updated 6/21/2006 11:02:19 AM ET 2006-06-21T15:02:19

Guests: Richard Durbin, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Bob Shrum, Kate O‘Beirne, Ken Mehlman

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Tonight, the mutilated remains of the two bodies believed to be the U.S. soldiers who have been missing in Iraq were found dumped at a booby-trapped electrical plant.  Who killed these young American men and were they tortured?  With our nation at war and divided by this war, the tragic news sobers the political debate here at home.  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Norah O‘Donnell in tonight for Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL.  Grim news to report tonight as the U.S. military believes it has found the mutilated remains of the two soldiers who had gone missing last week.  Coalition forces acting on a tip from an Iraqi civilian found the remains and were also warned by the individuals to be aware of possible explosive devices.  The recovery effort was massive, with over 8,000 coalition forces on the hunt, and during the course of the search, one coalition soldier was killed and 12 wounded. 

The gruesome news comes as the Senate bitterly debates the future of the war that has already killed 2,500 U.S. troops.  How were the two soldiers killed and who is responsible?  And the United States has activated its missile defense system in reaction to North Korea‘s plan to test a rocket that could strike America.  We‘ll talk to two senators in a moment.

But first, HARDBALL‘s David Shuster has this report on today‘s tragic discovery in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  It was Major General Bill Caldwell who made the grim announcement today in Baghdad.

MAJOR GENERAL WILLIAM CALDWELL, SPOKESMAN, MULTINATIONAL FORCE IRAQ: 

What we believed to be or our two soldiers remains were in fact found last night in the vicinity of Yusufiyah.  Their remains at this point have been transported back to a coalition base and will be removed from country here and taken back to the United States for positive DNA verification.

SHUSTER:  DNA tests are needed, said military commanders, because the bodies of Thomas Tucker and Kristian Menchaca were so badly mutilated, they were unrecognizable.  Today, the Mujahideen Shura Council, which speaks for a coalition of insurgent groups, claimed responsibility.

In an Internet statement, quote, “We give good news to the Islamic nation that we have carried out God‘s verdict by slaughtering the two captured crusaders.”

The Arabic statement suggested the soldiers had been beheaded.  U.S.  military officials would only say they believe the missing American soldiers survived the insurgent attack on their checkpoint and were killed some time later.

CALDWELL:  We do in fact know that the—based on the condition of the bodies, that it was not by natural cause of death or just that they had been wounded mortally and had moved to a location and died.

SHUSTER:  Military officials say the abduction began to unfold just before eight o‘clock Friday evening.  American soldiers in three humvees came under attack by insurgents at a checkpoint near the city of Yusufiyah, south of Baghdad.  Soldiers in two humvees chased after the attackers, but apparently the insurgents were just trying to create a diversion.

Because another group of insurgents soon overwhelmed the soldiers in the third humvee still manning the checkpoint.  The driver, specialist David Babineau, died during the assault.  An Iraqi farmer said the insurgents closed in on Tucker and Menchaca and forced them into the back of a car.

CALDWELL:  The chain of command is looking at the entire situation as they would with any situation whenever we find that Americans or any other coalition forces have died in combat actions.

SHUSTER:  U.S. troops in Iraq are trained not to leave a small number of soldiers in an isolated position by themselves, with no reserve.  In this case, it appears the insurgents acted quickly before the first two humvees returned to the checkpoint. 

The U.S. response that followed was massive.  Within an hour of the attack, U.S. troops set up dozens of roadblocks, and military officials say more than 8,000 U.S. troops and Iraqi police began going door to door searching for the missing soldiers.

But by Sunday, with the search yielding nothing, insurgent groups began posting on-line statements taunting the Americans.  Late Monday night, U.S. troops spotted two bodies that had been mutilated and dumped on the street.  Soldiers also found evidence the area was wired with explosives.  So U.S. forces sealed off the location and waited until daylight.  This morning, explosive ordinance teams came in and safeguarded the efforts to remove the bodies.

CALDWELL:  There were some IEDs in that location and they did have to dismantle some stuff to get to them.

SHUSTER:  Military analysts say the entire episode is a clear reminder of how insurgents may try to disperse U.S. troops as part of an attack.

COL. JACK JACOBS (RET.), MSNBC MILITARY ANALYST:  You can bet that the command is going to spend lots of time reinforcing these very basic ideas that you don‘t leave your buddies alone, that you stay in large groups.

SHUSTER:  Meanwhile in the home towns of the soldiers killed, optimistic vigils turned to grief, as two more families learned that their loved ones, like 2,500 other soldiers before them, had been killed in Iraq. 

(on camera):  Administration officials still are not certain if the killings are retribution for the U.S. attack 12 days ago on the Iraq terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.  In the end, said one analyst, it probably doesn‘t matter, given that the danger from the insurgency continues.  I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL:  Thank you, David Shuster.  NBC‘s Mike Boettcher is joining us now live from Iraq.  Mike, thank you for joining us.  This was a brutal, savage attacks.  How are U.S. troops reacting to this over there?

