updated 12/6/2006 1:10:56 PM ET 2006-12-06T18:10:56

Guests: John Kerry, Mike Duffy, Chris Cillizza, Steve Kohn

MIKE BARNICLE, MSNBC HOST:  The man President Bush wants to replace Don Rumsfeld says we are not winning in Iraq.  Will the president listen to that new idea?  Let‘s play HARDBALL. 

Good evening.  I‘m Mike Barnacle in tonight for Chris Matthews. 

Welcome to HARDBALL. 

The United States is not winning the war in Iraq.  That‘s the opinion of Robert Gates, President Bush‘s nominee to replace Don Rumsfeld as defense secretary.  At his confirmation hearing today, Gates said he‘s open to new ideas to fix Iraq, and that‘s exactly what a group led by former Secretary of State Jim Baker will offer tomorrow.

But the big question remains, will President Bush listen?  What options does the U.S. really have?  How many shades of gray are there between staying and leaving?  In a moment, we‘ll talk about it all with the 2004 Democratic president nominee, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. 

Everybody in this country knows that the situation in Iraq is tough, really tough, but in a sign of just how desperate the situation has become, President Bush is now meeting with factional leaders to try to stop the civil war that is killing American troops.  Just this week, the president met with a Shiite leader at the White House who made some incredibly controversial statements. 

HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster joins us live from the White House—David. 

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT:  Mike, more than 2,900 Americans have now been killed in Iraq, and more than 20,000 have been wounded, but a top Iraqi official who was greeted here at the White House yesterday in the Oval Office is now saying that the United States has not been aggressive enough. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER (voice-over):  His name is Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, and he is the leader of the Iraq‘s largest Shiite party.  But after meeting with President Bush in the most hallowed office in Washington...

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  You‘re having us welcome back to the Oval Office.

SHUSTER:  Hakim gave a speech a few blocks away and said the U.S.  military is not doing enough to fight insurgents.  Despite daily U.S. troop losses, Hakim said that tactics against insurgents, quote, “are not hard enough to put an end to their acts, but leave them to stand up again to resume their criminal acts.  This means that there is something wrong in the policies taking to deal with that danger threatening the lives of Iraqis.” 

Hakim went on to say the U.S. strategy is contributing to massacres and that Shiites are not responsible.  The suggestion that the U.S.  military has not been aggressive enough, or that Shiites are innocent in the civil war, is striking given that Hakim‘s own brigade is responsible political assassinations, death squads and even attacks against U.S.  troops. 

But yesterday, President Bush praised the Shiite leader.

BUSH:  I assured him the United States supports his work and the work of the prime minister to unify the country. 

SHUSTER:  Regarding reports that Hakim is linked to militias targeting American troops, Press Secretary Tony Snow.

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  Well, I‘m not going to get up here and characterize intelligence.  I‘m going to tell you that militias continue to be a concern, and we share Prime Minister Maliki‘s view that there should not be armed organizations outside of the government itself, and that would include militias. 

SHUSTER:  The dilemma facing the Bush administration is that the Iraqis have requested and will soon be given more weapons, armored vehicles, and helicopter support.  U.S. military analysts fear the equipment will be used by Iraqis not for security, but to settle scores and slaughter rivals. 

But other U.S. analysts say the risk is now worth taking.  And today, Robert Gates, the president‘s nominee to be defense secretary, testified during his confirmation hearings that if Iraq is not stabilized within a year or two, it could spark a wider, regional war. 

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY NOMINEE:  In my view, all options are on the table in terms of how we address this problem in Iraq.

SHUSTER:  How bad is the problem now?  Senator Carl Levin asked the question this way. 

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN:  Mr. Gates, do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq? 

GATES:  No, sir. 

SHUSTER:  That is a contradiction with what President Bush said just six weeks ago, before the Congressional election. 

QUESTION:  Are we winning?

BUSH:  Absolutely we are winning.  People now understand the stakes. 

We are winning, and we will win, unless we leave before the job is done. 

SHUSTER:  Gates and President Bush also disagree on diplomacy over Iraq.  Gates says the U.S. should talk to Iran and Syria.  President Bush says no. 

Gates also seem to acknowledge today that the Bush administration got its priorities wrong in going to war with Saddam Hussein instead of finishing Osama bin Laden.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD (D), WEST VIRGINIA:  Who is responsible, Dr. Gates, in your judgment, for the 9/11 attacks?  Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden?

GATES:  Osama bin Laden, Senator. 

BYRD:  Over the past five years, who has represented the greater threat to the United States?  Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden? 

GATES:  Osama bin Laden. 

SHUSTER:  On Iraq, Gates showed enough contrition on behalf of the Bush administration and signaled enough flexibility to all but assure his confirmation. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  And late today, that committee approved Gates‘ confirmation by 21-0, so the confirmation is now headed to the full Senate floor for full confirmation either tomorrow or the next day. 

