June 30, 2006

3:20 p.m. ET

Bin Laden’s ‘videotape’ — a misnomer

After the al-Qaida “tease” — a media term hinting at a big story to come — that a new videotape from al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was about to be released, the group’s propaganda arm finally posted it on an Islamist Internet site. 

It’s almost fraud.

Yes, the voice is bin Laden’s. Yes, what was released is, in fact, a videotape. In reality, however, the “videotape” is merely a voice recording showing an old still image of the bin Laden in a split screen with video footage of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Hardly what we expected when we heard the word “videotape."

We analysts who study al-Qaida and bin Laden were understandably excited when we heard the videotape tease. We were not excited about hearing bin Laden’s voice but about the opportunity to see new video footage of the world’s most wanted fugitive. While there have been at numerous audiotapes from bin Laden since that time (this one makes four this year alone), there has not been any available footage of bin Laden since October 2004. Most analysts regard the audiotapes as mere propaganda and proof of life. That’s all we have here — the usual rhetoric and proof that bin Laden was still alive on June 7, the date al-Zarqawi was killed.

The videotape — or more accurately, an audiotape with an old graphic — lionizes the late terrorist al-Zarqawi. After al-Zarqawi’s death, there seems to be a concentrated effort on the part of the larger al-Qaida leadership to project the image of a united front, when it is apparent that there was a serious rift between the larger al-Qaida organization and al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq. In mid-2005, bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, chastised al-Zarqawi for his efforts to start a civil war in Iraq between the Sunni and Shia communities — an effort that continues to this day.

Bin Laden’s failure to release video always causes speculation about possible medical conditions, wounds, etc. Descriptions of his voice as weak and fatigued fuel that speculation. Some analysts are of the opinion that bin Laden cannot make a videotape, that he is in hiding and on the run, moving from hideout to hideout in the desolate Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. Possibly, but that has not prevented al-Zawahiri from making and releasing three videotapes this year. When there is only audio from bin Laden and video from al-Zawahiri, there is speculation as to bin Laden’s physical condition.

If al-Zawahiri can make a videotape under those conditions, bin Laden can make a videotape. Why hasn’t he?

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June 29, 2006 | 5:35 p.m. ET

At home with members of Congress this week

It’s the July 4th holiday week in an election year. It has a rhythm all its own. It’s true that many members of Congress spend most of their time thinking about re-election. But the gears really get rolling in the summer, just as most of the country wants a break from work and politics. Elected officials have to pretend to enjoy their time off when what they are really doing is trying to read the local tea leaves about their constituents’ view of them.

It’s no longer about the direction of the country. It is about making sure they go into November with a strong lead over any challenger. Ironically, they begin with trying to figure out whether the locals even know their challengers’ names. Not surprisingly, the public name recognition of an opponent is a big factor in a member’s re-election strategy. If few know the challenger’s name by the Fourth of July, then the member will not do any negative advertising about how bad the opponent will be for the district. Better to leave him or her unmentioned altogether and focus on burnishing one’s own record. 

Yet this year, there are 25 to 30 districts where the challenger’s name is less important than the unfavorable opinion of the current member of Congress. Those are the ones we will all be watching this summer — places where Republicans won in 2004 by just a few percentage points over their last Democratic challengers.

Those districts are the ones where we desperately want beachgoers, swim club members or backyard BBQ-goers (they are mostly suburban districts) to talk about how badly the war is going or about their frustration with the cost of health insurance. We want them to be annoyed with the Republicans’ determination to interfere with their family values instead of working to solve the problems of the country. As they pay their air-conditioning bills or fill their tanks for road trips, they might remember that this president’s energy policy is just to enrich his friends in the oil business.

Those districts are places where we want parents, who are paying for summer tutors for their kids and are nervous about the cost of college, to get angry with President Bush for spending $300 billion on the war in Iraq instead of on education and opportunities for their kids at home. And we want young people who are still looking for summer jobs at decent wages to wonder whether voting in November could help alleviate their frustration.

