updated 1/25/2006 10:01:15 PM ET 2006-01-26T03:01:15

Guests: Dana Milbank; Anne Kornblut; Mary Landrieu; David Vitter; Ken Allard; Megan Graner

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Tonight, did the American enlisted ranks get shafted for Abu Ghraib while the big boys got protected?  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  And welcome to HARDBALL.

Less than a week before the president‘s State of the Union Address and it is starting to feel like we‘re off and running to the 2006 elections already.  The president again counterattacked his critics on his domestic wiretapping program by visiting the National Security Agency himself today. 

But the stink of the Abramoff corruption scandal still hangs in the air, as the Senate held hearings on lobbying reform, plus the Bush administration is being hit by charges of stonewalling Congress by refusing to turn over documents or make officials available to committees investigating the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.  More on that later. 

But first in her first national television interview, Megan Graner, one of the nine military guards involved in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, is speaking out about what she says happened at the prison.  And says that high ranking officials covered up a widespread policy of abuse.

She‘s trying to secure the release of her husband, Charles Graner Jr, the man known as the ring leader of the abuse, who is serving a 10-year sentence at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Megan, thank you for coming on. 

MEGAN GRANER, FMR. ABU GHRAIB GUARD:  Thank you, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  What have we got wrong about this story?  Who‘s responsible for these horrible pictures of what happened at Abu Ghraib? 

GRANER:  Chris, I believe there‘s more than just some bad apples to blame for what went on.  There‘s a policy involved.  There‘s a chain of command involved.  There‘s memos.  There‘s M.I.  There‘s more than just a few rogue M.P.‘s.  And it was never explored to the fullest extent that it needed to be to find out the whole truth. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, a lot of people, including me, suspected that might have been what happened.  That these lower-ranking people like yourself, enlisted people like you, were getting signals from above about how to treat those prisoners. 

But the problem with that argument is that a lot of people that went to trial to military tribunals on this pled guilty.  Why did they all plead guilty or so many of them plead guilty? 

GRANER:  Because once you found out that the truth wasn‘t going to be available for you at a trial then there was really no other option, and the government was painting a picture of rogue M.P.‘s.  And when you have all your chain of command invoking the article 31 rights and...

MATTHEWS:  What is that?  I‘m sorry. 

GRANER:  That‘s the military equivalent of pleading the 5th.  And so they wouldn‘t be testifying to examine what went on and what culpability they may have had, what orders they may have given, what orders they may have received from higher up, then it was pretty obvious to soldiers on down the line, maybe, after the first tile that there just wasn‘t going to be an openness like you would want to see in a trial of this level. 

MATTHEWS: When we looked at those pictures—and we‘re looking at them again, I‘m sure, today—you know, of guys being stacked up like hot dogs, when we see guys being led around, prisoners being led around—we‘re looking at these pictures with the guy with the hood on. 

We see people in pictures lead by dog collars, pictures of dogs being used to scare the hell out of guys, looking at pictures seemingly to be having fun at the expense of these people in our custody.  How did that happen?  How did those pictures happen?

GAREN:  A lot of these incidents were—I‘m trying to put this together. 

MATTHEWS:  Sure. 

GAREN:  A lot of these were interrogation tactics caught on film, and a lot of these were use of force techniques caught on film.  And there really was no let‘s take these people out and enjoy humiliating them.  When everyone went home or when everyone went to bed at night when no one else was around... 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  You‘re getting instructions from above on what to do. 

GAREN:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  You‘re contending here on behalf of your husband, who is facing a 10-year sentence now.  You did not get charged with any prison time.  You‘re saying that the M.P.s involved in treating the prisoners the way you were in those pictures were following orders? 

GAREN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Who gave you those orders to put dog collars on guys, to stack them up naked like hot dogs?  Who told you to do that? 

GAREN:  Well, these orders that we got involving detainees will come down from shift to shift or from each individual M.I. handler, pertaining to the detainee that we were in charge of or they were passed from day shift to night shift or we had a board that was hung in the office on the second level in between the two—in between tier 1 a and 1 b, and they would actually write down this guy‘s...

MATTHEWS:  Did you ever see anything on the board that said ask these prisoners to masturbate, ask these prisoners to simulate sex acts? 

GAREN:  No. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  How did you people, enlisted ranks people, get the word you should be doing that? 

GAREN:  I‘m not sure how that happened.  What I know of that is that apparently Sergeant Fredericks said that M.I. told him to do that. 

MATTHEWS:  Military intelligence.  So you got the word from a guy who said he got the word from somebody else? 

GAREN:  Yes.  And he pled guilty and admitted to those particular offenses. 

MATTHEWS:  But if his defense was that he got the order from somebody in military intelligence, he‘d be covered, wouldn‘t he? 

GAREN:  That‘s what I would assume, but he made the decision to plead guilty between him and his defense attorneys. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you believe that the military got together—I hate the word conspired but let‘s try it here—and said let‘s protect the high-ranking people, let‘s protect the policy, at the expense of the little people, the enlisted people?  Do you think they made a decision somewhere to do that? 

