updated 6/23/2006 1:24:12 PM ET 2006-06-23T17:24:12

Guests: Kit Bond, Jack Reed, John Boehner, Ashton Carter, Lawrence Eagleburger, Bob Baer, Eugene Robinson, Pat Buchanan

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC HOST:  Democrats defeated today in the Senate.  There will be no timetable for U.S. troops to come home.  The big political question—how will American voters respond this fall on Election Day? 

Let‘s play HARDBALL.  Good evening.  I‘m Norah O‘Donnell in tonight for Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL.

Today the Republican-controlled Senate knocked back both Democratic proposals to start bringing home U.S. troops from Iraq.  Senator John Kerry suffered the biggest political blow as most Democrats deserted his amendment, which called for troops to be withdrawn within a year. 

Does this kill Kerry‘s chances of getting his party‘s nomination in the 2008 presidential elections, or will it look like the right move two years from now?  Two top senators bring the debate to HARDBALL in a moment. 

And the political stakes couldn‘t be higher as the Iraq war alone could decide which party will win in the upcoming elections.  Following top adviser Karl Rove‘s master plan, the Republicans are laying it all on the line, and supporting the president. 

The Democrats remain divided, but with polls showing most Americans want to bring home the troops, could voters deliver them a victory in the fall?  More on the political wars with my exclusive interview with House Majority Leader John Boehner later. 

Plus, we‘ll get to two former Bush and Clinton administration officials who agree that the U.S. may be forced to destroy to the North Korean missile that could hit America before it‘s launched. 

But first, HARDBALL‘s David Shuster has this report on the vote in the Senate today. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Less than five months before the congressional midterm election, Senate Republicans today rejected two Democratic troop withdrawal proposals and supported President Bush‘s approach towards Iraq. 

SEN. JOHN WARNER ®, VIRGINIA:  Clearly, this government is sending down its roots, getting stabilized, operating as a sovereign entity, and we must give them that support. 

SHUSTER:  Like their colleagues last week in the House, many Senate Republicans today charged Democrats for advocating defeat and retreat. 

SEN. JON KYL ®, ARIZONA:  How on earth could the United States Senate be debating resolutions of withdrawal from Iraq in the same week that we discovered the bodies, the mutilated bodies, of these two American soldiers?

SHUSTER:  The aggressive Republican approach now includes the use of political talking points provided by officials at the Pentagon.  Democrats this week accused Republicans in the Bush White House of caring more about a domestic political strategy than about tackling the continued problems in Iraq. 

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT:  This was to be the year of transition.  That was what the Congress voted last year and what the president signed into law.  And yet the administration‘s answer is simply stay the course.  Stay the course.  This is not a course in America‘s best interests. 

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN:  It is sapping our strength.  It is sapping our credibility around the world.  It is sapping the resources of our military.  It is sapping the recruitment ability of our military.  In other words, it is weakening America. 

SHUSTER:  But Feingold‘s amendment with John Kerry demanding the administration withdraw troops within a year lost 86-13. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And the amendment is not agreed to. 

SHUSTER:  More than two out of every three Democrats joined the Republicans, not a good showing for John Kerry, who was his party‘s last presidential nominee.  A different amendment by Democrats Carl Levin and Jack Reed asking the Bush administration to consider a timetable of any kind lost 60-39. 

President Bush has repeatedly argued U.S. troops need to stay in Iraq until Iraq security forces can take their place. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  As the Iraqis stand up, we‘ll stand down, but if we stand down too soon, you know, it won‘t enable us to achieve our objectives, and we will support this Iraqi government. 

SHUSTER:  But with polls showing most Americans believe the war in Iraq was a mistake, neither party seems certain how the politics will play out.  Presidential adviser Karl Rove has convinced Republicans if they stay united behind the war, they can score politically by attacking Democrats the way he does. 

KARL ROVE, WHITE HOUSE SENIOR ADVISER:  But 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. 

SHUSTER:  Republican Senator Chuck Hagel opposes a withdrawal, but Hagel, a combat veteran, said Iraq is too important to be reduced to election year sloganeering. 

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL ®, NEBRASKA:  It should be taken more seriously than to simply retreat to focus group tested buzz words and phrases like cut and run.  Catchy political slogans debase the seriousness of war. 

SHUSTER:  But the war is clearly going to be the top political issue this fall, and in some races, Democrats see a political opportunity.  In the New Jersey Senate race, Democrat Bob Menendez is now running this ad against Republican Tom Kean. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And that‘s exactly what I am going to Washington to do. 

SHUSTER:  Even if Republican Virginia, analysts say frustration over the war is turning moderates against incumbent Senator George Allen.  According to the latest poll, his Democratic challenger this fall, James Webb, is now within five points. 

