updated 1/16/2007 4:33:12 PM ET 2007-01-16T21:33:12

Guests: Howard Fineman, Chuck Todd, Jeremy Bronson, Gary Berntsen, David Ignatius, Ron Christie, Al Sharpton

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  The trial begins.  After three years of investigation, the special prosecutor brings the case of perjury and obstruction against a top White House aide, a national security assistant to President Bush, a confidante of Vice President Cheney.  what will we learn about the case—from the case about Bush and Cheney and the case they made for war with Iraq and about what Cheney‘s office did to protect that cast against assault?

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews and welcome to HARDBALL. 

For the past three years, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has been investigating the CIA leak case.  Tuesday, Scooter Libby, Vice President Cheney‘s confidante and former chief of staff, goes on trial for charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.  What will we learn about Cheney‘s role in the push for war?  We‘ll dig into that case in just a minute. 

Also tonight, we‘ll take a special look at the overall human toll of the war in Iraq, which will soon leave—have been lasting now four years. 

Plus, NBC News has learned that Senator Barack Obama could announce his presidential exploratory committee as early as this week. 

But first HARDBALL‘s David Shuster has this report on the Scooter Libby trial. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  The trial of Scooter Libby stems from the administration‘s nuclear case for war with Iraq. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. 

SHUSTER:  Six months later, after U.S. forces had invaded Iraq and found no weapons of mass destruction, a column appeared in the “New York Times” titled “What I Didn‘t Find in Africa”.  Joe Wilson, a former U.S.  ambassador, wrote he had been sent the previous fall based on an inquiry from Vice President Cheney and reported the Iraq uranium claim was unfounded. 

Following Wilson‘s column, the administration retracted that part of the president‘s State of the Union speech.  The controversy over a false Iraqi uranium claim might have died down except that a week later, columnist Robert Novak raised questions about Wilson‘s credibility by revealing, quote, “his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative... two senior administration officials told me.” 

In the midst of the ensuing uproar over the disclosure of a CIA officer‘s identity, President Bush declared:

BUSH:  I don‘t know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information.  If somebody did leak classified information, I‘d like to know it, and we‘ll take the appropriate action. 

SHUSTER:  U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald was then assigned to investigate the Plame leak.  Fitzgerald quickly tried to reconstruct conversations between White House officials and between those officials and reporters.  Fitzgerald heard testimony from Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.  Then Fitzgerald sought to obtain testimony from reporters, including NBC‘s Tim Russert, “Time Magazine‘s” Matt Cooper, and the “New York Times‘” Judy Miller. 

Eventually, after Miller spent 12 weeks in jail, she testified and said that Libby told her about Wilson‘s wife on three separate occasions.  In the fall of 2005, Libby was charged with five counts of perjury, making false statements, and obstruction of justice. 

PATRICK FITZGERALD, SPECIAL PROSECUTOR:  Mr. Libby‘s story that he was at the tail end of a chain of phone calls, passing on from one reporter what he heard from another, was not true.  It was false.  He was at the beginning of the chain of the phone calls, and that he lied about it afterwards, under oath and repeatedly. 

SHUSTER:  Ever since Libby‘s indictment, questions have been hanging in the air about Vice President Cheney and Libby‘s motivations in testifying the way he did. 

FITZGERALD:  And what we have when someone charges obstruction of justice is the umpire gets sand thrown in his eyes.  He‘s trying to figure out what happened and somebody blocked their view. 

SHUSTER:  Pretrial documents in the Libby case show that Vice President Cheney spoke with Libby on the very day Libby talked with two reporters about Valerie Wilson.  Fitzgerald, quote, “As the defendant (Scooter Libby) admitted in his grand jury testimony, he communicated extensively with the vice president regarding the Wilson op-ed during the relevant period, and received direction from the Vice President regarding his response.”

Fitzgerald also wrote, quote, “The state of mind of the Vice President as communicated to defendant is directly relevant to the issue of whether the defendant knowingly made false statements to federal agents and the grand jury.”

JONATHAN TURLEY, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIV. LAW CENTER:  Everything ends up at Dick Cheney‘s desk.  His right-hand man is indicted.  He‘s intimately involved in the Niger allegation with weapons of mass destruction.  He‘s the one that seems to have instructed Libby.  The biggest question is not whether he‘ll be called as a witness but why he wasn‘t a co-conspirator. 