GAREN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Who do you think made it?  Do you have any reason to believe—Was it a general?  Was it a politician at the Pentagon?  Was it a civilian at the Pentagon?  Who made the decision to screw, if you don‘t mind the expression, the lower ranked people, like you and your husband, so that the military would be covered?  That is your argument, isn‘t it? 

GAREN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Back it up. 

GAREN:  Any one of those people from generals on up. 

MATTHEWS:  How do you know this? 

GAREN:  How do I know?  Because there‘s still information that‘s classified today that could be helpful to our case that isn‘t available.  The trials that happened a year ago...

MATTHEWS:  OK.  You said something that really grabbed me.  You said there was information that was denied to the defendants.  Your husband was, for example, was unable to bring information to trial, which would have shown that he got the orders either directly or indirectly from higher ups to do what he did, right?

GAREN:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  And they covered themselves with the military equivalent of the 5th amendment, right? 

GAREN:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s your main case here. 

GAREN:  That‘s part of it. 

MATTHEWS:  What else? 

GAREN:  Recently in the news, they‘re ordering Colonel Pappas to have immunity.  This is something that Charles Graner‘s defense team asked for one year ago, and they wanted to look into—they wanted to give Colonel Pappas immunity and Colonel Jordan immunity to see what went on, what they ordered what they knew, and what orders they received. 

They were refused by the government.  They put a motion before the judge to force immunity.  The judge said no, it‘s not relevant.  Now, one year later they‘re giving the Colonel Pappas immunity to find out what he knows and to see—and they‘re being forced to charge Colonel Jordan to...

MATTHEWS:  Well, are they making their way to the truth or are they still covering up, as you said? 

GAREN:  Well, I believe that they wanted to paint a picture in which they called my husband a ring leader.  And now that they put him in jail a year later, now they‘re being forced to give these people immunity.  And it doesn‘t make sense.  Why didn‘t they do it a year ago?  If they wanted to know the truth... 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  We‘ll have to have you back.  We have got a time problem here.  Thank you.  It‘s great having you on, Megan Graner.

We asked the Pentagon for someone to respond to Megan Graner‘s statement. 

They sent us a note, instead, quote, “More than 500 investigations have examined allegations of detainee mistreatment.  Thus far, allegations against more than 251 military members have been addressed in courts-martial, non-judicial punishment and other adverse administration actions.  These cases and actions continue today in at thorough, fair manner.  The Army and Combatant Commanders have conducted numerous investigations, inspections and inquiries, examining all aspects of detention operations.  The Army is committed to ensuring that all of its soldiers live up to the Army values and the law of war.” 

That‘s what the Army had to say. 

Anyway, thank you, Megan Graner, for coming on. 

Coming up, retired Army Colonel Ken Allard is going to respond to some of the allegations we just heard. 

And a reminder, as part of HARDBALL‘s decision 2006 coverage and our run-up to the president‘s State of the Union Address next Tuesday, we want to know what issues you‘d like to see the president talk about on Tuesday night.  So go to HARDBALL.MSNBC.com and register your vote tonight.

Here are the three top vote getters so far.  Twenty percent of you want to hear the president talk about NSA spying.  Seventeen percent about improving ethics in government.  And 16 percent about making prescription drugs and health care more affordable. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Who should take responsibility for prison abuse at Abu Ghraib, the top brass, or the grunts? 

Retired Army Colonel Ken Allard is an MSNBC military analyst.  Colonel, what did you make of Megan Graner, the MP‘s testimony here on the show tonight? 

COL. KEN ALLARD, U.S. ARMY (RET.):  Chris, I found a lot of that to be very self-serving.  Let me tell you why.  We specifically train each one of our soldiers in the laws of the land warfare.  In my case, that goes all the way back to the reaction to My Lai during Vietnam. 

But even today, people that are sent to a combat zone are given a very, very tough refresher course in what they are and not permitted to do.  So my immediate question is, hey, did you receive this training? 

Did you receive additional on-the-job training once you got to Abu Ghraib?  Did your chain of command ever check to make sure that that training was being carried out, that it was reflected in day to day operations?  Those are some of the baseline questions that you have to ask anybody that comes out with allegations like this. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you—let‘s not go to allegations yet.  She said that—and she said it in her pre-interview with our producers, as well as on the air, that when she arrived on duty there at Abu Ghraib, she, obviously, was on a relief. 

She came on and watched what was being done in the previous relief, the previous tour, and the people were doing certain things to these prisoners and she was told to continue doing that.  Now when you‘re in the military as a specialist ranked person, isn‘t that the normal way you do things?  You see what‘s being done, they say keep doing it. 

ALLARD:  Chris, the reason why we have training is specifically so that you know what is and what is not an illegal order.  If you follow an illegal order, particularly about the unauthorized use of force, guess who‘s liable?  You are. 

