msnbc.com
updated 6/2/2006 8:02:14 PM ET 2006-06-03T00:02:14

Guests: Paul Hackett, Paul Rieckhoff, Gary Solis, Joe Scarborough, Margaret Carlson, Craig Crawford and Tom Curry.

NORAH O’DONNELL, HOST: Tonight, if U.S. troops killed civilians in Iraq, will the world forgive? Will Americans continue to support the commander in chief in this time of war?

Let’s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I’m Norah O’Donnell in tonight for Chris Matthews.

Welcome to HARDBALL.

Tonight, Iraq continues to plague the Bush presidency. The Pentagon is conducting dual investigations into allegations that U.S. Marines massacred 24 Iraqi civilians in a retaliatory rage in Haditha.

In a separate incident, the Marine Corps is expected to file murder, kidnapping and conspiracy charges against several enlisted Marines and a Navy corpsman in the fatal shooting of an Iraqi civilian in April, once again in an apparent act of revenge.

More on this in a moment with Paul Hackett, a Marine Corps veteran and attorney who served in Iraq and also ran for office in Ohio.

And later, if it’s Friday, it’s time for the HARDBALL Hot Shots, the best and the brightest on all the hot news of the week.

But first, a new poll shows that Americans now consider President Bush an even worse president than Nixon, who resigned from office of course in the wake of the Watergate scandal. President Bush has been badly hurt by Iraq and perceptions that he is too detached from the problems there or within his own administration, and that appears to be the same issue that is bubbling to the surface regarding the alleged massacre of Iraqi civilians by U.S. troops.

HARDBALL’s David Shuster reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The White House says it took President Bush nearly a month to be told the military was investigating allegations U.S. Marines massacred unarmed Iraqis in Haditha.

Last November, two dozen Iraqis were killed, including 11 women and children, some as young as 3. Videotape recorded by an Iraqi student showed the victims had been shot at close range and were not killed by an explosive device as U.S. Marines claimed at the time.

On February 10th of this year, Time magazine asked military officials about the incident. Four days later, on February 14, U.S. General Peter Chiarelli, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, ordered an investigation.

But President Bush was not told of the alleged incident or investigation until March 11th, four weeks later. It was another two and a half months this week when the president finally commented.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Obviously, the allegations are very troubling for me and equally troubling for our military, especially the Marine Corps.

SHUSTER: When asked why President Bush didn’t talk about the investigation sooner...

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Because I’m not aware that any of you asked him about it before. The president said he was troubled by the allegations. I’m not sure that it helps to issue statements every time there’s an allegation saying you’re troubled by it.

SHUSTER: White House supporters say they are troubled by the potential this incident has to become a huge political problem. Even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a Marine who knows many of the commanders involved, believes the Haditha investigation is going to be tough.

GENERAL PETER PACE (USMC), CHAIR, 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.

SHUSTER: The first lawmaker to talk about Haditha was Congressman John Murtha, who spoke out two weeks before President Bush did. Murtha believes the administration’s style set the tone for how the military handled things.

U.S. REPRESENTATIVE JOHN MURTHA (D), PENNSYLVANIA: Who covered this up? Who is trying to cover this thing up? When something like this happens, you have to get it out in the open, you have to take action.

SHUSTER: Republican Senator John Warner is promising congressional hearings.

U.S. SENATOR JOHN WARNER (R), VIRGINIA: There’s a direct conflict between the findings of the investigation team, that is the on-scene investigation team, and what was reported by the Iraqi citizens themselves.

SHUSTER: Even before the atrocities in Haditha emerged, the Iraq war was proving to be a huge political drag for the administration.

The latest poll found that approval for the president’s handling of Iraq had dropped to 29 percent and only 30 percent said they had some degree of confidence President Bush will be able to end the war successfully.

The president seems to know how damaging a scandal in Iraq can be to his administration.

BUSH: I think the biggest mistake that’s happened so far, at least from our country’s involvement in Iraq, is Abu Ghraib. We’ve been paying for that for a long period of time.

SHUSTER: Now, in the wake of Haditha, a political toll is being exacted by the Iraqi prime minister.

In a statement this week, Nouri al-Maliki declared that military attacks on innocent Iraqis have become a daily phenomenon and that American-led forces, quote, “do not respect the Iraqi people. They crush them with their vehicles and kill them just on suspicion.”

SNOW: This is gauzy in and of itself. It doesn’t refer to American troops. It talks about troops and an American-led coalition, which also involves Iraqi troops. I don’t know what this means. I wish I did and I wish I could give you clearer guidance.

SHUSTER (on camera): But regardless of what Iraq’s prime minister meant to say, it is clear that U.S. Marines are at the heart of the Haditha investigation and that U.S. commanders are under the spotlight for the early misleading reports.