MIKE BOETTCHER, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  They are very angry.  I spoke to a senior U.S. military official who says we are going to find people who killed those soldiers and we are going to punish them—Norah?

O‘DONNELL:  And has the Iraqi government condemned these killings?

BOETTCHER:  No, absolutely.  I mean, this is believed here by officials in this country to be an attempt by al Qaeda to try to gain the initiative back of after the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. 

Now, whether that does that or not is beyond the question right now.  Right now there are 8,000 soldiers who were looking for missing soldiers who are now looking for the people who killed them, Norah.

O‘DONNELL:  And we know that these men who were responsible for killing our U.S. soldiers, booby trapped the whole area where they left these mutilated bodies in order to try and kill more.  How long do we know it took our U.S. soldiers to disable those IEDs around the bodies to get to them and are those bodies now being shipped back to the U.S. for identification?

BOETTCHER:  Well the bodies of the two soldiers, we believe the two soldiers, are on their way back to Dover, Delaware.  There will be DNA testing to confirm that they are privates Tucker and Menchaca.  But at that site, in that area, they were booby trapped, the bodies, according to a source I talked to this evening. 

It was very difficult, the area was cordoned off after they got this tip last night that the bodies had been put in that area.  And so the U.S.  military cordoned off the area to make sure no one could come in, and then when daylight came, they had to dismantle several IEDs, I am told.  These are improvised explosive devices that were planted to try to kill American soldiers who were going to that scene.

So it was a very difficult operation and again, this was southwest of Baghdad in an area known as the Triangle of Death.  Norah, I‘ve worked down there, I‘ve embedded down there with U.S. soldiers and I‘ve got to tell you, it‘s a tough area to work. 

We were almost killed ourselves two months ago down there by an IED as we were on a patrol looking for a weapons cache in that area.  And it‘s a tough area, no one cooperates that well with the U.S. or the coalition forces.

O‘DONNELL:  And as you well know, Mike, that‘s were they call it the Triangle of Death.  Thank you Mike Boettcher from Iraq, I appreciate it.

Retired General Barry McCaffrey commanded the 24th infantry division during Desert Storm and is now an MSNBC military analyst.  You just also returned from a tour of the Guantanamo detention facilities.  General, thank you for joining us.  How sick is this, I mean, that these guys have gotten brutal?  I mean, there have been beheadings in the past and mutilations, but this really changes the game a lot.

GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY (RET.), MSNBC MILITARY ANALYST:  Well, life in the level for the marine and army units is pretty darn brutal.  We have several hundred soldiers and marines killed or wounded each month.  These three brave young men were part of a violent small unit action.  These people are smart we‘re fighting, they‘re ruthless, they‘re brutal, they probably killed them because they couldn‘t get out of the area with them.  It‘s a tragic loss.  This won‘t do nothing to shake the determination of the troops on the ground.

O‘DONNELL:  It‘s especially gutwrenching for any family who learns that their loved one has been killed in Iraq.  But something happened today, the Iraqi government this morning was the one—were the ones to announce that they had found two mutilated bodies.

In fact, the way they put it out is they were killed in a barbaric way, slaughtered.  The families of some of those killed were concerned that this was announced by the Iraqi government and not by the U.S. military.  What‘s going on?

MCCAFFREY:  Well, they‘re probably quicker to speak prior to verification, but I think it‘s also—it underscores that these foreign fighters, with their ruthless attacks on mosques and marketplaces and men and women, they have alienated the population.  This is not Islam to desecrate bodies.  So I think it‘s a good signal.  The Maliki government has got to get control of the situation and they‘re trying.

O‘DONNELL:  How are you going to get control of the situation?  You know, there have been talk about this massive security operation the Iraqi government and Prime Minister Maliki is now launching, to clear and hold, secure different areas around Baghdad, but there‘s still the Triangle of Death. 

We know most of Iraq is safe, 80 percent of it.  It‘s these key areas like the Triangle of Death, where we‘re killing our U.S. soldiers.  Why can‘t we get a handle on that area? 

MCCAFFREY:  Well, I‘ve never really felt comfortable with 80 percent Iraq as safe.  I don‘t buy that at all.  I think well over half of the population lives in contested provinces, and the central battlefield is Baghdad.  Six, 7 million people, all three factions, it‘s going to take the Iraq security forces a couple of years, if we‘re successful, to create mostly conditions of peace in that city. 

O‘DONNELL:  You know, the Army Private First Class Menchaca, who was killed in this attack, his uncle spoke out today on NBC.  First he said, “Who tells the media before we know, had been notified that our loved ones have been killed,” specifically talking about the Iraqi government.  And he also said, talking about the U.S. government, he said “The government doesn‘t have a plan in place.”  Is that true? 

MCCAFFREY:  Irresponsible statements, he shouldn‘t have made them. 