And she, unfortunately, is finding out that her husband is now paying that price.  But even when you walk into a situation, the first thing you are supposed to ask is, hey, this legal?  Has this been authorized?  And I don‘t think that was done here, and that is the thing I would want to know a lot more about than what I‘ve heard this evening. 

MATTHEWS:  The American people are probably more interested in where this policy came from than how we distribute responsibility and blame and punishment to the lower ranks.  If she came upon a scene where something was being done, who‘s responsible for that? 

ALLARD:  It goes all the way up the chain of command.  If, in fact, what was being done reflected orders that had been given, to apply force in a way that was contravention of the Geneva Conventions and the law of the land warfare, someone signed off on that order and that person is responsible, but it doesn‘t absolve the people in the lower levels in the chain of command. 

MATTHEWS:  I understand.  In terms of military discipline, I have to accept that.  But in terms of finding out what the policy was, she said that the M.I., the military intelligence people, were giving them leadership in what to do to those prisoners. 

All of that obnoxious behavior with the prisoners, stacking them up, all the sexual stuff she says was coming from military intelligence instructions.  If that‘s the case, where does that come from?  Is it coming from the Pentagon civilians?  Is it coming from Camp Bone (ph)?  Is it coming from Geoffrey Miller?  Who‘s it coming from?  How high up does it go?

ALLARD:  Well, that‘s the thing that is being asked right now.  And believe me when I tell you, Chris, I don‘t think we have the final answer on any of that stuff yet.  Let me tell you what I think more than anything else, what this says to me.  It was in direct contravention of everything I ever taught an interrogator to do.  And if that came from military intelligence, I have a lot more questions about the future than just who was guilty. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, why did the military refuse immunity?  Why did they make it difficult to make—to get—for these defendants to bring out information about how they got these orders, how they got these signals? 

ALLARD:  That‘s another thing I have a question about, because you only have a grant of immunity in a judicial or non-judicial proceeding in the military for the same reason you do in civilian life.  You do immunity precisely to get information, which may or may not implicate other people. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So if you deny immunity, you‘re trying to prevent the information from getting out. 

ALLARD:  Absolutely, and that is, I think, a very, very interesting question.  Of all of the things I‘ve heard, that is the one I would have a greater question about than almost anything else.  What immunity was granted and for what purpose?

MATTHEWS:  You know, we watch this from the outside.  Even though I‘m a journalist sitting here every night trying to figure things out, we‘re still on the outside of what goes on in that tribunal. 

Her argument, whenever I asked her—I said, you know, I could have

bought the argument that all of this came from higher-ups and you guys were

just taking the fall.  But then when you all took—when you all started -

a lot of those guys started to plead guilty. 

I go wait a minute, they must be guilty.  And she said no, it simply meant that they weren‘t able to get to the truth, because there were so many people taking Article 31, that they were saying I don‘t want to testify, it might incriminate me.  Does that sound right? 

ALLARD:  No, it doesn‘t.  If you have any kind of a defense attorney worth his or her salt, they simply don‘t do that, because the defense attorneys that we have in the military are every bit as aggressive as their civilian counterparts.  So I just don‘t buy the argument that well, you were supposed to take the fall.  If you have any kind of decent defense attorney, either civilian or military, that simply would not happen. 

MATTHEWS:  Even though you‘re threatened with maybe really long-time -

I mean, this guy‘s got 10 years, her husband, Charles Graner.  But they were threatening these guys with really long sentences—I mean, life-long sentences really.  Wouldn‘t the fear of that get your lawyer to say I‘m sorry, but if you don‘t want to go to jail for 20 years, prison for 20 years in medium security or maximum security, you better plead? 

ALLARD:  Chris, look, nobody said these things were easy.  I would also offer to you just one simple fact.  Everything that happened here was probably the worst single thing I‘ve ever seen in the annals of modern military justice. 

The fact that those things actually occurred, that was in direct contravention of U.S. policy, everything that we‘ve ever taught.  So basically, if you are there, on the ground, and you participated in that, you have culpability.  And I‘m sure a lawyer would have told them that. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  I still thing—I think as a non-military person, and as an observer, I think we learned something tonight.  I think we‘re going to learn more later when we get more immunity.  Anyway, thank you very much for your expertise.

ALLARD:  I hope so. 

MATTHEWS:  Retired Colonel Ken Allard.

Up next, should the Bush administration turn over Hurricane Katrina-related documents?  Lawmakers, the Congress, wants these documents to look at.  They want to know about these conversations between the White House and staff and cabinet in the days before this hit, this hurricane.  The White House says no, you‘re not going to get the documents.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Six months after President Bush promised the White House would help Congress investigate government‘s failure surrounding Hurricane Katrina, the winds in Washington have changed.  Now some Senators charge the cooperation the White House promised has evaporated.  HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster reports. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Ratcheting up a battle with Congress, the Bush White House is now refusing to turn over Hurricane Katrina related documents or make senior officials available for testimony.  The administration contends executive branch discussions about the storm are not open to review by Congress. 

