msnbc.com
updated 5/30/2006 9:38:02 PM ET 2006-05-31T01:38:02

Guests: John Batiste, John Hutson, Barry McCaffrey, Wayne Downing, Jim Warren, Bob Shrum and Kate O’Beirne.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR: War within a war. Did Marines murder dozens of Iraqis in a rampage of anger. Did the military cover-up the killing spree? Will Haditha be Iraq’s My Lai Massacre? Let’s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I’m Chris Matthews. Welcome to a HARDBALL special report. Allegations of a Marine-led massacre of innocent civilians in Haditha haunt the military with ghostly reminders of Vietnam’s My Lai.

Was there a cover-up and if so did it go straight up the chain of command. First, dozens of dead over the bloody Memorial Day weekend in Iraq, including a CBS News crew and violent riots against American soldiers in Afghanistan.

Every day we’re getting a grimmer and grayer picture from Iraq and Afghanistan. Two countries occupied by the U.S. military, and today the president met with General Barry McCaffrey General Wayne Downing on Iraq at the White House. We’ll find out why they met and what they discussed from the two gentlemen themselves. Also, general John Batiste who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq will be here. But first this report from NBC’s Mike Boettcher from Baghdad.

MIKE BOETTCHER, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Chris, the attack last November against U.S. Marines patrolling near the insurgent stronghold of Haditha followed a familiar pattern: A roadside bomb hits a Humvee, a Marine is killed. But how the Marines allegedly responded was anything but routine.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): At least two dozen Iraqi civilians were shot to death in nearby houses and a passing vehicle. Eleven of them were women and children. A videotape of the aftermath provided by an Iraqi human rights organization shows the carnage. Most of the dead appear to be shot at close range. The youngest victim was three. Nine year old Iman Wali (ph) gave this account of what she witnessed that day, the day her parents and grandparents were killed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): I heard explosions by the door. The Americans came into the room where my father was praying and shot him.

BOETTCHER: Did the Marines do this in retaliation for the death of their comrade. An initial Marine report said the Iraqi dead were victims of an insurgent attack. A new Pentagon investigation into the incident, according to numerous reports, says what happened was nothing short of a massacre, committed by U.S. Marines.

GEN. PETER PACE, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: The initial indications are that this is not something that we’re going to be proud of and it could be damaging for sure.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BOETTCHER: The reaction in Iraq -- the nation’s new prime minister is calling for an investigation. But on the streets of Baghdad, there is no uproar. Civilians die in significant numbers each day here. Iraqis seem more numb than angry. Chris?

MATTHEWS: Thank you, Mike Boettcher. Let’s go to NBC News’ Jim Miklaszewski at the Pentagon. Mick, thanks for joining us tonight, the night after Memorial Day. Is it a cover-up?

JIM MIKLASZEWSKI, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: If you listen to all the reports that are coming not only out of Iraq but out of here, out of the Pentagon, it certainly sounds that way.

After all, this event occurred in November 19th of last year, but it wasn’t until “Time” magazine first reported the incident that it was even brought to the attention of senior military officials, like Lieutenant General Correlli, who is the top ground commander there in Iraq, and when he saw the “Time” report, he said we’ve got to look in to this. That wasn’t until the end of February.

Naval investigators didn’t get this case until sometime in March. So there are two separate investigations ongoing right now. First, into the killing of civilians. And Pentagon and military officials say it is highly likely that some Marines, an unknown number, will face, probably face, murder charges, dereliction of duty, and perhaps filing false reports.

There’s a separate investigation underway that is also looking into the possibility that some officials in the Marine Corps, not clear how high up yet, but that some officials in the Marine Corps tried to cover this up, Chris.

MATTHEWS: What was the method of cover-up? Were there payments made, any kind allowances made for survivors, family members? How come those people didn’t complain when they got those reports or did they believe the reports about a roadside bomb killing these people?

MIKLASZEWSKI: Well, first of all, I mean the Iraqis themselves seemed somewhat inured to the violence. I talked to some people today about that who said, the reason the Iraqis aren’t upset about it is because they feel like this thing happens all the time.

Now in terms of what happened in the Marine Corps, some military officials today talked about what appears to be a code of silence here.  That there was just a very small group who actually may have taken part, and I say may have because these are only allegations, in what appeared to be a killing spree in a fit of rage after one of their own marines Was killed by an IED, and that everybody else who was tangential to that, surrounding it, even those who took photographs immediately after the incident, just kept quiet about it, didn’t say anything, thinking perhaps maybe there was a good reason for this, and if we were to raise this, we would get people into trouble unnecessarily.

Now that doesn’t excuse, according to military officials however, the reaction of those in the immediate chain of command, who clearly would have known about the incident, about the pictures that were taken that were highly suspicious and indicated that perhaps something was amiss here. And no red flags were raised higher up the chain of command to somebody like Lieutenant General Correlli.