SHUSTER:  According to Scooter Libby‘s grand jury testimony about Cheney, the vice president saw Joe Wilson‘s op-ed as a threat to him. 

Prosecutor question:  “Was it a topic that was discussed on a daily basis?

Libby:  “Yes, sir.”

“And was it discussed on multiple occasions each day, in fact?

“Yes, sir.”

“And during that time, did the vice president indicate that he was upset that this article was out there, which falsely, in his view,  attacked his own credibility?”

“Yes, sir.”

Was Scooter Libby lying to investigators about the Plame leak to try and protect Vice President Cheney? 

Well, that will be one of the most interesting and newsworthy issues at the trial.  The jury will be focused on the more narrow question of whether Libby perjured himself when he told investigators he learned about Valerie Wilson from reporters.  The defense will try and argue that if Libby‘s testimony was not true, it resulted from grander concerns like terrorism and homeland security. 

Lawyers say Libby will take the witness stand in his own defense. 

Vice president Cheney will testify for Libby‘s defense as well. 

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I have indicated from the very beginning my wholehearted cooperation with the investigation, and with whatever legal proceedings emerge out of that.  And this will all unfold here in the very near future... 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Do you have any problem going into open court, sir? 

CHENEY:  I‘m going to leave it right where it‘s at.  I‘m not going to comment on the trial itself. 

SHUSTER:  Prosecutors, who will present their evidence first, will attempt to show that Libby learned about Wilson from his fellow government officials, not reporters. 

(on camera):  Jury selection will involve more than 100 residents of Washington, D.C.  They will be questioned about their knowledge of this case, feelings about the Iraq war and thoughts about the Bush administration. 

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David Shuster. 

Here to talk about the Libby trial, the fight over Iraq and the 2008 presidential race is “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman and the Hotline‘s Chuck Todd.

Welcomes, guys.

I can‘t think of a richer topic.  It‘s got it all.  It‘s not exactly the Lindbergh baby trial, but it‘s damn close.  You‘ve got Scooter Libby, assistant to the president for national security, former chief of staff to the vice president, confidante of the vice president.  You‘ve got the vice president testifying.  What are we going to learn in this trial about America, how we got in this war, et cetera, et cetera? 

What‘s going to come out of this can of worms? 

HOWARD FINEMAN, “NEWSWEEK”:  Well, I think that‘s the main thing in terms of political import, Chris, because it‘s going to review the whole selling of the war, the backstage story of the selling of the war—who was speaking to whom?  Who was trying to manipulate whom?  What were they talking about?  You know, was this an honest effort to explain it to the American people or to spin it to the Washington press corps? 

That‘s—we‘re going to relive all that, so this is going to be a replay of the run-up to the war.  That‘s the politically important thing for sure. 

MATTHEWS:  Chuck? 

CHUCK TODD, “HOTLINE”:  No, I think—putting together sort of, OK,

who was in charge of deciding what intelligence got used, right?  Who was -

was it the White House...

MATTHEWS:  (INAUDIBLE)

TODD:  Well, that‘s right.  And how did he do it...

MATTHEWS:  ... the chief of staff...

TODD:  ... that apparently is what we‘re going to start putting those pieces together over the CIA.  And it‘s sort of—I guess putting together the puzzle of the intelligence community and their role in this, which, frankly, has always been—I‘m confused and the Negroponte resignation suddenly—You know, the intelligence community is a mess now. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me try to put two swords together that shows how this work.  The vice president‘s office reviews all the paper that goes to the president, the State of the Union especially.  It all goes through him.  The vice president was the one who asked about a uranium deal by Saddam Hussein with Africa.  He apparently knew there was no deal.  And yet he let the president imply in his speech, say in his speech that there was a deal, that there was a uranium deal coming out of Africa, making the nuclear case for war with Iran—with Iraq.  That makes it interesting.  Both the paper flow and the intel go in through the same desk, the desk of Scooter Libby. 

