consequence of that action.  That is, the Iranians have a very low cost reply, as terrorism both in the Middle East and specifically against American interests in Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  They can cut off the oil, can‘t they? 

KAY:  Well, that‘s, you know—that is an option they have, but realize, that has a cost to themselves. 

MATTHEWS:  I agree.  I think there must be many things they could think up to hurt us around the world. 

KAY:  Well, terrorism is the easiest one. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, that‘s the—well, they already helped Hezbollah, but it‘s frightening. 

KAY:  Well, but they could massively up the stakes in that. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, hey, it‘s great—were you surprised at Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, coming out and holding this conference today and bringing this to the front pages of the newspapers tomorrow? 

KAY:  Well, I‘m not surprised, because in fact, the great—the only great advantage the U.S. has politically right now is the quality of the Iranian leadership.  I mean, that‘s such an easy target, that in fact we‘ve managed apparently to get even the Russians to climb halfway on board. 

The one thing that did surprise me, did not seem to be well coordinated with the secretary-general, who came out saying that he had just had a 40-minute conversation and you could do business with the Iranians. 

MATTHEWS:  Cheney doesn‘t have an itchy trigger finger here, does he? 

KAY:  Well, he certainly has an itchy tongue. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, well we‘ll keep an eye on him and we‘ll keep an ear on him.  Thank you very much, David Kay.  Thank you Michael Rubin.  You‘re a great guest.  Much more on the Iran situation throughout this hour. 

And up next, the Alito confirmation hearings.  How much did they really accomplish?  MSNBC‘s Tucker Carlson will be joining us.

Plus the former NSA official who turned whistle blower who alleges that the agency conducted illegal acts.  We‘re talking about wiretaps and he‘s going to tell Congress about it.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, they‘re talking about what we‘ve been talking about, but mostly they‘re talking about the Judge Alito hearings—or as I might call him, Judge Incognito, because I still don‘t know where he stands on a lot of things. 

Tucker Carlson, host of MSNBC‘s “THE SITUATION WITH TUCKER CARLSON.”  Well, what is the situation, Tucker, in terms of Judge Incognito after a week?  Do we know anything about him?

TUCKER CARLSON, MSNBC HOST, “THE SITUATION”:  He‘s going to ascend to the Supreme Court, it looks like.

MATTHEWS:  Oh, he‘s going to be on there, but do we know anything more about where he stands on abortion rights ...

CARLSON:  Well, no, I mean ...

MATTHEWS:  ... or executive power or any of the things that they said they wanted to find out about?

CARLSON:  I thought the most significant moment on abortion was his unwillingness to go as far as judge—now Justice Roberts and say that it was settled law.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  He‘s still open on that.

CARLSON:  Well, which is actually—I think a really interesting question.  That was one of the questions I wanted him to be asked, and that is, “At what point do you overturn precedent?”  I mean, Plessy vs.  Ferguson, you know, the Supreme Court came to that conclusion.  Obviously we‘re all glad the court reversed itself. 

But what are criteria you use to overturn a law that has been settled.  He didn‘t get into that.  But I thought his answer was fair.  But no, we never learn anything because of the stupid bipartisan consensus—and it is bipartisan, that these guys shouldn‘t have to answer questions about cases that come before the court.  It‘s ridiculous.

MATTHEWS:  Can you imagine if he gave the same answers he gave this week to the Democrats, to the people vetting him for the Bush White House, if he‘d had gotten the nomination in the first place?  “Well, I‘m kind of open-minded on that one?  Well you know, I don‘t really remember that.”

CARLSON:  Actually though, you never know though.  I mean, look—I would think that the vetting process would be invasive, it would be like applying to the CIA.  You know, they have ask you whether you had sex with animals under a polygraph, you know what I mean?  As they do when you apply to the CIA.

But, after Harriet Miers, you‘ve got to wonder what the vetting process is like.  How rigorous is it?  I mean, there‘s so much—sometimes they don‘t seem to know that maybe, you know, it‘s tougher to go before Joe Biden than it is before Andy Card.  I don‘t know.

