updated 6/20/2006 12:11:32 PM ET 2006-06-20T16:11:32

Guests: Howard Dean, Jeffrey Zaun, George Allen, Tom DeFrank, Tony Blankley

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Two American soldiers missing in Iraq.  Witnesses say they were kidnapped in the triangle of death.  Now thousands of American and Iraqi forces are on the hunt.  How will the U.S. military find them.  Let‘s play HARDBALL. 

Good evening, I‘m Norah O‘Donnell, in for Chris Matthews, welcome to HARDBALL.  Tonight, two troubling reminders that we live in dangerous times.  The Pentagon has 8,000 U.S. and Iraqis troops searching for two American soldiers who are missing in Iraq.  Although unconfirmed by the U.S. military, an al Qaeda faction in Iraq says it kidnapped the two soldiers who disappeared after an attack on a checkpoint where a third soldier was killed.  In a moment, we‘ll find out what the government is doing to find them. 

And we‘re going to meet a man who survived being captured and tortured in Iraq.  And North Korea has a missile that could reach American soil.  Today, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned North Korea against testing a long range ballistic missile, saying it would be a serious matter and indeed a provocative act. 

And the midterm elections are just months away, we‘ll talk to Senator George Allen, who is up for reelection this year and Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.  We‘ll talk about whether Democrats have a unified plan for Iraq.  But first, MSNBC‘s David Shuster has this report on the two missing soldiers. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Despite checkpoints in a dragnet south of Baghdad, it was the news today U.S. military officials had feared.  An Iraqi insurgent group vowing revenge for the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, issued a statement saying the two U.S.  soldiers are in their hands and under arrest.  U.S. military officials say they cannot verify the claim, but the Pentagon today identified the missing man as Private Kristian Menchaca , 23-year-old from Houston Texas and 25-year-old private Thomas Tucker of Oregon. 

MAJ. GEN. WILLIAM CALDWELL, U.S. MILITARY SPOKESMAN:  We are using all available assets, coalition and Iraqi, to find our soldiers, and will not stop looking until we find them. 

SHUSTER:  Military officials say more than 8,000 U.S. troops and Iraqi police have been involved in the search.  Commanders have deployed fighter aircraft, helicopters and unmanned surveillance drones, and so far, U.S.  troops going house to house have swept through more than a dozen Iraqi villages.  Military officials say the U.S. soldiers went missing Friday evening while manning a traffic control point 15 miles southwest of Baghdad. 

The area near the village of Yusafiya is known by U.S. troops as the triangle of death, because it has long been considered one of the most dangerous in Iraq.  According to U.S. commanders, insurgents attacked the U.S. soldiers at the American roadblock just before 8:00 p.m.  One soldier was killed, 25-year-old specialist David Babineau (ph) of Springfield, Massachusetts.  U.S. commanders believe Menchaca and Tucker were then taken hostage.  All three soldiers were based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. 

CALDWELL:  Words cannot express the sadness we feel at the loss of Specialist Babineau  and the uncertainty that the families of P.F.C Menchaca and P.F.C Tucker must be experiencing.  Our deepest sympathy goes out to their families. 

SHUSTER:  The last known capture of an American soldier came just over two years ago, when insurgents attacked an American convoy near Fallujah. 

SERGEANT KEITH MATTHEW MAUPIN, U.S. Military:  My name is Keith Matthew Maupin. 

SHUSTER:  Sergeant Matt Maupin was shown in this video, given to the Arabic cable channel, al-Jazeera.  Two years later, Maupin remains missing in action.  The most famous rescue of a U.S. soldier missing in Iraq involved private Jessica Lynch.  During the invasion, her maintenance convoy was ambushed and in a shoot out Iraqi soldiers killed 11 of Lynch‘s comrades.  A few weeks later an Iraqi man told U.S. troops that an injured American POW was being treated in Nasiriyah hospital.  U.S. special forces conducted a raid, found Lynch and carried her out. 

The difference now is that the abduction of Kristian Menchaca and Thomas Tucker appears to be part of an orchestrated plan by Iraqi insurgents.  It was 10 days ago when U.S. forces killed al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and ever since then, U.S. military officials believe his followers have been especially eager to kidnap American soldiers and use them as part of a well publicized retaliation. 

