updated 4/7/2006 12:20:04 PM ET 2006-04-07T16:20:04

Guests: John Kerry, Jon Meacham, Dick Sauber, Rosie O'Donnell

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, "HARDBALL":  The president said he didn't know of anyone in his administration who leaked classified information in this CIA leak case.  Today, prosecutors released testimony from Scooter Libby that it was Bush himself who authorized selective leaks of classified intelligence to undercut Joe Wilson and his fact-finding trip to Africa—

Bush himself.  Let's play HARDBALL.

Good evening, I'm Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL.  A huge development in the CIA leak case today as President Bush is now reported to be a central figure in the investigation.  In pretrial documents, filed last night by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, in the case against Vice President Cheney's former chief-of-staff Scooter Libby, we now know that Libby testified he was authorized to leak information by Vice President Cheney and President Bush himself.

It's not clear how the authorization to Libby would be helpful to him given that he is charged with lying to investigators about his conversations with reporters.  More on this in a moment and later, we'll talk to Senator John Kerry about the leak case and his exit strategy for Iraq, which could bring our troops home by May 15th.  But first, the dark political clouds of the CIA leak case is a big P.R. problem now for the White House.  And today's news puts the president in the middle of a storm.  HARDBALL's David Shuster reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  It's the first indication that President Bush himself authorized leaks of classified information, despite his own denials and complaints about leaks three years ago.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I don't know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information.  If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it and we'll take the appropriate action.

SHUSTER:  According to the latest documents filed by CIA leak prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, Vice President Cheney's chief-of-staff Scooter Libby testified he was authorized to leak classified information related to an administration critic because Libby had received, quote, “approval from the president through the vice president.”

At the time Ambassador Joe Wilson had just written a column undercutting the president's pre-war State of the Union claim that Iraq sought nuclear materials from Niger and Wilson's column in July of 2003 put the administration in full damage control mode. 

From the beginning of Patrick Fitzgerald's leak investigation, the questions have revolved around disclosures about Wilson's wife, CIA operative Valerie Plame.  Her identity was first publicly disclosed by columnist Robert Novak and then “Time” magazine reporter Matt Cooper.  Prosecutors developed evidence that both Scooter Libby and presidential adviser Karl Rove disclosed Plame's identity to reporters.  And last far, Scooter Libby was indicted not with leaking or mishandling classified information, but with lying to the grand jury.

PATRICK FITZGERALD, U.S. SPECIAL PROSECUTOR:  We have when someone charges obstruction of justice, is the umpire gets sand thrown in his eyes.  He's trying to figure out what happened and somebody blocked their view.

SHUSTER:  In their documents today, prosecutors said one key issue at Libby's trial will relate to a meeting Libby had with “New York Times” reporter Judy Miller. 

Libby testified that going into that July meeting in 2003, he had been, quote, “specifically authorized to disclose key judgments of the classified national intelligence estimate because it was thought that the NIE was 'pretty definitive' against what Ambassador Wilson had said and that the vice president thought it was 'very important' for the key judgments of the NIE to come out.  Defendant Libby further testified that he had at first advised the vice president he could not have this conversation with reporter Miller because of the classified nature of the NIE.  Defendant Libby testified that the vice president later advised him that the president had authorized Libby to disclose the relevant portions of the NIE.”

Libby is charged, among other things, with lying about his conversation with Miller.  But the references today to the classified materials could be explosive politically.  In July of 2003, as part of their effort at damage control over the Iraq nuclear claims, the White House eventually declassified most of the national intelligence estimate. 

But until recently, the administration kept a one-page summary secret.  That summary referred to a dispute within the administration over Saddam Hussein's efforts to procure aluminum tubes.  The summary noted that some government agencies thought the tubes might be for nuclear weapons but that the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Energy Department, quote, “believed that the tubes more likely are intended for conventional weapons.”

Despite this dispute and just months after reading about it, the president made two now controversial claims in his State of the Union.

BUSH:  The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.  Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.

SHUSTER:  The White House retracted the first sentence, blaming the CIA for putting the uranium from Africa claim into the speech.  But the second sentence about the tubes only got attention recently when it was disclosed the president himself had been told about the tubes dispute months before the speech.  Leading up to the Iraq war, the administration made other controversial claims.

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  He is in fact actively and aggressively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.

BUSH:  We cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

SHUSTER:  While the allegation that the administration cherry picked intelligence is not new, the documents today revealed the administration also cherry picked the classified information leaked to reporters. 