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  The president believes that Senator Lieberman ought to have the right to confidential conversations with his advisers, just like all presidents have asserted they ought to have that same right.  That‘s what this is about.  That‘s the bottom line here. 

SHUSTER:  It was Senator Lieberman, the president‘s favorite Democrat, who on Tuesday alleged the Bush administration‘s refusal to cooperate has killed the Katrina investigation. 

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN, (D) CONNECTICUT:  There has been a near-total lack of cooperation that has made it impossible, in my opinion, for us to do the thorough investigation we have a responsibility to do. 

SHUSTER:  Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,300 people, caused $150 billion in property damage and put 80 percent of the city of New Orleans under water.  Four days after the storm hit, thousands of people at The Convention Center were still on their own, without food, water, or transportation out. 

President Bush that week was defensive, underscored by this comment to ABC news. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I don‘t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. 

SHUSTER:  But newly released documents show that two days before Katrina hit, a FEMA report warned, quote, “The storm could greatly overtop levees and protective systems.”  The report predicted incredible search and rescue needs, 60,000 plus.  And on the day the storm hit, an email from the Department of Homeland Security to the White House situation room warned Katrina would, quote, “Likely lead to severe flooding and/or levee breaching.” 

The federal government‘s slow response prompted sharp criticism six months ago from both Democrats and Republicans.  This week Republican House member Chris Shays repeated, quote, “The response was pathetic.” 

The White House has refused to give Congress complete testimony on other issues such as national security discussions before 9/11 and White House talks leading up to the war in Iraq.  But hurricane katrina exposed the government‘s inability to handle a domestic crisis and the Bush administration‘s current position is at odds with this public pledge. 

BUSH:  To the extent the federal government didn‘t fully do its job right, I take responsibility.  I want to know what went right and what went wrong.  I want to know how to better cooperate with state and local government. 

SHUSTER:  Part of the Congressional investigation is supposed to examine White House communications with then FEMA director Michael Brown. 

BUSH:  Brownie, you‘re doing a heck of a job.  The FEMA director‘s working hard. 

SHUSTER:  Days later, Brownie was forced to resign when the White House finally realized the level his mismanagement.  But for several months Brownie continued to collect his $148,000 a year government salary. 

Lawmakers say that while FEMA has been cooperative, Michael Brown has not, refusing, like the White House, to answer questions.  But Brown does talk about Katrina for a fee.  Recently he was the keynote speaker at a storm response conference where attendees paid $375 each. 

(on camera):  That‘s right, $375.  Issuing a subpoena costs less and lawmakers say that‘s their next move in seeking Katrina testimony from Bush administration officials. 

Administration critics say at least now we all know the market price in getting some of these officials to tell the truth.  I‘m David Shuster, for HARDBALL, in Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much.  Up next, is the White House blocking the Senate‘s inquiry into the Hurricane Katrina response?  We‘ll ask two U.S Senators, both from Louisiana. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COLETTE CASSIDY, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Colette Cassidy.  We‘ll have the business headlines for you in just a moment.

But first we have some breaking news to bring you.  There has been a deadly crash involving a school bus, a van carrying students and a tractor-trailer in Lake Butler in northern Florida.  That‘s near Gainesville. 

Officials are saying at least seven people were killed in this crash, including at least five children.  In addition, several other children are reported to have life-threatening injuries.  The age of the children involved is not known at this time, but we will bring you more developments as soon as we get them. 

Now to the business headlines.  And the market‘s closed slightly lower today.  The Dow lost two points.  The S&P two points also.  And the Nasdaq was down four points.

The housing market dragged down the markets this session.  Home resales fell nearly six percent, their lowest level since March 2004. 

And crude futures fell sharply down more than a $1 a barrel, as supplies of gasoline and heating oil rose last week.  But analysts say the nuclear standoff in Iran and militant attacks in Nigeria would keep prices firm for the foreseeable future. 

Those are your headlines.  I‘m Colette Cassidy.  Now back to HARDBALL.

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Congress‘ investigation of the government response to Hurricane Katrina has hit a roadblock at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are upset because top White House officials won‘t testify or turn over some relevant documents.

Joining me now is Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. 

Senator, what is it you want to get from the White House they won‘t give you? 

SEN. MARY LANDRIEU (D), LOUISIANA:  Well, I believe the committee, the Bipartisan Committee of Senator Collins and Lieberman, has asked for those records.  They are truly acting in a bipartisan spirit.  And we would like a full investigation of actually what happened. 

Not so that we can spend time blaming, Chris, but that we can present this from happening again, and we can get on the business of rebuilding New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast.  So you‘ll have to ask them specifically what they asked for, but I would hope they would provide all the records so we could get to the bottom of whose fault it was that the levees broke and how do we fix it in the future. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, isn‘t it the water‘s fault that the levees broke? 

LANDRIEU:  Well, that‘s, you know—water did flood, but, you know, it was really a federally-sponsored disaster in some ways, Chris.  It was, of course, a hurricane that can‘t be prevented, both Rita and Katrina, very dangerous storms. 