Yes, members of Congress are going to have a typical July 4th holiday. But hopefully, for at least 30 of them, business as usual will be particularly tense.

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June 27, 2006 | 12:05 p.m. ET

Bank-tapping: What’s the big deal?

It is puzzling to witness the hissy fit coming out of the White House over media reports about the government’s surveillance of banking records in the war against terrorism. Not only has this been reported before without such complaints, but the administration itself has often bragged in public about its aggressive probes of terrorist financing.

In the month right after the Sept. 11, 2001, bombings, under the headline “U.S. Seeking a Stronger Role For Banks on Terrorists’ Cash," The New York Times reported on the beginnings of the surveillance program it described in further detail last weekend. A year later, The Washington Post reported in great detail about financial surveillance to combat terrorists, under the headline “Search for Illicit Activities Taps Confidential Financial Data.”

Far from the hue and cry we hear now from the White House, in those days the administration raised no objection, even seeming quite eager for the public to learn about its great efforts on the financial war front.

Repeatedly since 9/11 a barrage of Bush administration press releases, speeches and congressional testimony heralded its aggressive works to target terrorist finances around the world. In a June 2002 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Deputy Treasury Secretary Kenneth W. Dam boasted that the United States was working with private-sector partners internationally on “developing monitoring systems” of bank accounts, noting that such cooperation was necessary because “you can’t bomb a foreign bank account.”

But then, I do not take these complaints against the news media at face value. Instead, this is yet another round in a long-running campaign by the Bush administration to portray the news media as unpatriotic and therefore unworthy of public consumption.

Read more of Craig Crawford’s thoughts on Crawford’s List.

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June 23, 2006 | 1:15 p.m. ET

Kicking it away

The past few weeks provide a textbook example of the attitudes, and the political ineptitude, that explain how and why the Democratic Party lost the national security issue, and the nation, to the party of Nixon and Reagan a generation ago.

First came the odd Democratic response to the take-down of al-Zarqawi, the successful completion of the Iraqi Cabinet, and Bush’s dramatic trip to Baghdad. The president had a great week, as did the country. But, rather than celebrate with the country some good news at last, the Democrats, or at least some of them, began to trash Bush and poor-mouth it all.

The impression left was that not only are they a sour and negative lot. Worse, they seem disappointed by U.S. military successes; i.e., as a party they seemed to counting on, if not hoping for, a U.S. debacle in Iraq to bring them back to power. One is reminded of the Democrats’ rejoicing in the mid-1970s over revelations of FBI and CIA misconduct, savaging both agencies and voting with relish to cut off the funds to a South Vietnam, for which JFK and LBJ had taken us into war.

It was this past week, however, that Democrats truly got their clocks cleaned. The Kerry amendment, calling for a pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq to be completed a year from now, got 13 votes. Thus the titular leader of the party, its 2004 nominee for president, was repudiated by more than two-thirds of his colleagues in the U.S. Senate.

As for the Democrats’ fall-back amendment — begin redeployment now — that not only lost half a dozen Democratic senators, including the vice presidential nominee of the party in 2000, Joe Lieberman, but it was voted down 60-39, as Republicans relentlessly hammered Democrats for advocating a policy of sell-out and surrender, cut-and-run.

The blunder the Democrats made is fundamental. With Bush in power and the Republicans in control of Congress, the Iraq war is the responsibility of Bush and his party. Bad news in the war is bad news for the GOP. They are running the show. The Democrats need do nothing.

But, instead of maintaining their flexibility, keeping themselves free to criticize the mistakes the White House has admittedly made, the Democrats decided to offer their own war policy, or rather two conflicting policies, then to defend them from a GOP that has far superior firepower, as it controls the White House and majorities in both houses. 

The result: Democrats were smashed on both amendments. They are themselves now being forced to explain to the nation and defend ideas that Republicans can daily demonize as irresponsible.

The great advantage an out party has, as Nixon had in 1968, is that it need not defend. It can attack at a time and place of its own choosing, then vanish like a guerrilla army. The Democrats kicked this priceless asset away by foolishly moving into two exposed fixed positions, and they got blasted to pieces by the firepower of a GOP that united temporarily to attack their smaller and divided forces.