(on camera):  Vigils have now begun in the home towns of soldiers Tucker and Menchacas.  Publicly, officials are trying to be optimistic that the men will be rescued or released alive.  Privately officials acknowledge that the group claiming to have abducted the two U.S. soldiers is among Iraq‘s most ruthless and cold blooded.  I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL:  Thank you David Shuster.  Jim Miklaszewski is NBC‘s Pentagon correspondent.  Jim, thank you for joining us.  Let‘s first just listen to the family of Private First Class Thomas Tucker, just recently released this audiotape.  It was left on their voice mail from the private. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

P.F.C. THOMAS TUCKER:  You guys be safe while I‘m gone, you know, be careful out there on the roads.  You know, I worry about you guys to.  I‘m going to be OK, everything‘s going to be OK.  I‘m going to go defend my country.  Be proud of me, I love you guys.  And I know you love me.  So, I will call you as much as I can and you guys will never not know what I‘m doing.  And I love you once again and I miss you already.  I‘ll talk to you later, bye.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  We don‘t know when that voice mail was left, but as you know, Jim, those are the types of voice mail messages that many families who have soldiers and troops fighting overseas, they save voice mail messages from loved ones because of moments like this that could happen.  Let me ask you first, did military officials fear some type of kidnapping, retaliation, pay back like this, after the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi? 

JIM MIKLASZEWSKI, NBC NEWS - THE PENTAGON:  Norah, this has long been one of the worst nightmares for the U.S. military and Pentagon officials, but one senior military official tells us that in sitting around and brainstorming, after the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, military officials were trying to figure out, well, how would al-Qaeda retaliate, what would their next step be?  And this was one of the possibilities at the top their list.  That al-Qaeda and in the case of the Mujahadeen council, which has claimed responsibility for capturing these two American soldiers, this was a distinct possibility in the minds of U.S. military officials. 

O‘DONNELL:  And why do military officials believe that they would change their tactics from trying to kill more U.S. troops to trying to capture some?  What do they think they want to do with them? 

MIKLASZEWSKI:  Well, you know, that has long been one the objectives of al-Qaeda in Iraq, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.  But the tactics were such that the U.S. military managed to remain a pretty cohesive group.  As we heard from David Shuster, a moment ago, Matt Maupin, who was on a convoy patrol early on during the conflict with the insurgents in Iraq, was the only American soldier taken captive alive by insurgents and/or terrorists. 

But in this case, what we saw here was a very sophisticated attack, where it‘s believed that some al-Qaeda fighters created a diversionary attack that drew many of the troops away from this central location, this checkpoint, and that at that point only three soldiers were left at the checkpoint, some serious questions being raised about how that happened, and then another group of armed insurgents and/or terrorists descended upon that checkpoint, there was one explosion, one soldier was killed, and witnesses in the area said they saw a group of about nine or 10 insurgents then loading the two soldiers into a vehicle and leaving the scene.  And at this point, U.S. officials have no idea really who is directly responsible for this act, although they suspect al-Qaeda related, and at this point they tell us, that these two soldiers have simply disappeared. 

O‘DONNELL:  Quickly, Mik, let me ask you about North Korea, the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying that this will be treated with the utmost seriousness, this is viewed as a provocative act.  Could there be a military response? 

MIKLASZEWSKI:  Not likely.  Right now, this long range missile is sitting, apparently fully fueled and ready to fire on a remote lawn pad in northeast Korea, and many experts, including some military officials, fully expect that the missile will be launched.  But everybody is taking a step back and being a little cautious, because nobody has any clear idea exactly what kind of test, if there‘s a test conducted, what kind of test this will be. 

The last time, in 1998, when the North Koreans fired a long range missile, it flew directly over Japan, which was considered a highly provocative act, and the U.S., Condoleezza Rice, has warned against what would be considered a provocative act, but what will happen?  And there are plenty of U.S. military, satellites, planes, ships, ground-based radars that are going to be keeping a close eye on this test to gather up whatever intelligence they can, again, if the test is conducted, although we‘re told that it‘s expected to come as early as mid-day Wednesday, Korea time. 

O‘DONNELL:  Mik, great reporting.  Thank you very much for joining us.  I appreciate it.  Former Navy Lieutenant Jeffrey Zaun was shot down on the first night of Operation Desert Storm, more than 15 years ago.  He was held prisoner by Saddam Hussein for 46 days.  When he refused to give up information to his captors about his mission, he was repeatedly beaten.  Mr. Zaun is best known for the video he was forced to make, denouncing the allied invasion of Iraq.  Jeffrey Zaun, welcome.  Thank you for joining us.  Tell us about the abuse that you suffered from your captors, Saddam Hussein‘s thugs.

JEFFREY ZAUN, NAVY LIEUTENANT, FORMER IRAQ POW:  Well first, it took a couple of days.  First, I was taken to an infirmary and they treated me for my injuries and then I was taken all the way to Baghdad.  Again, more hospitalization.  And it depended on who you were with, because when the doctors turned me over to the Air Force, they started interrogating me.  Didn‘t get much and then I was turned over to the secret police, and that was a different world.  So...

O‘DONNELL:  But you know, this is a very different circumstance than 15 years ago, where there was a government in place, and it was Saddam Hussein‘s government, who had captured you, was torturing you, was trying to interrogate you, get information out of you, made you make that videotape.

We‘re now dealing with terrorists who have likely captured two of our soldiers.  What do you think is going on?