That could all add up to more trouble for U.S. forces, who are still trying to win over hearts and minds in Iraq, and it could mean more political problems for President Bush, as his administration tries to staunch the historic erosion of public support.

I’m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O’DONNELL: Thank you, David Shuster.

Paul Hackett is an Iraq war veteran who has been a critic of this war. He’s a board member of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Political Action Committee and he’s now the lawyer for Captain James Kimber, one of three battalion officers whose name has emerged in connection with the Haditha incident. Captain Kimber was relieved of command last month for incidents unrelated to Haditha, but he says he’s become a political casualty of the incident.

Paul, first, let me ask you, if these allegations are true in Haditha, this would be the most serious case of criminal misconduct by our U.S. troops in the three years plus that we have been in Iraq.

Is this a failure of leadership?

PAUL HACKETT, IRAQ WAR VETERAN: Well, I think certainly if the allegations are true, it will be a terrible tragedy not only for the families impacted in Iraq, for the American people and for the Marine Corps.

I represent Captain James Kimber, who was company commander of India Company, which was not the company involved in these allegations, was not in Haditha, but was in Hachlaniyah (ph).

Captain Kimber served honorably. He is not the target of any criminal investigation; in fact, was relieved of command as a result of a British Sky News embedded reporter’s piece that portrayed his Marines using profanity, not wearing sunglasses, and one Marine, in fact, was questioned about the competence level of the Iraqi security forces and honestly answered that the Iraqi security forces were not up to the standards necessary to take over the mission in Iraq.

O’DONNELL: Paul, let me — understood.

Let me ask you a specific, firstly...

HACKETT: Sure.

O’DONNELL: ... specific about what happened in Haditha.

The 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment of the Marine Corps, the Kilo Company that was involved in this, were on their third deployment to Iraq. Is this an example of our troops stretched too thin, that one of their buddies was killed by a roadside bomb and that they snapped?

HACKETT: Well, I don’t want to speculate.

I was not there, Captain Kimber was not there, his Marines were not there. I suspect that how we will eventually find out exactly what happened in Haditha on November 19, 2005, is when the Marines who were present and have subsequently made statements — and I understand some may have confessed — and I suspect that those statements and, if there were confessions, will enable the investigators to triangulate and find out ultimately what happened on that day.

And I don’t think that speculation, I don’t think that Congressman Murtha’s rush to judgment and, frankly, over the top comments will help get to the bottom.

O’DONNELL: What was over the top, Paul, do you think? Because he came out before we had heard a lot about this and said that these Iraqi civilians were killed in cold blood by U.S. Marines?

HACKETT: I think that the language “cold blood,” “they committed cold-blooded murder,” that doesn’t allow us to get to the bottom of what happened here.

And I want to say for myself, for Captain Kimber, for all the service men over in Iraq, every service man and woman wants to get to the bottom of what happened. Because if, in fact, there was intentional killing of innocent non-combatants in Iraq on November 19th, or any other day, that does not represent the proud, honorable, dedicated service of the men and women in our armed services. It does not represent the service that Captain Kimber gave to his country in Iraq.

Captain Kimber is an American war hero, not an American war criminal, was nowhere in Haditha on this day.

O’DONNELL: Paul, I think many Americans agree with you that this is not representative of the service and sacrifice and the way our men and women behave certainly in theater and for the past several years fighting the war on terror. This case, however, it threatens to be a bombshell, not only because these Marines are accused...

HACKETT: It’s a tragedy.

O’DONNELL: Yes, a tragedy — accused of murder, but also because their leadership were accused of a cover-up that in a report which are filed that there were photographs of this that were not made part of the later report and only found out later in the investigation, that this is cover-up by leadership. Why was there that cover-up?

HACKETT: Well, again, I can’t speculate. I can only say that, if in fact there were marines higher up in the chain of command that covered this up, again, it’s not representative of the Marine Corps that I’ve been a part of or Captain Kimber has been a part of, for many years. And those marine officers, if in fact, as alleged, they covered up what would be a heinous act, if true, and they will be punished and they will be punished severely and they do not represent the professionalism of the Marine Corps or the American Armed Services.

But again, my suggestion, my request is, let’s see how the facts play out, and the rhetoric and the speculation, let’s be honest, the rhetoric and the speculation does not help us get to the bottom of this situation.  And everybody wants to get to the bottom of this situation. My client Captain Kimber was shocked to find out about these allegations, didn’t even find out about them until months later when the “Time’s” reporter came out to Iraq and started asking questions and it was the first time he’d ever heard of it, some three months later. So it was not something that was discussed throughout the command and it was not something that was spoken about throughout the battalion, if in fact the allegations are correct.