MATTHEWS: Thank you very much Jim Miklaszewski at the Pentagon.  Retired Major General John Batiste commanded the first military division in Iraq two years ago and has recently called for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to resign.

General Batiste, your assessment of this as a fighting man, what do you think happened here?

MAJOR GEN. JOHN BATISTE, U.S. ARMY (RET): I think the alleged atrocity at Haditha, the national disgrace at Abu Ghraib and the three years uncontrollable violence and chaos in Iraq can all be traced back to the bad decisions and leadership of our secretary of defense in 2003 and early 2004.

MATTHEWS: Is this the action of somebody who’s been over there too many tours?

BATISTE: This is the action, if it’s true, again, it’s alleged, of some frustrated Marines, could have been soldiers. We deployed without sufficient capability, without sufficient numbers of troops on the ground, to not only take down the regime, but then to do the hard work of building the peace in Iraq. We missed the boat on this totally.

MATTHEWS: How would more troops have prevented this?

BATISTE: You know, when you go in to this kind of peace enforcement operation and when you build the peace, it takes a large number of troops.  It takes a mix of high technology and boots on the ground. The strategy that we had worked out within the military since 1991, which was not the plan to go back if to the Gulf War a la 1991. But this wonderful plan called for over 380,000 Americans, in addition to the Iraqi security forces to help build the peace, to stabilize the country, to secure the borders, to intimidate the insurgency, to get control of the place.

Why? Because you need to change attitudes. You need a secure environment to give the people of Iraq alternatives to the insurgency.

MATTHEWS: But when Marines in action, especially as you say, those on subsequent tours, second and third tours like they were here, who have seen their buddies shot up, killed, by these IED’s, by the roadside bombs and they look around and see a nearby house.

I am just putting this together, all the reporting on this, so they went on this rampage to get even, basically. Is that part of the military culture that if you’re hit, you hit back, wherever there’s a target?  That’s my big question. Is this something that happens a lot in war, where you just get so ticked off at an ambush on your people, that you decide to ambush somebody else, even if they’re not fighting people?

BATISTE: Chris, I don’t think we should second guess the investigation that’s going on, but what I am saying is that --

MATTHEWS: I’m just asking about war. In war, when the other side -- I guess this war is tricky, because you don’t know what the Hell you’re fighting. I can’t figure out to this day weather we’re fighting insurgents, people that don’t want us in their country, out of town fighters who come in with al-Qaida, with Zarqawi. Or we’re fighting Shias because they are really working against us, or we’re fighting Sunnis who don’t like the Shias taking over.

Do these soldiers or Marines who do want to get even, do they pick a target with that kind of intelligence or just pick a target?

BATISTE: No, they’re very precise with their intelligence, I know they are. But look we went to war with the wrong plan. We should go to war to win, outright, no questions asked and we didn’t do that. We didn’t go to war with the proper capability and numbers of soldiers to build the peace in Iraq after we took down the regime. And to say that we didn’t anticipate that insurgency is absolutely unacceptable. That was a certainty that that was going to happen.

MATTHEWS: So your point based upon military and history, just history generally, especially countries that are fighting asymmetric wars, like we’re fighting in Iraq and a big power like the United States or the French or British. When you’re in this kind of asymmetric fighting these kinds of incidents occur. You can expect them. You can expect an insurgency against the occupying power. You can expect this kind of terrorism against the occupying power and you can also expect this kind of anger on the side of our troops against that kind of asymmetric attack, right? It’s all predictable.

BATISTE: Particularly in a country like Iraq, where the tribal, religious and ethnic complexity is amazing. Remember the Brits tried this back in the last century, in the ’10s and the ’20s and were not very successful either.

There is a lot of history in this part of the world. The people in Iraq don’t think of themselves as Iraqis first. They’re first a member of a tribe and then they’re either Arab or Kurd and then they’re either Shia or Sunni -- very complex. We went into something without really understanding the complexity and what it would take to finish the job.

MATTHEWS: Sounds like you’re right. We’ll be right back with General John Batiste. He’s staying with us. When we return by the way, retired JAG officer admiral John Hutson talks about what happened in Haditha and how the military will investigate. That’s the big question now. And who will take responsibility if something did go wrong?

And later generals Barry McCaffrey and Wayne Downing will talk about their closed-door meeting with President Bush today at the White House.  What did the president ask them? Did he like what they had to say back to him? You’re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. As the Pentagon finishes up their investigation into the massacre at Haditha, who could and who should take the blame? General John Batiste is still with us. Also joining us now is Admiral John Hutson, he’s a former JAG officer. Welcome, admiral.  Let me finish up with General Batiste for a second. I am stunned by what happened up in Afghanistan. I thought we were popular up there.  Apparently we’re not.