Now, instead of the GOP defending past decisions and a Bush policy that has us mired down in the fourth year of a bloody war with no end in sight, Democrats must explain why they are, again, acting the summertime soldiers and sunshine patriots, who perennially run when the going gets tough. When Pelosi and Reid are running the show, Republicans don’t even need to send in Rove. All in all, an increasingly typical performance by what was once the party that fought and won America’s wars.

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June 22, 2006 | 5:45 p.m. ET

Fake debate won’t fly with the people

I’ll start where Lt. Col. Rick Francona left off: “There should be debate over the prosecution of the war.”

Our military experts are being ignored by the Republican politicians in Washington, starting with their secretary of defense and their commander in chief, whose insistence on blind loyalty from the congressional leadership make any actual debate of the prosecution of the war impossible to have. 

Muscling congressional floor tactics and weak committee leadership have guaranteed for the last three years that that won’t happen, and nothing on the horizon looks like they are going to change without a turnover in Congress on Election Day.  

Of course, there should be a discussion in Congress about the prosecution of the war. For three years, Democrats — both those who supported the invasion and those who opposed it — have sought answers from the administration about Iraq. So many questions have never been answered:

  • Why was the intelligence on WMDs so wrong? What are we doing to assure that it doesn’t happen again?
  • How de we define the terrorist threat now?
  • Is regime change our declared goal now? How do we define when the Iraqi government is self-sufficient? How do we define success?
  • Are there other countries where we would define regime change as a legitimate goal? What are they?
  • How many troops do we plan to keep in Iraq as a permanent force? What are the plans?

And the big financial questions: Why are we spending $320 billion in Iraq and only $757 million (one-fifth of 1 percent) to protect ourselves here in the United States from terrorists? We build public works there and cut the budget here. Why? For how long?

It is the job of Congress, on behalf of the American people, to ask these questions of the administration. It asks them in congressional hearings, during budget negotiations and during the debate on Defense Department authorizations. The problem is that the Republican leadership doesn’t ask. It has never asked and never will ask. Republican leaders have been blind puppies following their master, spending hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money and putting the lives of thousands and thousands of young men and women on the line without any answers.

This week is beyond the last straw for many. The American people are clearly opposed to this war. They want answers. Every poll shows their dissatisfaction with the president on this issue. So what does the Republican Congress do? It calculates with Karl Rove to set up a fake debate on troop withdrawal to try to make the Democrats look bad and guarantee that the public stays ignorant. It finally acquiesces to a floor debate on the war, provided that the only votes are on approving or disapproving troop withdrawal. 

I want the troops home and out of harm’s way. But there is so much more to be debated than a timetable. Yes, there is Democratic division on timetables. But Democrats are united in their determination to force the president to change the direction of this war. The Republicans in Congress are simply determined to keep this charade going. Still no answers for the American people. Just more dead kids.

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June 22, 2006 | 2:05 p.m. ET

No date for the insurgents

Sen. John Kerry and Russ Feingold sponsored an amendment to the defense authorization bill that would have required the “redeployment” — read “pullout” — of U.S. combat troops from Iraq by July 2007; in other words, a date certain for the removal of American forces. It also called for an “over-the-horizon military presence to prosecute the war on terror and protect regional security interests.” The amendment was defeated 86-13. Sens. Carl Levin and Jack Reed offered an alternative amendment that would have urged President Bush to begin a phased-in troop withdrawal from Iraq with in a year. That amendment failed by a vote of 60-39.

What messages would these amendments have sent to the various groups that comprise the insurgency in Iraq?

Of the two proposals, the Kerry-Feingold amendment would have sent a much clearer message to the insurgents — a message devastating for U.S. policy in Iraq and the region.