(on camera):  Across the board, the latest polling shows Democrats gaining seats in the fall elections.  But the issue is whether Democrats will gain enough to take control of Congress. 

Republicans believe their best strategy on Iraq is to stand united behind President Bush, despite low approval ratings of him, deep public concerns about the war and no end in sight. 

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL:  Thank you, David.

Missouri Senator Kit Bond is a member of the Intelligence Committee.  Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed is a member of the Armed Services Committee, who was a sponsor of one of the Democratic proposals for troop redeployment that did not set a timetable.

Let me begin with you, Senator Reed.  You co-sponsored this proposal today that failed by a vote of 39-60.  Were you let down by your party? 

SEN. JACK REED (D), RHODE ISLAND:  Absolutely not.  We got a strong showing from the Democratic Caucus.  This is a very difficult issue.  I don‘t think anyone assumes that it should be one that is completely unanimous, but we had a very strong showing.

And I think we enunciated a policy that is not only the best policy, but it‘s a policy that appears to be one being advocated by General Casey, who is today talking about troop reductions this year, and also by the Iraqi national security adviser, who predicts that before the end of this year, we‘ll reduce troops.  And by the end of 2007, he looks to a point where at which we can remove a significant number of American troops. 

O‘DONNELL:  You brought him up, the U.S. commanding general in Iraq.  George Casey is here in Washington briefing at the Pentagon today with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—did, if fact, indicate that there will likely be a reduction in troop levels in Iraq this year.  But he also made clear that he did not like the proposal that Senator Kerry had on the floor today.  Listen to this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION:  As the top military commander in Iraq, what is your opinion about a specific, set timetable for withdrawal of American forces from Iraq? 

GEN. GEORGE CASEY, CMDR., MULTINATIONAL FORCES IN IRAQ:  I don‘t like it, I feel it would limit my flexibility.  I think it would give the enemy a fixed timetable.  And I think it would send a terrible signal to a new government of national unity when Iraq is trying to stand up and get its legs underneath it. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Senator Reed, I know you don‘t like a timetable either, but do you believe this other plan that was offered by Senator Kerry, which got few votes in the Senate, sort of played into the Republicans‘ hands who were trying to paint the Democratic Party as a party of cut and run? 

REED:  Well, I don‘t know if it played into the Republicans‘ hands.  I opposed it based on the principles that senator—excuse me—that General Casey espoused, which it would deny him flexibility and the commanders flexibility. 

But I would also note that General Casey today suggested that we could withdraw troops and I don‘t think anyone is going to label him as cutting and running. 

O‘DONNELL:  Senator Bond, let me ask you, one of the arguments that the Democrats made on the floor of the Senate is that many you agreed last year that 2006 was supposed to be a year of transition in Iraq, and yet we still have the same number of troops in Iraq, and the proposal has been to stay the course.  Is that wrong? 

SEN. KIT BOND ®, MISSOURI:  The important thing that we must do in Iraq is support our troops who are over there.  The Democrats wanted to have—call it transition.  Sure, we‘ve transitioned to a new government.  We had elections in Iraq, Iraq now has a new government, the security adviser who believes they‘re going to be able to take control. 

Now what these amendments did, both the Kerry and the Reed-Levin bill did, was to say that it‘s not going to be the generals there on the ground looking at it who decide when the security forces of Iraq are adequate to take over.  It‘s going to be a political timetable. 

Unfortunately, there is a suspicion that that political timetable has more to do with November 7th‘s general election than whether we complete our mission in Iraq.  And that‘s why I‘m hearing from the troops, the troops on the ground that they think any kind of timetable that is set politically is a disaster. 

O‘DONNELL:  Senator bond, let me ask you about one of the comments some may view as very controversial comments by one your colleagues, Senator Rick Santorum, who today announced that we found the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  Do you agree with that? 

BOND:  We always knew that there were weapons left over, sarin gas, mustard gas from the pre-Gulf War attacks that Iraq had launched ...

O‘DONNELL:  But to be clear, you do not believe these are the missing weapons of mass destruction that some argued were there before this war?

BOND:  The NIE thought that there were new weapons that had been manufactured.  These were not new weapons of mass destruction, but it is clear that they were deadly—they were deadly sarin gas, and some of that can still be used against our troops.

O‘DONNELL:  Senator Reed, can I just bring you in quickly here?  What do you make of Senator Santorum announcing that the weapons of mass destruction have been found?

REED:  I can‘t provide any collaboration.  I would point out though too that my amendment did not require some type of artificial timetable set by politicians.  It required the president to set the timetable and I presume based on the advice of his commanders.

O‘DONNELL:  Well, thank you to Senator Reed and Senator Bond. 