But a new defense secretary will solve the underlying problem in Iraq, and that is the United States is stuck between warring factions who hate each other and also hate the presence of U.S. troops. 

And even our so-called allies in the Iraqi parliament are now suggesting that the U.S. commitment over the last three-and-a-half years, the current standing of 140,000 U.S. troops has been insufficient.  The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group will issue their policy recommendation tomorrow—Mike. 

BARNICLE:  Thank you, David Shuster. 

With us now, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. 

Senator Kerry, one of the people referred to in David‘s piece, Mr. al-Hakim, Shiite leader, here in Washington, said the following when he was quoted in the “Washington Post” this morning: “The strikes that the insurgents are getting from the multinational forces are not hard enough to put an end to their acts, but leave them to stand up again to resume their critical acts.  That means that there is something wrong on the policies taken to deal with that danger threatening the lives of Iraqis.” 

In other words, he seems to be saying to the reader we‘re not being aggressive enough.  What do you think? 

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS:  I think he‘s insulting a lot of family in American who have lost their kids.  I think he‘s insulting a lot of marines and a lot of Army folks who go out on some extraordinarily dangerous patrols in order to make Iraq safe for Iraqis. 

And the fact is, that he controls one of the militias that most believe is part of this violence.  He‘s one of the many squabbling politicians, Mike, who are costing American lives, and I don‘t think one American life ought to be lost while these guys are squabbling among themselves. 

BARNICLE:  You know, you mentioned squabbling politicians.  And if you go in the country beyond Washington D.C., in Boston or Boise, Idaho or wherever, people desperately want there to be some solution to this war in Iraq.  And they have fairly common sense solutions that you can talk to them about on the street or in the coffee shops. 

And yet, you come to Washington, and both sides are saying no, those are my points, those are your points, I agree, I disagree.  What is wrong with Washington that you can‘t come to a consensus over a war that is killing Americans? 

KERRY:  Until the election, there was no effort to do that.  We had a secretary of defense who stubbornly said our policy is correct, we‘re on the right track.  We have a president who is still saying that al Qaeda was creating the violence in Iraq, when people knew that it was Sunni and Shia, Shia and Sunni. 

I think the election changed that.  I hope it changed it, and I‘ve said several times—I said on Sunday on the Wolf Blitzer show—sorry about that. 

BARNICLE:  That‘s all right.  He‘s a good guy. 

KERRY:  I said that we are waiting for the opportunity to come together around a policy that unites the country.  I‘m personally prepared to do everything I can to help create a consensus around a real policy that gets out troops home and helps resolve it. 

And it seems as if the Iraq Study Group under Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton, is moving in the direction that I and others have been arguing we should be moving in. 

BARNICLE:  That‘s going to be released tomorrow. 

KERRY:  Tomorrow morning.

BARNICLE:  What‘s your instinct?  What have you heard?  What‘s going to be in that report that will change anything? 

KERRY:  Well, I think the most significant thing that there seems to be some evidence—I mean, it hasn‘t been released, but if what we have read in the papers is correct, they are going to suggest an alternative course that includes talking to Syria and Iran, a regional kind of conference or regional engagement with the countries there to get them more involved, and some type of down the road target of some kind that we are going to be withdrawing at some point, we have to begin at some point, and I think it‘s going to change the debate. 

BARNICLE:  And yet if you listen to the president, as recently as last week during his trip to the Middle East, the language that he uses—well, describe the language to me.  What do you think?  Is the president delusional?  Is he isolated?  Is he stubborn?  Is he all of the above?  None of the above?  What do you think?

KERRY:  You know what I chose to do?  I chose to read the president‘s language as still leaving open the opportunity that we can together.  What the president says is the troops won‘t leave until the job is done.  So you can find in the definition of what is the job and when is the job done a reason for the president to be able to say OK, now is the time to begin bringing them down.  I believe—look, in the plan that I laid out, I set a date for withdrawal. 

I think it‘s important to set it—not withdrawal, redeployment and for finishing the job more effectively.  And the way in which you do that is by demanding a set of specific shifts of responsibility to the Iraqis over a timeframe that they have to live up to. 

The absence of a timeframe—Mike, every time the president says, we‘re going to be there as long as it takes, he empowers Iraqi politicians to squabble for as long as they want.  You have to leverage a transformation of behavior.  And the way I know of to do that is to set that kind of date.

Now, if you get to the point where all of sudden it‘s absolutely impossible, if you properly engage those other countries, I think you‘re going to have a very different equation in the Middle East.  And that‘s what you need to do.

BARNICLE:  In the meantime, every day in Baghdad, at the end of the day, they issue through the military command there a listing of incidents.  This is today‘s.  This came in over the Reuters Wire two hours ago.

I‘ll just read you a couple of snippets.

Baghdad, police found about 60 bodies in Baghdad on Tuesday. 

Tikrit, a U.S. soldier was killed.

Ramadi, Iraq troops and police in western Anbar province killed 63 insurgents. 

Baghdad, mortar rounds hit a market, killing two. 