The tactical message would have been that their methods are working. Indiscriminate killing of Iraqis, escalating sectarian violence, continued use of suicide bombers and roadside bombs, the recent seizure and brutal murder of two American soldiers, etc., all have weakened American resolve to the point where some in Congress were not only calling for withdrawal, but actually intent on setting a date when it must be completed. The timing of this debate in the wake of the brutal murder of two U.S. troops is unfortunate and only reinforces the perception that these tactics are having an effect.

The strategic message would have been that if the insurgents are able to survive another year, Iraq is theirs. If this amendment had passed, there would likely have been an immediate drop in the level of violence — false encouragement for the Americans to stick to the timetable. The insurgents would merely have waited, planned and consolidated their power for July 2007 to re-engage the fledgling Iraqi government and its untested security forces.

A date-certain timetable for withdrawal of forces is, in essence, doing one thing you do not do in fighting an insurgency: cede territory to the insurgents. This proposal would have done exactly that — saying that after July 2007, Iraq is yours. Maintaining an “over-the-horizon presence” says to the insurgents that we’re going where they aren’t — again ceding territory. What happens when the insurgents show up there, as well? Will we “redeploy” somewhere else?

In addition, this amendment would have had the unintended consequence of forcing the military command in Iraq to expend its resources preparing to withdraw troops and materiel rather than focusing on combating the insurgency and completing the training of Iraqi security forces.

There should be debate over the prosecution of the war, but setting a timetable would have sent the wrong message. It could have been a recipe for failure.

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June 21, 2006 | 1:10 p.m. ET

Everyday heroes

You just knew all along it would end this way — even while grasping the forlorn hope that those two soldiers from the elite 101st Airborne taken prisoner in Iraq on Friday would be found alive. Normally the military authorities don’t tell you this, but the best chance of finding a hostage or a POW is usually in the first 24 hours. Thereafter, the most you can hope for is normally recovery, not rescue.

That was the case here, too, because, in the aftermath of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s death, al-Qaida was sending a message of defiance to the nation that had placed Pfcs. Kristian Menchaca and Thomas Tucker in harm’s way. That message was this: “For all of America’s advantages in technology and firepower, victories are won in the heart of the warrior: our will and our faith are stronger than yours.” It is far too soon to know how that message will be received; certainly, those who sent it must have regarded the renewed talk of deadlines and American troop withdrawals as hopeful signs.

But can we take a “time out” here and call a short halt to the usual search for policy implications? My forthcoming book, “Warheads,” points out  that one of the peculiarities of modern journalism is that we naturally concentrate the media klieg lights on every allegation of soldier misconduct, even though the military takes far more seriously than anyone else the necessity to uphold the highest standards of professional conduct — on and off the battlefield. It is far more difficult — though equally important — to balance the ugliness of war with the everyday narratives of heroism under the most appalling conditions the human animal can create. Iraq is such a place, and these two “ordinary” soldiers were everyday heroes. We should not let this painful moment pass without reflecting on the extraordinary dedication and courage exemplified by them and the heartbroken families who must shortly escort them to their rest. May God grant them comfort and peace!

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June 20, 2006 | 3:10 p.m.

Who’s the real flip-flopper?

Republican congressional leaders are having fun these days portraying Democrats as “cut-and-run” wimps on Iraq, but come November they could be very sorry. In last week’s House war debate — and in the Senate this week — Capitol Hill GOPers are sacrificing any chance of putting some daylight between themselves and President Bush’s unyielding and unpopular war footing.

The bright line for voters out of these debates is a clear image of Republicans as rubber stamps for a “stay the course” policy that now strikes most Americans as “stay the curse.” While Democrats who once supported the war come across as flip-floppers, at least the voters will see them as struggling to find a way out of Iraq with some dignity — an approach that is much closer to the mainstream. 

Indeed, blindly obedient Republicans now lining up to give Bush a blank check to dismiss the polls and bore full-speed-ahead in Iraq risk the prospect of looking like the bigger wimps. And if we endure another few months of mostly tragic news from Iraq, by the fall they’ll be forced to backpedal away from the president to save their jobs — and that will make them the flip-floppers on Election Day.

Read more of Craig Crawford’s thoughts on Crawford’s List.