BOND:  Well let me answer that.  If the purpose is to set a timetable, why are they saying that we need to control that timetable out of Congress?  Because the Democrats who want to get out before the election are ignoring the troops.  My son, who does not want to go back to Iraq, but he‘d rather do that than pull out prematurely and see Iraq fall back into chaos.

O‘DONNELL:  Senators, I appreciate it, both I apologize.

REED:  First, the timetable was set by the president after the election.

O‘DONNELL:  I apologize, we enjoyed your debating all day long on the Senate yesterday and again today and again on this show.  So thank you very much to Senator Bond and Senator Reed.

And coming up, House Republican leader John Boehner talks about Iraq and why the House canceled a vote to renew the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.  By the way, for more on today‘s debate in the Senate, check out MSNBC.com for a look at how senators voted, especially the senators who are in tough reelection fights for 2006.  And the ones that are thinking about running for president in 2008.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), CALIFORNIA:  Every, every, every statement that has been made by this administration about Iraq has been wrong.  They‘ve never had a plan going in, they haven‘t had a plan on how to conduct the war and they don‘t have a plan on how to come home.  I think the American people are on to come home.  The—I think the American people are onto them.  They‘re stuck with this war and now they‘re trying to make it into something.  But they can say what they want, they again, have failed American people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  I‘m Norah O‘Donnell in for Chris Matthews.  That was House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi railing on Republicans today for playing politics with the Iraq war.  Now earlier today I was on Capitol Hill to speak with Pelosi‘s Republican counterpart, House Majority leader John Boehner and I started by asking his reaction to Pelosi‘s remarks.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER:  After 9/11, when 3,000 of our fellow citizens were killed, the idea of looking at the problem of terrorism—looking away and hoping the problem would go away, which is what world leaders did for 25 years before that, is no longer an option.  And if we don‘t take the war to the terrorists and defeat them, we risk American lives here at home.

O‘DONNELL:  Well that deals with the rationale of the war, not the plan.

BOEHNER:  And fighting the war in Iraq has certainly been more difficult than anyone has expected.  But we have no choice but to win.  There is a plan to win.  There is a plan to train their troops and we are training their troops.  Their new government is up and operating and those who just want to cut and run, who want to say, defeat, raise the white flag, dishonor the 2,500 soldiers that we‘ve lost in this war and the $500 billion we‘ve spent trying to defeat the terrorists.

O‘DONNELL:  What has happened, do you think, in the Republican Party?  There were many Republicans who were nervous that the Iraq War was going to hurt them in the November elections.

And then there appears to have been a decision made, whether from the White House or up here on the Hill as well, that it‘s time to embrace the war, if you will, and go ahead and run on this issue.  Why was that decision made?

BOEHNER:  Really, from where I sit, and I got the idea of promoting the idea that we had to talk about this, goes back to really last February when I became the new majority leader.  This is the people‘s House.  We have a responsibility to debate the issues of the day and when it came to the Iraq War and the war on terror, it was clear that people were getting weary, really didn‘t want to deal with it and we had to explain the rationale for why we‘re there, why Iraq is part of the war on terror, and the fact that we have no choice but to win.

And getting on offense, in my view, had no downside.

O‘DONNELL:  So the decision was made, let‘s run on the war rather than run away from it?

BOEHNER:  No, let‘s make sure that people understand that this is a very important war that is helping to protect us here at home.  And that we have no choice but to win it.  As difficult as it is.

O‘DONNELL:  Republicans have painted this in black and white to some degree, that Democrats are for cut and run, for surrender.

But our poll shows that for American people, it‘s a lot less clear than that.  An NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll shows that in fact a majority of Americans, 54 percent of voters say they are more likely to vote for someone who supports bringing home troops within 12 months.

BOEHNER:  I think the American people want us to defeat the terrorists.  They want us to win the war in Iraq as part of that global war on terror.  That‘s what‘s important.  And so we have a responsibility to go out and explain where we are, how it‘s going and how we will win and bring the troops home.

This is much more important than any poll or any election.  This is about whether we‘re going to turn over to our kids and theirs a safer and more stable world.

O‘DONNELL:  But you acknowledge the opinion of this president has fallen, has plummeted in part because of the Iraq War and it‘s also hurt the Republican Party.  Was it by the direction of Karl Rove ...

BOEHNER:  Oh no!

O‘DONNELL:  ... that you take on this issue?

BOEHNER:  Oh, absolutely not.  And I‘m going to tell you something.  It‘s easy to kick somebody when they‘re down.  George W. Bush has dealt with more difficult issues than any president since Franklin Roosevelt.  And I‘ve told my colleagues it‘s time that we go stand up for the president.  He‘s a man of vision, a man of integrity and a man who has the courage of his convictions to lead.