On top of Scooter Libby's authorization to disclose information that might undercut White House critics, Libby testified the president and vice president authorized him and other officials to speak to and give classified information to “Washington Post” reporter Bob Woodward. 

At the time, Woodward was collecting information for his book, “Plan of Attack,” which detailed the run-up to the Iraq war. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has not charged anybody with leaking classified information or improper disclosures.  And there is no evidence the president or vice president face any legal jeopardy, but the P.R. ramifications are different. 

The White House has repeatedly denounced leaks of classified information and now we know thanks to Scooter Libby, that leaks were authorized by both the vice president and president.  I'm David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David Shuster.  David Gregory is chief White House correspondent for NBC News.  David, thank you for joining us. 

First thing here, it has to do with the war in Iraq and the case made for the war in Iraq.  We now learn according to these court documents that Scooter Libby, the vice president's chief of staff, said that the president authorized the vice president to authorize him to selectively leak, to cherry pick information from the national intelligence estimates that said there was a good case that Saddam was trying to develop a nuclear program and the evidence was the aluminum tubes.

That was countered in the overall report in the national intelligence estimates by the State Department and the Energy Department, the president never said to leak the whole story, just leak the argument from the pro-war side.  Is the president now exposed to someone who didn't tell the whole truth to the American people in defending the war after the fact?

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Well, a couple of points here, Chris.  The White House—White House officials making the point today that nowhere in this filing does it indicate that the president or the vice president was in any way—were in any way behind leaking Valerie Plame's name.

And it also makes the point, White House officials do, that when we talk about leaking classified information, it may sound like parsing information to a lot of people but the reality is once the president makes a decision to authorize the release of information, it's no longer classified, it's instantly declassified.

So in our description of that, it's important to make that distinction.  The question that you're raising is still an important one, which is, why did the White House move forward in this way?  White House officials say look, it was important to get information about the NIE, the national intelligence estimate, the basis of the claims against Iraq pursuing weapons of mass destruction, to counter Joe Wilson's claim. 

Remember, Joe Wilson says essentially, the White House is lying about the case for war, the proof being the 16 words about uranium in Niger in the State of the Union, so the White House feels at the very top levels, at the presidential level, that his charges have to be rebutted. 

The way they go about doing that, to try and discredit, to debunk his allegations is by leaking these portions that they want out there from the NIE.  That raises questions, why they did it in this way.  We know later, Chris, that ultimately they do release the entire NIE publicly. 

They talk about it and then they face questions about what's in the entire document, which are also some questions raised about the—you know, basically how good a case there was about Saddam pursuing weapons.

MATTHEWS:  But David, I think objectively that argument the White House is putting out to you and others reporters doesn't hold up because it says that the president by the very fact of authorizing a leak is declassifying.

If he felt he was within his rights to do so, why would he tell the vice president to tell his chief of staff to go under cover, use a separating identity like former Hill staffer, to leak the information? 

If he was within his rights to do what he claims—what he now is exposed as having done, why didn't he do it openly?  Why didn't he put out a White House press release and say here's some elements from the national intelligence estimates that shoot down the arguments of Joe Wilson?  Why didn't he do it that way?

GREGORY:  Well, I think it does raise the question about whether they were more concerned about the political ramifications of being tagged as releasing classified information, rather than what their stated purpose was, which was simply to clean up the record here and to try to convince the public, no, no, there was a basis for the president saying what he said in the State of the Union.  So I can't answer that question, but I think it's one that certainly critics of the White House, including many Democrats, are asking today.

And just on its face, you do have to ask why didn't they do then what they do later?  Was this rolling disclosure here, because later on, they do put out the NIE as there's more heat on the White House.

MATTHEWS:  Check me on this.  It seems like the evidence now says that in June of 2003, the vice-president told Scooter Libby about the identity of Valerie Plame as an undercover agent of the CIA.  On June 6 to June 8 -- somewhere in there—after the article appeared by Ambassador Joe Wilson in the “New York Times,” the vice-president said the president authorized him to authorize Scooter Libby as chief of staff to put out the information that undercut the case of Joe Wilson by saying there was, in fact, evidence of aluminum tubes that were being used by Saddam Hussein to develop a nuclear weapons program. 

Also we know from Scooter Libby's testimony, his filing in court, something very important, that the vice-president was, quote, “concerned that the trip by Joe Wilson wasn't really legitimate, it was a junket put together by his wife. 