MATTHEWS:  Well, you‘ve got to wonder about a guy being (INAUDIBLE) it up to sell himself as a very conservative ideologue and then able to sell himself as some sort of open-minded middle of the roader too.  It depends on the circumstance.  Let me ask you about something that you and I were talking about before we went on, and I find fascinating your gutsy position on this.  Lobbying reform.

CARLSON:  Yes, lobbyists are citizens.  They‘re voters, they represent groups of other Americans who have a perspective.  I like their perspective, you may disagree with the doorknob manufacturers, the dioxin lobby, or whomever, but they‘re Americans too and they have a right to representation.

Lobbyists have an advantage over you and me because they know more about the pending legislation than we do.  They‘ve taken the time to study it, which is a long way of saying, “There‘s nothing innately sinister about lobbying.”  And the axiom in Washington is, every action is responded to with an equal and opposite overreaction, which is another way of saying this scandal with Abramoff is going to bring into law, I suspect, all sorts of legislation that do nothing but gum up the works.

MATTHEWS:  OK,, I‘m the one who‘s been talking about it today, Tucker, is you shouldn‘t be able to get a trip paid for of any consequence by a lobbyist.  Is that a bad idea?

CARLSON:  I think that that‘s a tough one.  I mean, there‘s a counter argument that it‘s good for your members of Congress to go out and know what‘s going on in the world.  I mean, look—here‘s the bottom line.  It‘s a multi trillion dollar government, OK? 

As long as government is as large as it is, regulates the things that it does, people will always feel like they have to pay to influence if, A.

B, you really want to undo—do you want to make Washington less corrupt?  Eliminate earmarks, eliminate earmarks.  I mean, nobody in Congress wants to do that because it lessons the power of Congress.  But that would be a very quick way of making people fly the straight and narrow.

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of these meals rules, like right now, you pointed out the other night.

CARLSON:  Come on, Chris, you live in Washington.  You know how dumb that is, the idea that you can buy a congressman for a steak?  That‘s ridiculous.

MATTHEWS:  I remember back when I was with a Senate Budget Committee with Senator Muskie and somebody, a lobbyist from the National Association of Counties took me out to lunch and bought me a hamburger so he could bend my ear for an hour.

Then about three weeks later or three months letter, he didn‘t—his National Association of Counties did not get invited to testify for a set of hearings.  He calls me up and rather sternly admonishes me and says, “I thought I made our presence felt.” 

CARLSON:  That‘s unbelievable.

MATTHEWS:  I mean, give me a break.  I mean, OK, you bought me a hamburger.  I listened to you, you bent my ear for an hour.  I paid you back, buddy.

CARLSON:  Exactly.  And you probably learned something important about the issue.  That is, when you go his way.  No, those are the kind of cosmetic dumb, puddle-deep reforms, that do nothing except make the rest of us feel morally superior.  They help nobody.

MATTHEWS:  You think we should just elect honest Congress people?

CARLSON:  Of course we should.  And take the time to learn what‘s happening on Capitol Hill.  Again, this is the key to lobbying—knowledge.  These people take the time to understand how Washington works.

MATTHEWS:  OK, on that point, do you think it‘s OK to talk to you about this, that every time a lobbyist calls you up or meets with you, you have to check that off and put that on your disclosure, if that guy has also given you money for your campaign?

CARLSON:  I don‘t see anything wrong with disclose.  I mean, more information is better, as far as I‘m concerned.  Let the public make its own judgments.  Transparency is good.  I don‘t believe in any campaign finance limits.  I have think people have a constitutional right to support the candidates of their choice with their money, and I think businesses and unions ought to be able to do the same.  I have no problem with that.

MATTHEWS:  Who‘s the next Republican candidate for president?

CARLSON:  Boy, that is an awful tough one.  I think Chuck Hagel is someone you shouldn‘t count out.  I know the White House hates him and I know at this point he doesn‘t—you know, he‘s not the flashiest candidate, but I think he‘s a candidate of substance who again is not going to get the backing from institutional Republicans.

But by the end of this next congressional cycle, the end of 2006, I think, you know, establishment Republicans are going to be wondering what hit them.

MATTHEWS:  OK, that is such a long target that nobody‘s going to hold it against you.

CARLSON:  Yes, maybe.  But I mean, he‘s the guy I like.  Why, who do you think?