ZAUN:  Well right now it‘s a propaganda issue, I would guess.  Again, a lot of this is speculation.  Probably about a third of what we‘re assuming is going to turn out to be not correct, but right now, we know that two fellows are missing.  We know he that someone claims to have them, we don‘t know if that‘s correct. 

We‘re just going to wait and have to see if they pop up.  If they‘re being held, I‘m actually fairly optimistic that there‘s no real setup for torturing people as it was under Uday, who was the person that was in charge of us.

O‘DONNELL:  Saddam Hussein‘s son?

ZAUN:  Yes.  These guys are interested in propaganda, so you may see -

in other words, it‘s difficult to attack the U.S. military.  They are able to use roadside bombs, they are able to inflict some, in military terms, not in your...

O‘DONNELL:  Lieutenant, I think probably what most Americans are most worried about is that they‘ve got two of our soldiers, and that this is in retaliation for the killing of al-Zarqawi, and we don‘t know what these terrorists are going to be doing with our soldiers.  Clearly it‘s propaganda, clearly they want to try and use something in return, strike fear.  But what it‘s like from the perspective of a soldier who‘s been captured?  Were you extremely fearful?

ZAUN:  Well, yes, you‘re extremely fearful the whole time.  At first there‘s more disorientation.  After a couple of days and now it‘s been a couple of days, they‘ll be trying to figure out their surroundings. 

I called it emotional vertigo, because you start to—your know, you relate a lot to the fear and the fear that you‘ll be killed.  And being alone was ripped away from your team.  Remember, these are team players.  They‘re used to coping with their group of guys.  It‘s a rough and tumble group of people.  They‘re very close.  It‘s an intimate interdependence and now they‘re away from their team.

That to me was one of the greatest difficulties.  These folks will have had some basic survival evasion rescue and escape training and they‘ll know the code of conduct.  And hopefully, you know, they‘ll recur to that and it will help them remember which side they‘re on and be clear about what they need to be doing or what they need to be thinking about and trying.  Prayer helps a lot, too.

O‘DONNELL:  And we know that there are 8,000 Iraqi and U.S. troops out there looking for them, on a manhunt for them, so thank you, Lieutenant Jeffrey Zaun, we appreciate it.

And coming up, do Democrats need a unified anti-war plan to take control of Congress?  We‘re going to ask the Democratic Party Chair Howard Dean.  And later, Senator George Allen might have his eyes on the White House in 2008.  But first, he might have a reelection fight in 2006.  Allen will talk about his plans to win another term.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  After getting a clean bill of health in the CIA leak case, Karl Rove came out swinging at anti-war Democrats.  This past weekend, Congressman John Murtha hit back on “Meet the Press.”  Let‘s take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KARL ROVE, WHITE HOUSE SENIOR ADVISER:  When it gets tough and when it gets difficult, they fall back on that party‘s old pattern of cutting and running.  They may be with you at the first shots, but they‘re not going to be there for the last tough battles.

REP. JOHN MURTHA (D), PENNSYLVANIA:  He‘s in New Hampshire, he‘s making the political speech, he‘s sitting in his air-conditioned office in his back fat back side saying stay the course.  That‘s not a plan.  I mean, this guy—I don‘t know what his military experience is but that‘s a political statement.  This is a policy difference between me and the White House.  I disagree completely with what he‘s saying.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Earlier today, I spoke to the Democrats‘ national chairman Howard Dean and I asked him about this fight and the heated elections that are coming up this fall.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HOWARD DEAN, DNC CHAIRMAN:  I believe that John Murtha, who served two terms in Vietnam and 37 years as a combat veteran marine, knows a great deal about national defense than anybody in the Republican National Committee and in the large majority of people in the White House.

You can‘t—you simply can‘t trust the Republicans to defend America anymore.  It‘s not that they‘re not willing to be tough, it‘s just that they‘re not smart.  They‘ve gotten us into a situation in Iraq, we had one week of good news, now two of our brave soldiers are kidnapped.  You cannot trust people who won‘t pay attention to the military and will send our troops abroad without proper equipment.  You can‘t trust those people to defend America.  I submit to you that it is the Republicans that are weak on defense, because they don‘t know what they‘re doing.

O‘DONNELL:  Well respond directly to what Karl Rove was saying, because what he said is that they may be with you at the first shots, but they are not going to be with you for the last tough battles, both John Kerry and John Murtha voted for this war and Karl Rove says they‘re not sticking with us to the end, they‘re cutting and running.

DEAN:  John Murtha and John Kerry served in Vietnam.  Karl Rove did not, George Bush did not, Dick Cheney did not, Don Rumsfeld did not and they wouldn‘t listen to the people who did.