GREGORY:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  So all that evidence does suggest that Scooter Libby was checking with the vice-president point by point, being informed by the vice-president, not only of the evidence but of the point of view of the vice-president throughout.  And now are we to believe that the vice-president's chief of staff acted completely on his own when he outed the identity of Valerie Wilson to reporters, which is also on the record? 

GREGORY:  Right.  Let's go back—first of all, we're talking about July 2003.  That's when Wilson writes the op-ed in the “New York Times” and then of course later, I believe July 14, is when Bob Novak's column comes out in the “Washington Post.” 

So the point here is that Wilson alleges that the trip was set up essentially by the vice-president, that Cheney knew that he was going and knew of his findings.  So the vice-president did have a personal interest in saying, Whoa, that was not the case.  And in fact, that was not the case, that the vice-president ordered him to go or arranged the trip.  And there's a big controversy about whether he was ultimately briefed on the results.

But the bottom—so that's an important fact.  But the question you raise is another one that's going to remain unanswered, at least in our session here, which is, Can you really separate this desire to discredit Joe Wilson by raising the question about his wife sending him—his wife works at the CIA—from what the president and vice-president were involved in here, which is disclosing selected portions of intelligence data to support a claim made by the president about Saddam Hussein seeking uranium in Niger that he did in the State of the Union. 

The White House certainly is making the argument that they are miles apart.  And certainly there are other people with much different views. 

MATTHEWS:  What we're reporting tonight, and what we've been reporting for the last couple of years, is miles apart from the original story we got back in 2003. 

Thank you very much, David Gregory. 

When we return, Senator John Kerry responds to the news that Scooter Libby testified that President Bush authorized him to disclose classified information on Iraq to undercut Joe Wilson. 

And on Monday, April 17, I'll co-moderate the mayoral debate in New Orleans down there.  Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed that city and the mayor's race is one of the biggest steps towards rebuilding New Orleans.  It's exclusive live coverage you'll see right here on MSNBC and MSNBC.com.

You're watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Following today's CIA leak disclosure, I interviewed Senator John Kerry in his Capitol office about the big developments today in the CIA leak case. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Senator Kerry, thanks for having us here. 

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 (D) 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 30 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:  Is the president—was the president at that time, should I say, 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? 

KERRY:  Look—

MATTHEWS:  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, 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, and, you know, 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 the—I mean, 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 in 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? 

KERRY:  Well ...

MATTHEWS:  I mean, it tells you that the president himself was in charge of this operation, he wasn't some, you know, faded backroom guy getting orders from the vice president, but 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 because it also says that when the president stood up in front of 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—I want to go to break in a minute, and have to come back for a couple of minutes about your plan about how to get out of Iraq effectively and honorably.

Let me ask you about this new poll.  We just saw a “Time” magazine poll this week that has been consistent, 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. 

And 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, energy independence—you name the issue, I believe Americans understand we can be doing better than we're doing today, period. 

MATTHEWS:  All right.  We'll be right back with Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We're back with Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.  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, Chris.  The policy is broken and, you know, 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.

And our administration, in my judgment, is just diddling and fiddling around.  You know, 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, and 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, I think, 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 said to them, look, 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—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, Chris.  A year ago, they said for us, we're 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.  Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  When we return, the role of religion in American public life and politics.  What did the founding fathers want us to be doing and is there too much or too little religion in government today?  Some surprising news on that front.  Plus, more on Scooter Libby's testimony that President Bush authorized him to leak classified information.  You're watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(STOCK MARKET REPORT)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Religion promises to play a big role in the upcoming elections.  Jon Meacham, managing editor of “Newsweek” magazine writes about it in his new book “American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation.”

First, Jon, I want to ask you about this leak development today.  What do you make of the fact that the president of the United States has been fingered by Scooter Libby himself as the one who authorized the leaking of information that would undercut Joe Wilson by showing stuff from the national intelligence estimates that would make the president's case and knock down Joe Wilson's argument?

JON MEACHAM, MANAGING EDITOR, NEWSWEEK:  Well I think it's one of the most significant stories of the Bush administration.  This goes straight to the heart of how the president thinks, how he makes decisions and how he fights a partisan game.  He likes to appear as though he's sort of above the press and doesn't pay much attention to those of us who toil away both on television and in print.  But obviously, he does pay attention.  And I think this is as serious a story about how he operates that I can remember.  And I'll be very, very interested to hear what he himself has to say about it. 