But really what put New Orleans, brought it to its knees, was multiple levee breaks caused by poor engineering, maybe very deficient engineering, lack of financing over time.  And we just need a better system.  We can‘t even begin to rebuild until people feel comfortable that they will be safe come the next hurricane season. 

So levee money, housing money, robust community development, we think letting Louisiana and Mississippi keep some of its revenue that we generate from the energy sector right of our coast would be a good way to start, and then we could help ourselves build back this great energy coast. 

MATTHEWS:  The White House is saying that the conversations, whether email or they are on the phone or they are on paper, between the president and his top staff and his cabinet is private.  It‘s privileged.  What is your response to that? 

LANDRIEU:  Well, I would think it would be in the country‘s best interest, as we seek to protect the people of this nation from terrorist attacks, from catastrophic events, that we would have a real independent investigation of that.  Our governor has turned over a great deal of information.  I‘m assuming that our mayor and local officials have. 

The White House needs to step up and be very forthcoming.  But more than turning over that information, the White House needs to turn over some good plans for rebuilding.  All we‘ve heard is a lot of empty promises and criticism, Chris. 

And just yesterday they rejected a Republican Congressman‘s bill, Congressman Baker, who had put forth in good faith, building consensus of Democrats and Republicans here in Washington and at home.  The White House has said no to the Baker Bill. 

So, again, all we‘re getting is empty promises, a lot of no‘s, and we‘re not getting a lot of help.  And that‘s what people in Louisiana and Mississippi, along the Gulf Coast need is real help. 

MATTHEWS:  That Baker Bill talks about some kind of a floating of bonds to pay for rebuilding of homes.  But in the end, who do you see paying for the rebuilding of homes that were lost in Katrina?  Who pays for it? 

LANDRIEU:  Well, first of all, it‘s important to know that we lost only 28,000 homes in Hurricane Andrew, which was the worst hurricane in the history of the country before these two.  We have lost over 280,000 homes in Mississippi and Louisiana. 

So the magnitude of this disaster—we hope the way Congressman Baker and I have worked together to fashion this bill, and he‘s been leading it, that actually the corporation, as we envision, would borrow money, but if it‘s smart and allocates its money fast and well enough, Chris, we could end up with the taxpayers not having paid anything. 

Because we‘re putting basically markets back, getting values of property up, helping people recover their equity and helping the banks and financial institutions to stabilize themselves.  It is critical that we find some new tools.  FEMA doesn‘t work.  The Corps of Engineers is very bureaucratic and wasteful. 

We‘ve got to be more efficient and give these Gulf Coast states more tools.  And right now the White House is basically besides not turning over paper, not turning over a whole lot of things to Congress that actually work. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think we should rebuild the housing in the Ninth Ward and places like that?  Or let me be more particular, wherever there‘s a very low elevation, where the homes are in the New Orleans‘ area are well below sea level and exposed to another Category 4, do you think we should spend money building houses that will be flooded again? 

LANDRIEU:  Well, let me tell you why it‘s important to preserve our coastal communities not just in New Orleans but around the nation.  It‘s because people all over the world, particularly in the Netherlands, where I just came back, have learned to live safely below sea level. 

We are about five to eight feet below in some parts of New Orleans.  The Netherlands is 21 feet below.  They operate great ports, great airports, vibrant agriculture and magnificent cities. 

But it‘s because they put their money where their mouth is.  They really believe in flood control and protection for their people.  They have 16 million people that live in the area like south Louisiana.  They have been doing it a little longer than we have, 1,000 years or more, but we can do it. 

It‘s all about priorities, Chris, and it‘s all about the nation recognizing this energy coast is valuable, not just to the people that live there, but to the whole nation.  So the answer is yes, we should rebuild every neighborhood.  Maybe not exactly the way we did it.

But, Chris, these neighborhoods have been in existence since the 1920‘s, the 1930‘s.  These are not condos on a coast.  There is no beach anywhere around the Ninth Ward.  There is no beach.  All there is ports, fabrication facilities, industrial development for the nation. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much, senator.  Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, thanks for joining us. 

I‘m joined right now by her Senate colleague Republican Senator from Louisiana, David Vitter.

Thank you very much senator.

SEN. DAVID VITTER ®, LOUISIANA:  Thanks, Chris, for having me. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me just ask you to check a couple things she said.  Do you think you could learn something from the Dutch, from the dikes they have built all these centuries? 

VITTER:  Oh, absolutely.  Absolutely.

You know, we can‘t just take their system and plop it down in south Louisiana, but there is a lot we can learn.  The obvious engineering lessons, but probably even more importantly a lot of lessons about how we organize government agencies that do this, how we have to constantly check and critique our system, look for vulnerabilities in a very aggressive way.  So we simply don‘t find when it‘s too late or when we‘re in the midst of a disaster. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go back before it happened.  Did you know that the city of New Orleans could not withstand a Category 4? 