It‘s shameful to talk about we should have offered $100 million reward.  That would put a price tag on every young soldier and marine in the country.  This was irresponsible talk on his part. 

O‘DONNELL:  And just a quick answer, I know you just got back from Guantanamo Bay.  Should it be shut down, that prison there? 

MCCAFFREY:  We‘ll, we‘re in a political and legal mess, Norah, and it‘s—but I think that at some point the president is going to have to make a bold stroke and try and back us out of there. 

One comment though, unequivocal, I‘ve been of half the prisons and jails in America, visiting many worldwide.  Unequivocally, we have got 1,800 mostly Navy and National Guard people guarding 450 terrorist prisoners down there.  This is the most humane professional detention center I have ever seen. 

Health care, dental care, recreation facilities, first class food, cultural sensitivity—there is no abuse going on there.  I think the first year or so of the war, this was widespread policy errors on the part of the Pentagon civilian leadership.  That‘s cleaned up.  I‘ve looked at them in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo.  We‘re doing it in accordance with our own military values. 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, I know you wrote a report after you returned from Iraq several weeks ago.  We look forward to your report on Guantanamo Bay.  Thank you, Retired General Barry McCaffrey. 

Now the Senate fights over Democrats‘ plan to bring home U.S. troops. 

Will brutal killings of two soldiers change that debate?

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Today‘s gruesome news of two U.S. soldiers killed and mutilated comes as Congress takes on a fierce, high stakes fight over what to do about the war in Iraq.  Here to dig into this debate is Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. 

Let me first go to you, Senator Durbin.  Why are the Democrats divided in their plan about what to do in Iraq? 

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS:  I think we understand that the current strategy is not working well.  There‘s no end in sight.  As of today, this morning, we‘ve lost 2,502 of our best and bravest soldiers, we‘ve spent over $300 billion.  We‘ve been in this war for over three years, and there is no plan to bring it to an end. 

We feel—I think most of us on the Democratic side, that regardless of whether we pick a specific date for a timetable or not, it is time to let the Iraqis know that they have to stand and defend their own country so that American soldiers can start to come home. 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, then do you support a timetable for withdrawal?  First Senator Kerry said December 31st, now he says July 2007.  Do you support that there should be a date certain when U.S. troops are out of Iraq? 

DURBIN:  I think we should have a reasonable timetable.  There should be some considerations there, if circumstances arise, that would make a difference.  But by and large, I think the Iraqis have to understand, now that they‘ve trained 264,000 soldiers with our help, at our expense, that they have to stand and defend their own country. 

O‘DONNELL:  But the question does exist out there, where does this date of July 2007 come from?  Is something happening in July 2007 that the rest us don‘t know about?  What‘s happening in July of that year that should mean that U.S. troops should come home? 

DURBIN:  It‘s a year from now.  It also means that if we are not more fortunate than we were in the last year, over 500 American soldiers will give their lives in Iraq during that period of time.  We will spend another $90 billion or $100 billion in that country.  And many of us feel that there reaches a point where the Iraqis have to take over and defend their own country. 

We have done so much.  We‘ve deposed their dictator, we dug him out of the hole in the ground and put him up for trial.  We have given this country an opportunity for free elections and the establishment of a government.  Now, if they want to move forward as a nation, they have to stand and be willing to defend their own country. 

O‘DONNELL:  Senator Hutchison, we‘ve heard the debate.  Clearly, Republicans oppose such a timetable.  They say it‘s cutting and running, it‘s retreating, it‘s surrendering from Iraq.  But what about that argument that if we set a timetable, then that is a clear message to the Iraqi government and the Iraqi soldiers that we are training get it together, because we‘re not going to be around for that much longer. 

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON ®, TEXAS:  Well, Norah, all of us look forward to the time that our troops can come home.  There‘s no question about that.  But if we set a timetable, we are saying to every ally we have ever had, we‘ll be with you until times get tough.

And worse, we are saying to the enemies, if you just make it hard for America, pretty soon our attention will flag and we will cut and run.  That couldn‘t be a worse message from the United States of America. 

O‘DONNELL:  That being said, what is the exit strategy, because while the Democrats are divided on their plan and Republicans are united and calling the Democrats cut and run, what is the plan to get out of Iraq?  What‘s the exit strategy?

HUTCHISON:  The exit strategy is to see their government come together, to continue training their security forces, and to understand that they are victims too, the Iraqi people.  When they blow up a police station, it‘s those men who are coming in to be a part of the security force that are being tagged again and again and again by the insurgents. 

The insurgents are trying to keep them from having an economy by not letting them have the ability to set up shops and start building commerce.  We start to see it through, so that we can show there is a stable government, that America keeps its word, and that a democracy can work with the three factions that are in Iraq.  It has not been easy.  These three factions have never worked together in the history of the world.