It is—when you start looking at the attacks of 9/11, a war in Afghanistan, a war in Iraq and then the largest natural disaster to have hit our country, he had his hands full and so it‘s easy to pick at him.  It‘s easy to say things aren‘t going well so let‘s blame it on him.  But he is a good guy and we ought to be glad he is there.

O‘DONNELL:  Let‘s turn to the issue of the Voting Rights Act, which of course is that landmark piece of legislation signed by President Lyndon Johnson which aimed to end discrimination in voting.  That has bipartisan support, it is expected to be reauthorized by the House and all of the sudden abruptly pulled from the floor.  What‘s going on?

BOEHNER:  Well, we move bills to the floor, some members pay attention the week before, some a month before, some a year before and some don‘t pay attention until that day—there are an awful lot of questions about it.  We are committed to moving a reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.  It‘s an important part of the civil rights legislation that came out in the 1960s and it‘s a very important bill.

O‘DONNELL:  But to have people understand a little bit ...

BOEHNER:  We have members who are confused about what this part of the bill means and what this part of the bill means.  We have lawyers who are arguing over the intent of some words and what we have to do, and we started yesterday, is educating our members and trying to resolve some of the differences of opinion over what some of the words actually mean.

O‘DONNELL:  But one of the controversial measures is about whether ballots should be bilingual or should they be English only.  Should all ballots in the United States be English-only?

BOEHNER:  Well, there was certainly some confusion on that issue and we have some members who want to end bilingual balloting.  The fact is very tremendous (ph).  People who vote are citizens and some of the people who live in our country who are citizens don‘t speak English.

Three-fourths of the people who don‘t speak English who vote were born in the United States and so we‘ve got to find some way for people to understand what this is, what the issue is, how it works ...

O‘DONNELL:  But you won‘t rule out bilingual ballots?

BOEHNER:  No.  The bill calls for continuation of bilingual ballots, it has been part of the Voting Rights Act for some time.

O‘DONNELL:  Let‘s turn to the larger issue of immigration reform.  The Senate has one bill.  The House has a very different bill.

BOEHNER:  You have any easy questions?

O‘DONNELL:  Absolutely not.  Let‘s go to the toughest one, immigration, where ...

BOEHNER:  (inaudible)

O‘DONNELL:  Exactly.  Well, let‘s ask about that.  Because there‘s supposed to be what we call conference up here on Capitol Hill where you guys are supposed to get together behind closed doors and work out the differences and get a final bill.  But instead ...

BOEHNER:  Which is what we‘re doing.

O‘DONNELL:  But instead you said we‘re going to have more hearings on them across the country.  Why can‘t people think that that‘s politics?

BOEHNER:  Let‘s get the facts right.  Chairman Sensenbrenner is now working with Chairman Specter, Senator Kennedy and others in trying to begin to resolve the differences.  House Republicans want to pass a strong border security, illegal immigration bill.  We want a bill.  There is no ifs, ands or buts about it.  But in the meantime ...

O‘DONNELL:  But you don‘t want a compromise.

BOEHNER:  Yes.  We do want a compromise.  But there are big differences between where the House was and what the Reid-Kennedy bill is.  Things like allowing illegal immigrants to get in-state tuition regardless of what state they go to.  Allowing illegal immigrants to get welfare benefits and Social Security benefits for the time they were here illegally.

Now, these are bizarre provisions.  There are other provisions in the Senate bill that we need to make sure we understand.  So all of the committees in the House that have some jurisdiction over the Senate bill, we‘re going to have hearings here and around the country.  The House had a very different position than what the Senate did and so while they‘re having their conversations, privately at this point, we‘re going to go out and make sure that we understand and make sure the American people understand what‘s in that Reid-Kennedy bill.

O‘DONNELL:  The House goes on a field trip, all right?  The majority leader John Boehner, thank you very much.

BOEHNER:  Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL:  And up next, while the Senate fought about Iraq this week, North Korea made headlines about its intentions to test fire a rocket.  How dangerous is the situation getting?  We‘re going to ask former Bush one‘s secretary of state, Lawrence Eagleburger and former Clinton‘s secretary of defense, Ash Carter.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Even though the vice-president today called North Korea‘s missile program fairly rudimentary, should the U.S. consider launching its own airstrike to destroy a long range anti-ballistic missile that North Korea is threatening to watch.  A former Republican secretary of state and a former Democratic assistant secretary of defense think so.  They believe allowing North Korea the chance to even test a rocket that could possibly reach the United States with a nuclear payload is something that needs immediately intervention. 