VITTER:  Oh, yes.  Everybody who grew up there, like me, I think, knew that in our bones. 

MATTHEWS:  So when we heard the weather reports, like we were doing.  We came in and did a special Sunday show.  We knew something bad was coming.  It was only that it took a day or so for the walls to break.

VITTER:  Yes, I can vividly remember getting up early, early that Saturday morning before the storm with my wife at 5:00 a.m. because that‘s when the next weather report would be out, and when we saw a Category 5 headed straight for New Orleans, we started packing our van.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s the lone tractor we kept watching trying to seal that hole there.

Let me ask you, do you think there‘s anything to be gained in following what Senator Landrieu‘s talking about, trying to get the goods on the White House and what they were talking about in those very critical days? 

VITTER:  Well, I think we can all learn a lot at the federal and state and local level.  I think there are some legitimate executive privilege issues.  But I think the White House is probably going beyond them and withholding too much.  So we do need to... 

MATTHEWS:  Do you want to know what the president was saying to Brownie?

VITTER:  Yes, now that may touch on executive privilege, but we need to...

MATTHEWS:  Not a private conversation with Andy Card, his chief of staff, like you had with your staff...

VITTER:  We need to understand what broke down at the federal level and the state level and the local level.  Because things clearly broke down at every level.  This was not a disaster that was predictable.  This was a disaster that was utterly predicted in print, in studies like the hurricane pan exercise.  And every level of government fell flat. 

MATTHEWS:  I mean, he is our president, but your a Republican senator from Louisiana, were you proud that the president of the United States had to be shown a television catch-up piece on what he missed for two days, because he wasn‘t watching television? 

VITTER:  I don‘t know that particular part of the story. 

(CROSSTALK)    

MATTHEWS:  So that he‘d know what he missed. 

VITTER:  Yes, I didn‘t read that.

But quite frankly I was disappointed at the federal response, very disappointed.  I said so matter of factly the Friday after the storm.  I gave the whole recovery effort an F.  And the state response was just as poor and the local response.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s easy after the fact.

We had Mayor Nagin on here right before it hit—and I can‘t judge that he said that 90 percent of the people have gotten out of New Orleans.  Now 90 percent of a half million leaves 50,000 behind.  So it sounds good, 90 percent.  But then when you see 50,000 people sitting there at the Convention Center miserable, out of water, kids dying, it seems, it doesn‘t look too good.

VITTER:  No.  And clearly one of the big things that fell flat at the local level was that evacuation plan for the truly poor. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Why didn‘t they? 

VITTER:  Because there wasn‘t enough planning at the local level where that‘s the responsibility. 

MATTHEWS:  You had the buses, they gassed up, and the people sat there and waited for the flood.  It doesn‘t make any sense.

VITTER:  It makes no sense at all.  That‘s what‘s so frustrating.  This was not a predictable disaster, it was a predicted disaster, particularly if you grew up in the area like I did, like Mayor Nagin did. 

MATTHEWS:  So are we going to have a good Mardi Gras? 

VITTER:  Yes. We are going to have a good Mardi Gras and it‘s an important kickoff for tourism coming back.

MATTHEWS:  I gotta beat the drum and get down there.  Thank you. 

VITTER:  Thank you, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Up next, the Abramoff saga continues.  What are the chances for the public to see these pictures of the president meeting with the sleazeball lobbyist, if you will? 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Here to dig into the hottest political stories of the are are Anne Kornblut of The New York Times, and Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, the two big newspapers in this country.

Let‘s talk about those photos of the president with Jack Abramoff.  Dana, you‘re already starting to laugh.  What is it about these pictures of the president posing with the Jack Abramoff a half dozen times, why are they so enticing? 

DANA MILBANK, THE WASHINGTON POST:  Photos are always enticing.  It‘s like with the old Lincoln bedroom scandal, the idea is if you have this on tape, it‘s something you‘re going to flash up their on your screen, it‘s going to be all over the network news.  And suddenly, fairly or not, Jack Abramoff is in the White House, he‘s seen as a buddy of the president. 

You and I know you just need to show up at one of these Christmas receptions and you shake hands—

MATTHEWS:  Like you and I do.  You wait in the Santa Claus line to meet the president and exchange a few pleasantries, even if you‘ve been tough on him in your reporting, and it‘s always very nice.  But all it is is a grip and grin, and everybody‘s nice about it. 

Suppose it ends up, Anne, that we get six of these grip and grin pictures and they‘re dorky as hell and we go what a waste of talk this was? 

ANNE KORNBLUT, THE NEW YORK TIMES:  The other classic photo, of course, is Bill Clinton on the rope line with Monica Lewinsky.  It didn‘t take any special access for her to get that.  So I think, like Dana said, this could really have happened in any way. 

The impact, though, and this is something the White House is nervous about—they have not volunteered to release the photos—is something they‘re worried about at this point. 

MATTHEWS:  Jodie Powell was a press secretary who once said if you treat it like fish, the longer you hold it, the more it rots, the more it smells.  Get it out.