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June 16, 2006 | 10:25 p.m. ET

The Marines at Pendleton
(Roland Woerner, “Hardball” producer)

The parents of and the attorney for Marine Pfc. John Jodka III played “Hardball” on Thursday with Chris. Jodka is being held in the brig at Camp Pendleton, Calif., with seven other service members awaiting charges from an incident on April 26, when an allegedly unarmed Iraqi man was killed in Hamandiya. A rifle and a shovel were allegedly placed near his body to make it look as if he was an insurgent. While the investigation progressed, the seven Marines and a Navy corpsman were being held in “maximum” custody, meaning they are restrained with handcuffs attached to a leather belt and leg cuffs any time they are outside their cell. They were also escorted by a correctional specialist at all times and could meet with visitors only in a private booth behind glass. 

John and Carolyn Jodka and their son’s attorney, Joseph Casas, told Chris that they believe Jodka is being treated harshly because he is political pawn. They say he is a victim of politics because of the criticism the Marines took in their slow investigation of an earlier shooting incident in Iraq. In November, 24 Iraqi men, women and children were allegedly killed by Marines in Haditha. Time magazine broke the story, which forced the Marines to investigate. None of the service members being held in the Hamandiya incident were involved in the alleged Haditha shootings.

Today, Camp Pendleton released a statement saying the pretrial confinement level of Jodka and the others had been reduced from “maximum” to “medium-in.” They cite an instruction from the secretary of the Navy that reviews all pre-confinement levels every 30 days. Under the new level, the confinees do not have any personal restraint while inside the brig facility; they are afforded the same privileges of the general brig population, which include contact visits on weekends and holidays and one hour of daily recreation without restraints.

“Hardball” will continue to follow this story closely and update our viewers when and if charges are filed in the alleged incidents in both Hamandiya and Haditha.

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June 13, 2006 | 2:30 p.m. ET

Rove a shot across Democrats’ bow

Karl Rove dodging the bullet is one of many warning signs for congressional Democrats who are gloating about their chances in November. Surely it is clear now that Democrats cannot count on Bush and company to screw up all the way to the midterm elections. In a week’s time, Bush saved a congressional seat, killed a top terrorist, spared his political guru and flew to Baghdad. Higher approval ratings are bound to follow.

With Scooter Libby’s trial scheduled for after the elections — and Rove now off the hook — only the remote possibility of prosecutors’ going after Vice President Dick Cheney could revive the CIA leak scandal as a campaign issue for Democrats. What do we make of the CIA story now that Rove is out of harm’s way? My guess is that Libby wins his trial or gets the charges dropped, meaning that once the dust settles, only a journalist, Judith Miller, will have spent any time in jail — and Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson will have to file civil lawsuits to seek any justice for what happened.

Read more of Craig Crawford’s thoughts on Crawford’s List.

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June 9, 2006 | 2:40 p.m. ET

Al-Zarqawi’s fatal misjudgment

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the al-Qaida in Iraq organization, was killed in an American air strike on June 7. It is likely that al-Zarqawi would be alive today had he not made what I regard as a fatal misjudgment.

On Nov. 9, 2005, followers of al-Zarqawi conducted suicide bomb attacks in three tourist hotels in Amman — the Radisson SAS, the Grand Hyatt and the Days Inn — in which 60 people were killed. A woman with a bomb strapped to her body was detained before she could detonate the device in the Radisson. Her husband was successful in detonating his own device, killing 38 people attending a wedding, including the bride and groom. Interrogation of the woman revealed that the mastermind behind these attacks was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

A believable rationale for these attacks has never been articulated. Up until this incident, al-Zarqawi enjoyed almost cult status in Jordan, sort of a Salah Ad-Din figure battling the forces of the west, “crusaders” of a sort. However, this operation, which killed almost exclusively Arabs and Muslims, turned public opinion against the Jordan-born al-Zarqawi.

Al-Zarqawi had already been sentenced to death in absentia twice in Jordan, once for an attempted attack in 1999 on the same Radisson SAS hotel in Amman and again for complicity in the 2002 murder of U.S. Embassy officer Lawrence Foley in the ’Abdun section of Amman. Despite these sentences, the Jordanian authorities never really pursued him as long as he remained outside the country.

