Video: Kerry on Iraq policy, CIA leak case

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updated 4/6/2006 8:09:24 PM ET 2006-04-07T00:09:24

Following the CIA leak disclosure, Chris Matthews sat down with Senator John Kerry in his Capitol office to discuss the big developments in the CIA leak case and vision for Iraq policy.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, "HARDBALL":  Let me ask you about this big development today.  Scooter Libby, the former chief of staff to the vice-president, he testified to federal authorities that he was authorized by his boss, the vice-president, in July of 2003, and told by his boss, the vice-president, that the president authorized him specifically to leak national intelligence information that made the case for the war in Iraq.  What do you make of that?

SEN. JOHN KERRY, DEMOCRAT, MASSACHUSETTS:  Well, if it's true, it proves that the buck doesn't stop anywhere in this administration.  It also proves that the president has a funny sense of having an investigation, when he says we're going to get to the bottom of it and I'll fire the person who authorized it, if he indeed authorized it.  Kind of tricky. 

MATTHEWS:  So the president, September 30th of that year, two months after this happened, according to Scooter Libby, the president said that no one has leaked any information about national security in this administration and if they did I'll catch him. 

KERRY:  That's correct.  And he said if he'd catch him, evidently he's been looking for himself for the last two years.  This is serious.  If the president of the United States is authorizing the leaks of classified material in order to destroy people who oppose his point of view or go after them, then something is really unbelievably wrong with both their standards as well as the lack of accountability in this administration.

And their word is now even less meaningless than it was a few hours ago, if that's true. 

MATTHEWS:  What Scooter Libby said in the filing, and NBC has it, that he was told by the vice-president under the authority of the president to particularly leak materials within the National Intelligence Estimates of the fall of 2002, that said there had been aluminum tubes discovered, which argued that there was in fact a development going on of nuclear weapons in Iraq, and that he was told to release that information, without releasing the covering documents which included the information which had the intelligence community members questioning that case. 

KERRY:  That's correct. 

MATTHEWS:  Was the president at that time being straight with the American people about WMD in Iraq? 

KERRY:  No. 

MATTHEWS:  The American people have thought for a while now that the president was wrong, that there was no WMD there; it was a mistake he made.  Does it now look like it wasn't a mistake he made, it was a failure to tell the whole truth as he got it? 

KERRY:  If the president indeed authorized the leak of information that was selective, that only made the case, and he specifically left out that information that was to the contrary, then the president engaged in the very activity that they have denied all along, which is misleading Americans about the case for the war. 

MATTHEWS:  How serious is that? 

KERRY:  It's about as serious as it gets. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think if the American voter had this information at hand in 2004, they would have made a different decision?  I'm dead serious here, Senator, because the issue of this campaign was whether the president was leading us in the right direction with regard to protecting our security.  If it turns out that he wasn't, in the words you used or others will use, that he was selective in cherry-picking information which made his case, even though he had full access to all the information and selectively chose what to leak, was he talking straight to the American people about the cause for war? 

KERRY:  No, he wasn't talking straight.  As we know, he wasn't talking straight in the State of the Union message, in which he had some, I think, 14 or 16 words that talked about nuclear materials that they knew did not exist.

So this is now another instance and it is compounded by the examples of the vice president and the president and others, linking Saddam Hussein to 9/11, when there was no evidence at all that he had anything to do with 9/11.  We even had that discussion in the presidential debate. 

The bottom line is I think that Americans now see that Iraq is broken, our policy is broken, that the president has not changed course.  And I think on that and a host other issues, from immigration to health care to their loss of jobs overseas, I think Americans are deeply concerned about the direction of the country. 

MATTHEWS:  Scooter Libby says that he was operating under the authority of the president when he leaked information in July of 2003, which was incomplete information and he knew it was incomplete and the president knew it was incomplete.  Does that constitute false testimony to the American people? 

KERRY:  It certainly constitutes misleading the American people.  When you say testimony, you get into all kinds of legalities.  The bottom line is, I've said it any number of times in the course of the presidential campaign and since, that they misled America about how we went to war and this is one more example, concrete example, very clear, of exactly how they misled America. 

MATTHEWS:  Let's talk about the timing of this and we all remember this.  It was July 6th that Joseph Wilson, the former ambassador who had been sent down there by the CIA to the government of Niger to check out the story which appeared mysteriously in an Italian newspaper, that there had been a deal by Saddam Hussein to purchase nuclear materials, uranium yellow cake, from the government of Niger. 

Within two days, the vice president of the United States said the president of the United States wanted Scooter Libby to leak to Judy Miller, someone he had been working with on stories, had written stories that were supportive of the war, in effect, if not in intent, to tell her, this is a specific determination by the president. 

You tell Scooter to go tell Judy that there was a real case for these aluminum tubes being material for use in developing a nuclear weapon.  You tell her this.  This is the conversation we're getting recounted under oath from Scooter Libby.  Pretty high drama here, isn't it? 

I mean, it tells you that the president himself was in charge of this operation. He wasn't some, faded backroom guy getting orders from the vice president.  He was in fact, calling the shots particularly, and making the case for the war after the fact. 