BATISTE: Chris, I don’t think we’re anywhere near completing the mission in Afghanistan.

MATTHEWS: And do we have enough troops up there?

BATISTE: I haven’t served in Afghanistan, Chris, and I haven’t studied that area. I honestly can’t tell you. But I can tell you in Iraq, we started this war in Iraq significantly less than what we should have had to set the conditions for success.

MATTHEWS: Are you still calling for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation?

BATISTE: Absolutely. There’s one man in charge of an organization.  In this case, the Department of Defense, and he is responsible for what happens or what fails to happen under his watch. And right now, the tally is absolutely against him.

MATTHEWS: Do you blame him for what’s happened with regard to this case, with regard to the slaughter of two dozen Iraqis, an apparent revenge situation?

BATISTE: Again, I think that that alleged atrocity in Haditha, I think the whole national disgrace of Abu Ghraib and I think the chaos over the last three years can be traced directly back to our secretary of defense and the very bad decisions he took with respect to our planning and preparation to complete this mission.

MATTHEWS: Admiral Hutson, give me your judgment if you can about this massacre at Haditha. Is this something that comes with a long occupation, with many rotations of the same soldiers, the same marines?

ADM. JOHN HUTSON (RET.), FORMER MILITARY PROSECUTOR: Well, Chris, you know, it’s a terrible crime. It’s a war crime. Crimes happen -- crimes happen in war times, they happen in peace, they happen in Detroit. But that’s no excuse for it, and what we need to do now is not so much look at what happened there, but the aftermath of that, because to me, that is a much more critical question.

You know, who was it, who is the senior officer, who decided he did not want to call his boss and let “Time” magazine report and investigate that. And then even beyond that, getting past the who is the why and the how. And that’s what we failed to do at Abu Ghraib.

We never had the moral courage to really look at it and figure out why this happened and how we could prevent it. You know, was it recruiting, was it training, was it supervision, was it leadership, was it a culture that we’ve created? And I think we’ve got right now -- we’ve got the bad apple culture. You know, it’s the fault of a few bad apples and we’ll keep pointing our investigations down toward those few bad apples and indeed they are bad apples, but until we...

MATTHEWS: ... What percentage of a unit, a military unit, marine or army, do you believe has bad apples in it who are bad apples? Three percent?

HUTSON: Very, very small. At this level of badness, of rottenness, it’s infinitesimal. In every unit there’s going to be one or two percent of people who aren’t performing the job well.

MATTHEWS: Well if you have a mad dog or two in each one of the units, the question is who’s calling the shots? Even assuming that out of every hundred or 50 guys, there’s going to be a mad dog who just loves the action so to speak, as bloody as that sounds and the rest of them are going to use peer group review over the guy and stop him from doing it. But what causes a whole unit to go like this?

HUTSON: Lack of leadership. It’s good order and discipline, it’s leadership that prevents it from happening in the first place and it’s lack of leadership that will permit it to happen. You’ve got young people, they’re scared, you know, as General Batiste said, we’ve got too few people fighting an enemy that they can’t see for reasons they can’t really comprehend.

And that creates frustration, and you need people there demonstrating good solid leadership, right up the chain of command. And as soon as somebody says, it’s not my job, we’re going to let this one go, we’re not going to be responsible for it, then the leadership breaks down, and good order and discipline breaks down.

MATTHEWS: Let’s talk about a case, not this one, but something like it, so we don’t get involved with judging a case in its particulars. And it is being judged now. Suppose a bunch of guys are coming down a road, they get bombed, they lose a bunch of people. They look around, they see a house and they figure, well, at minimum, the people living in this house have been warned where those mines are, because otherwise they’d step on them accidentally. They’re part of the problem.

Does that kind of judgment go on in military, where you just say, my argument -- I see the enemy there. I see people who are playing ball with these people, because otherwise they would be blowing up the mine themselves.

BATISTE: Chris, if I could.

MATTHEWS: I’m sorry, General?

BATISTE: Chris I just was going to say in this kind of mission, what you’re trying to do is break the cycle of violence. You’re trying to change people’s attitudes and give them alternatives to the insurgency, and you do that with significant boots on the ground early on in the mission.

Over three years ago, we had insufficient numbers on the ground to stop the violence, to get control of the chaos. I trace that right back to our secretary of defense. The people of the United States deserve accountability. Our congressional oversight committees are not asking the right questions.

MATTHEWS: We had a half million troops in Vietnam, we still had My Lai. How can you blame all of this on an inadequate complement of troops through the country, when in fact this happened in one place at one time?  Why wouldn’t it have had have happened if we’d had a couple hundred thousand more soldiers over there?

BATISTE: I think this is a symptom. I think this is a symptom, as simple as that.