In response to this senseless operation, King Abdullah II met with Muhammud Zahabi, director of the Jordanian General Intelligence Department (da’irat al-mukhabarat al-’amah), the GID. The king told Zahabi to find al-Zarqawi and eliminate him.

This order was al-Zarqawi’s downfall. The Jordanian GID is easily the most professional of all the numerous Arab intelligence organizations. They are professional, well-trained, disciplined and effective. The key to the successful elimination of al-Zarqawi would be predicated on timely, accurate intelligence delivered to an operational element with the capability to put weapons on the target. That’s exactly what happened. The Jordanians provided much of that timely, accurate intelligence based on their much greater understanding of the region and longtime intelligence sources in Iraq.

It is important to note that the airstrike was conducted in concert with a series of as many as 17 other raids of suspected al-Qaida safe houses. Hopefully, the intelligence gained will allow the Iraqis and coalition to eliminate the remainder of al-Zarqawi’s group. At the very least, the organization will be in temporary disarray as they try to determine how their operational security was compromised.

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June 8, 2006 | 1:00 p.m. ET

At 4 o’clock in the morning (San Antonio time), it isn’t even easy to punch out the name Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, much less to assess the larger implications of his death in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq. But here are some immediate reactions:

Whack-a-Mole: During a visit to Iraq back in December, I met with several American generals helping to prosecute the intelligence campaign against the insurgency and was surprised when they painted an upbeat picture. “How can you say that?” I asked. “Human intelligence is critical in fighting insurgents — and that’s always been our weakest area.” One of them smiled and said: “That’s beginning to change. Remember those whack-a-mole games you used to play back at the State Fair? Well, that’s pretty much what we’re doing to the insurgent network.” To illustrate, he showed a diagram of the insurgent network — with many of their bearded faces already crossed out.

Need for Speed: The success in whacking moles — al-Zarqawi being one of the biggest — depends on how well you “connect the dots” and produce good results against a mobile, highly elusive enemy. Because you fight a network by eliminating one cell at a time, whether the name is al-Zarqawi, al-Zawahiri and even Osama. But the key is immediate exploitation. The usual pattern: a lead from one source, confirmation by several others, surveillance by combat teams, and a deadly assault, timed to have maximum impact. From start to finish, these cycles are usually measured in hours — though sometimes in minutes. This is not top-down intelligence; it’s usually developed bottom-up.

What You Do Every Day: The United States brings notable advantages to the fight, particularly the “layered surveillance” from UAVs — those pilot-less drones with TV cameras that give commanders a “God’s-eye view” of the battlefield. But we also are employing some very un-American advantages: patience and persistence. Sometimes, you do everything right and the hole still comes up dry, your source was wrong, the quarry has fled, or things simply went wrong. Want to know what you do then? The same thing ... time after time. Do that often enough and you will occasionally get an al-Zarqawi in your sights. Eliminate enough of those cells ... and you slowly begin to get an edge on the insurgency.

What Hasn’t Changed: It was interesting to see how some news organizations — which probably should have known better — immediately reacted to al-Zarqawi’s demise by asking CAN THE U.S. NOW WITHDRAW? The short answer: Whatever the merits or demerits of an American troop withdrawal, that equation is in no way changed by al-Zarqawi’s removal from the chessboard. Iraq still teeters on the brink of civil war, produced far more by internal ethnic and religious rivalries than by foreign fighters, no matter how ferocious.

Bottom Line: In prosecuting a war like this, one should not become overly optimistic in the face of good news or too pessimistic when things inevitably get worse. Because they will ... hence the need for patience and persistence on the home front, as well.

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June 6, 2006 | 4:40 p.m. ET

Political junkies, rejoice!
(Chris Matthews)

MSNBC
Chris Matthews
Tonight, “Hardball” kicks off our Decision 2006 coverage. The stage is set, and finally the voters get to hold their leaders accountable: For the war in Iraq. For gasoline prices and the late, tragic response to Katrina. From corruption to immigration to gay marriage, the people of this country are ready to bring it to the ballot box, and “Hardball” stands ready to report on every development in this historic midterm election.