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t know, I don‘t know.  I have my favorites.  Right now, I think McCain, but I also think it could be Rudy, which everybody disagrees with.  We‘ll be right back.  Thank you very much, Tucker Carlson.  “THE SITUATION” is on tonight at 11:00 p.m. Eastern, right here on MSNBC. 

Up next, a former national security agency official has come forward.  He‘s the whistle blower.  He wants to testify before Congress about what he says are illegal acts conducted by the top secret agencies.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  On the heel of “The New York Times” explosive story on the NSA‘s domestic spying program, a former National Security Agency official has come forward and wants to testify before Congress about what he says are illegal acts conducted at the top security agency, the NSA.

Russ Tice was one of a dozen sources for “The New York Times” story on the agency‘s highly-classified eavesdropping program.  Thank you for coming on.  What is your status over there at the NSA?

RUSS TICE, FORMER NSA OFFICER:  Persona non grata.

MATTHEWS:  Why are you—you‘re out of there and why?

TICE:  Well, I was not really fired, they say they let me go because they revoked my security clearance.  They called me in nine months after my routine psychological evaluation, which I passed with flying colors and then they said I was psychotic paranoid and they took my security clearance from me.

MATTHEWS:  Well, is—are you saying this was something like the Soviet Union used to do when they put somebody in an asylum, when they disagreed politically?

TICE:  Pretty much so, yes.  That‘s pretty much how they do it.

MATTHEWS:  Do you have good records of the processing of you and how you got kicked out?

TICE:  I do, yes.

MATTHEWS:  Are you going to fight this?

TICE:  Well, unfortunately, the whistleblower protection laws do not apply to intelligence community officials, so it would—pretty much everything‘s stacked against me, for me to try to do anything about this.  They could pretty much say, “You know, you‘re big and ugly and we‘re going to take away your security clearance” and I wouldn‘t have a whole lot to say about it.

MATTHEWS:  Do you have any compadres over there that will back you up?

TICE:  Oh, absolutely.  The biggest problem now is fear rules the day there.  I mean, you‘ve got this witch-hunt going on there, and you know, there‘s the leak thing.  And you know, I kind of consider it reporting a crime.

MATTHEWS:  Where are you in the war in Iraq?  Should we have gone to Iraq?

TICE:  To be honest, I was for going to Iraq, mainly because I felt that anyone that would go after a U.S. president as far as an assassination...

MATTHEWS:  ... of the former president.

TICE:  Bush Sr.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, that‘s true.

TICE:  That that‘s justification enough for me to go whack somebody. 

I certainly wouldn‘t have dealt with the aftermath the way it was done. 

MATTHEWS:  I put you where most Americans are, by the way, right now, according to my polling.  Let me ask you about what is really—you know, they asked two poll questions out there.

They asked, should Americans be bugged by their government or wire tapped?  And people say no.  But then they ask the question, in another poll, should the United States government be able to go after people it sees as suspicious characters?  And people say, yes.

So people have a mixed view of this.  They don‘t like it if it‘s about regular Americans, but if you say it‘s about al Qaeda contacts, they‘ll say, of course.  What‘s wrong with the United States spooking, spying, tapping al Qaeda contacts, people on the telephone with al Qaeda around the world? 

TICE:  Nothing is wrong with that and the mechanism to do that is the FISA Court.  You know, once you have an associated number and you can pin it with a name or a number here in the states, it‘s easy to find out the name and address and pretty much all the billing information.

MATTHEWS:  Why is it wrong to do global data mining and say anybody who is talking to somebody in the Emirates, for example, or anybody in Saudi is on the phone talking about physical targets in New York, like the Holland Tunnel or the Lincoln Tunnel, words like that jump off the electronic wires.  What‘s wrong with trying to figure out what those people are talking about?

TICE:  If it‘s being conducted over overseas, there‘s nothing wrong with that.  That‘s perfectly normal.

MATTHEWS:  But what‘s wrong with somebody—if somebody‘s on the phone from Newark and they‘re calling from some cab stand and they‘re talking to somebody over in Saudi and all of the sudden you hear they‘re talking about different geographic targets, shouldn‘t we know that?