O‘DONNELL:  Can I ask the both of you, because you‘re both senators in what is considered the world‘s most deliberative body and what you‘re engaged in in many ways is it a political debate that‘s going on in an election year where you have Republicans accusing Democrats of cutting and running.  You now have Senator Kerry and the Democrats accusing the Republicans of lying and dying, that was the word he used today.  Why is that this Senate can‘t recognize the importance of what needs to be done in Iraq, that you guys can‘t come together and agree on what should be done in Iraq?  I‘ll start with you, Senator .

DURBIN:  Three and a half years ago, we had an authorization of force resolution asked for by the Bush administration.  They told us we would find weapons of mass destruction, which did not exist, nuclear weapons, which did not exist, and a link with al Qaeda and 9/11, which did not exist.

And then we were told that if we went in there, it was for the purpose of protecting the United States from Iraq and enforcing U.N. resolutions.  We were there three years and three months later, everything has changed and 130,000 of our best and bravest young men and women are risking their lives every single day. 

This administration has never had a clear strategy about how this war would end so our troops could come home.  So it‘s understandable there‘s frustration in Congress.  The president has driven this bus into a cul de sac and defies anyone to explain how we‘re going to get it out.  It‘s not easy, but I think letting the Iraqis know that we have given them so much and now they must stand for their own future in their own country is the best way for us to start to come home.

O‘DONNELL:  All right.  Well we‘ll be back with Senators Hutchinson and Durbin to talk more about Iraq and North Korea.  And later Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman.  How will his party hold on to power?  Can debates over gay marriage and flag burning motivate the base enough to beat back anti-war feelings.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re back with Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and Dick Durbin.  I‘m going to go to you in a second Senator Hutchinson, but Senator Durbin, I must ask you, because it your party that is bringing up a resolution and an amendment calling for a phased redeployment or a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. 

Given that in particular Senator Kerry, which is the only binding resolution, which would call for this specific timetable for July 2007, is only expected to get a handful of votes, isn‘t this really a fools errand?  What‘s the point of handing the Republicans a political weapon to use against you?  It‘s not even the support of the caucus behind this amendment.

DURBIN:  The Senate is a deliberative body.  There are differences of opinion.  I‘m glad we have a chance to debate the different approaches that we should consider.  But most of us, I think all of us on the Democratic side of the aisle agree that we need a better plan than we‘ve heard from the president. 

You know when the president, Norah, was asked just a few weeks ago, how soon would these troops be coming home?  He said, “I‘ll leave that to the next president.”  Now that‘s two and a half years from now, so at a minimum, I think the Bush administration envisions the troops remaining for that period of time.  I think the American people have decided the Iraqis have to step up and really control their own fate much sooner.

O‘DONNELL:  Senator Hutchison, you up there on the Hill as well as some other senators do get briefings from generals on the ground about what will happen in Iraq.  We did hear from General Casey in the last several weeks, who says he does expect a gradual draw down of forces.  Do you expect to see the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to fall to about 100,000 by year‘s end or below that?

HUTCHISON:  Yes, I—well I‘m not putting a number on it, but I do expect us to start withdrawing troops at the appropriate time because we actually are training Iraqi soldiers and they are doing a much better job than they did in the beginning. 

I have to go back to Senator Durbin‘s point, where he said that there‘s no evidence of al Qaeda in Iraq, that we shouldn‘t have gone in there.  Remember what the president was looking at the time that we went in.  He was looking at the worst attack on America since Pearl Harbor, 9/11.  And he was looking at weapons of mass destruction in the hands of someone who could afford to deploy them and he wanted to go in after Saddam Hussein kicked the weapons inspectors out.

O‘DONNELL:  Let me ask you about all that, we‘ve debated all that, we talked about that.  Let me ask you about what Vice President Cheney said just the other day on FOX Radio.  He said, “it‘s no accident that we‘ve not been attacked since 9/11 and that‘s in part because of Iraq.”  Do you believe that‘s true?

HUTCHISON:  Well I think that because of all the efforts we‘re making in homeland security, because of our vigilance and because we are taking the war to the terrorists.  The hotbed of terrorism right now is in Iraq, it‘s the insurgency.  They are trying to make sure that we don‘t stabilize Iraq and yes I think the fact that we have not had another attack is very significant.  It‘s because we have been vigilant.

O‘DONNELL:  You think because of Iraq?

HUTCHISON:  I think it‘s because of a number of things, including homeland security and the efforts we are making in homeland security and making sure that the terrorists are contained.

O‘DONNELL:  I hear a little hedging there.

HUTCHISON:  No, no, no, it is not hedging.  It is saying that we are taking it to the terrorists.  We are not letting them attack us.  And that‘s very significant.

O‘DONNELL:  Senator Hutchison, Senator Durbin, I greatly appreciate your time.  Thank you very much for this debate.  President Bush helped his party raise $27 million last night for the midterm elections, now 140 days away.  Can the GOP keep control of Congress?  We‘re going to ask the Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman.  And tomorrow on HARDBALL, Senators John McCain and Joe Biden.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

The U.S. military confirmed today that the two missing soldiers in Iraq are, in fact, dead.  Their bodies, which were found badly mutilated, have been sent back to the U.S. for DNA testing.  An umbrella insurgent group in Iraq is claiming responsibility, and as Americans continue to face gruesome news from Iraq, will pressure to bring home the troops only get stronger? 