FINEMAN:  Well, that‘s the other part of the story here that Chuck was talking about.  As you follow—it‘s not follow the money in this case.  It‘s follow the intel, and who said what to whom, because the question is going to be in terms of the personal drama here what was Scooter Libby doing to try to protect his boss?  Was this all about protecting Dick Cheney?  Who was the man behind the sales effort?  And did Scooter Libby lie, number one?  And did he lie—why?  Did he lie to try to protect his boss, Dick Cheney? 

MATTHEWS:  One rationale...

FINEMAN:  ... that‘s the sort of personal drama. 

MATTHEWS:  ... and we don‘t know what happened.  And I mean that not just formally.  I don‘t know what happened.  But one possible motive would be if he admitted that he learned about the identity of Valerie Plame, the undercover agent from the CIA, from the vice president, that would put the ball back in the president‘s corner and make the vice president look like he was running this cover-up operation.  And he—it explains why he would have said “No, I didn‘t hear it from the vice president.  I heard it from somebody else, a journalist.” 

TODD:  The only thing I have never understood about this case is why aren‘t we going to trial?  You know, and that‘s...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  ... most intriguing aspect of this is the fact that they did not just go ahead and settle, did not just... 

MATTHEWS:  Why the defendant didn‘t not settle?

TODD:  Why didn‘t Libby settle?  There‘s something here, some reason...

MATTHEWS:  Once again, he would have to give up something...

TODD:  Maybe he knows he‘s going to get a pardon.  I don‘t know.  Whatever it is, the fact that this thing is going to trial has always been the biggest oddity to me. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  One thing I do know based upon the indictment: why there‘s a prosecution here.  There‘s a prosecution because this prosecutor, Fitzgerald is angry—Fitzpatrick is angry—is it Fitzgerald or Fitzpatrick? 

It‘s been so long.

FINEMAN:  It‘s Fitzgerald. 

MATTHEWS:  Fitzgerald?

FINEMAN:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  He‘s so angry because he couldn‘t make a bigger case because of what he sees as the brilliant stonewalling of people like the vice president and the chief of staff, in the way he worded it.

FINEMAN:  It‘s a truism to a point of cliche in Washington that it‘s not the crime, but the cover-up.  It turns out—and Fitzgerald looked closely—there was no crime committed in terms of the disclosure of the information itself, probably.

MATTHEWS:  By the way, if the cover-up works, we‘re not talking about it, just so you know about it.  Don‘t get completely caught up in this good guy theory of government.  It‘s only the cover-up.  If the cover-up works, we never talk about the crime.

FINEMAN:  Well, it didn‘t work and people tried to give information that Fitzgerald is saying was bogus information, including the notion that Libby got the information about Valerie Plame from Tim Russert.  And what you‘re going to have in this situation—which by the way is not a good thing for the press in this country, in my view. 

It‘s going to lay out all kinds of details about how things work that are not necessarily going to be ennobling or helpful to us in the future.  But Russert is going to say, you know, I didn‘t, you know, tell you anything about that, Scooter Libby, and Libby is going to say I heard it from you.  And that‘s a swearing match that‘s going to happen in open court, that people would pay good money.

MATTHEWS:  We‘re trying—you‘re imagining exactly what—we don‘t know how these people are going to testify or what their lawyers are going to recommend they limit it to. 

Here is my question. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I know, because we all watched the indictment.  What about the vice president here?  If he gets in the box and he‘s under oath, he shows up.  Not one of these videotape things.  Even if he shows up by videotape, can the prosecutor start asking the kinds of bigger questions we‘re asking? 

Like did you tell the truth about the threat of war?  Did you really tell people that there was a nuclear threat from Saddam Hussein when there wasn‘t?  Did you do this?  Did you do that?  Did you tell Scooter to lie?  Did you have a role in this?

TODD:  I‘ve got to think that you‘re not going to see that.  These guys—that there will be national security reasons, that the questioning stays narrow, promises that are made in order to get him just to testify anyway.

MATTHEWS:  Why is it so hard to get the V.P. in there?

TODD:  I think he‘s going to make it difficult.  I think he doesn‘t want the questioning to sort of become...

MATTHEWS:  ... Can he pull rank on a prosecutor in the courtroom?