Lawrence Eagleburger is the former secretary of state for George H. W.  Bush and Ashton Carter was an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton White House.  He is currently the co-director of the preventative defense project at Harvard University. 

Good evening to both of you.  This is a very serious issue.  Thank you both for joining us.  Ashton, I am going to begin with you because you did have this piece today in “The Washington Post” with former secretary of defense, William Perry.  Why shouldn‘t the U.S. allow a country like North Korea, that has been openly hostile to the United States, even take one more step forward in terms of launching this ICBM?   

ASHTON CARTER, ASST. DEFENSE SEC. UNDER CLINTON:  Well, we shouldn‘t and that was the point that former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and I made, that if North Korea goes forward to take these missile stages, put them on the launch pad, fill them with fuel and so to speak, begin the count down and we‘re not able to talk them out of doing that, taking that drastic step, we do have the option and should exercise the option of attacking the missile and destroying it, which is something you could do with one or two cruise missiles or bombs, this is not a large air campaign, and it would be highly effective and it would eliminate their ability to launch this missile, gather test data from it and go on to perfect an inter-continental missile force, on which they could put the nuclear weapons that they have also gotten in the last few years. 

O‘DONNELL:  Right, you made the case that diplomacy has failed and we cannot sit by and let this deadly threat mature.  Let me ask you Secretary Eagleburger, the U.S. suggested today it has limited ability to shoot down a North Korean missile.  Our defense system is just not perfected at this point.  Do you advocate a preemptive strike? 

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER, FMR. SEC. OF STATE UNDER BUSH 41:  I would advocate that, yes.  Again, we have, diplomacy has failed, and I think it is more than time, in fact, I think we should have done something about this in North Korea some time ago.  But it‘s not just the issue of firing this particular missile. 

What you need to think about is where all of this leads and where this leads is missiles with nuclear warheads that can reach the United States from a pipsqueak country like North Korea, which has no sense of responsibility for world order and is headed by someone who has no understanding of the world as such.  The same is true of Iran, and it would seem to me at some point we need to take a look at the longer term consequences of our failure to do now what we can do at far less cost. 

O‘DONNELL:  Secretary, I love the way you phrase that, that this is a pipsqueak country, North Korea, and quite frankly, ruled by what we think is a crazy man, however we do know that North Korea may have anywhere between six to eight bombs worth of plutonium, that they could put on one of these missiles.  The vice president said today he rejected this proposal that there should be a preemptive strike and he said I think the issue is being addressed appropriately, and you have to look at more than just firing a shot in there.  That‘s not—it‘s not that simple.

EAGLEBURGER:  The answer to that is not the first time the vice president has been wrong, No. 1.  And No. 2, this—if we—again, I‘m so frustrated by this issue that is drives me crazy sometimes, because the question is not this particular missile so much, or the—or what they may be able to put on the warhead, what warhead they may be able to put on it.  It is that if we don‘t stop this prices now, we will have to deal with it in a far more difficult way, five or 10 years from now and I don‘t know why the vice president and a lot of other people can‘t seem to understand that.

O‘DONNELL:  But Ashton, why does there need to be a military solution to this?  The White House is talking today that there can be a diplomatic solution to that, but some people argue that this administration has not moved forward diplomatically in the best way.  Wasn‘t Secretary of State Madeleine Albright close to a deal at the end of the Clinton administration? 

CARTER:  Well there doesn‘t need to be—doesn‘t need to be a military solution to this.  There could be a diplomatic solution to this and of course I hope that the North Koreans particularly recognizing our resolve, if we make the threat that we recommended we should make, will come back to the negotiating table and get serious about talks about their weapons of mass destruction program.

But the history of the last six years has been one of failure and stalemate in the six-party talks, and mostly that‘s the fault of North Korea, the intransigence, the recklessness and this pattern of just going and crossing one line after another, that Secretary Eagleburger rightly points to.

But we also on our side need to take a position with respect to North Korea.  I think what has stymied the Bush administration is that there are two camps within in.  There‘s a camp that believes as I believe that you ought to at least make the effort to talk North Korea out of this.  And there‘s another camp that believes that the North Koreans are nasty—a nasty government, which is indisputable.  And that you shouldn‘t talk to them at all.  But those two views have been at logger heads with one another and have stopped us from coming to the table with our own position.  But any way, rightly or wrongly, the talks have not worked so far.

O‘DONNELL:  I think the bottom line here, it‘s fascinating that there is agreement between men like yourself who have served both President Bush and President Clinton, that we should blow this thing off the launch pad right away. 

Thank you, Secretary Eagleburger and Secretary Carter.  Up next, Afghan President Hamid Karzai bashes the U.S. effort in his country.  Could the Taliban be on its way back to power?  Does the U.S. have another forces there to stop them?  We‘ll ask former CIA operative Bob Baer. 