MATTHEWS: Admiral, what do you think? On that subject? Is this is a reflection of too few troops on the ground in time to shape the battlefield for a better occupation?

HUTSON: I think that that’s probably part of it. I think that they’re frustrated, they’re tired, they’re overworked, they’re confused, but I think more importantly, you know, there is this culture of, you know, what I think of as the few bad apples culture, and so we segregate them.

We put them off to the side and say these are a few bad apples and we’re not going to worry about this anymore. You know, we’ll punish them, we’ll court-martial them, we’ll put them in prison for life, we may execute them, and then we won’t -- we’ll wash our hands of it, we won’t have to worry about it anymore.

And I think that the thing that really is disturbing is we are not conducting the kind of investigation that we conducted after My Lai. You know, that was sort of the gold standard in some respects for how you get to the bottom of this and try to prevent them in the future, but we’re not demonstrating -- from the very top, we’re not demonstrating that sort of initiative and courage.

MATTHEWS: What aren’t we doing that we should we be doing right now, today, the day after Memorial Day? What should the military be doing, the Marines, right now that they aren’t?

HUTSON: They should be finding out who that senior officer is that failed to make the phone call to his boss and stop the investigation, and we ought to appoint a panel of five -- three or five retired four stars who are absolutely bulletproof, who are unimpeachable, who have unassailable reputations, who have got nothing to win or lose and if they would conduct sort of a 9/11 kind of investigation into the culture, not just this case, but Abu Ghraib and all the other cases of detainee abuse that we have seen over the years.

We’ve had too many, too long, and nobody has said the next general in the chain of command that this happens is going to be relieved. You know, that message has not gone out. It’s a few bad apples. We’ll take care of it.

MATTHEWS: OK, thank you very much, General John Batiste and Admiral John Hutson.

This is not the first time U.S. troops have participated in a massacre. Probably the most notorious was in a town called My Lai. More on this HARDBALL SPECIAL REPORT in a moment. You’re watching it on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: The Haditha investigation conjures up horrific images of the 1968 My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. Then, like now, the actions of U.S. troops possibly included an attempted coverup by the military’s higher command.

HARDBALL’s David Shuster has this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The stories from Haditha had been circulating among Iraqis since last November, but it was two weeks ago when the claims of a massacre took center stage in Washington, thanks to Democrat Representative John Murtha, a former Marine and a vocal opponent of the Iraq war.

Murtha told colleagues and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that he had spoken to military investigators who were convinced U.S. Marines had indeed murdered two dozen innocent Iraqis.

REP. JOHN MURTHA (D), PENNSYLVANIA: There was no IED involved in this. This was troops who went in -- they were so stressed out, they went into houses and killed children -- women and children, 24 people they killed.

Now, this is the kind of stuff -- this is the kind of stress they’re under. Listen, I don’t excuse them, but I understand what’s happening and the responsibility goes right to the top.

SHUSTER: A videotape of the bloody aftermath was initially taken by an Iraqi student who gave copies to human rights organizations. Pentagon officials tell NBC that U.S. Marines also took pictures of the of aftermath, and investigators say the photographs revealed many of the Iraqi victims had been shot at close range, execution style.

Susan Briones is the mother of Marine Lance Corporal Ryan Briones, who was ordered to enter the scene, use his camera to take pictures and help remove bodies, including the dead Iraqi children.

SUSAN BRIONES, MOTHER OF MARINE PHOTOGRAPHER AT HADITHA: But images of the little girl he had to carry out in the body bag, that in itself, you know, is what haunts him the most too.

SHUSTER: Part of the controversy now is not just the massacre, but the coverup. Initially a Marine spokesman said some of the civilians had been killed by a roadside bomb and others died during a firefight.  Congressman and former Marine John Kline have been briefed by military investigators.

REP. JOHN KLINE (R), MINNESOTA: When you have Marines who have behaved so abominably as to allegedly shoot Iraqi civilians, I’m not surprised that they would lie about it and cover-up.

SHUSTER: But this weekend, Congressman Murtha, the first lawmaker to speak publicly about the massacre and the coverup, said it has all undermined the U.S. occupation.

MURTHA: This is the kind of war you have to win the hearts and minds of the people. We can’t win this militarily. It’s now got to be a political victory and we’re set back every time something like this happens. This is worse than Abu Ghraib.

SHUSTER: But the massacre at Haditha is bringing back bitter memories of Vietnam in a village known as My Lai. In March of 1968, three U.S. platoons angered by the death of a popular sergeant entered My Lai looking for insurgents. They encountered no hostile fire and no Vietnamese men of military age.

But over the next three hours the U.S. troops, led by Lieutenant William Calley and Commanding Officer Earnest Medina, massacred hundreds of innocent women and children. My Lai, like Haditha, is proof of the horrific things that can happen in war.