The fact is you can‘t trust these folks, they didn‘t serve abroad defending America.  They talk tough, but the fact is that they are sitting in an air-conditioned office on various parts of their anatomy and it is big cheap to talk in Washington or to fly in for a half a day with the troops, but what about sending our troops over there with proper equipment?

What about standing up for what the troops really need, not just talking a good game?  You can‘t rely on the Republicans to defend America.  Today we see North Korea about to set off a missile.  North Korea has been doing that for five and a half years while George Bush has been president and the president hasn‘t done anything about it and now look at where we are.  You‘ve got to be tough, but you‘ve got to be tough and smart, Norah.

O‘DONNELL:  We‘re going to talk about North Korea in just a minute, but let‘s go back to the issue of Iraq.  And Congressman Murtha says that we cannot win in Iraq.  Do you honestly believe that the American voters are going to vote for Democrats in November who say we can‘t win in Iraq?

DEAN:  We‘re not going to win with this president in command, because this president didn‘t understand what was happening when we went in there.  He misled the nation about what we were going to find when we did.  How about Don Rumsfeld saying their oil revenues were going to pay for all of this.  It‘s going to cost us a trillion dollars.  How about Don Rumsfeld saying that they were going to welcome us with open arms and parades.  Give us a break. 

This president got us in there without understanding what he was doing, I would be honored to have people who actually served this country in a war leading this country again, to talk to us about what it really takes to fight a war.  I don‘t think the Republicans understand that. 

O‘DONNELL:  With all due respect, Chairman Dean, many of these issues were talked about in the 2004 election and so what many voters may be talking about in this election is the way forward.  What do we do in Iraq now.  Why is it that the Democrats, who just unveiled this new plan last week called the new direction for America make absolutely no mention of Iraq in a plan for Iraq.  Doesn‘t that just reinforce the idea that Democrats are weak on national security, they can‘t come together and put together a plan? 

DEAN:  No, actually, the unified Democratic plan does call for something to do with Iraq, it calls for a transition now, it calls for a redeployment of our troops so we get them out of harm‘s way while we‘re still able to respond to the terrorist threat. 

O‘DONNELL:  What does a redeployment of troops mean? 

DEAN:  Well, let me first answer your question.  What you were talking about is the House agenda for what they were he going to pass, should they come back in power, which is increasing the minimum wage, balancing the budget, which the Republicans haven‘t been able to do.  In fact, no Republican has balanced the budget for 40 years. 

O‘DONNELL:  You‘re still not dealing with the issue of Iraq.  You have three quarters of the House Democrats who say they want some sort of phased withdrawal, if you will, from Iraq.  You have multiple resolutions and amendments being put forward in the Senate, even a new one today by Senators Reid and Senators Levin.  So with all this talk out there, why is it the Democrats can‘t put down on paper exactly what their unified plan is.  What are you trying to avoid? 

DEAN:  Well, first of all, let me remind you that it‘s the Republicans that run everything.  I think it‘s pretty terrific of the Democrats to put down a plan because the Republicans don‘t seem to have one of any kind, except a permanent commitment to a failed strategy, which we got into because we weren‘t told the truth. 

Our plan is this is a transition year, which the Republicans have now adopted, which I think is great, and there‘s going to be a redeployment our troops, some to other countries, for example, Afghanistan, some in the region out of Iraq but in the region ready to respond to events in Iraq, some remaining in Iraq for a period of time, in order to train the Iraqis and the guard and reserves coming home.  I think that‘s a good plan, I think it‘s a Democratic plan, and I think it‘s far better than the Republicans that have no plan of any kind. 

O‘DONNELL:  So this word phased redeployment, means a withdrawal with a timetable? 

DEAN:  No it doesn‘t.  It means just what it, a phased redeployment.  That means some troops will come home, others will stay in the region for a length of time.  Because, we are not going to be able to bring all our troops out of this region.  We can get them out of Iraq, but we cannot get them out of the region because the president has destabilized Iraq and created a situation where terrorists now are in Iraq, where they were not before. 

O‘DONNELL:  Let me ask you, you are the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee.  John Kerry is proposing an amendment, which would call for a timed withdrawal our troops, by next year sometime.  Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton rejects such a timetable.  Who‘s right, John Kerry or Hillary Clinton? 

DEAN:  As a matter of fact, Hillary Clinton said what a lot of us have been saying, which is we cannot have a permanent commitment to a failed strategy.  This is not an argument about whether to have a timetable or not. 

This is an argument about what kind of timetable we should have and what you‘re going to see this week in the Senate is Senator Reid, Senator Feinstein and others asking the president for just exactly what the Iraqi government has already said, give us a specific plan to get out of Iraq.  You cannot trust the Republicans to do this.  They got us in there without knowing what they were doing and they still don‘t know what they‘re doing.  We think we do know what we‘re doing. 