Baghdad, two mortar rounds landed in a market, killed two more.

Gunmen ambushed a bus in Baghdad carrying employees for the Shiite Endowment, killing 14 people. 

How close are we to the point that you raised years ago before the United States Senate Committee that you were testifying before then as a Vietnam veteran, what do you say to the parents of young men and women, husbands, fathers, sons who are dying in Iraq?  Why are they dying?  What do you tell them? 

KERRY:  That we have to get the policy right, and that serving their country is as noble a contribution as anybody could make.  I think that the key question that you‘re aiming—and I understand it—is: how do you ask a person to be the last person to die for that mistake, once you‘ve decided it‘s a mistake? 

That‘s why its so critical for all of us to come together now around the policy that avoids that.  I still believe that it is possible, if you have a date and, of course, a summit, if you have the proper amount of diplomatic leadership and engagement, if you begin to shift that responsibility to the Iraqis, it is possible that you will have some level of stability sufficient to be able to say, we gave the Iraqis the best chance and it;s up to them and begin withdrawing American forces. 

But you can‘t do it possibly, and you can‘t give meaning to the sacrifice of those soldiers adequately unless you‘re giving them the best policy possible. 

And by everybody‘s agreement, including Mr. Gates‘ today before the Armed Services Committee—our new secretary of defense said we are not winning the war in Iraq. 

Well, let me tell you something.  Those parents of those kids, above all, deserve a secretary of defense, a president, a policy, a Congress, all of us giving them something that does give value to that service and that takes this mistake and somehow turns it into a policy that can actually transform the Middle East. 

BARNICLE:  So at the end of that answer, the obvious question that comes through my mind is, was the Iraq War a mistake? 

KERRY:  Yes, it was.  Yes.

BARNICLE:  All right.  Senator Kerry is staying with us.

And later, the “Times‘” Mike Duffy and Chris Cillizza of the “WashingtonPost.com” will be here.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  We‘re back with Senator John Kerry, a student of history. 

Years from now your children, my children, everyone‘s children will be reading the history of Iraq.  What are they going to be reading? 

KERRY:  That it was one of the great foreign policy disasters—decisions of all time.  I mean, very simply put, this was a war of choice, not a war of absolute necessity. 

It was a war where the president rushed to judgment about it without adequate allies, without adequate troops, without adequate planning, without exhausting the or remedies available to us and most critically, diverting attention from Afghanistan and from Osama bin Laden. 

And the result is the War on Terror itself has been made more complicated.  It‘s been set back, and we are in fact, as our own intelligence agencies have told us, creating more terrorists today.  That‘s a disaster when you‘re creating more terrorists. 

And when, after 9/11, there were more people in the world who want to kill you than there were at that point in time, you‘ve got a problem. 

BARNICLE:  And when they read this history 20, 30 years from now, they will read about the fact that you and others voted for the war in Iraq. 

KERRY:  We voted—Mike, you see, I think what you fell into just now is the sort of quick and simplistic, if I can say so respectfully, summary of that vote. 

(CROSSTALK)

KERRY:  ... no, no, no.  I mean, that vote was a vote to do what the president said he would do.  That was a vote for using force as the instrument of last resort for weapons of mass destruction enforcement. 

And the president told us, number one, he would go to war as a last resort.  He didn‘t. 

Number two, he would go to war with a legitimate coalition if necessary.  He didn‘t. 

And number three, that he would exhaust all the remedies that were available to him at the United Nations and elsewhere.   He did not. 

So we were misled.  And I said very clearly in my speech on the floor of the Senate, I said, here‘s what I‘m voting for.  I‘m voting to enforce Saddam Hussein living up to the weapons of mass destruction. 

Here‘s what I‘m not voting for.  I‘m not voting to go unilaterally.  I‘m not voting to go without a coalition.  I‘m not voting to go as a mater of non-last resort. 

So I think the president abused that power.  And I think a lot of us feel that way.  What‘s important is in 2004 when I ran for president, I said clearly, wrong war, wrong place, wrong time.  This is a mistake. 

BARNICLE:  How do you think the country would be different today had you indeed been elected the president of the United States? 

KERRY:  You know, I‘ve learned that‘s a dangerous speculation.  And I

I just think it‘s better to—obviously, I would have done differently with respect to how we‘re managing Iraq and the world. 

I obviously—and I‘ve said this publicly in 2004, I would have engaged in bilateral discussions with North Korea in an effort to try to resolve the Korean crisis.  Today we are less safe with North Korea having more weapons than they did a few years ago. 

I would have engaged directly with Syria, with Iran because I think you need to, even though you don‘t agree with them, even though we don‘t trust them.  That‘s not the issue.  The issue is, can you find some way to resolve certain kinds of crises and build your credibility in the world.

BARNICLE:  And yet, there‘s been so much written and said about the president‘s inclination toward being stubborn.  And you and others have indicated, you know, talk to Iran, talk to Syria.  Former Secretary Baker has said, you know, talk to your enemies.  Do you think there are any prospects that this administration will turn on a dime? 