TICE:  Well absolutely.  If you—from the one end of that conversation, being the Emirates end of that conversation, you‘ll be able to make a link to a number in the United States.  If they‘re mentioning things like bombs and blowing up bridges or whatever, certainly that should be...

MATTHEWS:  ... So what‘s your complaint then?

TICE:  Well the complaint is ultimately that American citizens are being spied on without the...

MATTHEWS:  ... But they‘re not just citizens.  Aren‘t they—haven‘t

look, you know this, I don‘t.  Haven‘t they limited the eavesdropping program to people with contacts that are dangerous to us?

TICE:  That‘s what we‘ve been told.  Is that the truth?

MATTHEWS:  Well, do you know something—well is it?

TICE:  Well, you have to ask the question, why was the FISA Court...

MATTHEWS:  ... I‘m asking you, you‘re our guest here.  You‘re from NSA, you‘ve been there.  Do you have any evidence that we‘re spying on regular, you know, just regular political Americans, who may have views on all kinds of things?  Or are we limiting it to people who are actually engaged in conversations or e-mailing with people in highly-suspicious situations in the Mideast?

TICE:  I can‘t say one way or the other and I can‘t go into the details of how NSA does their business,  it would be classified.  But the question arises, why would you do this beyond the FISA Court?

MATTHEWS:  Because apparently when you want to do this mining, by going by topic rather than by who‘s on the phone, you would never get a court order.

TICE:  That‘s true.

MATTHEWS:  Well then how can you do it?

TICE:  Well, I—all the Middle East—a large broad-brush approach could be used where you—you know, if you have a haystack of information, you suck it all in to try to find the needle.

MATTHEWS:  We‘re under attack on 9/11.  A couple of days after that, if I were president of the United States and somebody said we had the ability to check on all the conversations going on between here and Hamburg, Germany, where all the al Qaeda people are or somewhere in Saudi, where they came from and their parents are, and we could mine some of that information by just looking for some key words like World Trade Center or Pentagon, I‘d do it.

TICE:  Well, you‘d be breaking the law.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  Well, maybe that‘s part of the job.  We‘ll talk about it.  We‘ll be right back with Russ Tice.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  President Bush criticized the revelation of the National Security Agency‘s top-secret domestic spying program.  Here he is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  It was a shameful act, for someone to disclose this very important program in time of war.  The fact that we‘re discussing this program is helping the enemy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  What‘s it like to hear the president say that about you?

TICE:  Well, you know, depends on whether you consider me a leak or a source.  I consider myself a source.  I‘ve said nothing that‘s classified.

MATTHEWS:  He offered a pretty broad brush there.  He said people that got this story out, basically, about this secret domestic spying program and he said getting it out was wrong and bad for the United States and dangerous for us.

TICE:  Well, you know...

MATTHEWS:  ... You can‘t skip away from that.  I mean, he‘s talking about you.  He‘s talking about anybody that had a hand in this story getting out that we‘re being spied upon by our government to wiretapping and surveilling of e-mail, in a way we never thought we were and he didn‘t want us to know it.  The president of the United States did not want the American people to know what he was doing.  And he‘s saying that those people exposed what he was doing are shameful.

TICE:  It‘s shameful for people to report a crime?  Ultimately that‘s what happened.  A crime was committed, it was reported.  You know, you can put a blanket security clearance on anything or call it super top-secret, but nonetheless, a crime is a crime and that‘s what was reported here.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the people that were being spied on and still are, the people hopefully we‘re spying on the right people at least, the people connected with al Qaeda, the sleeper cell potentials and all that, that everybody would like to catch—do you think they already knew they were being spied on?

TICE:  Oh, absolutely.  You know, if someone‘s involved in this, they‘re going to be smart enough to know that we‘re going to be interested in their communication.

MATTHEWS:  So the only people that have been informed by this exposure, this expose, have been the people—the regular people reading the newspaper. 

TICE:  Well, even the regular people reading the newspaper don‘t know if they got sucked up into this, because they certainly don‘t call them up and say oh, by the way, you know, we‘ve been spying on you and you weren‘t involved and we‘re sorry.  You know, they don‘t do that. 

MATTHEWS:  Is there anything spooky about the NSA working there generally that you have to tell us that‘s different than what people think it is? 