O‘DONNELL:  Alright, when we come back, more with the Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean on what Vice-President Cheney said about Iraq and 9-11 and the latest on North Korea. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  And we are back with the Chairman the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean.  Let me ask you, Vice-President Cheney said today, it‘s no accident that the United States has not been attacked since 9-11, just last week, he said that taking out Saddam Hussein was, in part, the reason we‘ve not been attacked.  Your reaction? 

DEAN:  That‘s complete hooey.  Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9-11.  That‘s just part of the Republican nonsense that got us in to Iraq in the first place and the Americans now know that‘s complete hooey and the president and vice-president were not telling the truth when they said that. 

O‘DONNELL:  But he said it‘s in part because we‘ve done a better job protecting Americans overseas, by taking the fight over seas, it‘s in part because of the Patriot Act and in part because of domestic surveillance.  Can‘t you give this administration some credit?  It is true there‘s not been an attack on American soil in five years. 

DEAN:  That is true and that‘s terrific but they haven‘t secured our ports.  They haven‘t secure our nuclear plants, we‘ve lost 2500 brave American soldiers, because we attacked the wrong country and we‘re not doing the job we should in Afghanistan because we don‘t have enough troops over there.  These folks fundamentally don‘t know what they‘re doing. 

O‘DONNELL:  Let‘s turn to the issue of North Korea, clearly the top issue today.  Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying that it would be a very serious matter if in fact North Korea moves forward with this test of this long range missile.  She called it a provocative act by North Korea.  What should be done? 

DEAN:  I think what should have been done five years ago is we should have gotten much more serious about North Korea, and not let the hard liners in the Bush administration think that North Korea was going to fall apart by themselves.  That‘s why nothing has been done in the last five and a half years.  Look, we are where we are.  I agree with Secretary Rice, it is provocative, we have to deal with North Korea. 

The way to deal with them is to make the deal with the Chinese that should have been made five years ago, that we will resume food and fuel shipments to North Korea and they will allow an inspection, verifiable inspection on the ground in North Korea.  The Chinese have the possibility of enforcing that agreement.  We do not right now, unless you want to go to an all-out war. 

This should have been taken up five years ago and it‘s exactly what the difference between the Republicans and Democrats on defense.  We‘re tough, but we‘re also smart and we realize what the real priorities were.  This is a real problem.  Saddam Hussein was an ugly dictator who needed to be gone, but we were controlling him.  We have not controlled North Korea, and that now is a threat to the United States of America. 

O‘DONNELL:  So are you saying then that if North Korea does in fact move forward with this test of a long range missile, that you would propose that there should be a military response by the United States? 

DEAN:  No, I‘m not proposing that immediately, but we are far closer to a military response than we ever needed to be because this could have been dealt with five years ago had we been tougher then. 

O‘DONNELL:  All right, the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Howard Dean.  Thank you for your time. 

DEAN:  Thanks very much

O‘DONNELL:  And coming up, Virginia Senator George Allen might have a reelection fight ahead of him for 2006, but will Democrats be able to beat by focusing on his potential plan for 2008?  What‘s his strategy for victory?  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)

O‘DONNELL:  As Americans wait to hear the fate of the two missing soldiers and while the world watches as North Korea puts the finishing touches on a missile that could reach America, Americans are wondering, are things getting worse?  Is the world getting more dangerous?

Here to talk about the war in Iraq, North Korea, and big elections in 2006 and 2008 is Virginia Senator George Allen.  Full plate here of things to talk about today.  But let‘s first begin with North Korea.  How do we deal with a crazy man, Kim Jong-Il, who is essentially fueling up a long- range ballistic missile that could reach America?

SEN. GEORGE ALLEN ®, VIRGINIA:  What we‘ve been trying to do is not just have the United States and North Korea, but have South Korea, Russia,  Japan and the country that really props up North Korea—China involved in it. 

China, obviously, apparently, I should say, doesn‘t seem to care about this provocation.  North Korea back in 1999 said that we‘re going to stop these sort of tests.  Obviously they‘re not to be trusted for their word and their promises. 

It means I think for our country another example of why we probably ought to have a missile defense system.  You have these rogue nations, it‘s not just China, it‘s not just Russia that we have to worry about.  It‘s countries such as North Korea.  Sanctions I suppose could be put on, but the sanctions aren‘t going to mean much because everything, the lifeline for North Korea, is China.

O‘DONNELL:  They‘re virtually isolated anyway, except from everyone except for China and some other Asian countries.  Do you believe that the president has authority to take military action if need be in North Korea? 

ALLEN:  Well I think that we‘re going to have all our guard up in the event that this missile is launched, I think our guard is going to be up to see where it goes and who knows, it may fairly be erratic.

As far as military action, you mean, if they‘d launch this missile, does the president have the right to attack North Korea on it?  No, I don‘t think the president has that authority to do so.  Unless it hit our country, then it‘s—you‘re going to have a chance to respond there, but I don‘t think it‘s intended to hit our country.  I think it‘s intended to show that we could hit the United States.