KERRY:  I really do.  I really hope so.  I think the president understands, and I think Secretary Rice understands.  I think they‘re looking no.  I think this commission gives everybody an opportunity to step back, hopefully, and move in the right direction.

And my hope is the president will look for bipartisan—bipartisan support to do that.  I don‘t think you can do it any other way. 

I think this administration has lost credibility in the region.  I think they have a great deal of difficulty summoning people to the table with an adequate amount of lift that you need. 

And so I think we all have to try to find a way to come together.  This is about our country.  It‘s about Democrats and Republicans.  It‘s about those kids who are serving.  It‘s about those gravestones that are growing, row by row, over in Arlington and in other parts of the country.  It‘s about giving meaning to the sacrifice and commitment of the best soldiers we‘ve ever had in America.  These are great young people, and they deserve leadership that is equal to the sacrifice they‘re making.

BARNICLE:  He seems to be getting the kind of bipartisan support that I think people in the country are looking toward, with regard to secretary nominee Gates. 

KERRY:  Sure and that‘s notwithstanding some of us had differences with—with Mr. Gates a number of years ago over Central American policy.  But as I said yesterday, this is important for us to move forward.  I think he was candid with the committee today that we need to change. 

BARNICLE:  Are you going to vote for him?

KERRY:  Yes, I will.  And I think that that‘s a refreshing statement, just having a secretary of defense, potential, who has now acknowledged that we‘ve got to do better and we‘ve got to change.  It‘s a big deal. 

BARNICLE:  What‘s ABD factor in the United States Senate with regard to this nomination?  Anybody but Don?

KERRY:  There‘s an element, but on the other hand, I think—I think Mr. Gates comes with a lot of background, a lot of qualifications and hopefully with the ability to pull people together around a consensus policy. 

BARNICLE:  We‘ll be right back with Senator John Kerry.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  We‘re back with Senator John Kerry. 

The Baker/Hamilton Commission tomorrow.  There are elements of it that have been released in various—“TIME” magazine, various newspapers, it would seem.  Are they just going to report the obvious?

KERRY:  See, that‘s what I hope they don‘t do.  This is really important.  The Baker Commission needs to not just find a consensus.  That‘s not what we‘re looking for.  We‘re looking for the right policy. 

We‘re looking to get it right.

And what I think is critical, I have felt all along, you need that date to leverage.  Now I‘ve heard rumors they won‘t have a date, but boy, they may come close to it or they ought to come close to it, because what‘s most critical here is change the behavior of the fighting factions in Iraq and change the behavior of the other countries in the region that can help have an impact on that behavior. 

That‘s what‘s key: get this policy right, for the soldiers, for the region and for our country.

BARNICLE:  Of the country and of the ‘08 presidential elections that are coming up, do you get the sense, do you hear anything anecdotally that this administration, with regard to its war policies in Iraq, with regard to the Baker Commission, is intent on passing nearly everything off to the next administration, Republican or Democrat?

KERRY:  No, I really don‘t, Mike.  I think that—first of all, I think all this ‘08 stuff is way too early.  I think what people are really excited about is the fact that we just elected a new Congress.  And that power has shifted. 

And people are going to be waiting to measure what the Democrats do with that.  Are we going to be responsible?  Are we going to offer real choices to America?  And we‘re determined to try to do that.

Secondly, I think that this administration, nobody‘s interest, the Republicans don‘t want to go in with this thing in the status quo. 

And finally, we have a moral responsibility.  I mean, if anything motivated me to coming into public life, it was the issue of war and peace way back in the 1970s.  And I remain as adamant today as a senator with sworn constitutional responsibilities. 

We‘ve got to get this right.  We can‘t allow names to be added to a future memorial about Iraq and Afghanistan because we dillied (sic) around here, we were unwilling to confront the main issues.  I would be—I mean, that would be an abdication of every bit of responsibility that I certainly came here to exercise. 

BARNICLE:  And ‘08...

KERRY:  We need to get it right.

BARNICLE:  ... ‘08, quickly, down the road.  You‘re going to—next year?

KERRY:  That‘s down the road.  That‘s down the road.  Let‘s stay focused on what we need to be focused on.

BARNICLE:  All right.  Thank you, Senator John Kerry. 

Up next, Chris Cillizza of the WashingtonPost.com and “TIME” magazine‘s Mike Duffy will be here to dig into the political fight over Iraq. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(STOCK REPORT)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

The Senate Armed Services Committee has voted unanimously to recommend Robert Gates as the next defense secretary.  NBC News congressional producer Mike Viqueira joins us now from Capitol Hill—Mike. 

MIKE VIQUEIRA, NBC NEWS PRODUCER:  Mike—yes.

BARNICLE:  Two Mikes.

VIQUEIRA:  Mike, it was the proverbial sing-along of “Kumbaya” in the Senate Armed Services Committee as they voted 21-0 in a closed session earlier this evening to approve Bob Gates—Dr. Bob Gates and send his nomination to the Senate floor. 