TICE:  Well, you know, it‘s certainly not like the movies.  It‘s—you know, these are hard-working people, and at NSA, we‘re very technically-oriented, and you have—you know, they‘re normal people, just like anyone.  They just happen to work at a very secure facility and deal with sensitive information. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you expect to be called by any judicial body? 

TICE:  Well, I am supposed to see some folks at the Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow, do a meet and greet or press the flesh kind of thing tomorrow. 

MATTHEWS:  What about the leak investigation itself where they‘re looking into how this story got out, not just the importance?  Are you worried about that? 

TICE:  No, I‘m not worried because I haven‘t said anything that‘s classified. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, well, good for you.  You‘ve told us a lot there.  Thank you.  It‘s great to have you on.  Russ Tice.  Good luck ...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Up next, we‘ll get some reaction to Tice‘s allegations from former Attorney General Ed Meese.  He‘s coming here.  You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  From the NSA‘s secret spying to the CIA leak probe and the bribery on Capitol Hill, there‘s no shortage of legal questions and criminal matters facing Washington lately.  But just how many people have broken the law? 

We‘re joined by a man who knows, former Attorney General Ed Meese.  He‘s author of the “Heritage Guide to the Constitution,” a very impressive volume, sir.  Thank you. 

Let me ask you, when you were A.G., the NSA—did it have this latitude to surveil us, Americans? 

ED MEESE, REAGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL:  Well, the ability to do that inherently in the Constitution was there, but it wasn‘t necessary to use at the time, except in certain instances, and at that time there was an intercept program in certain categories.  It was very highly classified, but it was—it was used at the time and properly so. 

MATTHEWS:  Can you ...

(CROSSTALK)

MEESE:  It‘s not really spying on Americans, it‘s intercepting international communications dealing with terrorists at the present time, or enemies in those days, in which, on occasion, some—one of the links would be to telephones within the United States, but it‘s not wiretapping.  It‘s not bugging.  The news media is almost totally getting it wrong. 

MATTHEWS:  But why—what‘s the difference if I‘m on the phone with somebody in Saudi Arabia and I‘m being tapped? 

MEESE:  Well you‘re not being tapped.  The tapping is a particular technique of connecting into the wires of a particular phone or into—plugging into a particular wireless phone.  This is intercepting communications that are going overseas.  There‘s a lot of technology to it that I can‘t go into right now. 

MATTHEWS:  But it‘s still eavesdropping, isn‘t it? 

MEESE:  It is surveillance.  It‘s surveillance, under certain circumstances and it‘s justifiable in a wartime situation or in—when you‘re dealing with enemies of the country. 

MATTHEWS:  How do you police an administration so that it only surveils, it only intercepts phone messages, e-mails that are clearly in that category you describe, which is contacts with the enemy? 

MEESE:  You have all kinds of protections.  You have inspector general operations within the National Security Agency that will look at this stuff.  There are all kinds of protocols to protect against and minimize any possible people who should not be in this category. 

Besides that, the president has gone out of his way to legitimatize this by meeting with Congress, by letting the committees of Congress know about it, the intelligence committees, the leadership of the Congress. 

He‘s gone out of his way to get legal advice from the Department of Justice, from the legal counsel for the National Security Agency, so I think the president has really done everything possible to handle this in the proper way. 

MATTHEWS:  But he hasn‘t obeyed the law, has he? 

MEESE:  He has obeyed the law.

MATTHEWS:  The law says he has to get court approval by this special court, FISA, and he didn‘t do it. 

MEESE:  No, it doesn‘t say that.  The law says that the FISA process is a vehicle available to the president, but it doesn‘t say it‘s the only vehicle.  Even the FISA court has admitted that, and there‘s ample case law to precedent ...

MATTHEWS:  What checks his power then, the president‘s to do it?  How does—is there somebody there saying Mr. President, you cannot bug that person, you cannot intercept that person‘s phone messages. 

MEESE:  There is a—there are—as I say, there are protocols within NSA that would prohibit it.  There‘s an inspector general in the NSA that checks on this to make sure they are following it.  It‘s like many other things, just like in wiretaps, that are legitimatized by a court order.