O‘DONNELL:  As a show of force.  It‘s interesting this week, there‘s going to be a lot about the Axis of Evil, we‘re talking about North Korea, the president is traveling overseas to Vienna.  We‘ll be talking a lot about Iran.  Iraq is once again, of course, as always in the headline.  The big headline out of Iraq certainly today is that two of our soldiers are missing and may have been captured by al Qaeda.  Do you believe this is payback for the killing of al-Zarqawi?

ALLEN:  I think—I don‘t think there‘s any difference in the way that al Qaeda and these terrorists work for the last 10 years.  If they can get an American, they‘re going to try to catch him.  They‘ve been catching not just soldiers, they‘re catching journalists, they‘re getting people that are over there on a peace mission trying to help out the Iraqi people and they behead them.

So this is part of the difference in what we‘re facing.  We‘re facing enemies, these terrorists who are beheading men, women, and children and what we‘re trying to do is stand up and give the people of Iraq a vote.  Meanwhile, they‘re capturing and beheading individuals.

O‘DONNELL:  So respond to what has been the criticism by some that our actual presence there in Iraq is antagonizing these people and that they are retaliating by capturing our soldiers.  And if we weren‘t there, something like this wouldn‘t happen.

ALLEN:  Oh my goodness.  If we weren‘t there, if we weren‘t there, Saddam would still be in power, so he‘d be obviously tormenting and repressing the people of Iraq. 

Let‘s assume we pull out.  You‘d have more influence of the terrorists there, you would have more influence of Syria and Iran into Iraq.  When I was in Iraq just a couple weeks ago, whether they were Kurds, Sunnis, or Shiites, they all are so grateful and appreciative to the Americans and our coalition partners for liberating them, and they also recognize that the United States is there to help this fledgling democracy stand up and they are training more and more Iraqis in their security forces, as well as police.  And in fact, they‘re leading more and more of their missions, including the good focus, logical focus in the Baghdad area right now.

O‘DONNELL:  The president has been making the case that progress is being made in Iraq, Vice President Cheney talking about that again today.  That it‘s part of the reason we haven‘t had an attack since 9/11, that controversial remark. 

Nevertheless, politically in this country, more than half of Americans say the war was not worth it, Iraq was not worth it and you are facing reelection this year in 2006.  You‘ve got a candidate, a guy named Jim Webb who used to be a Republican who‘s running as an anti-war Democrat and he‘s got—he‘s challenging you and you‘re usually pretty safe in a red state.  I mean, what does that say about the state of American politics that senators like you can be challenged by an anti-war Democrat?

ALLEN:  Well, Senator John Kerry came in and supported my ultimate opponent, before he got nominated, he was there at his victory party and so Senator John Kerry and other Massachusetts liberals have a view that what we need—and if you listen to him very closely is what they would like to see is a strategic plan for retreat. 

I think that Virginians and all Americans think that what we need to do is bring together the American people, our allies, as well as countries around Iraq, whether that‘s the Kuwaitis, Bahrain, Turkey and Jordan and have a strategic plan for success rather than tuck and tail and running.  And so if they want to be with John Kerry in that point of view, that‘s fine.

And I realize this is difficult and we have to be realistic.  But recognize that there is some slow progress.  It‘s going to be difficult, but ultimately what we should not be doing is embolding the terrorists.  What we ought to be doing is backing up and keeping our word to the Iraqi people as well as our coalition partners.

O‘DONNELL:  You talked about Senator John Kerry, who along with some other Democratic senators this week in the Senate are introducing resolutions, amendments, calling for some sort of phased redeployment or timetable.  We just learned tonight Senator John Kerry is now pushing back the date, that he is calling for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq.  He originally said it should be December 31st of this year, but now he says he thinks it should be July 1st, 2007.

ALLEN:  I don‘t know what happened to him over the weekend, but we got another six months. This is the unsteady sort of leadership that I think the American people reject.  It is the sort of approach that I do think can embolden our enemies.  But also caused dismay to our allies, if this is the sort of leadership that comes from the United States and I also think it can be discouraging to the Iraqi government and leaders who are really brave.

And I guarantee you, these terrorists would like to knock them out.  They don‘t like the idea of a free and just society where men and women have the right to vote, where you have freedom of expression for men and women and they don‘t like freedom of religion as well.

So the reality is what we have to be looking at are actual benchmarks and the bench marks are more Iraqis being trained in their own security, building with their own hands, electricity, water, sewer, those sort of things.  Those are the bench marks where I think our troops will be able to stand down.

O‘DONNELL:  I have to ask you quickly because we notice that you were in Iowa over the weekend, with some other Republicans.  What were you doing there?