But the allegations in Haditha are coming to the forefront in the midst of an increasingly bleak portrait of America’s military occupations, and the Haditha investigations and possible punishments have just begun.  We asked officials in the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton for a statement.

A spokesman said, quote, “Based on information the commander was privy to regarding the alleged actions of Marines from 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, a decision was made to place several Marines in pre-trial confinement and several in pre-trial base restriction at Camp Pendleton pending the potential results of the investigation.”

(on camera): No charges have been filed yet, but that may be just a matter of time. Pentagon officials say the evidence collected so far about Haditha is horrifying.

I’m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS: Thank you, David Shuster.

Up next, Generals Wayne Downing and Barry McCaffrey went to the White House today for a meeting with the president about Iraq. Is the president ready for such outside opinion? You’re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET WRAP)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Violence has swept Afghanistan and Iraq over the weekend. Anti-American riots consumed the Afghan capital of Kabul on Monday in what amounted to its bloodiest day since the fall of the Taliban five years ago. And as U.S. commanders sent 1,500 more troops from Kuwait to Iraq to help quell the insurgents attacks there, a car bomb struck a Shiite market north of Baghdad today, killing at least 25 more people.

President Bush met with some of the top experts on Iraq today and among them were retired General Barry McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Infantry Division during Desert Storm, and is now an MSNBC military analyst, and retired general Wayne downing who commanded the Special Operations Task Force during the first Gulf War and is now an NBC News military analyst.

General, I want to ask you first. People watching right now, what most of them want is some kind perspective on this. Should we have jump on it and say this just shows the war is no good or jump on it and say the military aren’t any good or should we take a more nuanced position to use a current word these days?

We just heard John Batiste the general say this is a case of a few bad apples. Is that the case? I’m sorry, it wasn’t John Batiste. It was Admiral Hutson. Is that the right picture here?

GEN. WAYNE DOWNING (RET.), NBC NEWS MILITARY ANALYST: I don’t think it is. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad people. I think this was a good unit and by the way, this is alleged.

MATTHEWS: I want the perspective, stepping back from the crime.

DOWNING: Certainly there’s a high degree of frustration. This unit had been there for a long time, apparently the young Marine that got killed was very, very popular guy. Sometimes troops do snap.

MATTHEWS: Anybody can snap.

DOWNING: Anybody can snap. You could snap or I could snap under the right conditions. That’s why you need a strong chain of command and strong leaders to stop that kind of stuff from happening. There’s a lot of parallels here if it in fact happen with My Lai and other incidents like that that occurred in Vietnam: an extreme frustration, an unseen enemy, something happens and then finally things go out of control.

MATTHEWS: Let’s run over my supposition and this does nothing to the case one way or the other. If there was a counterattack, a vengeance strike, it could have been caused logically by someone who sees a little house next door to where they saw an IED blow up and they say wait a minute, these people knew about the series of bombs along here or else they would be stepping on them all day. That’s common sense, so therefore they’re the enemy.

DOWNING: That kind of thinking could have happened, Chris, but to go in there and shoot those people and kill them, in cold blood, that’s just not warranted, and these soldiers and these Marines have very, very strict rules of engagement. They know what they can do and they know what they can’t do and of course that’s what’s leaders do. Leaders are out there on the battlefield to make sure this thing doesn’t happen, but also they’re out there to make sure the right thing happens.

MATTHEWS: General McCaffrey, I want your perspective on this. Start with your meeting today with the president. What did he seem to want to hear from you gentlemen from very high ranks who have had experience particularly in that country?

GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY (RET), MSNBC MILITARY ANALYST: There are six people of VERY widely varying backgrounds. Two VERY fascinating professors, Middle Eastern experts, another academic, Wayne Downing and I, Michael Vickers, who is a CIA background. I think the president -- and he had a lot of his NSC staff sitting in the background taking notes. He was actually open to different thinking and wanted to better understand what differing viewpoints were. It was a pretty good layout of political, economic, social, military factors relating to the war in Iraq.

MATTHEWS: Was it a how or a why? How big was the question? Was he saying can we win this, how big a question did he put to you experts?

DOWNING: What he was really saying, Chris, to me was, what can we do better? What are the issues? What are the things that you think we need to do. One of the things that came through very strongly, he must have said this three or four times, I have a responsibility to the American fighting men, to the parents of the American fighting men, to make sure that I am doing the right thing.

He also feels a real responsibility, I believe, towards the American people. To explain to them, to the Congress, what’s going on, because he is committed, Chris. He also said several times, you know, if it’s a matter of will power, I have the will to stick it through, because I know what we’re doing is the right thing. I am on the liberty agenda because it’s the right thing for Iraq and it’s the right thing for the region.