And don‘t miss HARDBALL on Friday for our interview with a former prisoner of war at Guantanamo Bay.  What is it like on the inside?  What‘s it like on the outside for a man who has never been charged with a crime?  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL as North Korea prepares to test launch a long-range ballistic missile.  The U.S. is readying its missile defense system and today Vice President Dick Cheney called North Korea‘s missile capabilities fairly rudimentary.  How good is our intelligence on North Korea and are they exploiting us at a time with we‘re dealing with Iraq and Iran?  Bob Baer is a former CIA officer and author of the new novel, “Blow the House Down.”  Bob, thank you for joining us.  That‘s the first question.  Do we have any good intelligence on North Korea?

BOB BAER, FORMER CIA OPERATIVE:  We can pick up the telemetry from these tests, electronic intercepts, find out where the missiles facing, where it‘s going, about when they‘re going to do it.  We can see from overhead how far advanced they are, you know, the cables running.  You can see all the stuff very clearly, if you‘ve looked at it.  But we don‘t know what they‘re ultimately going to do with a missile like this.  They could hit Japan, they could hit California.

O‘DONNELL:  How could the vice president make that statement today that he believes their capability is fairly rudimentary and what does that mean?

BAER:  He‘s talking about the precision of the guidance system.  Yes, they can hit California, but can they hit Los Angeles?  Can they drop it in a certain building?  We can, they can‘t.  So he‘s right, it is rudimentary, technology is not very good.  But it‘s like a scud missile.  Remember when they fired them at Iraq if ‘91?  They just were hitting at anything.  This is what the Koreans have.

O‘DONNELL:  The president‘s national security adviser Stephen Hadley today indicated that they believe that the missile is set, refueled and ready to go and could be launched at any time.  What about that suggestion by former secretaries of the state and defense that we should just blow the thing off the launching pad?

BAER:  Well that‘s a consideration.  What they‘re talking about is a leadership is Korea, which we don‘t really understand.  A lot of people would call them insane, the president, it‘s unclear whether he‘s really in control and what his intentions are.  Could he put a nuclear weapon on the end of this thing and fire to California?  We don‘t know.

O‘DONNELL:  Can we talk about that for a second because I think this really helps people kind of understand.  Because I‘ve always been fascinating by—I lived in South Korea for awhile, but Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, I mean, he claims that he can shoot a 36 when he plays 18 holes of golf.  He apparently favors prostitutes and Johnny Walker Black.  He drinks a lot.  He‘s a very strange man. 

BAER:  He watches Daffy Duck for political inspiration. 

O‘DONNELL:  You‘re kidding.

BAER:  I mean, it‘s facetious but he does.  That‘s his favorite.  It‘s how he relaxes.  I mean ...

O‘DONNELL:  And this man now has probably three to six warheads. 

BAER:  Yes, and he lives in hermit kingdom.  He‘s totally unpredictable and we do not want him to have a nuclear weapon and we don‘t want him to be able to deliver it. 

O‘DONNELL:  You say he watches Daffy Duck, but does he have enough political sense to exploit the situation in Iraq, our deep involvement there, certainly what we‘re trying to do with Iran? 

BAER:  He is the head of a failing state.  He needs attention.  He‘s probably irritated that we‘re focused on Iraq and Iran and he‘s been ignored, as he‘s made these incredible statements.  His economy is broken completely. 

We have people starving, it‘s getting worse and it‘s going to get worse.  You‘re going to have a crop failure.  He wants attention and this is one way to get it.  Now the question is, is there other adult leadership in Korea which will stop him from going beyond a certain line. 

O‘DONNELL:  It‘s very scary to talk about, and one other piece of scary news we received today is that Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is, of course, the number two to Osama bin Laden, has released now what we believe, a seventh tape this year. 

And, in fact, intelligence officials say that the frequency of the taped messages is greater than at any time before or after September 11.  Does this suggest that Zawahiri is getting ready for another attack? 

BAER:  My analysis is—and I‘m sure not everybody shares it with me

is that Zawahiri and bin Laden are trying to regain control of this movement, which they lost after September 11th after we went into Afghanistan. 

And one way to do it would be to launch a big attack saying hey, look, we are there on the frontlines, we are the leaders, we hit the United States again, and so they‘re hoping to corral their followers back in, because in Iraq, it‘s very chaotic. 

O‘DONNELL:  But couldn‘t it also be that the release of all these tapes is trying to say hey, look, I‘m still here.  Yes, I‘m hiding in a cave but I‘m still relevant. 