Once you get the wiretap warrant, it‘s up to the individuals and the procedures within the FBI, for example, to make sure that they‘re following the warrant in the proper way. 

rMD+IN_rMDNM_MATTHEWS:  Well, you know, you mentioned the fact that the president notified the Congress.  He notified the intelligence committees, and when he did so, the ranking Democrat on Senate Intelligence Committee wrote a letter—because he was told he couldn‘t tell his staff about it.  So Jay Rockefeller wrote down in a letter complaining about it.  That didn‘t do any good. 

MEESE:  No, he didn‘t write a letter complaining about it.  He wrote a very short note saying he had some questions about this and then he didn‘t follow up on it.  I think it was kind of one of those CYA letters to tell you the truth. 

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t think he was condemning the program at all? 

MEESE:  I don‘t think he was condemning the program, because if he had, he should have followed up.  He wrote this to the vice president, if I remember correctly.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

MEESE:  He should have followed up with the vice president to explain what those questions were and to get an answer.  There‘s no reason why he couldn‘t have.

MATTHEWS:  So you—as your confidence in this administration not breaking the rules or is it a confidence you have in the government processes? 

MEESE:  I have a confidence in both, this administration because the president is a very honest man of great integrity.  I also have a great belief that the proper rules are in place to prevent improper use of this particular technique. 

I also understand the necessity of doing this when we‘re dealing with terrorists.  There is some reasons why you can‘t get a warrant, an authorization by the FISA court in certain circumstances.  That‘s what led the president to give the direction.  He is—personally, White House people, including the president, are monitoring it; that‘s why these authorizations are only good for 45 days or thereabouts.  So...

MATTHEWS:  Maybe I have more suspicion about misuse of authority, but I do remember that we spent a lot of time over the last several months looking at people in the administration who may or may not have used their authority to leak the identity of a CIA agent. 

MEESE:  Well, now, you know, that‘s a very good topic.  Much more serious violation of security laws was made by “The New York Times” in revealing this and by the person who revealed this to “The New York Times” than ever happened in the Plame case that you‘re talking about.  As a matter of fact, in that case, there was no violation of law in all probability. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you‘re right.  It‘s not been established yet.

MEESE:  If there had been, they would have gotten Scooter Libby on that. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, we just had Russ Tice on here, a staffer from the NSA itself, and I asked him—maybe he‘s wrong, you tell me—people who were being targeted by the NSA surveillance, know it.  Now, we know it.  The average American knows it.  Why is that shameful, or why is that a betrayal of American trust for “The Times” to report that we now know what‘s going on? 

MEESE:  Because this was a legitimate, lawful act by the president. 

MATTHEWS:  Then why keep it secret? 

MEESE:  Because you don‘t want the enemy to know that you‘re intercepting and surveilling these kinds of conversation. 

MATTHEWS:  So you believe they didn‘t know that? 

MEESE:  I believe they didn‘t know all of it.  Not like they do now, and I think it was a terrible thing to reveal this.  I think “The New York Times” is culpable of actually hurting our national security. 

MATTHEWS:  So how would you go on—how about all leaks get punished? 

MEESE:  Well, I think it depends on the seriousness of the leak.  You know, in the Plame case...

MATTHEWS:  The CIA believes that the Plame case was serious because they believed that it jeopardized the undercover security of our agents around the world and all their contacts. 

MEESE:  I don‘t think that‘s true.  And I think...

MATTHEWS:  Why did they bring it to the Justice Department? 

MEESE:  And particularly, I think in this particular case, this person wasn‘t even a covert agent anymore.  It had been more than five years since she ever had been undercover.  She was operating fully...

MATTHEWS:  The fact is that she‘s—her status was undercover, and the agency...

MEESE:  Not at the time.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Why did the agency go to the FBI? 

MEESE:  I have no idea.

MATTHEWS:  Well, I do.

MEESE:  It was certainly making a mountain out of a mole hill...

MATTHEWS:  They felt...

MEESE:  ... because here, she had been more than five years—she was a housewife.  She worked at the agency in an administrative position.  I think...

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well, Scooter Libby is facing 30 years in jail for a mountain out of a mole hill.  That‘s a serious matter. 

MEESE:  It has nothing to do—he wasn‘t even charged with that crime.  He was charged with a lot of offenses relating, allegedly at least, to ...