MATTHEWS:  Does this undermine his argument, although he made a mistake about WMD, there were none in Iraq, that he wasn't dishonest, he told the whole truth all along or does it say he gave us the truth he wanted us to hear from the national intelligence estimates, but held back the information that there was a dispute, especially from state and energy, that these aluminum tubes were in fact going to be used for a nuclear development program?

MEACHAM:  Right.  I think we'll have to—I think that's the question that has to be put to him.  What I do think is that the president has failed in many ways to acknowledge that there was anything wrong in the march to war, in making the case for the invasion of Iraq.

And this clearly shows the example you just mentioned and the fact that the president was willing to use classified information apparently to take on a partisan point and a partisan battle in Washington in those very difficult months in the summer of 2003 when things seemed to be falling apart about the rationale for war, I think is quite serious.

I go back again and again to the question I think it was John Dickerson of “Time” magazine at a time, asked when he said, “Mr. President, is there anything you'd do differently, is there any mistake you made?”  And the president said no. 

And that's always struck me.  I'm a parent, but not a parent of a child who is old enough to be serving.  If I were a parent of a child serving and I knew all this now, I would put that question to the president again.  Is there anything you would do differently, sir?

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about your book.  You're a hell of a writer and you have this new book out, “American Gospel,” rMD+IN_rMDNM_that's just out now.  What does it tell you?  Can it look into the future?  I know it's about the past and our legacy, about the religion and politics, does it tell you where we're headed?

MEACHAM:  Absolutely.  As Shakespeare said, the past is prologue. 

Remember the days of old, remember the years of many generations.  Absolutely.  Everything in history is of interest, I think, because of what it tells us about how we live now and what might happen next.  I think what I was struck by when I went back and read a lot of 18th century documents and some the 17th century documents, about how the founders struggled with religion and public life, how relevant those documents seemed, the language itself.

George Washington, who believed that he couldn't ascribe the victory of the American forces to anything but the hand of providence, yet he wouldn't kneel the prey, he didn't take communion, he worried about the separation of church and state.  He wrote a famous letter to the Hebrew congregation at Newport, Rhode Island, saying that the American government will give to bigotry no sanctions, to persecution no assistance.

And on the other end, you had some very, very devout founders, John Jay, the first chief justice, who was a warden of Trinity Church Wall Street.  We had another statesman who wrote a retort to Thomas Paine's tract, “The Age of Reason,” called “The Age of Revelation.”

So you had devout Christians fighting devout secularists, and then you had what I think most of us are, which is somewhere in between, a big broad sensible center, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, I think, who really were frying to figure out how do you let religion shape the country without strangling it. 

MATTHEWS:  Do presidents have to attest to a belief in God to be elected? 

MEACHAM:  I think so.  I think—I don't necessarily think it's right, but I think it would be very hard for an avowed, vocal atheist, even an avowed agnostic, to be elected president for this reason.  I think voters would look at that and say, if he—and 80 percent of the country believes it's—says it's partly Christian, believes some part of Christianity, 90 percent believe in God. 

We are a largely religious country, let's be clear.  We're not a Christian nation, but we are a largely religious country, a country full of religious people.  I think voters would look at someone who said, look, I just can't buy that, but evenly I'll fight for your right to believe in it, I think people would look at that and say if he doesn't share my values—if he or she doesn't share my values on that, I don't think he or she shares my values on other things as well. 

MATTHEWS:  But we have had presidents who don't believe in God but won't say so. 

MEACHAM:  I think that's certainly true.  I think that's certainly true.  We've also ...

MATTHEWS:  Thank you.  We've got to cut it off, but the name of the book is “American Gospel.”  What a book.  I'm sure this is going to be another success for Jon Meacham, another important book on politics, public life and values. 

Up next, much more on Scooter Libby's sworn testimony that President Bush authorized him to leak classified information with the attorney for one of the reporters at the center of the CIA leak case. 

This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Court papers released today show that Scooter Libby told a grand jury that President Bush authorized him to leak classified intelligence related to the Iraq war.  For more on what that means for Libby's defense and the ongoing investigation of the CIA leak matter, we turn to Dick Sauber, who represents “Time” reporter Matt Cooper in the CIA probe. 

First question, as a legal question, why would Scooter Libby, loyal in so many other regards it seems to me, finger the president as the one who authorized some of these leaks? 