Democrats said that they were impressed with this man who they call an private thinker.  The truth of the matter is he was the anti-Rumsfeld, and the biggest thing he had going for him, that he was not Donald Rumsfeld.

Many of the Democrats on the committee had called for Donald Rumsfeld‘s resignation over the past several months.  And they were ready to get on with this nomination of Bob Gates.

So if he goes to the Senate floor, his nomination does, tomorrow where easy passage is expected, we‘ll have a new secretary of defense, in all likelihood, by the end of the week.

Gates told the committee that he—he said he does not think we are winning the war in Iraq.  He says what we are doing is not satisfactory.  That impressed Democrats with—for his candor. 

But Carl Levin, who had voted against this man‘s nomination 15 years ago to be the head of the CIA, says he was reassured and he found that his candor, openness and honesty was refreshing.  And so Gates easily passes the Senate Armed Services Committee—Mike. 

BARNICLE:  Mike Viqueira on the job, thanks very much. 

VIQUEIRA:  Sure.

BARNICLE:  We‘re back with the HARDBALLERS: Michael Duffy, “TIME” magazine; and Chris Cillizza from WashingtonPost.com.

Michael Duffy, let‘s start with you.  You just heard that report.  Jim Baker, old, old friend of the Bush family.  Robert Gates was on this commission.  The commission is going to report tomorrow.  What do you figure the relationship was between President Bush and Jim Baker before the commission, and what is it today?  Any sense of that?

MICHAEL DUFFY, “TIME” MAGAZINE:  Well, it‘s really hard to tell where he is right now.  Obviously, Bush and Baker have known each other a long time.  Baker ran the old man‘s campaign when, you know, George W. Bush, then known as Junior, came to Washington to sort of be the family‘s eyes and ears.  Baker and Bush reappeared back in 2000 when the election got really close in Florida.

Baker says in his book which came out just a month ago, which is called something like, you know, “Stay Out of Politics”.  Work hard, stay out—this makes it very clear he didn‘t want to go—he wouldn‘t have gone into Iraq himself.  He didn‘t think it was a great idea, didn‘t think it was well executed.

And in the book he refers to the president as Junior once, I believe. 

And nobody wants to be rescued by the best friend of their father. 

BARNICLE:  So Chris Cillizza, the—Mike Viqueira used the word “Kumbaya” in his report.  Tomorrow, when this report is issued, you know, there‘s going to be all sorts of efforts, I would imagine, at some sort of bipartisanship, “Kumbaya” deal. 

And yet the president‘s own remarks as recent as a few days ago, when he was in Jordan meeting with the prime minister of Iraq, talking about, “We‘re going to stay the course,” not in exactly those words.  What degree of difficult does the White House have now in language spin control, balancing the president‘s statements off the reality in the report?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, WASHINGTONPOST.COM:  Well, let me first say thanks for having me on, despite the fact my name is not Mike.  I‘m honored to appear in the segment.

BARNICLE:  True.  Three Mikes.

CILLIZZA:  I know, exactly.

BARNICLE:  I called you Chris. 

CILLIZZA:  I know, absolutely.  That‘s what I‘m saying.  I like—it‘s nice to stand out. 

I‘m—I think that—you know, if—this was clearly not an easy thing for the Bush administration to finesse.  You know, when it was leaked about the recommendations that we are likely to hear tomorrow, President Bush immediately came out and said, you know, we need—this is not exactly what we need to do.  We‘re moving in the right course.  And you have people sort of contradicting him within the study group. 

I think it‘s the kind of thing that we‘re looking for a place mark.  We‘re looking for something that the Bush administration can point to and say, “This is the place where we can change the course of what we‘ve been doing.”  I think we will likely get that tomorrow. 

You know, it‘s a clear sign that, OK, these people thought about it.  The policy appears not to be working.  Here are our recommendations, and the president can go forward from there. 

But it‘s not easy.  Remember, he‘s got several years of comments saying this is the right direction—we are doing the right thing.  So it‘s a little bit of verbal acrobatics.  Remember, politics is verbal acrobatics from the get-go.  So I don‘t think any of us would be terribly surprised if that does happen.

BARNICLE:  So Michael Duffy, how do they disguise this tension convention that seems inherent in this?

DUFFY:  Well, I think it‘s good to fall back on the words of one of the great hardballers of all time, John Mitchell Richard Nixon‘s attorney general, who said famously, “Watch what we do, not what we say.” 

And they‘re going to say a lot of things over this period of time that sort of suggest we‘re sticking; we‘re not changing course; we‘re not changing our principles.  I think the president has said that a lot. 

But they will, I believe, when we look back on this six or seven weeks from now, have begun a course correction in this.  I don‘t expect it to happen in the next 24, 48 or 36 -- you know, next couple of days.  But they‘re already beginning to, you know, do different things than they were doing four or five weeks ago. 