BAER:  Exactly, but they are fairly irrelevant, but that makes them even more dangerous because that makes them desperate and they may try something, either another airplane or a ground attack, within the United States. 

O‘DONNELL:  You‘re a former CIA officer.  Are we any closer to catching Osama bin Laden today? 

BAER:  As a former officer, what I see is what we call as trade craft.  You never see him pictured outside like Zarqawi was, he‘s probably up in the mountains of Pakistan, isolated.  He doesn‘t communicate with people going in and out of his—in a cave or wherever he is, and he‘s well protected by the people.  He‘s very hard to get.  It‘s very hard to get intelligence in that part of the world.  It always has been. 

O‘DONNELL:  All right, well, thank you to Bob Baer.  The book is called “Blow the House Down.”

And up next, will the midterm election be about anything other than Iraq?  More local issues.  And if Republicans unite behind the war, does that mean Democrats will unite against it?  MSNBC‘s Pat Buchanan and Eugene Robinson of the “Washington Post” will be here. 

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Today the Senate rejected Democratic plans to bring home American troops from Iraq, but the fierce fight over what to do about Iraq is still full of sound and fury.  Republicans are trying to turn a still very unpopular war into a political win in the elections this fall.  Can they paint Democrats as defeatists who want to cut or run or will the charge ring false as the hell in Iraq gets worse?

Here to answer those questions are MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan and “Washington Post” columnist Eugene Robinson, two men who do play HARDBALL and not dodgeball, right?  Thank you to both of you. 

Let‘s talk about what happened in the Senate because it‘s been a very interesting two days of debate.  The Republicans several weeks ago were really nervous about running on the Iraq war, they‘ve seen the president‘s poor approval ratings and all of a sudden they have now embraced the war, standing behind the president.  Is this the strategy by Karl Rove to say, let‘s run on it? 

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  I don‘t know that if it‘s Rove‘s strategy, but it‘s exactly the right strategy.  The Republicans today were united, they were purposeful, they said we‘re not going to cut and run.  They defeated that Kerry amendment.  Kerry‘s amendment got 13 votes, 87-13, which was a humiliation for him. 

They beat the other amendment, or they won three to two in the other amendment.  They got five Democrats supporting them.  So I think what they‘ve done here is basically said look, we‘re stuck with the war here. 

Most Americans don‘t know exactly what to do.  They don‘t want to lose this war.  But they don‘t want a question mark.  They want certitude and we‘re going to say we‘re not going to cut an run and I think they‘ve divided and thrown the Democrats on to the defensive politically. 

O‘DONNELL:  You know, you can change a lot of things with the polls, but we did the NBC-“Wall Street Journal” poll, it‘s a great poll, and we said would you be more likely to support a candidate if they wanted troops out with 12 months and 54 percent of those polls say yes.  So why is it that Senator Kerry and Senator Feingold couldn‘t even convince members of their own party? 

EUGENE ROBINSON, “WASHINGTON POST” COLUMNIST:  You know, I think the Republican strategy is one of necessity.  I mean, it‘s where they are.  They have got to support the war and they‘re going to make the best of it. 

You know, the Democrats are hampered by their inability to simply enunciate what you just said.  They can‘t put it quite that simply.  They kind of dodge around it, and frankly, they‘re hampered by the articulateness or lack thereof of the leadership.  They just haven‘t come out with a coherent message.

O‘DONNELL:  In other words—and they just don‘t have a single voice or a single sense of leadership and Karl Rove is very smart about putting a bumper sticker, cut and run. 

ROBINSON:  Exactly.  Cut and run and ...

O‘DONNELL:  Cut and run.

ROBINSON:  So what‘s the elevator message from the Democrats? 

O‘DONNELL:  But isn‘t this like 2004 deja vu all over again?  It‘s like flip-flop and now it‘s cut and run. 

BUCHANAN:  But here‘s the thing.  What the Republicans have is look, most Americans think we probably shouldn‘t have gone in there, and they don‘t want to be defeated.  And so what the Republicans are going to say is you guys may be right, but we can‘t turn around and walk about and have it collapse and a lot of people fear a defeat.  They fear a collapse and they‘re going to make that argument and I think, quite frankly, politically, again, this is the politics of it, not what‘s on the ground, politically the Republicans are in better shape after what they‘ve done here than they have been in a long, long time. 

ROBINSON:  This could be a temporary thing.  I think people will watch what‘s going on there, and I think some the support that the Republicans are getting will fade.  

O‘DONNELL:  One of the things I think is so interesting in this debate is the Republicans were so nervous about Iraq in this election.  And so they said, oh, but we‘re worried about it, it could really hurt us and the White House went back to them and said look at 2004, and in fact, we have this poll graphic to shown you, was removing Saddam Hussein worth it?  In 2004, 48 percent said not worth and now 52 percent say not worth it.  So not too different from 2004 and that‘s what the White House told the Republicans and said that‘s why we should run on this. 