O’DONNELL: As a former marine and as a lawyer now who’s representing a marine, how has this affected the morale of the corps?

HACKETT: Well, I can imagine that the marines are trying to get by day-to-day, and do their job, both here stateside and over if Iraq, but it’s not a happy moment in the Marine Corps. Whether or not the allegations are true or false, it’s not a happy moment in the Marine Corps to be accused of war crimes, and it’s going to be a long process to regain the support of the American people, and the world frankly, and the best way that the Marine Corps is going to do that is ultimately get to the bottom of what happened here, and punish these marines, and I can guarantee you, if in fact these allegations are correct, the Marine Corps will punish these marines severely, severely. That I guarantee.

O’DONNELL: All right. Paul Hackett, stay with us. And when we return, what it’s like to fight against insurgents in Iraq and how badly will Haditha hurt our efforts. We’ll be joined by another veteran of the Iraq war, former Army National Guard Lieutenant Paul Rieckhoff, plus Marine military law expert Gary Solis. And later, it’s Friday, and you know what that means, it’s the HARDBALL hotshots, get their say on the hottest stories of the week.

You’re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O’DONNELL: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Iraq’s new prime minister has now lashed out at the U.S. military, saying violence by troops against Iraqi civilians has become a daily phenomena. He announced that Iraq would conduct its own investigation into civilian killings and held out the possibility of putting restraints on U.S. troops on the ground. Now how much are these incidents driving a wedge now between the U.S. and the new Iraqi government?

Gary Solis is the former chief of the military law branch at the U.S. Marine Corps and Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett is still with us, but we begin with Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq war veteran, and the Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He’s also author of the book “Chasing Ghosts.” Paul, let me ask you this, Iraq’s prime minister said that the violence now is a daily occurrence. You’ve been on the ground in Iraq. Is that a little bit, is that overstating this a bit?

PAUL RIECKHOFF, IRAQ WAR VETERAN: I think it is. I think it is. And he hasn’t really provided any facts to substantiate that. So I think he’s out here on a limb and to be honest with you, I think that Congressman Murtha is as well. There’s a lot of speculation going on here and very little facts. And I think need to take a breath and understand that we shouldn’t be trying these people in the court of public opinion.

This representative and Congressman Murtha, they’re not judge and jury here. We need to have a thorough investigation that takes all the facts into account and then we’ll reach a determination and then we can proceed accordingly. But I think right now, there are a lot of hot tempers and nobody really has the facts in order.

O’DONNELL: Paul, this was supposed to be the week that this administration, the Bush administration held up this new unity government in Iraq and said look, political progress is being made. That means our U.S. troops will soon perhaps be able to start coming home. There is progress being made on the ground and yet the focus has been on this alleged tragedy that marines killed 24 civilians and now you have the new Iraqi prime minister, this guy we have built up, propped up, helped, saying that U.S. troops crush Iraqis with their vehicles and kill them just on suspicion. He also said this is completely unacceptable. And that American troops don’t respect the Iraqi people. That’s not your experience, is it?

RIECKHOFF: No, it’s not, and I spent almost a year on the ground and I saw our troops perform brilliantly and with a maximum amount of respect for the Iraqi people. Ultimately every troop on the ground understands what we’re trying to do ultimately, in the face of very a difficult policy, is to win hearts and minds.

We know if we kill a civilian accidentally or if there’s collateral damage, it’s going to make our jobs harder. So this is not something that troops on the ground want. It’s not something that troops on the ground generally do and if these people are guilty of these crimes, they will be held accountable and that’s exactly what we want in the military to see happen. We want them held accountable to show that this is not indicative of the performance and professionalism of most of the people in the military.

O’DONNELL: And what do you think it does to the safety and security of our U.S. troops when the Iraqi prime minister is making these comments that U.S. troops are, do not respect the Iraqi people and are killing civilians on a daily basis?

RIECKHOFF: It endangers them immediately. I think, it changes our global standing, it changes the way we’re perceived around the world and especially on the Iraqi street. And I think it’s a very irresponsible rush to judgment. We need to be working together with the Iraqi people. We all know there have been problems if Iraq and I’ve been a vocal critic of those. But, I think this is really a rush to judgment that’s endangering all sides. It’s endangering the Iraqi forces on the ground, the Iraqi people, and it’s really pouring gasoline on a very, very flammable situation right now.

O’DONNELL: Gary, you agree with that?

GARY SOLIS, FORMER MARINE CORPS JUDGE ADVOCATE: I certainly do. I thinks that’s well said. There are too many individuals who are willing to find guilt in individuals before we actually have all the facts. Now it may be, it is certainly true that things look bad, but that’s no proof.