CILLIZZA:  And just to add to that point, Mike, remember Social Security reform.  Just take that as an example.  You know, the president was pushing it, pushing it, pushing it.  He never sort of said, “OK, I‘ve stopped pushing it.”  It just sort of went away, and they went on to the next thing. 

I mean, I don‘t think that that‘s going to happen with the war in Iraq.  Certainly, it‘s too big an issue for that to happen.  But I mean, this is not something that is unfamiliar to the Bush administration, and to administrations prior to them.  They sort of go with an idea until it—clearly that idea has run its course.  And then you switch topics and act as though you never believed in that previous idea at all.  I mean, it‘s not—you know, this is I don‘t think something entirely new when it comes to politics.

BARNICLE:  You know, Michael, and Chris actually wishes he were named Michael. 

CILLIZZA:  I don‘t think so.  My middle name is Michael.  Does that count?

BARNICLE:  Absolutely it does count.

You use the phrase, you know, right now, this time, the timing of this right now.  Do you get any sense within the White House that in terms of the right now and the timing and changing the course?  People are dying across this country in Iraq.  And that is obviously a concern to everyone, especially the families of those involved. 

Do they have any sense of the desperate timing out there in the country with regard to the clock ticking on Iraq?

DUFFY:  I think they do, because even our reporting last week for this cover story makes clear that, into Friday and Saturday, they were trying to figure out do we do this speech where we maybe change course in a week or two?  Do we do it in three weeks?  Do we wait until early January?  They‘re trying to find the right moment to unleash what they‘re already calling a new way forward, which sounds a lot like the Baker Commission report, which is going to be called, “A Way Forward: The New Approach”. 

So they‘re clear—and they‘ve already begun to do some diplomatic outreach, and a lot of what Baker and Hamilton are going to talk about in the next 48 hours is about the diplomacy.  You‘re going to hear as much about that, maybe more, than you‘re going to hear about the timetable and the troops, which they didn‘t really reach an agreement on. 

So I think—I think everybody‘s trying to wrestle with this, and but I think it‘s going to be sooner than people realize. 

BARNICLE:  Chris, a way forward, it sounds like the Muskie campaign in 1972.  But your sense of this spirit of bipartisanship today, as evidenced in the Gates hearing, 21-0 vote.  Does it continue?  Was it just today?  Does it envelop more than Iraq?  Your sense of that?

CILLIZZA:  I mean, look, I think we saw in the campaign and in the days after the campaign, Democrats recognize, I think, if you speak to them candidly, that there isn‘t an easy solution here.  If there was an easy solution to the problems in Iraq, Democrats would have proposed it during the campaign. 

I think if they had been able to point to a way forward that was clearly a consensus position, they would have picked up even more seats in the House and Senate and governors than they wound up doing.

So I think Democrats sort of recognize that there is not an easy solution.  There is no silver bullet here that‘s going to solve the problem.  I think they‘re willing to give people on the other side, on the Republican side, who acknowledge the same thing, a bit more lee way.

But as you rightly point out, the reality is that they are bounded by this timeline where we have bombs going off every single day, soldiers dying every single day.  It‘s not something they can sort of put off into the vast future as we‘ve done with other, sort of problems, Social Security and those types of things.  I mean this is something we‘re going to need to solve in the near future.  I think they understand that, but I also think they understand that this is not just a simple issue with a simple answer.

BARNICLE:  We‘ll be right back with Christopher, Michael—Michael Duffy.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  We‘re back with Chris Cillizza of WashingtonPost.com, Michael Duffy, who is the assistant managing editor of “Time” magazine is also here.

Chris, I think it‘s this Sunday up in Manchester, New Hampshire, Barack Obama, Senator Barack Obama is scheduled to appear in Manchester, New Hampshire.  It is incredible, the wave that surrounds him.  What is your sense of him right now and his immediate future in terms of running for the big one?

CILLIZZA:  Well, back six months ago or so on the “Fix,” our politics blog on the “Post,” I was writing that I thought Barack Obama should at least consider running and sort of laying out the case of why.

One of the biggest reasons is what we talk about in the last segment.  He was a voice against the war in Iraq.  Obviously the other front runner, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton was voted for the use of force resolution.  So there‘s one obvious contract.  But six months ago, it seemed like a pipe dream. 

Well, we get to today and every invitation that I hear, and that includes this trip to New Hampshire, that includes him reaching out to potential staff in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, potential staffer in national candidacy, is that he is towards running. 

I don‘t think a final decision has been made.  One of the things that you hear over and over again is that his wife has not sort of given sign off on this yet, and that is a huge part of a presidential debate, given how all encompassing it is.

But I do believe he is moving in that direction.  And as you point out, I mean this is somebody who when he toured the country, stopping in various states towards the election of the 2006 campaign, was drawing these massive crowds.  I mean, talking about 2,000 or 3,000 people for a West Virginia democratic dinner.  I mean, crowds that people hadn‘t seen since Bill Clinton, who was the sitting president of the United States.  So there‘s clearly a lot of excitement about him.  Can that translate into votes in the Iowa caucuses next January?  We are not sure yet.