I can’t wait for elections! How about you? I think this country is screaming for elections! Do you agree? People have opinions, huge ones, the war in Iraq as No. 1. They want to express themselves.

So tonight we’ll get a couple of them — both in California.

One is for the House seat of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who pleaded guilty to taking $2 million in bribes of various sorts. If Democrat Francine Busby wins, this is big-time. She lost to Cunningham two years ago with only 38 percent! If it’s close tonight, that’ll also tell you something: The Republicans are headed for big losses.

The factor that could get in the way of a clear verdict in San Diego is immigration. Voters may well vote for Republican Brian Bilbray, a former member of Congress, to show their continued outrage at the failure of the U.S. government to protect the United States from illegal immigration.

The second big California contest today is between the two Democrats competing to face Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Phil Angelides is a well-known, highly credible liberal. Steve Westly is a newcomer, synthetic moderate. Angelides seems more of a long shot, but who knows? Barbara Boxer keeps winning her Senate seat as an out-and-out liberal. Of course, she never had to run against Schwarzenegger!

Should be an interesting night out there.

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June 5, 2006 | 2:55 p.m. ET

Haditha and the Sunnis

Rick Francona (MSNBC War Council)

Incidents in two Iraqi cities have focused world attention on possible misconduct by U.S. forces in Iraq. Although U.S. forces were cleared of misconduct allegations stemming from a March 15 incident in Ishaqi where at least 13 people were killed, a criminal probe has been launched into the Nov. 19, 2005, incident in Haditha, where U.S. Marines are accused of killing a group of unarmed Iraqi civilians.

First, if there was misconduct, if the Marines did kill innocent civilians in a rage after losing one of their own, they should be — and will be — held accountable. If there was an attempt anywhere in the chain of command to cover up what happened, those responsible should also be held accountable. Those of us who served in the post-My Lai Vietnam conflict know full well how important this is. The investigation will eventually determine what happened last fall. Guilt or innocence will be determined; punishment, if warranted, will be meted out; and policies may be changed.

That’s the black and white. Now let’s look at the gray.

Haditha (like Ishaqi) is located in the Sunni area north of Baghdad, the so-called “Sunni triangle.” It has been a hotbed of insurgent activity since the war began in 2003. U.S. forces there have been subjected to unending attacks, mostly with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) — homemade bombs placed alongside the roads the troops must travel to patrol the area. The Nov. 19 attack involved such a device — a 155mm artillery shell wired to a detonator. IEDs have been the insurgents’ only effective means of attacking U.S. forces — directly confronting the better-trained and -equipped Americans has proven futile.

Making and planting IEDs cannot be done in a vacuum. Someone — or more likely many — in Haditha were aware of insurgent activities. Although the residents may not be direct participants in the insurgency themselves, they have not provided information to either the U.S. or Iraqi forces. To the soldiers and Marines on the ground, this amounts to tacit cooperation with the insurgents. The biggest complaint among the American troops is not knowing who the enemy is and whom to engage. When troops come under these anonymous IED attacks, they are naturally disposed to strike back. The question is, against whom? It is extremely frustrating for these young soldiers and Marines to get hit with these IEDs, suffer casualties and not be able to respond.

We don’t yet know exactly what happened at Haditha. I am surprised we don’t have more of these incidents.  I have maintained for a long time that the residents of these towns, particularly in that area north of Baghdad, know exactly who the bad guys are and when and where they set up these devices. I am not excusing the alleged actions of the American troops in this case, but I can understand the frustration that causes them.

The potential for more of these incidents, and the insurgency itself, will continue until the Sunnis decide they are going to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

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June 1, 2006 | 2 p.m. ET

Leave the Clintons alone
(Hardball All-Star Steve McMahon, Democratic media strategist)

There has recently been a mild obsession about the state of Hillary Clinton’s marriage and the implications it may have on a possible Clinton-for-president campaign in 2008.