O’DONNELL: You’re the military law expert here, that’s why we brought you on. One of the investigations, according to the “Washington Post” has concluded that some officers involved in this reported false information, that superiors failed to adequately scrutinize reports of these two dozen deaths. You know we’re in a totally different war now in the 21st century, where a lot of these soldiers have had their digital confiscated because they were taking pictures of the incident after that. How does that complicate the whole trial, what is likely to be a trial?

SOLIS: Well, it makes things awfully difficult, of course, but if there has been a coverup of any sort, that’s another issue entirely, of course. And that’s, obviously, not as serious as killing 24 individuals, but the Marine Corps views any coverup, particularly if officers have been involved, as extremely serious. That’s an institutional danger that we have to ...

O’DONNELL: And it means a failure of leadership.

SOLIS: Absolutely. And I think Paul would agree that this is probably, presuming that it’s true, is an example of a failure of leadership, initially at the squad level where the incident may have occurred, and then if there’s been a coverup at a higher level.

O’DONNELL: Why aren’t we talking more about that, Paul, what could be — what everybody seems to be talking about, that this is a failure of leadership? Yes, this is horrible what happened on the ground, but it suggests there are problems in the chain of command.

RIECKHOFF: Well, if this did take place and it did happen, there were failure at a number of levels. But most immediately, at the point of attack, there was failure on the part of individual marines to abide by the laws of war.

And if there was an unlawful order given and marines followed that order, then they are personally responsible. If there was a coverup, then that goes up the chain command. But ultimately, every individual is responsible for their action, they’re responsible for abiding by the Geneva Convention, they’re responsible to not kill civilians, and they’re responsible to inform the chain of command about what goes on.

So if it took months and months for the Department of Defense to find out, for General Pace to find out, and for the president to find out, then somebody in that chain of command failed.

O’DONNELL: Right.

RIECKHOFF: The president should have known about this immediately.

O’DONNELL: Right. And why do you think that the president did not know about this immediately? And let’s point out that it took “Time” magazine to essentially bring it to the attention of the military, Paul Hackett?

HACKETT: Well, I take exception with some of “Time” magazine’s reporting. Obviously, I’m here representing James Kimber.

O’DONNELL: We understand that, Paul, but let’s get specific about the other point that Paul made, which is that the president — it took the chain of command several months to let the president know that this has happened. This is a scandal that could be worse than Abu Ghraib, that could ruin our efforts over there to change the hearts and minds of the American people.

HACKETT: Well, certainly if the allegations are true, that’s a fact.  I mean, there’s no denying it and speculating why it took so long is a tough thing to do. I don’t know. I would certainly concur with the other two folks and Paul Rieckhoff and the judge advocate general there, that there was a failure of leadership probably at a low level.

And then there was a failure as it went up to ask questions about certainly the report that would have been filed following these murders or deaths even if they were accidental deaths.

Keep in mind that these were just accidental deaths. There is a reporting process that takes place, and as I understand, the appropriate criticism is when you’ve got 15 to 24 dead civilians, after this incident, shouldn’t there have been some additional questions? And perhaps there should have been.

There’s — it’s tough to argue otherwise, and what’s so difficult is when we’re over here, is understanding day-to-day what’s going on on the ground over there and trying to Monday morning quarterback. We can all agree, if these allegations are remotely accurate, that this is a terrible thing, and it’s dark day in the Marine Corps.

O’DONNELL: All right. We’ll be back with Paul Rieckhoff, Gary Solis and Paul Hackett when HARDBALL returns in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O’DONNELL: We’re back with Iraq war veterans Paul Reickhoff and Paul Hackett, as well as Gary Solis. Welcome back all of you.

Gary, let me start with you since you’re the military law expert here.  In Baghdad, the top American ground commander in Iraq has now ordered that all 150,000 American and allied troops undergo a refresher course on legal, moral, and ethical standards on the battlefield. This is a sign that they think this is a big deal.

SOLIS: Well, and, of course, it is a big deal, but I think it’s a good idea too. Certainly, there’s a certain amount of public relations involved in this, but like justice, justice must be done and must be seen to be done.

I think the American public has a right to be reassured that our troops not only are trained in the law of war, but are being reminded of that training, that it’s not just a one time thing that comes and goes, so I think it’s probably a good idea and events would seem to suggest that it’s not unwarranted.

O’DONNELL: Paul Reickhoff, let me ask you about, you know, Brigadier General Donald Campbell, who’s the chief of staff of the top U.S. military headquarters in Baghdad, briefed reporters at the Pentagon today and he said, you know, when you’re in a combat theater dealing with enemy combat who don’t abide by the rule of law where it’s hard to tell who is civilian, who is combatant, that these kinds of things can happen.