DICK SAUBER, ATTORNEY FOR MATT COOPER:  That's a good question.  I don't know the answer.  The only thing that occurs to me is that when he got into the grand jury and started to talk about the information that he probably handed to Judy Miller, he realized that some of it was highly classified and he needed to come up with an explanation. 

MATTHEWS:  You mean it was paper? 

SAUBER:  It wasn't paper.  It was he had—he took the classified document with him to the meeting apparently, read from it or quoted from it, and at some point, he realized that may be a criminal violation, and he needed to come up with an explanation as he sat there in the middle of the criminal investigation as to why he had been authorized to leak it and it wasn't a crime. 

MATTHEWS:  Let if he ask you, if you put it all together—and I'm trying to sort it all through its proper weighting here.  First of all, we know from previous disclosures that the vice president himself, June 12th, 2003, told his chief of staff who Valerie Plame was.  She was a CIA operative, she played a role in his going on that trip. 

We know that sometime between July 6th and 8th—that was the difference between the time that Ambassador Wilson wrote his column for the “New York Times” and the vice president's chief of staff was sent on a mission to talk to Judy Miller of the “New York Times.” 

The purpose of that meeting was to undercut Joe Wilson's argument that there was, in fact, no nuclear deal.  He was—in fact, to argue there weren't aluminum tubes discovered that were evidence of a deal. 

Are we to believe with all this back and forth between the president and the vice president and Scooter Libby that they weren't engaged in this issue?  That Scooter Libby's defense, which is I was too busy with bigger things, would hold up? 

SAUBER:  I don't want to sound too self-serving, but it validates what my client wrote—validates what my client wrote at the time, that there was a war on Wilson that included the highest members of the administration, it was orchestrated, it was organized and these people apparently were talking about it, and going about it in a fairly direct and focused way. 

It does, I think, undermine Mr. Libby's claim that he was too busy with other things to remember what he had said to whom and under what circumstance, because it appears now that he was busy on this very subject, so I'm not really sure ...

MATTHEWS:  Seven conversations in evidence right now that showed his knowledge of Valerie Plame's CIA identity, and he claims he heard about it from Tim Russert after all of those conversations. 

SAUBER:  I don't think that's going to be a particularly fruitful line of defense, but I do think this introduction of the president into the equation ...

MATTHEWS:  Yes, is he serving up a big one for the prosecutors?

SAUBER:  I think it's going to make the trial extremely interesting.

MATTHEWS:  I think so too.  It's already getting that way.  Anyway, thank you, Dick Sauber.

Up next, Rosie O'Donnell on gay marriage, President Bush and Karl Rove.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

She's been an actress and a daytime talk show host.  Now Rosie O'Donnell has a new cause.  In—actually, I always keep saying that.  In 2004, she started Rosie's Family Cruises, a place for gay families to find support, friendship and advice.  Now, a documentary airing tonight on HBO chronicles this first-ever gay family cruise.  It's called “All Aboard!  Rosie's Family Cruise.”  Let's take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROSIE O'DONNELL, “ALL ABOARD!  ROSIE'S FAMILY CRUISE”:  When you go off in the Bahamas, did you hear that there were protesters? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes.

O'DONNELL:  What did you think about that? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Well, what the heck were they protesting against? 

O'DONNELL:  Against gay people in families. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Sucks. 

O'DONNELL:  Well, that's not exactly the right kind of language, but if you were to say what defines your family, what makes up your family?  What makes your family good?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I guess it's the love. 

O'DONNELL:  You guess it's the love?

(END VIDEO CLIP) 

MATTHEWS:  I asked Rosie O'Donnell about this documentary.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) 

O'DONNELL:  It's a documentary done by the people at HBO and they came on board the virgin voyage of the our family vacations cruise which we set out to have a place where gay parents and children could come together and have a safe kind of wonderful vacation where their lives would be mirrored back to them in other people's families. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, how do you—why do you have to have your own cruise?  I remember being on a safari once in Africa and there was a gay crowd there with us.  They were joining in the merriment in this large group of people.  Why do gay couples have to have a separate cruise? 

O'DONNELL:  Well, it's hard for kids, it's like, especially.  We did it mostly for the children, you know, to have to constantly explain to other kids they have two mommies or two daddies and then to have the judgment of that.  That's a tough thing when you are six or seven years old. 

And, you know, sadly, not a lot of people who don't have gay members in their family educate their kids about what that is, or that it's a possibility that two mommies and children can make up a family or two daddies.  And we wanted a place where people could feel free to be who they are without any constraints. 