MATTHEWS: General McCaffrey, did you have a sense that he had a posed question in his head or was it a general sort of opportunity to hear from outside? Did he something bugging him that he wanted to solve?

MCCAFFREY: No, to be honest, I was very please with sort of his demeanor in the whole thing. He was actually on receive. He wanted to hear people’s viewpoints. It wasn’t framed with a series of provocative questions. We had gotten some from the NSC staff before we went in there, but basically I thought each one of us was allowed to make several points in our own words.

He listened intently and seemed to take it aboard. It was clearly signaling, there was an awareness, 20,000 killed and wounded, $300 billion, this thing got off track. There’s a variety of arguments three years ago that are interesting to make, but all of us are looking at going forward, what do we do and that was really the nature of the dialogue.

MATTHEWS: Did he explain the presence of Karl Rove in the room?

DOWNING: No. By the way, Steve Hadley is a brilliant national security advisor and a lot of his team were in the background, but nobody said a word. They took notes. They weren’t part of the discussion.

MATTHEWS: What was his political officer doing in the room?

DOWNING: I think he came in late, Chris.

MATTHEWS: I thought he had taken the official statement from Josh Bolten, the new chief of staff at the White House, this guy is now doing politics only, no policy. So what the hell was he doing in a policy discussion? You’re smiling, General.

DOWNING: Maybe he came to see Barry and I because he likes us.

MATTHEWS: The reason I ask this and it has nothing to do about good or evil, Republican or Democrat, or the war which is so terrifying to the guys fighting it and their families -- it’s whether there is in fact a war component to the president’s campaign for Congress this year and whether they’re planning something. They’re going to do something over there to turn things around before November. But Karl Rove just sat there and watched apparently. General McCaffrey?

MCCAFFREY: Well I think all of them sat there and watched. There wasn’t any interaction. This was six people talking to the president of the United States, you know, face-to-face, and it was really a closed circle. They were note takers and observers. No interaction at all.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, General Downing -- do you think knowing the war and knowing Vietnam and that, that this Haditha tragedy, no matter what the cause is, all these people were killed, two dozen civilians killed. A three-year-old, old people where they’re praying, doing their five times a day prayer in Islam, looking like the innocents of all times, not bad times. Is this going to kill the case to some extent -- is this going to hurt the morale of our country?

DOWNING: Chris, I hope not. I mean, it’s a deplorable incident if it happened, but it is war.

MATTHEWS: But we know it happened. It’s just a question of why and what orders they’re in.

DOWNING: No, I mean, that shouldn’t happen. And look at Abu Ghraib, I mean, that shouldn’t have happened. By the way, that’s another break down in the chain of command. I sure as hell by any stretch of the imagination cannot assign a responsibility in all this to Donald Rumsfeld.  This is a chain of command at fault.

MATTHEWS: Didn’t it strike you as -- a fairly high-ranking officer has now been involved in Abu Ghraib, it was all the young -- the guys who were enlisted were all getting nailed, now it’s gone up a bit, hasn’t it?

DOWNING: That’s the way it looks.

MATTHEWS: I was amazed THAT the president came out and said what he did about Abu Ghraib and thank god he did. We all agree on that one, it wasn’t good for any of us. Thank you very much, General Downing and General McCaffrey.

Up next, I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in that meeting. Up next, I would have loved to have been a fly in the wall in that meeting. Up next, Obama 2008? The “Chicago Tribune” rMD+IN_rMDNM_reports this weekend that some Democrats want this freshman senator, who is such a great speaker from the state of Illinois, to run for president against Hillary. What does this mean for the other rock star in the race, Hillary? Is this just a way to stop Hillary? We’re talking about this race that’s already on for 2008. This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

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MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. With most polls showing Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as the Democrats runaway front-runner for the 2008 presidential race, it’s hard to imagine anybody getting in her way. Well, how about Barack Obama? The “Chicago Tribune” reported over this weekend that some Democrats are thinking exactly that.

Hardblogger all star Bob Shrum joins us now from Boston. And Washington editor of the “National Review,” a title formerly held by John McLaughlin. Kate O’Beirne is here with us. But first, Jim Warren, deputy managing editor, the highest ranking person on this show -- of the “Chicago Tribune.” Why do you think that Obama is a factor?

JIM WARREN, DEPUTY MANAGING EDITOR, CHICAGO TRIBUNE: Highest ranking, but perhaps lowest paid certainly compared to Bob.

BOB SHRUM, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I’m a teacher now.

WARREN: You have so much banked I bet. Anyway, as our estimable Jeff Zeleny has reported, a combination of factors that have been mentioned by folks coming privately, Democratic votes coming to Obama. His charisma, his celebrity, his pretty ample fund-raising power, his representing a fresh voice, his ability to, you know, breach the divide between white and black. He is a hero, Chris, in the black community in this country and as he’s shown in Illinois, he has a pretty easy time in getting white votes.