He says it’s very difficult to determine in some cases who is combatant, who is civilian — I just said that — and then, in fact, you could snap. But how does that explain — I think we all understand that, it’s difficult over there. How does that explain though the killing of women and children that is alleged in this particular incident?

RIECKHOFF: It doesn’t. It’s absolutely inexcusable, and there are no conditions that would allow that to be excusable, so I think that’s an important point we need to make. You know, are conditions rough? Yes.  Are people there for the third and fourth time? Absolutely. But we’re all trained in what is murder, and we know that murder is wrong. And if somebody committed murder, there’s no excuse for it whatsoever.

O’DONNELL: And that these — and — Paul Hackett, and the other thing that I have found as this story has first come out — and I’ve read it since the very beginning — that has troubled me, is that these 24 civilians, some them were killed execution style, that is alleged.

How does that happen to some of our troops, who I hope we all don’t think that they’re bad guys, that they could snap is the word that was used by a general at the Pentagon? How could that happen? What is going on with our troops other there, that they could snap like that? Paul Hackett.

HACKETT: Oh, I’m sorry. I can’t even imagine what would happen. I mean, it’s tough, it’s tough for everybody, and we train as professionals, I can’t begin to imagine and begin to get into somebody’s mind as to how they could go down that path, and I can’t begin to imagine how a group of marines could allow other marines to even begin to go down that path and not stop it, nip it in the bud before it happened.

It’s unfathomable to me what would go through somebody’s mind in that process, and like Paul Reickhoff, I’ve been in those situations and, you know, you rely on your training and your professionalism and you exercise good judgment, and ...

O’DONNELL: Gary, but is a failure of leadership that makes — that could help or — I don’t know — that make a Marine snap.

HACKETT: Well, at a minimum ...

O’DONNELL: Let me ask Gary that, Paul.

SOLIS: Well, very much so. You know, when you have somebody near you who are killed, you’re first frightened and then your fright turns to anger and you want to lash out, and that’s what NCOs and officers are there for.

They are the brakes on the behavior of the subordinates, they are the ones who are more experienced, perhaps more professional. They are the ones who say, “Wait a minute, guys, we’re professionals here, we’re Americans; we don’t just go out to kill anybody who happens to be in the area because they’re in the area, we’re here to kill only the enemy, and women and children aren’t the enemy.”

O’DONNELL: All right. Thank you to Paul Hackett, Gary Solis and Paul Rieckhoff. We greatly appreciate it.

For more information on the Haditha investigation, go to hardballmsnbc.com.

And up next, it’s Friday and it’s time for the HARDBALL Hot Shots. My colleagues Joe Scarborough, Craig Crawford and Margaret Carlson will tackle the biggest stories of the week, including Haditha and the feds sticking it to New York by cutting money to fight terrorism because they didn’t have national monuments.

And this Sunday on “Meet the Press,” Senator Joe Biden. That’s Sunday on NBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O’DONNELL: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Yes, it’s that time. It’s time for our special Friday night feature, HARDBALL Hot Shots.

The line-up tonight, “Scarborough Country” host Joe Scarborough, Bloomberg columnist Margaret Carlson and MSNBC political analyst Craig Crawford.

Let’s get started.

First up, shoot-up, cover-up and the fallout.

The United States could pay a terrible price for the alleged massacre of civilians by U.S. Marines in Haditha. “The Washington Post” reports today that investigators are seeking to exhume the bodies of the Iraqi victims to obtain forensic evidence. The ongoing investigation has already uncovered false statements by Marines and a failure of oversight following the shooting. Now Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is demanding the files from the investigation.

As new details come to light, could Haditha unravel an already ailing U.S. occupation? And could the international fallout be far worse than Abu Ghraib?

Joe?

JOE SCARBOROUGH, “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY”: I don’t think it will be worse than Abu Ghraib.

But again, right now we don’t know what’s happening, what’s happened over there. The investigation is still going on and we shouldn’t jump to any conclusions.

But it certainly has put our allies in Iraq in a terrible position, it’s put the new prime minister in a position where he has to be seen distancing himself from America.

And so in Iraq the situation is going to be very volatile. I think domestically, you know, Americans understand that out of 150,000 troops, there are going to be some people that don’t do their commanders or their country proud, and there’s even criminal elements out there.

It happened in Vietnam, it happened in Korea, we’re sure it happened in the world wars also.

But when it happens, America has to live up to the highest ideals and we have to root these people out and punish them. And if they went around and executed women and children, then they need to spend the rest of their lives in jail.

O’DONNELL: Margaret, David Shuster reported at the top of this show that it took the president almost four weeks to learn about the beginning of this investigation. Is that a failure of the chain of command, a failure of leadership? Should he have known sooner?