KORNBLUT:  That was the lesson the Clinton White House learned the hard way the Bush administration has learned it the hard way over and over.  Still, I would not expect to see Scott McClellan at the podium with those photographs any time soon. 

MATTHEWS:  Dana, is the fear that if those pictures emerge and there‘s maybe one good one out of six and somebody at the White House is thinking about this, that if there‘s one picture in that bushed of pictures they‘re afraid will be on the cover of the magazines this weekend  heralding the State of the Union. 

MILBANK:  They‘re afraid that even if they don‘t release it that it will pop up anyway.  They‘re worried it‘s going to be night after night here on HARDBALL.  Devastating. 

MATTHEWS:  Maybe they‘re right.  Let me ask you about—let‘s take a look at the Abramoff scandal.  Democrats and interest groups are ramping up their attacks on Republican ethics.  Take a look at the new ad from a liberal group Americans United, followed by an ad from Republican Senator Conrad Burns who has been the target of some of this stuff. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER:  What time is it when oil company lobbyists sit at the White House helping write their own tax breaks, while you stand at the gas pump, paying $40 to fill your tank.  What time is it when Republican leaders are indicted for money laundering, bribery and obstruction of justice, while political friends get appointed to run life-or-death agencies. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Those attack ads, they are just a big bunch of you know what.  Plus they‘re paid for by the same Democrats who took money from Jack Abramoff‘s clients.  He is the guy who ripped off his Indian clients for millions and lied to anybody and everybody.  I don‘t know who Abramoff influenced, but he never influenced me. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Dana, you‘ve got to love it.  This is America in action.  Have you noticed in the Democrat ad they did a close-up on Tom DeLay and said bribery.  That‘s not a charge against him.  His charge is this thing about hard money-soft money.  It‘s a political fandango.  Nobody‘s accused him yet of bribery.  But that ad sure does. 

MILBANK:  But nobody holds these ads to any standard at all. 

MATTHEWS:  You say blithely, but you‘re not the target of one of these things. 

MILBANK:  There‘s no standard for accuracy or truth in these things.  It‘s all about whatever innuendo you can put out there.  This is the group that helped sink the president‘s Social Security plan.  They should be taken seriously. 

Clearly the Republicans know how to answer, and that is to tarnish everybody.  I think the Democrats may be falling into their hands a little bit by getting behind this bipartisan lobbying reform. 

KORNBLUT:  Can anyone say swift boat.  Dana makes a really good point about these ads.  He‘s right.  These ads are coming from a group that has already successfully sunk Social Security. 

MATTHEWS:  What was the name of the group. 

KORNBLUT:  Americans United.  Don‘t to that to me.  But I think he‘s right that, in a way, they could be playing into the hands.  It‘s awfully early in the cycle for them to be doing what the Republicans are going to claim is a fair campaign.

MATTHEWS:  It worked against Mike Dukakis.  We‘ll be right back with Anne Kornblut and Dana Milbank.

This is HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Anne Kornblut of “The New York Times” and Dana Milbank of “The Washington Post.”  Let‘s talk about Gotham‘s candidates for president.

First, Rudolph Giuliani, the pro-choice, pro-gay rights, former mayor spent today, or the day in Orlando speaking to a conference of Evangelicals. 

Dana, he‘s up to it, isn‘t he?  This is below the radar.  This is Rudy campaigning for president in the south. 

MILBANK:  This is about as convincing as Jerry Falwell at the gay pride parade. 

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t buy this? 

MILBANK:  Well, he can try to do it.  But, look, he faces an awful uphill battle in winning over the typical Republican voter in a primary.  Now, if the election was fought on national security, he is fine.  But he‘s never going to convince them that he is one of them, that he is a religious conservative. 

KORNBLUT:  Right and not only that, but he‘s going to be in a death struggle with John McCain for the exact same constituency. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me tell you something.  I‘ll say it here a thousand time.  Watch Rudolph Giuliani.  Watch him.  Security is the issue in this country.  Whoever is the next president is going to be seen as more on the ball than even this president on security and terrorism.  This country is not going sort on terrorism.  We are going to get smarter on it is my hunch.

And Rudy is the guy to do it.  And he can be an SOB in many ways.  But this country may really want an SOB, a really tough cop as the next president.  So watch Rudy, I‘m saying it.

Now here is Hillary Clinton, that other New Yorker in the subway series.  A new Gallup poll just came out.  “USA TODAY” Gallup poll, it shows that 16 percent say that they‘ll definitely vote for Hillary right now, 32 percent say they might vote for her. 

But here‘s the dagger in the back.  Fifty-one percent say they would definitely not vote for Hillary Clinton already the campaign hasn‘t begun. 

KORNBLUT:  I mean, this is exactly what Democrats are worried about is that already people have made up their minds.  I would argue, I guess, that it is awfully early.  We all know how early it is to be talking about this. 

MATTHEWS:  Definitely. 