Here‘s John Kerry today from “Imus in the Morning.”

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS:  My plan is not cut and run.  Their plan is lie and die, and that‘s what they‘re doing.  They lie to America over what‘s happening on the ground, they lie about why we‘re there, they lie about what‘s happening and our plan is very simple. 

It‘s redeploy to win the war on terror.  Change to succeed.  You have a better chance of success if the Iraqis are given notice that they‘ve got to begin to take over and stand up for themselves.  It‘s very simple. 

(END AUDIO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Here to hash through all of it is Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman. 

Ken, Karl Rove kicked this off in many ways last week by accusing the Democrats, like John Kerry and Jack Murtha, of being cut-and-run Democrats.  You heard John Kerry saying today that Republicans, all they do is lie and die. 

KEN MEHLMAN, RNC CHAIRMAN:  First of all, I want to say I think that‘s an inappropriate statement, when you think of these two soldiers who gave their lives for our freedom.  All of our prayers should be with their families.  I don‘t think that these two soldiers or the 2,500 other Marines and sailors and soldiers and troops who died did it on behalf of a lie.  They did it to  protect American freedom. 

The problem with what John Kerry said—and there‘s a debate within the Democratic Party—John Kerry believes in the cut-and-run approach.  Other people say maybe we should cut and walk or even cut and jog. 

But here‘s the bottom line:  What would the terrorists see?

You may remember, right after 9/11, people were saying, “Why did this happen?”  And people looked back and there was an interview that ABC did with Osama bin Laden, and he cited what we did in Beirut, what we did in Somalia as part of the reasons they attacked America—because what they took when we withdrew after we were attacked as examples of American weakness.

And that ultimately led to 9/11.

And so when Democrats like Jack Murtha say we‘ve got to do what we did in Beirut and Somalia, that‘s exactly the wrong thing, because it would make us less safe, it would embolden the jihadists and it would make the war on terror that much more difficult, unfortunately.     

O‘DONNELL:  Senator Kerry, as you know, is putting forward this amendment which would be a binding resolution, saying that U.S. troops should withdraw.  First he had said December 31st of this year, then he said July of 2007.  Part of that change, his office says, is because politics is about consensus. 

Your reaction?

MEHLMAN:  Again, it‘s such the wrong approach.  Can you imagine in World War II, if we had said in 1943, “Here‘s when we‘re going to withdraw from the battlefield”—what would it have said to the Nazis?  What would it have said to the enemy? 

Think of how we got Zarqawi.  One of the ways we got him was the Jordanians and Iraqis cooperated with us.  Are they going to cooperate in the future?  Are they going to help Iraqi troops cooperate in the future if they think America won‘t be with them when we do a political timetable for withdrawal?

As Senator Hutchison said, no one wants our troops to come home no more than their commander in chief.  But shouldn‘t, like every other war we‘ve fought, the decisions be made based on the battlefield, not the political field? 

O‘DONNELL:  For argument‘s sake, let me challenge you on that, because the other argument is, you know, it‘s been three years, and this administration has argued for a long time when Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.  I can remember, it‘s been years now that Rumsfeld has been telling us that the Iraqi security forces are up and running, more are trained, and yet they‘re still not ready to do the job. 

What about the argument that Democrats make?  Senator Durbin was just on this program saying, “We‘ve got to tell the Iraqi government we‘re not going to be there forever.  We‘re leaving.  So get it together, because our troops—it‘s time for them to come home.”

What about that argument?

MEHLMAN:  Well, I think that‘s an important argument and I think we are telling them that.  But if you set a time certain that the enemies know and the Iraqi people know, it‘s the wrong approach. 

Let me give you an example of why it‘s so wrong.  If we had followed the approach that Mr. Murtha suggested, we would have withdrawn last November.  Think of what‘s happened since November that wouldn‘t have happened if we had followed his approach. 

We wouldn‘t have gotten Zarqawi.  40,000 Iraqi troops would not have been trained.  The government probably would not have been formed.  Would the election have been held?  That‘s all happened since then. 

We got 200 people in the last few days, just since they‘ve gotten Mr.  Zarqawi.  We have a treasure trove of intelligence and information.  All of those things wouldn‘t have happened if we had followed that approach.       

O‘DONNELL:  But we also have 2,500 U.S. troops dead. 

MEHLMAN:  We do.  And no one more than their commander in chief honors their sacrifice, prays for their families and feels the pain involved, but what we have to remember is the 3,000 people we lost on 9/11. 

And the lesson there is you‘ve got to stay on the offense against these terrorists. 