MATTHEWS:  OK, why is he covering it up? 

MEESE:  ... falsely ...

MATTHEWS:  Why is he covering it up if it was legal?

MEESE:  I‘m not sure he was.  We‘ll have to wait for the trial to find that out. 

MATTHEWS:  We will.  All we got are indictments. 

Former Attorney General Ed Meese, thank you very much. 

When we return, the Pentagon upgrades the body armor worn in Iraq after a report that U.S. troops were dying because their armor wasn‘t sufficient.  We‘ll talk to Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford, who is just back from Iraq.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back.  There is a hot race for Bill Frist‘s Senate seat in Tennessee, and Democratic Congressman Harold Ford now has his eyes on it.  He‘s here tonight to tell us about his plans of winning it, and about his latest trip to Iraq and Afghanistan.  Good evening.

First question, what did you learn in Afghanistan?  What did you learn in Iraq? 

REP. HAROLD FORD (D), TENNESSEE:  Progress is being made on both fronts.  We‘re at a crossroads in both places with similar themes.  Improved security and better infrastructure and services are needed.  I think there is a wide belief in this country that the war in Afghanistan is over.  It‘s not.  We‘ve made great progress there.  General Eikenberry and the team are doing a great job.  But as Paul Bremer indicated in his most recent book, his “Year in Iraq,” there was a moment when he asked Rumsfeld and the president for more troops to crush the insurgency in Iraq, and they refused it. 

I think we may be faced with a similar moment in Afghanistan.  Although the insurgency is small, it is not standing in the way of progress, if it grows—and we look six months from now and wonder why we didn‘t crush it—we could find ourselves with similar problems as we do in Iraq.  I hope we don‘t abandon that effort too soon.

Iraq—Khalilzad is the best thing, the ambassador there, the best thing we have going.  His willingness and ability to work with the new government, and they have to establish one quickly for the American people to maintain our confidence there.  But Khalilzad is the best thing we have got going.  And I hope we continue to support him and what he asks for.

And as I said to President Bush in a letter today, don‘t withdraw prematurely.  I would hate for another generation of kids to have to go back over there 10 years from now or 15 years from now because we didn‘t finish the job. 

And finally, we need a new oil plan in this country.  No troop in the United States, no kid, no father, no momma should ever have to go back to the Middle East to protect our oil interests or our insatiable appetite for energy. 

MATTHEWS:  Who are we fighting over there in Iraq right now? 

FORD:  We‘re fighting...

MATTHEWS:  Who‘s killing us?  Who‘s shooting at us?  Who‘s blowing up our trucks and buses—I mean, our jeeps and everything else? 

FORD:  Those that want to frustrate our efforts, those who want to stop this new government from working, and frankly, some disenfranchised and disenchanted Sunnis.  And you can‘t count out the Syrians and the Iranians from their influence. 

Iran, as we were told, is the second biggest influence in Iraq, behind the United States.  That issue has to be addressed.  Secretary Rice‘s efforts today and certainly what China is doing with Iran is very, very troubling.  We have very few options, either to bomb or to diplomatically work with them.  Diplomacy has to be our first choice of action at the moment. 

MATTHEWS:  (INAUDIBLE) nuclear threat from Iran.

FORD:  Correct.

MATTHEWS:  Well, what about the possibility we read about of Iraq becoming a second Iran, because it‘s run by the same people, the Shia, and it will just become a blood brother of the Iranians? 

FORD:  If the Shias don‘t make the Sunnis feel a big part or believe that the Sunnis have a future and that their kids have aspirations and dreams that can be realized in Iraq, we‘ll have that problem on our hands, which is why Democrats and Republicans, our message has to be to the president, don‘t withdraw prematurely.  That doesn‘t mean we can‘t draw down our troop forces eventually, but don‘t take away from these people the tools that we‘re providing in Iraq, to help them govern themselves.  It‘s critical now and I think, frankly, it‘s critical five or 10 years down the road. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it‘s great to have you on.  Thank you for coming here right after your return from Iraq.  Congressman Harold Ford of Tennessee.  Join us again at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Right now, it‘s time for “THE ABRAMS REPORT” with Dan.

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