KERRY:  It says all of that and more.  It also says that when the president stood up in front of the American people and said, "This is against the law, and we're going to investigate and find out who do it and when I find out who did it, I'll fire them," he knew he was the one who did it.  He was not telling the truth to the American people that day. 

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about this new poll.  We just saw a “Time” magazine poll this week that has been consistent since the election you lost to the president.  Every time that “Time” magazine has polled since the 2004 election, the president's disapproval number has, in every case, gone downward in the subsequent polling.  What does that tell you reading the future, since trends tend to continue, about this fall and the results of these election this fall? 

KERRY:  Well, Chris, I'm very wary of polls, I always have been.  And I'm going to be consistent.  You know, if I was up, I'll tell you I'm wary.  If I was down, I'll tell you I'm wary.  Because they're snapshots and they capture certain things. 

It indicates that today there is a great deal of dissatisfaction, but we have a lot of time to go between now and November.  I think the important thing is that we tell the truth to the American people.  That's what I'm trying to do on Iraq. 

I think the policy in Iraq is broken, I think the president is stubbornly proceeding down a course where our soldiers are continuing to be maimed and killed, and it's wrong, and I think there is a better course. 

I think Americans understand, that whether it's their health care, their jobs, their schools, their communities, their commute, the traffic, the cost of energy or energy independence, I believe Americans understand we can be doing better than we're doing today.

MATTHEWS: Senator, you have a plan now, pretty hard, about how we can deal with getting out of Iraq. 

KERRY:  Right.  Well, it's time to get tough. The policy is broken and, when you go down to the Vietnam War memorial, and you take a look at it, you see that almost half the names that are on that wall were added after our leaders knew that the policy wasn't working. 

That's immoral, and I believe it's immoral today for us to pursue a policy where our kids are dying, losing their limbs, going to Bethesda, Walter Reed, a lifetime of being impaired, because Iraqi politicians won't compromise, and haven't since the election was held.

Our administration, in my judgment, is just diddling and fiddling around.  A quick visit by the secretary of state is not sustained and deep diplomacy.  You need to have a conference, bringing together all of the parties in the region, and we must leverage a change here, and we've got to put it to them hard. 

Either you get a government by May 15th or we're withdrawing our troops.  When you get a government, we're withdrawing our troops at the end of the year, because that's the only way for Iraq to stand up for it's self.  Our soldiers have done their job. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you believe that the Iraqis will respond to that kind of ultimatum? 

KERRY:  They have to if the president of the United States gives it to them.  They're not going to respond to me giving it to them.  But if the president told them we're fed up with this, we gave you an election, you've had your referendums, we've spent our treasure, we put our lives on the line and you're not even deciding. 

Well, your future, your livelihood, your safety, your security is on the line and we're serious.  You put a government together or we're not going to stay here and protect you.  We'll protect our interests, we'll put our troops over the horizon, we will fight al Qaeda, we will protect our interests in the region, but we're not going to sit here in the middle of a civil war. 

This has changed from what it was a year ago. A year ago, they said they were fighting foreign jihadists.  This is now the third war: first against Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction, second against foreign jihadists, now we're in a civil war. 

Our troops can't resolve this civil war and if they're not going to have a government that comes together to try to do it, we have to get our troops out of the way.  It's that simple. 

MATTHEWS:  If they heal, and if they put together a unity government, what then? 

KERRY:  Then you agree with them as to the rate of transition by which our troops will still withdraw, but at a rate where we're training them to stand up on their own, but they understand there's a date.  They only understand deadlines.  They have to have a deadline for the transfer for the provisional government, they have to have a deadline for the election and the referendum.  I say it is time for a deadline because the entire nature of this war has changed and our policy has been so ineffective, it demands it.

MATTHEWS:  The president's policy has been in another direction.  The president has said other presidents beyond me, my successors will have to deal with the number of troops we still have in that country.  Is he sending them the opposite signal, we're going to be here, we're going to have permanent bases here, you don't have to worry?

KERRY:  I believe that's the wrong signal and yes they have never been willing to say we will not have permanent bases.  I think it is critical for the United States to announce that.  We can protect our interests in the region.  We will be stronger against Iran if we're out of Iraq.  We will be stronger with respect to what Putin is doing in Russia today if we regain our moral authority in the region. 

We must change this policy and the time is now and it's immoral to allow our kids to be killed while these guys are frittering around, playing their political games.  We wouldn't tolerate it here, we wouldn't tolerate it anywhere else.  It shouldn't be done.

MATTHEWS:  Does Hillary Clinton have the prohibitive lock on the Democratic nomination for 2008? 

KERRY:  That's all for the future.  When that starts, the people in the party will make that decision.  You know, I'm an expert about front runners and I never accept whatever conventional wisdom is and I don't accept it today. 

She's very strong, she's certainly the front runner, I like her, she's a great person.  But I'm not even sure she's running and I'm not sure she's sure she's running.  Let's wait and see where we all wind up after 2006, which is really what we ought to be focused on now.  We need to win some seats in the House and Senate, I think that's everybody's primary focus and I intend to keep mine there.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you. 

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