MARGARET CARLSON, BLOOMBERG COLUMNIST: Well, it’s a product of a cover-up in part.

There was a “Time” magazine story which alleged that this had happened, but it took a while for the situation to work its way to the Navy criminal investigation team, which is now doing everything that Joe just said.

I think it’s not a few bad apples, as everyone wants to say, as much as it’s good apples who are in a horrible situation where they’re scared to death almost every minute of the day.

And what Haditha does in a larger sense is it shows how the nature of this war has changed so that we have military forces fighting in a situation that they aren’t trained for. It’s a police action. It’s neighborhood by neighborhood. It’s house to house. Your comrade gets killed and you go into the nearby house and you go crazy because you don’t know what happened. Now, this looks like it went further than that, because there were children and women in their pajamas in the house.

But the nature of this war is now so terrifyingly awful with the secret militias, not just the Sunni insurgents, no one knows who the enemy is and where they’re hiding — that Haditha is I think a bigger story even than the criminal — the possible criminal behavior.

O’DONNELL: War is always ugly, but this is a particularly ugly incident.

And, Craig, how much do you think that this is in some ways a failure of leadership, that our troops have been put in a terrible situation?

CRAIG CRAWFORD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Very much so.

I think it’s more a failure of leadership than the individuals who may have perpetrated this, as much as they probably should be punished.

We have a situation over there, as Margaret and Joe have talked about, that is very difficult for people who really aren’t trained for what they’re asked to do.

The American military did what it’s trained to do and what it was expected to do. They invaded that country, they got to Baghdad in short order and they eventually got Saddam Hussein. They did what the military was supposed to do.

Now for almost two years now, we’ve been asking them to do something they’re not prepared to do and that is to be policemen. We’d be better off sending 50,000 M.P.s over there than the troops we have.

SCARBOROUGH: I was going to say, that is a point that everybody has overlooked over the past couple of years, that our troops did exactly what they were trained to do. They did a remarkable job, they got to Baghdad in short order, and then we decided as a country to do the very things that my peers on the Republican Armed Services Committee decried in the 1990s and that is nation build. And that’s why...

(CROSSTALK)

CRAWFORD: You know, I talked to a retired general like two years ago who predicted this, who feared that the kind of situation the troops were getting into, he compared to My Lai and Vietnam. He said I worry about these guys getting frustrated, fatigued and just popping off, and he almost described this very type of incident two years ago.

O’DONNELL: All right. Next up, did New York get mugged? New Yorkers are sounding the alarms over what they consider an all-out bank robbery.  The Homeland Security Department’s new budget calls for a 40 percent cut in counterterrorism money for the Big Apple. Meanwhile, cities like Omaha and Fort Lauderdale are racking up big bucks.

Is the Homeland Security Department playing politician? Is it exposing itself to the same kind of criticism it received over the perhaps politically-inspired, color-coded terror alert system? Here’s Congressman Peter King on HARDBALL.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: This was a declaration of war against New York. I’m at war with the Department of Homeland Security. I think every well-intentioned member of Congress is, because they realized this was a total miscarriage of justice, totally inexcusable, indefensible ...

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: OK, let’s put ...

KING: ... and they are changing this story by the hour.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O’DONNELL: Craig, let me ask you, how is it that the two cities, New York and Washington, that got 100 percent of the terrorism on 9/11, got a 40 percent cut in funding?

CRAWFORD: Well, you know, Peter King gets a little over the top sometimes. I don’t know if this is a war on New York or not, and sometimes I think New Yorkers tend to think they’re the only ones here and whine a bit. But in this case, it does seem like this was not done quite like it should have been done.

And — however, let’s remember, there is a threat to the rest the country and, if anything, you know, I would think the terrorists would be looking at some of the middle American cities, and not strike where they’ve already struck before, but that might be describing too much intelligence or strategy on their part.

O’DONNELL: Margaret, because this is a — let me ask you, Margaret, because this is a weird story. I mean, the Statue of liberty, Brooklyn Bridge and Empire State Building are not worthy of national icon status and instead, there are the terrorism magnets of Kansas city and St. Louis who are now getting more money because it happens to be that the main person that’s in charge of this at the Department of Homeland Security is from Missouri.

CARLSON: That’s right. Well, I’d like to look at the electoral map and see how the money went out. There were so many excuses given as to why it happened the way it did. First, New York didn’t submit its application the right way, like neatness counts, so they didn’t do it the right way, OK?

Then it was shown, yes, they did do it the right way and they met the deadline. Then it was they don’t have national icons. You know, how can you prove that you are the terrorists’ — you know, the most likely terrorist target? Well, you know, New York was hit twice. So I think the proof is there. What more do you want?