BARNICLE:  Michael, this is the city where the slogan could well be, he is a terrific guy, but he might get ahead, thus I hate him.  It‘s also a city where fully 73 percent of the people here think they ought to be president of the United States.

DUFFY:  Do you think it‘s that low? 

BARNICLE:  Any back biting that you have heard yet on Barack Obama from other Democrats or other Democratic staffers about oh, he‘s too young, he‘s too inexperienced.  Has that begun?

DUFFY:  I think he‘s just a rock star at this point and they‘re just sort of treating him as a rock star.  I don‘t think they are all that happy about it in the other leading Democratic contender‘s camps, whether you‘re Hillary Rodham Clinton or John Edwards or any other Democrats who think that they‘re in second position. 

But until he runs, as Chris says, you know, we don‘t really have a race, and we like to for awhile, there seems to be a quickening though of the people who want to appear to be tossing.  What is it, Obama went to New York and started messing around in Hillary‘s back yards and her fundraisers?  I mean, this is getting to be something that could take shape quickly.

BARNICLE:  Halftime at the Rose Bowl game, there will be an inaugural address. 

DUFFY:  And then you‘ll see it, and then it will start, but not yet.

CILLIZZA:  And one thing that I think is out there, I don‘t think anyone is talking about it yet with Barack Obama, but I think there is going to be sentiment.  If he wins up being a candidate, and again, that‘s a big if, is this idea that he may be a paper tiger.  That he—the race that he won for the Senate, he was in a very competitive multicandidate primary for the Democratic primary.  Two were the candidates were really going after one another heavily and attacking one another.  He shot the gap in many ways and won the primary overwhelmingly. 

And then in the general election, remember, he faced Alan Keyes who didn‘t even live in Illinois.  And so I think people see it as this is someone who is untested in the sort of back and forth of a daily, campaign with a national focus. 

I think that again, it remains to be seen whether that‘s the case or not.  But I think that is something that we‘ll sort of see leak out if it becomes more and more clear that he is going to run.

DUFFY:  Barnicle was talking about the Muskie campaign, which of course we all covered.  But the Mondale campaign, the famous line from the Mondale campaign was “Where‘s the Beef?” and I have a feeling that if Obama does run, the Hillary Clinton campaign against him will be sort of, “So what do you have to say?  Really, what are you for?”  Because a lot of people wonder, you know, what it is exactly Obama wants to run for.

BARNICLE:  We didn‘t even have time to get to John McCain and Mitt Romney.  Watch out for Mitt Romney, that‘s what everyone says.

Chris Cillizza, Michael Duffy, thanks very much.  When we return, how well does the FBI doing in the fight against terrorism?  Do they know what they‘re doing?  NBC‘s Lisa Myers will report on some major concerns.  You are watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  How much regress has the FBI really made since September 11?  In an exclusive interview, the FBI‘s highest ranking Arab-American agent speaks out against the bureau, claiming a lack of expertise and critical skills is hurting the War on Terror. 

NBC senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers has his story and new tapes of FBI officials revealing what critics say is a stunning lack of knowledge about terrorism. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LISA MYERS, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Bill Watson was the FBI‘s top counter-terror official before and after 9/11.  But in this videotaped deposition, he seemed unsure of some very basic facts. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Do you know who Osama bin Laden‘s spiritual leader was? 

BILL WATSON, FBI OFFICIAL:  I can‘t recall. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Do you know the differences in the religion between Shia and Sunni Muslims? 

WATSON:  Not technically, no. 

MYERS:  John Lewis was also a top counter-terror official for the FBI. 

Does he know the difference between Shias and Sunnis?

JOHN LEWIS, FBI COUNTER-TERRORISM OFFICIAL:  You know, generally, not very well. 

MYERS:  Was there any relationship between the first World Trade Center bombing and the 9/11 attacks? 

LEWIS:  I‘m aware of no immediate relationship other than it all emanates, you know, out of the Middle East, and al Qaeda linkage, I believe.  Not something I‘ve studied recently that I‘m conversant with.

MYERS:  Even FBI director Robert Mueller was stumped in his deposition.  Was Mueller aware of that one of Osama bin Laden‘s spiritual leaders was the blind sheik, convicted in ‘95 for terror-related offenses? 

ROBERT MUELLER, FBI DIRECTOR:  Actually not—not with any specificity, in as much as that prosecution and those events happened in New York way before I became director. 

MYERS:  Counter-terror experts say such apparent ignorance of the enemy is alarming. 

MICHAEL SHEEHAN, ABC NEWS TERRORISM ANALYST:   And you absolutely have to understand the basics of who your enemy is and where they come from. 

MYERS:  Another senior FBI official claimed it‘s not necessary to have expertise in Arab culture or even in terrorism to lead the War on Terror.  It‘s leadership that matters. 