It began with a front-page, above-the-fold missive in The New York Times that revealed — shocking though it may be — that the current senator and the former president have extremely demanding schedules, which require them to sleep in different beds, and in different cities, on a fairly regular basis.

Some have interpreted this story to be a warning signal from The Times to the Clintons that the state of their marriage — and presumably, the company they are keeping while they are apart — is “fair game” in any coming campaign by Hillary Clinton and will be written about in The Times and other newspapers.

I take it somewhat differently. I believe The Times is holding Clinton to a double standard.

There is little doubt that the Clinton marriage is an interesting subject that may sell newspapers. But one would expect that publishers featuring such stories to sell papers would be of the tabloid variety, not The New York Times. And one can only wonder whether the same story would have found its way onto the front pages of any newspaper had the potential candidate been a man instead of a woman.  After all, presidential candidates who happen to be men are routinely away from home — sometimes for weeks or months at a time — and few newspapers write about the implications these long separations may have on their marriages or campaigns.

And what difference does it really make? The Clintons are obviously devoted to each other. Even The Times acknowledged that the couple found a way to spend at least 51 of the past 73 weekends together — which, I would submit, is likely more than many, if not most, other potential candidates spent together. So where is the news in this story? Why did it make its way onto the front page? And what does it mean for the coverage of the 2008 campaign? Are we now back in the days when reporters would stake-out potential candidates (or their spouses), hoping to catch them in a “Gary Hart moment”?

If I were the Clintons, I would take a page from the 2000 campaign of George W. Bush, which refused to answer, or even to address, questions — in his case about possible past drug use — that cross the line from appropriate and relevant, into areas that are inappropriate and irrelevant and violate what little zone of privacy that is left to modern-day candidates. Then I would tell any staffers that if they are caught speculating on the state of the Clintons’ marriage, whether on or off the record, they will be fired immediately.

The only way to handle intrusions like these is to draw a clear line in the sand — like President Bush and others before him have done. And, as my parents used to tell me, “There’s no time like the present.”

May 31, 2006 | 6:44 p.m. ET

Chris Matthews pays tribute to Couric.  He says, "If this accomplished woman can hold her own in the nightly news rivalry, times are truly achanging in this country."

Launch the vlog below.

Video: Matthews pays tribute to Couric

May 31, 2006 | 6:30 p.m. ET

Hillary laying the groundwork for ’08?
(NBC producer Huma Zaidi)

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Ask anyone in Sen. Hillary Clinton’s camp if she’s running for president in 2008 and they’ll tell you she’s focused on being the "best" Senator she can be for the state of New York. But the woman who avoids addressing any rumors or suspicions that she has her eyes on the White House certainly seemed to be laying the groundwork for a run for national office this morning.

Clinton, who officially kicked off her re-election campaign by accepting her party’s unanimous endorsement at their convention in Buffalo earlier today, addressed both local and national issues in her address, but focused more on her vision for the future of the country as a whole.  She didn’t waste any opportunity to criticize the Bush administration for their handling of foreign policy and called on the delegates to "stand with" her to "reclaim" the nation.  "I believe that we need a fundamentally new direction and we need to work towards solutions that help us meet our 21st century challenges of expanding our economy, defending our security and preserving our values," Clinton said. "Let’s start building alliances instead of alienation around the world. Let’s win back the respect that the people of the world should have for our country," she later added.

Before her address, delegates watched an 18-minute biographical video of Clinton featuring praise from her husband and from colleagues and lawmakers. Clinton, who has distanced herself publicly from her husband, some say, to build her own political image, called him "an inspiration and a mentor, a friend and a partner." She also thanked her supporters who "took a chance" on her six years ago when she first ran for office.

If she does decide to run for president, she may need many more Democrats who might be on the fence about her to take "a chance" on her candidacy. A poll released this week shows that while 37% of Democrats say they would "definitely" vote for her in a presidential election, 48% of them are somewhere in the middle. 

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