Also they make a positive out of what some would see as a negative, namely lack of experience in the Senate. Not a whole lot of number of votes to pick on. He came after the big Iraq vote, so you can’t tar him with that.

On the other hand obviously a lot of folks are saying wait a second, not enough experience, there’s no particular issue that he has focused on, there’s nothing he’s associated with, and he’s got two young daughters -- why do this right now?

MATTHEWS: Well, let me ask you an old question raised by Huey Carey (ph) in one of his races for governor of New York. Before somebody tells you what they’re going to do, first ask them what they’ve done. What’s he done?

WARREN: Well, yes. I mean, he’s been an absolutely terrific state legislator in the state of Illinois. He proved that he could work with Republicans in a Republican-dominated legislature, while he was there, and even though he got his butt kicked -- something that his resume doesn’t make much of -- he got his butt kicked in a congressional race against Representative Bobby Rush, he has shown leadership on a whole lot of issues, including the death penalty.

And Chris, even in the short time he’s been in the Senate, he has shown a fair degree of independence. He voted with the White House on the nominations of Condi Rice, to be secretary of state, Gonzales to be attorney general, also went with them on tort reform. Went against the big Illinois coal industry on an environmental issue. So he can say, “Hey, I’m my own guy, I’m not beholden to the Democratic liberal mainstream. And if you want someone who’s honest and who can breach the big domestic issue of our time, race relations, then I’m the guy.”

MATTHEWS: This reminds me of a country that’s losing a big war and bringing out the home garden, including the kids and giving them rifles.  Let me go to Kate O’Beirne. Do you see this guy as qualified to run for president, as the top Democratic in the country?

KATE O’BEIRNE, WASHINGTON EDITOR, NATIONAL REVIEW: I admire Jim Warren.

MATTHEWS: No. 1.

O’BEIRNE: He made a plausible case.

WARREN: And I’m not running though.

O’BEIRNE: He made the only case possible, I admire that.

MATTHEWS: I know, you’re not his campaign manager, you’re not hyping him. But he doesn’t have any record of having done anything. He’s a first termer.

O’BEIRNE: I think he’s an early winner for a spot in ’08, the spot being our favorite non-candidate. We’re going to spend a lot of time talking about too bad senator Obama is not running, because he is clearly talented. He has enormous charisma, he’s a new personality, and I think we have an early winner for our favorite non-candidate.

MATTHEWS: But Bob, he’s already played that role. Didn’t he do the key note last time? I mean, how many times can you be the hot -- what do you call it, the most valuable freshman?

SHRUM: Well, except before he did the keynote, most of country hadn’t seen him. He did a remarkable job in that keynote. He’s 47, he has a lot of time. I don’t think he’s going to run. He appreciates the publicity and I agree with Kate.

He’s going to be the favorite non-candidate, but what this shows us is a fundamental difference between the two parties. The Democrats always look for a new star, the Republicans recycle the Nixons, the Reagans, the Bushes, the Doles, and now John McCain.

MATTHEWS: The Clintons? The Clintons? Is she a new star. Is she a fresh face?

SHRUM: No, she’s not a new star, but there is a -- the Democratic Party has moved on as it did with Bill Clinton in 1992, and found someone entirely new very often and is always looking for the new person. The Republicans take people and recycle them.

O’BEIRNE: I have good news for you though, bob. In 2008, for the first time since 1976, there won’t be either a Dole or a Bush on the ticket. And that’s a big breakthrough for the Republicans.

WARREN: Well I think ...

(CROSSTALK)

SHRUM: I think it’s bad news for the Democrats because I’d love to have a Bush on the ticket.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the home state reporting. Jim, out in Illinois where you’ve gotten to know this guy better than we have, is he seen as a middleweight, light heavyweight? Where is he at right now?

WARREN: No, it’s the same sort of air of charisma and celebrity that attaches to him all around the country. I mean, whether it’s appealing to Republicans in Omaha, Warren Buffett and his daughter Susie had him there.  They expected 500, 600 people max. They got 1,400, 1,500.

Or whether it’s, you know, lunching with Spielberg and the Hollywood crowd, he has been a pretty potent fundraiser. Here the reputation is quite good. It’s not -- it’s a little more nuanced, to use the word you used with McCaffrey and the other general, than it is nationally.

There are a couple of distinctly local matters in the last few months, one involving a race for the presidency of the Cook county board, one involving a race for state treasurer. He was not necessarily a profile in courage in how he handled both of those.

MATTHEWS: It seems like -- I want to ask you when we come back who’s more of a heavyweight, he or Dick Durbin, the other senator from Illinois.  I just want to put things in perspective before we get out of hand. We’ll be right back with Jim Warren of the “Chicago Tribune,” Katie O’Beirne of the “National Review,” and Bob Shrum of NYU.