GARY BALD, TOP FBI COUNTER-TERRORISM OFFICIAL:  The subject-matter expertise is helpful, but is not a prerequisite.  It is certainly not what I look for. 

MYERS:  But an FBI spokesman says expertise does matter. 

JOHN MILLER, FBI:  I think today, you have both.  You‘ve got the leadership skills and the subject-matter expertise. 

MYERS:  But why is Bassem Youssef, the FBI‘s highest ranking Arab-American agent, now holding down a desk job instead of working terror investigations?  He‘s one of only six agents with advanced Arabic skills and one a prestigious award for a work on a terrorism investigation before 9/11. 

(on camera):  So you‘re saying the biggest problem is the FBI still doesn‘t have the expertise to effectively fight the War on Terror? 

BASSEM YOUSSEF, FBI AGENT:  Yes, I believe that is the case.  If you can‘t get inside the mind of the enemy, we will never succeed. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BARNICLE:  Lisa Myers, thanks very much. 

Steve Kohn is the attorney representing Bassem Youssef, the FBI‘s highest ranking Arab-American agent.

Welcome, Mr. Cone.

STEVE KOHN, ATTORNEY FOR BASSEM YOUSSEF:  Hi, Mike.

BARNICLE:  Why—why would your client stick with this outfit after all of this? 

KOHN:  He wants to fight terrorism.  He was doing it effectively 15 years before 9/11.  He wants to do it.  He‘s actually sued to get into an operational position, and the FBI has said he has to stay in a desk job, in which he does not use his Arabic, none of his liaison skills, none of his knowledge of operational terrorism.  Here‘s the number one—the highest ranking fluent Arabic speaker in FBI is prohibited from using his Arabic language.  One of the guys on the show, John Lewis, actually criticized him for reading a document in Arabic. 

BARNICLE:  How many FBI agents speak Arabic?  Do you know?

KOHN:  At this point, there‘s I think 15 who could be considered fluent. 

BARNICLE:  Fifteen? 

KOHN:  Yes, in the entire bureau.  Since 9/11, they‘ve not done any recruiting.  But what happens is, why bother?  If all you—if all the top officials don‘t speak Arabic, and you can get all the promotions without speaking Arabic, and the one guy who is fluent cannot get a job, why bother? 

BARNICLE:  What‘s the status in the timeline of the legal action here?  When did you file?  How long has it been going on?  What do you expect to happen?

KOHN:  Mr. Youssef met personally with the director in June...

BARNICLE:  Director Mueller?

KOHN:  Director Mueller and a Congressman in June of 2002, and said, I won the highest award for fighting operational counter-terrorism, the Saudi officials told Director Freeh they want to do liaison with me.  I‘m the highest ranking Arabic speaker.  I‘ve done it for years.  Please give me an operational position to serve our country.  And Mueller walked out of the meeting and he was retaliated against ever since. 

BARNICLE:  What did they say, in terms of it on a piece of paper, or verbally... 

KOHN:  Well, what they did was they‘ve constructed the most bizarre rationalization, which is you do not need subject-matter expertise to be a leader in the War on Terror. 

And I said, well, what about a basketball, are you telling me someone can someone be the manager of a baseball team and not know anything about baseball?  And one of their officials said yes. 

BARNICLE:  Well, what I‘m hearing from you is that your client isn‘t getting the position that he seeks within the FBI because he‘s being discriminated against because he‘s an Arab? 

KOHN:  Yes, there‘s no doubt—and you know what?  They couldn‘t get

his name straight.  They actually thought—there were like three people -

agents for FBI with Arabic-sounding names.  They thought he was some other guy.  They couldn‘t get the name straight.  That‘s how bad it is.  One Arab versus another. 

They don‘t know what religion he is, they think he‘s a Muslim.  They don‘t know if he‘s a Muslim or not.  They don‘t even know that millions of Arabs are Christians.  They don‘t know that. 

BARNICLE:  You said after he left his meeting with the director that he was retaliated against.  What form did that retaliation...  

KOHN:  That‘s correct.  They—they were going to put him into an operational position.  Someone—he was complaining internally for ten months after—whatever it was from, September to June, he was saying, why am I not doing something with my skills?

They were finally going to give him a job.  He meets with the director.  The next day they pull it back. 

BARNICLE:  What‘s his background?  Where did he go to school?  Where was he born?

KOHN:  He was born in Egypt.  His background—essentially, he came to the FBI as a young man.  There was—there were no Arabic speaking agents or very few, so they put him in terrorism right from the get-go, in the ‘80s.  He saw it all coming right through.

BARNICLE:  He‘s got to make friends with an FBI agent who went to Holy Cross or St. Johns, and then your job will be made easy.

KOHN:  That ain‘t going to happen.

BARNICLE:  Steve Kohn, thanks very much. 

Play HARDBALL with us Wednesday.  Our guests will include Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Right now it‘s time for Tucker. 

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

END   

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