O‘DONNELL:  I hear what you‘re saying.  And part of what Karl Rove said last week, really accusing Democrats of cut-and-run, is a very charged comment.  And Howard Dean, your counterpart on the Democratic side, was on this program yesterday.  Here‘s what he said in response to that. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD DEAN, CHAIRMAN, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE:  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 that did. 

The fact is:  You can‘t trust these folks.  They didn‘t serve abroad defending America. 

What about standing up for what the troops really need and not just talking a good game?  You can‘t rely on the Republicans to defend America. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  What about that argument, that none of those in this administration served in Vietnam?

MEHLMAN:  Well, I think we honor those who did serve in Vietnam, absolutely, but one of the things we want to avoid is what happened in Vietnam.  And Mr. Zawahiri, the number two guy in al Qaeda, said his goal is for America to pull out of Iraq the way we pulled out of Vietnam.

And, as Senator John McCain has noted, here‘s the difference:  Ho Chi Minh did not have the goal of establishing a global empire.  Ho Chi Minh did not have the goal to attack America‘s homeland. 

These enemies do.  And so I really don‘t think—the Vietnam analogy may be good political talking points; I‘m not sure that‘s the relevant analogy that we‘re dealing with here. 

The fact is, what the Democrats are proposing, whether you call it cut and run or cut and walk or cut and jog, the enemy will see it as surrender.  It will make Iraq less safe, not more.  And the lesson of 9/11 is you don‘t want a failed state, particularly in this case. 

As bad as Afghanistan was, imagine a failed state sitting in between Syria and Iran, with all the oil it has, with all the water it has.  It would be the worst thing we could have in this war on terror and it would encourage the jihadists.

That‘s the lesson of 9/11. 

O‘DONNELL:  Let me ask you and switch subjects to the CIA leak investigation.  Of course, Karl Rove has been cleared in that investigation, but Scooter Libby is still facing trial on this matter.

There is a big fund-raiser here in Washington for him for his legal defense fund tonight.  I know you‘ve contributed to that fund.

There‘s a lot of chatter among Republicans, a lot of buzz that Scooter Libby will be president—excuse me, pardoned by the president of the United States.

MEHLMAN:  This is a big announcement:  Scooter Libby is running for president.  You just...

(LAUGHTER)

O‘DONNELL:  Will he be pardoned?  You‘ve heard some of that talk, haven‘t you, that the president should pardon him?

MEHLMAN:  Look, I‘m not going to comment.  This is a pending investigation.  Scooter Libby is presumed innocent.  He‘s a good man. He‘s someone I...

O‘DONNELL:  Yes, but you talk to a lot of Republicans at cocktail parties and... 

MEHLMAN:  I certainly don‘t talk with people who know the facts about things of pending investigations and pardons and things like that.  I think that cocktail chatter and what is a serious investigation ought to not mix. 

O‘DONNELL:  Yes, but Scooter Libby is going to face trial.  The vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney, may be forced to testify in that.  I think there‘s a lot of Republicans who say:  We could clear the deck here if the president pardoned Scooter Libby. 

Why not do that?

MEHLMAN:  I‘m going to leave that to others to consider and decide.  And again, as a former lawyer—maybe that‘s my approach—I‘m not going to comment on an investigative matter. 

I will say this.  I know Scooter well.  I have tremendous respect and affection for him.  And I think we ought to all presume he‘s innocent, because that‘s the fair way to be. 

O‘DONNELL:  All right.  Thank you, Ken Mehlman...

MEHLMAN:  Thanks a lot.

O‘DONNELL:  ... the chairman of the Republican National Committee.  I know we‘ll have you back.

MEHLMAN:  I look forward to it.

O‘DONNELL:  Thank you very much.

And up next, why are Democrats so divided on the war when it comes to bringing troops home? 

You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

The Senate today fiercely debated what to do about the war in Iraq. 

Here‘s Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), MAJORITY LEADER:  If we break our promise and cut and run, as some would have us do, the implications could be catastrophic.  Not only would it be a dishonor to our Americans, a dishonor of historic proportions, the threat to America‘s national security would be potentially disastrous. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Bob Shrum is a HARDBALL political analyst and Kate O‘Beirne is also a HARDBALL political analyst and the Washington editor of the “National Review.”  Welcome to both our HARDBALL political analysts. 

KATE O‘BEIRNE, HARDBALL POLITICAL ANALYST:  Norah.

O‘DONNELL:  This is the good part of the show, although we‘ve had some really tough news, and there‘s a fierce debate going on in the Senate.  You just heard Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist accusing, once again, the Democrats of being a party of cut and run. 

Let me go first to Bob Shrum.  What does Senator Kerry think he‘s

doing by proposing this amendment—and I realize you don‘t work for him -

by first saying December 31st and then July 2007. 

BOB SHRUM, HARDBALL POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, I think—look, in all of the years when the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment was being proposed, for example, to end the Vietnam War, as time moves on, the date had to move. 