You know, a lot of the people that came from the Midwest had never met another gay family ever, in their life.  So, you know, if you watch the movie, I think you will see there is a definite need in terms of what it freed inside of the passengers. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, in terms of ethnic prejudice, I always think the best thing you can do in a restaurant if there's a black couple and most people are white is don't stare, don't leer.  Make people feel at home simply by not doing anything weird.  With gay couples, when you go out to dinner, do people still stare in a menacing way or even a curious way? 

O'DONNELL:  Well, you know, they stare at us, because I'm famous and I think that for our family it is much more difficult to be the child of a celebrity than the child of a gay person.  You know, we live in New York, and on our street where we live, there are other gay families.

But for some of these people, it's harrowing.  You know, they have been threatened with violence and they talk about this in the documentary.  You know, they have had—been pulled over by police officers, two dads in the car with a baby, and asked why are you kidnapping this kid?  What are you—you know, there is a lot of stuff that people have to deal with being in a gay family that, sadly, or happily, we are protected from because of my fame. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, I was up at the Human Rights Campaign in Philadelphia.  They had a big regional meeting up there and I spoke.  And then Barney Frank spoke, and he was, of course, a towering figure in that community, your community, the gay and lesbian community. 

And he said to people in the room—it was rather inspiring.  He said, be patient, times are changing, acceptance is coming.  Don't get frustrated.  Do you believe that? 

O'DONNELL:  Yes, I have to believe that, because, you know, this country is founded on the principle that every man is created equal, right?  Every person's life is just as valuable as the next.  It's the tenet of democracy.  And, you know, Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus and it wasn't the next day that all the laws were changed for blacks in America.  So, you know, it's going to be slow progress, but it is progress. 

What is upsetting to me is that now Florida used to be the only state with legislation that actually prohibited gay people from adopting, even the foster children they raised, and now it is on the ballot initiative in Ohio as well, to prevent gay people from adopting.  And I think that is sad, especially noting that there are 117,000 kids available for adoption today in the nation's foster care system. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let's talk about the electoral situation.  In terms of popular belief and prejudice if you will, or openness, the numbers are definitely shifting.  On gay marriage in February, 2004 -- and I'm sure you know these numbers -- 63 percent of Americans told the Pew Foundation, the pollsters, they oppose gay marriage. 

That number is down to 51 percent.  It's getting close.  And even on adoption, it is almost even Steven on that question now.  Do you believe that those numbers are accurate? 

O'DONNELL:  It's hard to know, it's hard to say.  But, you know, I think when you ask people one on one, you know, everyone has a gay person in their family.  It takes two straight people to make a gay person.  So, you know, everyone knows a gay person.  I mean, there isn't one family in America that doesn't have a gay relative somewhere. 

So, although I believe progress is being made, I do believe that Karl Rove and the current administration used the marriage issue as a political wedge.  And they knew it would be divisive, and Karl Rove actually has been quoted as saying that it's the gift that keeps on giving, gay marriage.  So, you know, I think that they used it in order to provoke people and to be divisive, which is, you know, a sad state of where the administration is. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I'm looking at a group of states that have voted against marriage here—gay marriage:  Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio, Utah and Oregon. 

And among those states are red states, but also three blue states—

Michigan, Ohio and Oregon.  Do you worry at all?  I know—I'm sure you worry about politics generally, but do you worry that this issue will be used again in 2008 against whoever the Democrats nominate? 

O'DONNELL:  Yes, I think it's going to be used, you know, forever until we actually get the equality, you know, that is promised in the Constitution.  I mean, I really do.  And there are 1,400 laws, as you know, that you are not federally protected by if you're a gay couple, and that you don't—are not entitled to. 

And, you know, frankly, we are tax paying citizens and we're just as equal under the laws of this country to everything that the other person is.  So, you know, to me, I don't know if I believe the stats, but I do believe that it will be used forever.  And this movie, I hope people will tune in to see that we are not so different than you, you know.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Rosie O'Donnell. 

Tomorrow night, we'll have much more on the CIA leak case, and don't forget, the HARDBALL “Hotshots” will be here tomorrow.  Right no, it's time for the “ABRAMS REPORT.”

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2006 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2006 Voxant, Inc. (www.voxant.com) ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user's personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.'s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

Transcript

Watch Hardball with Chris Matthews each weeknight at 5 & 7 p.m. ET

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,