All right, we‘ll be back with Pat Buchanan and Gene Robinson for more on the war and the battle for control if Congress.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  We are back with MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan and “Washington Post” columnist Eugene Robinson.  First up, Republican Senator Rick Santorum said today that they have found the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  Take a listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RICK SANTORUM ®, PENNSYLVANIA:  We have information that confirms that some 500 and likely more weapons were in fact in Iraq at the time of the Iraq war.  The bottom line is, irrespective of whether there were any other, the fact that we recovered 500, and the fact that there are a likelihood of others to recover, maybe from Iraq and maybe from other places around the Middle East, suggest that Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Now, that was the Senator Santorum on the Senate floor yesterday.  Let me ask both of you, do you think, had we found weapons of mass destruction, that the White House would allow Senator Rick Santorum to announce that we‘d found them? 

ROBINSON:  It sounds pretty unlikely to me.  I don‘t think so.

BUCHANAN:  Karl Rove would have announced that. 

O‘DONNELL:  What is going on, and what is Rick Santorum doing on the Senate floor saying we found the weapons of mass destruction? 

BUCHANAN:  I think what the Pentagon says and I guess what is true, you probably found 500 artillery shells which were used for chemical weapons, that were predated the Gulf War and they‘re lying around out there and they were not activated.  The senator said however that Saddam had used them between the Gulf War and this war, and this is no evidence that that has happened.  I think unless the senator has some information nobody else has got, he has a little bit of a credibility problem.

ROBINSON:  The chief weapons inspector, Charles Duelfer, said today that these are in fact munitions, shells essentially, not weapons of mass destruction, and certainly not any more.  They predate the Gulf War.  The agents inside the gases inside or the chemicals inside, degrade over time. 

You would not want to, you know, like go banging on one with a hammer or

anything like that, because that could be bad, but other than that, they

are not going to hurt you at this point

BUCHANAN:  Well, you have heard about those shells that are buried up

in Spring Valley,

O‘DONNELL:  I have, Spring Valley is here in Washington. 

BUCHANAN:  It‘s World War I stuff.

O‘DONNELL:  The big question, of course, is why would Republican Senator Rick Santorum announce that we found the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?  Here is what Congresswoman Jane Harman said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JANE HARMAN (D), CALIFORNIA:  I think it is a bit suspicious that this information is being rolled out the night before the Iraq debate in the senate by a senator who is extremely endangered in a close political race, and I am very disappointed because what it leads me to believe is our intelligence community has not learned the lesson, that hyping and cherry picking, letting mis-information be politicized is not good for American security.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Pat, let me ask you, Senator Rick Santorum is in a difficult senate race? 

BUCHANAN:  He‘s down 18 points in one poll, which is extraordinary for a senator that is as experienced and well known as he is and he‘s in a very rough fight.  I don‘t know if Ms. Harman is right, but I don‘t doubt, but who ever gave this information to the senator, I think the senator ought to get on the phone to them, unless he has something that I don‘t know, because this does not sound like it will stand up.

O‘DONNELL:  Eugene, this is the kind of statement in Washington that can become very explosive, and very damaging.

ROBINSON:  I think so I think that this will come back to haunt him.  I think it will stick with him, you know.  There are times when desperation makes sense as a political strategy, if you‘re 18 down in the polls, it may seem to make sense at the time, but you can see that clip being played over and over again by opponents and by other Democrats.

BUCHANAN:  Santorum‘s WMDs.  If I were him, I would get the Pentagon on the phone, whoever told him this, look, you guys back me up, and you are the ones that gave me that stuff, I don‘t think he made that up on the floor, somebody told him this obviously and he went ahead with it, that‘s my guess.

O‘DONNELL:  Well of course, they did, they found some old munitions.  I mean they did find 500 old munitions, that‘s what the military‘s saying,  but they are saying they‘re not weapons of mass destruction, they contain dangerous gases etc. 

ROBINSON:  Silence from the White House is deafening on this today.  And the Pentagon has essentially pulled the rug out from under him by saying, not exactly. 

(CROSSTALK)

O‘DONNELL:  Well, I am sitting here again tomorrow night.  I have a feeling we will be talking about it and you‘re going to be talking about it with Chris next week. 

BUCHANAN:  You should invite him on? 

O‘DONNELL:  We did invite him on tonight, and he had a commitment, we‘ll go back at him.  Thank you Pat Buchanan and Gene Robinson.  

Play HARDBALL with us again Friday when our guests will include, you guessed it, the HARDBALL hotshots.  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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