And surely, Nebraska, Omaha, a million dollars went to the Martha’s Vineyard ferry. OK. I know — you know, I would think that, you know, the last people to care about Martha’s Vineyard is the Bush administration, but it is totally cockeyed.

CRAWFORD: At least they’re not trying to protect that bridge to nowhere in Alaska that hasn’t been built yet.

(CROSSTALK)

O’DONNELL: Very, very quickly, Joe, this sounds like being extremely tone deaf, this whole debate, is it?

SCARBOROUGH: It is. It is another example of the Bush administration being way off course. It sounds like Craig Crawford likes how they distributed the money, because he’s showing his — he’s betraying his Florida roots. He’d grew up in Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando.

CRAWFORD: I’ve got property down there, Joe.

SCARBOROUGH: All these cities are up 30 percent, 40 percent. Now, this is an absolute disgrace. We all know — I mean, a Pakistani just arrested a few weeks ago for trying to hatch another plot to blow up New York. New York is ground zero. It remains ground zero in the war on terror. People want to strike New York, they want to strike Washington, D.C.

When you cut their budgets by 40 percent and you increase the budgets of Omaha and other cities like that by 40 percent, and you make New York City number 23 in the nation in per capita funding for terrorism, it is a disgrace and it is one more example of the Bush administration being way out of touch with where America is right now.

O’DONNELL: All right. Well, we have much more ahead. You are watching “HARDBALL Hotshots,” only on HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O’DONNELL: Welcome back to “HARDBALL Hotshots” with Joe Scarborough, Margaret Carlson and Craig Crawford. Next up, it’s raining men. Dennis Hastert wants you to keep your paws off his stuff. Despite all of the lawmaker protests against the FBI’s raid of William Jefferson’s congressional office, the American people wanted his door busted down.

A new ABC News poll has a whopping 86 percent of the country supporting the search. Can Congress ever convince America that it’s not a rag tag band of crooks? Joe, what’s going on?

SCARBOROUGH: Well, I’ll tell you what, it looks bad — it looks bad for Denny Hastert and the very people that were arguing that the FBI should be able to just come and kick down doors of Congressmen and senators. I’m with Denny Hastert on this, but I think most Americans ...

O’DONNELL: But not with the American people, Joe.

SCARBOROUGH: I know. I’m saying that America holds Congress in such contempt, that they — I think they want the FBI to shoot first and ask questions later.

O’DONNELL: But Margaret, don’t they believe the American people that Congress should not be above the law? That what this sounds like, this poll.

CARLSON: Joe, you’re such a regular guy. I’m surprised by this. You know, my feeling is it’s about time Congress got concerned about the privacy of the American people. It’s too bad it had to happen to them for them to show any concern for constitutional protections. And by the way, I don’t think the Speech and Debate Clause does protect criminal conduct. I don’t think it protects $90,000 in the freezer.

O’DONNELL: And, Craig, to be fair, it’s not just Speaker Hastert.  It’s also Nancy Pelosi. They signed a very rare bipartisan letter saying that they do not believe that this should be done. I mean, but doesn’t it look like out there they’re defending a guy who is alleged to have stuffed $90,000 in his freezer?

CRAWFORD: I agree with Joe. I mean, I think the legalities here are important. The constitutional protections for Congress are more important, but, you know, the House of Representatives is a truly representative body.  About the same percentage of criminals in the House as in the public as a whole. It’s perfect democracy.

CARLSON: You know, we don’t want to get into the legal stuff, but there is no real protection. The Speech and Debate Clause doesn’t protect illegal conduct, so there you are.

O’DONNELL: There you go.

I will be right back with much more. You’re watching — sorry, Joe.  You’re watching “HARDBALL Hotshots” only on HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. .

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O’DONNELL: Welcome back to “HARDBALL Hotshots” with Joe Scarborough, Margaret Carlson and Craig Crawford. Next up, ouch. A new Quinnipiac poll sends a devastatingly stark message to the president. Thirty-four percent say that he’s the worst president in history.

Richard Nixon takes second place, followed by Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Can anything short of a major, unforeseen event save the Bush presidency? Can he get anything done that he could have done without Iraq hanging over him? Joe, worse than Nixon?

SCARBOROUGH: Well, first of all, I’ve just got to say, if you have worse ratings from the American people than Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter, you’ve earned them.

O’DONNELL: Hard to go that low.

SCARBOROUGH: I would guess if you — it is hard to go that low, for me, especially Jimmy Carter. But if you look at John Kerry’s approval ratings, if you at Al Gore’s approval ratings, I would guess if you had Teddy Kennedy’s approval ratings, they would be lower. They were in a recent poll.