ALLEN:  They asked me way back in the winter if I would come and speak to the Iowa Federation Republican Women at their luncheon, at their convention. 

O‘DONNELL:  And how were you received?

ALLEN:  It was a great reception for folks.  My mother and father were married in Sioux City, Iowa, so it was fun to be there and I also do keep my commitments.

O‘DONNELL:  I read recently though that you recently said you wish you were born in Iowa.

ALLEN:  Well during the gestation period, my father got his first head coaching job was at Morningside College in Sioux City where my mother met him.  My mother came over from Tunisia and fell in love with my father, they got married.

During the gestation period, my father got a job at Whittier College, the poets, a fierce name for a team, and so that‘s where I was born.  Of course my preference would have been my father got offered a job at the University of Virginia and I could have been born in Charlottesville like all my kids.

O‘DONNELL:  Well very well, Senator George Allen, thank you very much for joining us, we appreciate it.  And up next, President Bush is helping his party tonight raise $23 million.  Is the campaigner in chief an asset or a liability for Republicans in 2006?  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Do you think that you underestimated the insurgency‘s strength?

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I think so.  I guess the—if I look back on it now, I don‘t think anybody anticipated the level of violence that we‘ve encountered.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  That was Vice President Cheney speaking earlier today about the situation in Iraq.  As you heard, Cheney said he thinks that he underestimated the insurgency there.  The vice president was on hand to award the Gerald Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on the presidency to Tom DeFrank, the Washington bureau chief of the “New York Daily News,” who‘s here.  Congratulations, Tom.

And Tony Blankley is the editorial page editor of the “Washington Times.”  Congratulations to you, Tom.  Let me ask you because you been doing some pretty tough reporting on this White House over the past year.  Some of the headlines from your articles, “Bushies Blew It Again, Republicans Grumble.”  “W‘s Legacy Threatened, W Tries to Salvage his Image as a Leader.”  You also reported that Cheney was increasingly marginalized inside the White House.

So what was it like to get this award from Dick Cheney today?

TOM DEFRANK, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS:  Well, unlike some of the people around, the vice president is a total grown up about things like this.  First I should say I don‘t write the headlines for my paper.  We‘ve got very creative and clever headline writers.  But I don‘t write the headlines and not every headline on my stories are the same.

But the vice president is a grownup about things like this.  He and I have been dealing with each other for almost 32 years and he was generous and gracious, and he even took a picture with my 10-year-old son.  He couldn‘t have been—he couldn‘t have been more gracious.

O‘DONNELL:  Well congratulations to you.  Tony, let me ask you about what the vice president said today.  He did not back away from his comment, the insurgency was in its last throes.  But he did say that they underestimated the intensity of the insurgency.

TONY BLANKLEY, EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR, THE WASHINGTON TIMES:  It‘s obvious, there‘s no other statement one could make at it point, given the characterizations that they made in 2002 and early 2003.

So he wasn‘t giving away a lot.  Clearly they did underestimate it.  I mean, they were talking about the plans were for General Franks to move the troops out within weeks of entering Baghdad.  We understand now that that was never a practical policy.  So he made the concession to reality, which is what as Tom said, adults do.

O‘DONNELL:  Well the big news of course this weekend, the Senate is going to be there debating the money for Iraq, but there‘s a bunch of Democrats who are attaching amendments that say we‘ve got to have a phased redeployment.  We‘ve got to have a timetable for withdrawal. 

Senator Kerry tonight saying now that he is going to push back the date that he wanted U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq.  He said originally he wanted it December 31st of this year.  Now he says it should be July 1st, 2007.  Tom, are the Republicans going to eat him alive for this statement?

DEFRANK:  Music to the president‘s ears, music to the vice president‘s ears, music to Karl Rove‘s ears.  You can‘t fight a war in my opinion with deadlines and time tables.  And I continue to say the best thing that Bush has got going for him is Democratic leaders who propose things like this.

O‘DONNELL:  No doubt Rove is going to hack John Kerry for making this particular statement.  What about those who say—the other people who make the argument yes, but a majority of this country want troops to start coming home.  Why isn‘t this what politically Americans want?

BLANKLEY:  Whatever American people want, at any given moment, presidents and senators and congressman have a responsibility to care, act in the nation‘s national security interest and try then to communicate to the people and explain why they think they‘re right and that part of the public is wrong.  But going back to Kerry‘s point, it‘s more than simply another before I was for it, I was against it kind of moment. 

It tells you something more deep about the nature of these kind of criticisms, which is that they‘re not, they‘re not sincere.  I mean, he picked a date last week, because that was a date that popped into his head.  Now he picks another date.  It‘s to be frivolous about the nature of this kind of a struggle to be having that mentality, neither of those dates are right.  We don‘t know what the right date is. 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, we‘ll have to hear from Senator John Kerry who I assume has an explanation for why U.S. troops need another six months in Iraq. 