You’re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

President Bush was a listener today. He met with retired military leaders and other experts about Iraq and he picked a new treasury secretary. Is the president looking for new advice?

We’re back with the “Chicago Tribune’s” Jim Warren, and HARDBALL political analysts Kate O’Beirne and Bob Shrum.

Kate, the political party that you often represent in argument, the Republican Party, does it wish to make this election, as I read in the newspapers over the weekend, about culture again, gay marriage, et cetera, abortion rights, attacking Nancy Pelosi for representing a Contract with San Francisco -- it was referred to this weekend -- as opposed to a Contract with America? Is this the plan?

O’BEIRNE: With the caveat that I actually don’t represent the Republican Party but I’m familiar with how they’re thinking.

MATTHEWS: But the point is you ...

(CROSSTALK)

O’BEIRNE: They’re clearly worried, in an off year, as they should be, about turning our their base voters. It’s a base election, and if their conservative supporters are disillusioned and disgruntled, which many of them are, over immigration issues ...

MATTHEWS: And Iraq and the budget ...

O’BEIRNE: .. and Iraq, and spending, they need to turn that around.  We know that people who can’t stand George Bush are going to turn out in November.

MATTHEWS: So it’s what side are you on, boys?

O’BEIRNE: And what can they do -- yes, so, yes, clearly there’s a cultural component to that. They feel as though they’re on the right side of this, I remind you, in every single state where it’s gone to the voters, including Hawaii, California and Oregon.

Voters are opposed to extending marriage to same-sex couples but they also, obviously, are looking for -- to get on the right side of immigration, to try to explain to these base voters they do care about restraining government. It’s going to be sort of hard based on their spending. But sure, they’re trying to enthuse their voters in a context that’s going to depend on who gets their people to the polls.

MATTHEWS: Bob, do you think that the -- I mean, Bob, every voter goes in the voting booth with two or three things on their minds. Do you think one of them will be the culture cultural issue and the Republicans can still win on that one?

SHRUM: I think the Republicans will be laughed out of the room if they say that the issue in this election is same-sex marriage or that the target is Nancy Pelosi. Chris, you were there in the early 1980s when they decided the target was Tip O’Neill. It didn’t work.

Look, the issue isn’t Nancy Pelosi. The issue is Iraq, the issue is Katrina, the issue is Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney. Bush is going to be the poster boy, and that’s why Nancy Pelosi is going to be the speaker of the House.

MATTHEWS: But the voters -- let me go to Jim here for objectivity.  Jim, the key voters, of course, are the middle people economically and politically, the ones who make up their minds every election. They’re not tied to either party.

A lot of Roman Catholics -- that’s a code word for swing voters -- are they going to be pulled over to the right again on the issue of gay marriage and Pelosi being from San Francisco and being just too left on issues like that?

WARREN: Well, obviously, Chris, come this November, you have got to look at it district by district. If you take something to the west of here, Henry Hyde’s district -- Henry Hyde, of course, is retiring -- then you have a real clear choice. Tammy Duckworth, the Iraqi vet who lost both legs against a very, very strong Republican.

But I don’t think those issues are going to be as important as the issue of the war. I agree with Bob on that, and then just sort of to what extent there is Bush fatigue. After all these years people are saying enough already. And whether Republicans pay a price for that as possibly paying a price for higher gas prices, per se. 

MATTHEWS: Well, it says that -- Bob, I want to get back to this.  There is no doubt in the Republican’s thinking some gay bashing. There’s no doubt about it. When this guy came out the other day and trashed Nancy Pelosi for having a quote, “Contract with San Francisco,” it reminded me of Jeane Kirkpatrick back in ’84 referring to the Democrats as -- this is high school talk. You don’t think it will work?

SHRUM: I don’t think it will work. I think the numbers are actually steadily moving on this, despite what Kate said. And I think people are going to look at the Republicans in the midst of all of the problems that we have in this country, and if they are trying to bash gays, they’re going to say they’re irrelevant to the future and they’re going to lose the House and they might even lose the Senate.

MATTHEWS: We’ll see.

O’BEIRNE: But the way they’re casting if, of course, is defending marriage, not bashing gays.

MATTHEWS: I understand that.

O’BEIRNE: Now, what they want of course is -- they don’t want an election that’s a referendum.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: OK, the biggest challenge to marriage today is divorce, not gay marriage.

Anyway, thank you very much Jim Warren, Kate O’Beirne and Bob Shrum.

Play HARDBALL with us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern as Hillary Clinton officially -- big surprise here -- announces her campaign for the Senate again.

Right now, it’s time for the “ABRAMS 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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