The question is whether or not you set a date certain, whether it‘s the end of 2006 or June of 2007, but I think John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, Russ Feingold, John Murtha have done the Democratic Party a favor.  They‘ve gotten it off the dime.  I think the country wants to set a date certain to end this involvement in Iraq. 

The Republicans say it‘s cut and run.  I think John Kerry is right, that‘s it‘s more lying and more dying.  And you know what you just heard from Ken Mehlman on this show?  You heard him baldly compare World War II to Iraq.  But, let me tell you something.  Pearl Harbor was real.  The weapons of mass destruction were made up. 

O‘DONNELL:  Kate? 

O‘BEIRNE:  Citing George McGovern is not help helpful to the Democrats.  The one advantage Republicans traditionally have, even in the midst of all their problems at the moment with their own base disaffected, their own popularity being less than George Bush‘s, is national security.  They have like at least a double digit lead on national security.  And the Democrats can‘t help but look weak on national security. 

Now, they can‘t help it.  They have been divided almost since 9/11.  A majority of House Democrats voted against authorizing the president, with respect to the war in Iraq, and a majority of Senate Democrats supported it. 

We saw it play out in the 2004 presidential race.  Howard dean was a staunch anti-war candidate, John Kerry wasn‘t, so they‘ve been deeply divided for years now, but to have it on display is not helpful. 

O‘DONNELL:  I mean, Bob, let‘s talk about that.  I mean, who is leading the Democratic Party?  You have different groups of senators proposing these different amendments and/or resolutions up in the Senate, you have the minority leader, Harry Reid, essentially telling the other Democrats up there I don‘t really like the John Kerry proposal.  Let‘s have this Reid-Levin non-binding resolution instead.

And the only people that, at it point, that appears are supporting Senator Kerry in this resolution are those that you mentioned:  Ted Kennedy, Feingold, Barbara Boxer and Bobby Byrd from West Virginia.  Why is he putting forward an amendment is he can‘t he even get the consensus of the Democratic Caucus in the Senate? 

SHRUM:  Well, first of all, point of personal privilege, since I worked for George McGovern, I want to say that I‘m thrilled that Richard Nixon, who smeared him, ended up being driven from the presidency in disgrace.  And I think George Bush‘s record on the Iraq war is going to be a disgrace.

Look, the task of leadership when you don‘t have a president, is to go out there and say what you believe.  It‘s to honor the troops and protect the troops, not the lie, and I believe that what Kerry and others have done has helped move the Democratic Party toward what is becoming an emergent consensus that we cannot stay indefinitely in Iraq. 

I believe that a few months from now, it will be very clear that we need to set a date certain, and I think we will.  You know, why would we believe anything that George W. Bush predicts about Iraq or Ken Mehlman, when every other prediction they‘ve made has been wrong? 

O‘DONNELL:  But why not, Bob, trust that the commanders on the ground, that General George Casey, who is here in Washington this week, making recommendation about redeploying forces, et cetera, is going to give the president the straight up answer about when our troops can withdraw?  That we don‘t want to leave just a vacuum there in Iraq, just get up and leave and leave that as a haven for al Qaeda? 

SHRUM:  Well, first all, I trust General Casey, who said that the presence our troops actually feeds the insurgency.  Secondly, there was no al Qaeda there until Dick Cheney and his friends manipulated and lied us into this war. 

Number three, the way that we‘re going to have the Iraqis stand up instead of politically squabbling with us as a permanent safety net, is to say to them, look, within six months, within a year, you‘ll have backup from the U.S., but you have to assume the major burden of this yourself. 

O‘BEIRNE:  Look, according to the latest polls, it is true that 70 percent of Democrats want a date certain for pulling out of Iraq, but less than half the public, in general, wants that.

The Iraqis already have every incentive to have us stay not a day longer than necessary.  The piece in this morning‘s paper by the Iraq national security adviser made this point.  He anticipates that American troops will be less than 100,000 by the end of the year based on conditions on the ground.  He explains what is obviously so.  The Iraqi government‘s credibility will be so boosted when we‘re not there.  The Iraqi people want us gone, we do not want to stay, nor do they want us there a day longer than necessary.  But nothing will embolden the insurgents more than a date, certain.

O‘DONNELL:  You know Kate, I‘ve got to take a break, but you know, the Iraqi government could say tomorrow, we don‘t want you here and you know what, we would still be there, because we wouldn‘t leave.

O‘BEIRNE:  I don‘t think so.  If the Iraqi government said that...

O‘DONNELL:  ... the president has been asked that question.  The president said I‘m sorry—we‘ll be back with Kate O‘Beirne and Bob Shrum on Decision 2006 and how both political parties are dealing with big problems overseas.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER:  One thing Democrats agree on, this war has taken too long, it‘s too expensive, and cost too many lives and too many soldiers injured.  We all agree there should be a change in the course of the war.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  I‘m Norah O‘Donnell in for Chris Matthews.