Now, we‘ll be back with Tome DeFrank and Tony Blankley for more on Decision 2006 and Decision 2008.  How are today‘s debates shaping presidential plans and vice versa.  You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL, I‘m Norah O‘Donnell in for Chris Matthews.  Between Iraq and North Korea, the American people keep hearing how the world is not a safe place.  What can the president do about it?  We are back with Tom DeFrank of “The Daily News,” and Tony Blankley of “The Washington Times.” 

Clearly, there are other big issues facing the president, but one of the big things, of course, that we learned last week was that Karl Rove has been cleared in the CIA leak investigation, and we learned in the past couple days that apparently he had been quite hamstrung by this leak investigation and now they feel that he is just free as a bird, if you will, in order to go out and just attack Democrats.  Does this mean the unleashing of Karl Rove and that Republicans are back in the driving seat, Tom? 

DEFRANK:  Yes, in a word.  But I think Rove was distracted, certainly, spending more time with lawyers than he would otherwise, but I think he has been the spiritual leader of the Fall campaign strategy, and I think we‘re going to see more of the cut and run as a Rove creation and I think he is definitely in the driver‘s seat for the Fall. 

O‘DONNELL:  Rove is setting the agenda, Tony, in terms of letting the Republicans know let‘s actually take on the issue of Iraq, rather than run a way from our liability, what the voters say is our liability.  Let‘s take on this issue and let‘s draw a nice, sharp, clean, black and white contrast with the Democrats for the 2006 election, and the Democrats now look really divided on what their plan is for Iraq? 

BLANKLEY:  Yes, Karl is a good person to do that, and he was restrained from doing that, behind the scenes, obviously, he was still the intellectual designer of the White House‘s politics throughout that period.   As far as the actual strategy of embracing the Iraq policy, it remains to be seen.  I think that it‘s good to be unified and the public will think negatively if they are in Iraq any way.  But it‘s a gamble because Iraq is, to a measurable extent, going to go extraneous to what politicians are doing, events are going to unfold in Iraq, and right now, this week, it feels good to be behind it, and of course I am, you know, substantively, supporting it, but who knows what kind of events may occur. 

O‘DONNELL:  That‘s interesting.  So you think this actually is really a gamble to place Iraq at the top? 

BLANKLEY:  It‘s a partial gamble.  The big truth, and why Karl is right in going down this path is that the public will blame Republicans generally any way.  So there‘s not as much to lose.  On the other hand, having these votes and having specifics actions by individual congressmen and senators in both parties, both parties are now forcing their members in to taking very explicit positions six months or less before the campaign and giving less maneuver room for the back benchers. 

DEFRANK:  And there is something that is going on under the radar, Norah, that has nothing to do with Iraq.  Although, I agree with Tony, the president is to a certain extent a hostage on Iraq.  If things are better, that‘s good for him.  If things are not better, politically, is going to be bad for him and the party on November seventh.  Under the radar, Karl Rove is just spending millions of dollars and lots and lots of time putting together a massive get out the vote organization, and that‘s what he does probably better than just about anybody around.  And that‘s what Republicans and the president are hoping will carry the day even if the news from Iraq is not as great as they would like it to be on November the seventh. 

O‘DONNELL:  That was the untold story in many ways, I think, of the 2004 election.  Rather than reach out to the middle of the road or independents, Karl Rove said let‘s grow the Republican party, and any place that we went, it was to some city where it was 2-1 voter registration in favor of Republicans and Karl said we‘re going to make it 2.5-1 or 3-1 and just grow more Republicans.  They‘re going to do it again in 2006.  Let me ask you about the Democrats.  Senator John Kerry is calling for a time table, Senator Clinton said the timetable is wrong.  Where does this put them in 2008 politics? 

DEFRANK:  All over the map.  And this White House has proved masterful in exploiting those sorts of schisms inside the Democratic party.  

O‘DONNELL:  Is Hillary going to be on the wrong side of this or is her hawkish stance going to help her?

BLANKLEY:  Well her hawkish stance either is going to help her or hurt in 2008, she has to worry about 2006.  If the war is reasonably satisfactory to the American public by 2008, she is in fine shape.  If the public is turned off to the war, at least the Democratic half of the public, by late 2007, 2008 then she is in big trouble. 

DEFRANK:  And Hillary has another problem, irrespective of this, which is about a third of the Democratic party, the liberal base, is becoming increasingly furious at her for allegedly being in the tank for the Bush policy. 

Exactly, thank you to Tony Blankley and Tom DeFrank.  Congratulations on your award.  Play HARDBALL with us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern.  Our guest include a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner, who will tell us about the conditions and treatment he experienced there.  Here is a preview of that. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He was kicking me.  . 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

That‘s Tuesday, only on HARDBALL.  Right now it‘s time for “THE ABRAMS

REPORT.”

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

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