KORNBLUT:  Definitely?  What does definitely mean?  You know, you would have to see how is the question exactly phrased, all that stuff.  It is early. 

MATTHEWS:  But there‘s lot of tooth behind that.  If somebody tells a pollster, I‘ve already made up my mind definitely. 

KORNBLUT:  And, look, I know more Democrats who believe this though than Republicans.  A lot of Republicans say that this is a deceptive number, that once she gets out there with all of her money running against who, Giuliani or McCain, the numbers may not be that weak. 

MATTHEWS:  How much of that is don‘t throw me in that briar patch, Dana?  We‘re so afraid of Hillary.  Please don‘t run her against us.  She‘ll kill us. 

MILBANK:  Anne is right that these polls are completely useless because you don‘t know what the alternative is.  But the fact is that she... 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  McCain against Hillary.  Who wins? 

MILBANK:  Well, that‘s fine.  If you can tell me that‘s how it is going to turn out.  But we don‘t know. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you about these definite numbers in a poll.  Do you believe the definite?  Do you believe somebody right in 2006 knows how they are going to vote in 2008?

MILBANK:  I think they definitely think that‘s what they are going to do right now, but they have no idea what they are going to be doing in a couple years.  And Hillary is going to have the opposite problem of Rudy.  And that is she‘s absolutely fine with her base if she decides to run.  But she is seemingly incapable of crossing over. 

MATTHEWS:  The poll was taken over the week right through Sunday, the Gallup poll.  And the Gallup poll is, of course, the most prestigious poll there is right now and has been for years. 

Dana, do you think she‘s paying the price for her plantation remark last week? 

MILBANK:  Probably not.  Because, once again, plays very well the base.  The people who were objecting to it were never going to support her in the first case.  And I really think the only thing that this is right now is do people recognize her name. 

KORNBLUT:  And I would add to that.  It‘s 51 percent say definitely not.  Remember the margin that‘s we‘ve been talking about in the last few presidential races, 51 percent is terrible, but all she would have to do is bump it by a few numbers, a few percentage points and be OK. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I‘m going to ask you something about California politics, the largest state.

Dana, have you noticed this that Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie star, the terminator, ran as kind of a reformer, a down the middle kind of a person, who was going to be basically a Perot type.  He is now stacking himself up with Republican consultants from the White House, people like Steve Schmidt, Matthew Dowd.  Has he now become a confirmed Republican and is no longer a middle of the road reformer? 

MILBANK:  Well, he has also brought some Democrats onto his staff.  I think it is more an idea that Dowd and Schmidt know how to win campaigns, know how to win elections, and he has got a problem politically.  So I wouldn‘t take it as an ideological thing so much as he wants to get the best there are. 

MATTHEWS:  Is he still a reformer?  Or is he just a guy who wants to get reelected like any other politician? 

KORNBLUT:  I mean, which politician doesn‘t want to get reelected? 

Who remains a reformer?  I mean, I would add to what Dana said. 

That there is all the talk out of California since last November has been that Maria really has taken over some of the reins, that she said, you know, you tried it your way and it didn‘t work.  So now I‘m really going to have some influence.  And Matthew Dowd and Steve Schmidt are consummate pros, far more so than they are just ideological hacks of any kind. 

MATTHEWS:  Will he get reelected? 

KORNBLUT:  Oh, don‘t ask me that.  I have no idea. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to the issue of the weekend. 

Dana, this question of Alito.  It looks to me like all the polling, all the questioning with the Senators say there really only is one Democrat who is going vote for him and that‘s Ben Nelson of Nebraska.  There may be one or two others that trickle in, but probably not.  So why are the Democrats delaying the final vote until later next week? 

MILBANK:  It beats me to tell you the truth.  I‘m sure they have their reasons.  But the longer they drag this out and to deep conversation on Alito, as opposed to on Abramoff, they‘re losing as far as I can tell. 

MATTHEWS:  Are they just playing to the pro-choice crowd that want to hear more and more pain about Alito, they just want to hurt the guy a little in the end? 

KORNBLUT:  Well, they wanted as much time as possible all throughout this.  And also, we have got the State of the Union Address coming up next week and anything they can do to, you know, confuse that message, the better for them. 

MATTHEWS:  I bet that the president puts Mrs. Martha Ann Alito in the gallery, the woman who cried because of the way she was treated in the Senate hearings.  Wouldn‘t that be smart? 

KORNBLUT:  And then she and Laura Bush can hug. 

MATTHEWS:  And they can consult each other. 

MILBANK:  Oh, I am going to cry.

MATTHEWS:  Well, you know what?  Some people will.  But I‘ll tell you the only thing anybody remembers from all these hearings, all the hearings besides the fight between Specter and Kennedy was, they made her cry. 

KORNBLUT:  They did.

MATTHEWS:  What a bunch of guys.

Anyway, thank you Anne Kornblut of “The New York Times,” Dana Milbank of “The Washington Post.” 

Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Right now it is time for “THE ABRAM‘S REPORT” with Dan.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

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