And we are joined again by Kate O‘Beirne and from Bob Shrum.  Kate, let me begin by asking you today about the big headline, of course that they have found the bodies, we believe of the two U.S. soldiers who were kidnapped in Iraq.

The Iraqi government this morning, very early this morning, announced that these two—that they had found the two soldiers who were missing and that they had been slaughtered.  And this was even before the U.S. military had the chance to call the families of those—of our troops.  And some of the families, in fact the uncle of private first class Menchaca said, “What‘s going on here?  That the media knows about this before we did.”

O‘BEIRNE:  I know, that‘s awfully unfortunate and I assume inadvertent on the part of the Iraqi government.  They should have waited until the American military had a chance to notify their families.  We of course were hoping for the best, but feared the worst, and it‘s a reminder of the savages we‘re up against in Iraq that we certainly can‘t leave our Iraqi allies to their mercy.

O‘DONNELL:  Bob, what about that?  That this group over there who claims to be associated with al Qaeda has kidnapped two of our U.S.  soldiers, brutally mutilated them to the fact that apparently they are unrecognizable and will ultimately have to be identified by DNA.  If that‘s going on in Iraq, how can we leave that country?

SHRUM:  Well, first of all, I don‘t think anybody should make political capital out of the deaths of these two young men.  I think everybody, no matter what they think...

O‘DONNELL:  And who do you think‘s doing that?

SHRUM:  ... Well, I mean we heard Ken Mehlman attack John Kerry and say, “how can you criticize the war when this has happened today?”  I mean, it is possible to protect the troops without protecting the lie that sent them there.

And let me tell you, there‘s a rhetoric of redemption here that is very dangerous that says because this terrible thing happened at the hands of the al Qaeda forces that our invasion of Iraq brought into Iraq, that somehow or other that we should continue going down the road of a failed policy.  Do you where that failed policy will end if we keep doing what Bush wants?  It will end up with the U.S. airlifting its last forces out of the Green Zone under fire and many, many more casualties.

O‘DONNELL:  Bob, but what about the argument that we are setting benchmarks in Iraq.  It‘s not a timetable like a date, and it has taken longer.  It‘s been worse than this administration, they‘ve admitted they were wrong on some fronts and they‘re trying not to over promise.

But to be fair here, that they are trying to set some benchmarks about getting the Iraqi security forces up and running, getting a unity government in place, working to make sure that the Sunnis are onboard, that slowly but surely we will see this gradual reduction of forces that General Casey seems to be hinting at.

SHRUM:  Well listen, I think that there‘s a whole ground work being laid here by the Iraqi national security adviser and by others for the president.  If the Republicans are in terrible trouble in October, to announce an October surprise and say we can reduce troops by 10,000 or 15,000 or 20,000.  I don‘t think that‘s what the American people want.  I think the American people want to know when is this going to end? 

And you know, General Casey never answered how we can continue to stay there and be effective, if as he himself has said, our troops fuel the insurgency.  The U.S. is not the answer to this problem.

O‘BEIRNE:  No, insurgency is—a big piece of beating back an insurgency of course is getting the politics right.  It is this unity government, it‘s reconciliation with the Sunnis, it‘s trying to get the Shia militias to disarm.  Of course that‘s the case with an insurgency.  But al-Zarqawi was in Iraq before the invasion, as a representative of al Qaeda.

SHRUM:  As you know, Kate—wait a minute, Kate, as you know, every commission that has studied this, everybody except the fantasists Dick Cheney says there is no connection between 9/11 and Iraq.

O‘BEIRNE:  I didn‘t say there was.  I said al-Zarqawi was in Iraq before the invasion.

SHRUM:  You just tried to leave that little impression because it promotes the administration‘s case.  If this country had believed that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and had no weapons on mass destruction, we never would have been in this war.

O‘DONNELL:  Let me ask you an interesting question, because Karl Rove took Iraq, which is the Republican Party‘s biggest worry going into the November elections and said, “Let‘s not run away from this.  Let‘s run on it, and let‘s draw a bright, clear line between us and the Democrats on this issue.”

He kicked it off last week and the debate is raging in the Senate last week and this week again.  But, Kate, is it a double-edged sword for the Republicans because at the end of the day, this president and the Republican Party and their poll numbers, whether fairly or unfairly, rise and fall on what happens on the ground in Iraq, and the president cannot control that?

O‘BEIRNE:  Yes, of course they‘re vulnerable to Iraq.  It‘s an unpopular war.  But the instincts on the part of politicians therefore is to not want to talk about it.  And that‘s exactly the wrong thing, which is why I think the debate last week in the House and this week in the Senate is really helpful and I think it‘s helpful to the Republicans.  Many of those now are disenchanted are former supports of the war.  They don‘t have an animosity with George Bush.

O‘DONNELL:  Thank you Bob Shrum, Kate O‘Beirne.  Right now it is time for “THE ABRAMS REPORT.”

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

END   

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