And I have been attacking the president, the administration, Republicans for being clueless hypocrites over the past six months, but I have got to say, I think Republicans are going to roll out God, gays, guns, Nancy Pelosi and Teddy Kennedy, and I think they may just scare enough voters to retain their majority unless Democrats step forward pretty aggressively with a game plan to say we’re different.

Because the scare tactics are being rolled out right now. And it is going to be that way for the next six months. I would not count the president, Karl Rove or the GOP out yet.

O’DONNELL: Craig, you’re an expert on a lot of the House and Senate races though. Does this poll suggest there is a lot of anger out there in the country that may hurt the Republicans in November?

CRAWFORD: I really think what is driving the president’s poll numbers down is people think we are losing the war in Iraq. It’s not that they’ve become pacifists. I think if we were showing a lot of progress on the ground in Iraq, I think it is just directly tied to that.

But Joe is right. You have got to work at it to get below, because I think there is a natural 40 percent approval for presidents, whoever they are. And when you stay below 40 percent more than a quarter, which he has, then something is seriously wrong.

I’ve already heard his supporters, you know, resorting to the last refuge of political failures, Harry Truman, comparing themselves to Harry Truman who ended his presidency unpopular, but became very popular maybe 20 years later.

O’DONNELL: All right, guys. That was awesome. Thank you, to Joe Scarborough, Craig Crawford and Margaret Carlson.

CARLSON: Thanks, Norah.

O’DONNELL: Tomorrow, 700 loyal Democrats are expected at the New Hampshire Democratic Convention. The party faithful will hear from Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold and former Virginia governor Mark Warner.

And while everyone is looking toward the November mid-terms, political gatherings like this give us an important glimpse into the 2008 presidential election.

And MSNBC.com’s Tom Curry previews the convention from Manchester, New Hampshire this evening.

Tom, let me ask you, who’s hot in New Hampshire?

TOM CURRY, MSNBC.COM: Well, I think this is going to be fascinating because it’s a giant focus group. It’s better than any poll. These are people who actually vote in the New Hampshire primary in 2008. I think they’re eager to see what Russ Feingold has to say because of his position on the war.

And you’ve been talking on your program, this whole program about the problems that our forces are having in Iraq. I think there’ll be great interest in what Feingold has to say.

Mark Warner, they’ve both — this is both their third trip to New Hampshire. So they’re trying very hard to make themselves known here.

O’DONNELL: Tom, you are blazing the trail out there with everybody on the ground, the activists that really matter, even before the rest of us get out there. So you really know the ground truth out there about what’s going on. And I understand you’ve been in Iowa recently as well.

And so how are they feeling about Senator Hillary Clinton as the Democratic front-runner?

CURRY: You know, Norah, the strange thing that I found when I was in Iowa 10 days ago is that active Democrats, loyal Democrats, they are pessimistic about Hillary Clinton running for their party’s nomination.

(CROSSTALK)

O’DONNELL: Really? Because they don’t think she can win?

CURRY: Because they think she would be defeated in the general election and because they think she is too polarizing a figure.

I didn’t — I could not come across one active Democrat in my four or five days in Iowa who was enthusiastic about her running. But they — oddly enough, they do want her to go out to Iowa to help raise money for local candidates.

(LAUGHTER)

O’DONNELL: Surprise, surprise. So please come out here and help me raise money, even though I think you can’t win.

So do you think that really hurts her, though, in 2008 or do you think these people would eventually come around?

CURRY: She is an unknown factor at this point. I mean, she is the most famous person — most famous politician in America.

But by doing nothing, she, to some extent, freezes the other candidates. I think Democrats will take a close look at Russ Feingold and Mark Warner and Evan Bayh.

But every time we bring up Senator Clinton’s name it diverts some attention from those candidates who are already hard at work. I mean, Mark Warner is here, Evan Bayh has been here, and Russ Feingold is going to be here tomorrow. So they’re all acting as if the campaign is already well under way. They’re trying to recruit supporters.

And it’ll be fascinating tomorrow to see what kind of reaction these 700 people give to these two speeches.

O’DONNELL: And do you think that Evan Bayh and Mark Warner are the other alternatives to Senator Clinton that everybody seems to like up there?

CURRY: Well, in Iowa I found a lot of interest in Evan Bayh.

Here I think they’re waiting to see what these two candidates have to say tomorrow...

O’DONNELL: All right. Thank you to Tom Curry.

CURRY: ... and keep in mind you have others in the field, too.

O’DONNELL: And go to hardball.MSNBC.com for Tom Curry’s reports this weekend.

On Monday, Chris Matthews returns with former G.E. chairman Jack Welch.

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

Copyright 2006 MSNBC and Voxant Inc.

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