TODD:  It‘s getting him once he gets to the courtroom.  I think you will see—I will be shocked if he gets in there and allows himself to be questioned in the manner that you‘re predicting, which is this idea that somehow he‘s going to get questioned about what did you put in the speech, did you do this, did you do that? 

This is a trial about what?  About what Libby‘s role was in not telling the prosecutors things.  It has nothing to do with actually what we think this trial is about, right, which is about the run up in court.  You know what I mean?  It‘s sort of the smaller...

FINEMAN:  ... Yes, but you can get to the stuff Chris is talking about because Libby‘s defense is going to be I didn‘t know what was going on, I forgot.

MATTHEWS:  I was involved with the big stuff.

FINEMAN:  I was involved with the big stuff.  I don‘t remember these small details.  And Fitzgerald is going to say let‘s talk about the small details.  And he‘s going to go at it in detail.  And that requires Cheney to come in. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, I can imagine forgetting things.  We‘ve all forgotten yesterday‘s conversations.  I will forget this after the commercial.  But the words, not the substance, of course.  But anyway, Howard Fineman, Chuck Todd are staying with us.

Later, coming up, almost four years into the Iraq war, more than 3,000 U.S. troops have died and thousands more have suffered life-changing injuries.  We‘re going to have a report on the human cost of this war.  That‘s coming up in a minute.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re back with “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman and “Hotline‘s” Chuck Todd.  Let‘s have some politics for the junkies watching. 

It‘s a great day for it.  It‘s a national holiday.  Let‘s enjoy it.  Hillary Clinton, did she scoot out of town to avoid getting involved in this debate by going to Iraq?  Was that a weird way of avoiding debating Iraq?

TODD:  Oh, I think actually if I know Hillary world—I‘m just an observer and it‘s hard to say you know it unless you‘re literally Hillary Clinton herself.  She is going to Iraq, she is going to study all the evidence, she is going to be there, and what‘s coming?  The big speech, Georgetown, Council on Foreign, whatever. 

MATTHEWS:  Well which way should we go, Bush is wrong on the surge, right on the surge?

TODD:  No, she‘s going to get—she is going to get wrong on the surge.  She is going to come out against where she needs to be in the Democratic primary.  But I think you‘re going to see it as a...

MATTHEWS:  ... Is she going to join the gang of Democrats who oppose this war?  Will she join the gang?

TODD:  Yes, I think that‘s what she‘ll end up seeing.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think she will join the gang, the anti-war people?

FINEMAN:  But carefully after due consideration.  And to a certain extent, reluctance based on her front-runnerhood and the possibility in her own mind that she‘s actually going to have to run the country.

MATTHEWS:  One day in Iraq. 

FINEMAN:  Well, she‘s—look, she has got to get—Chuck is right,

she has to get where the rest of the party is because the Democratic Party

as the Republican Party divides and goes after itself, devours itself over the war, the Democrats are going to unify.  They are going to be the anti-war party.  They are.  There are no hawk Democrats left.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s right.

FINEMAN:  There are just none.  And Hillary is going to be the most reluctant and by default the most, quote, “conservative” possibly of them all, even though as she joins as Chuck predicts the group.

MATTHEWS:  Do you know what I think has united the Democratic Party against the war?  One fact.  Not a single Democrat lost re-election this past November over the war or any other issue.  They can‘t overdo it.

FINEMAN:  Even more than that. 

TODD:  And the only person that almost did was a guy like Joe Lieberman in his primary, who lost in that primary.  It‘s a dangerous place to be.

MATTHEWS:  But you can‘t lean left too far right now?

TODD:  I think that‘s right, but there is a way of doing this.  And I think what Hillary may say is President Bush mishandled the scene, mismanaged it.  He has made the Middle East a mess, blah, blah, blah. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  That‘s not against the war in principle.

TODD:  And then she‘s going to come out against the surge.  That we won what we were supposed to win.

MATTHEWS:  You know, the way you just said it sounds like she is still a hawk.

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  I think you have to be a hawk for—I think the Democratic Party can‘t be a party of wimps.  It needs to be a party of guys...

MATTHEWS:  ... Chuck Hagel has questioned this war from day one.  As it‘s been conceived, he has challenged it.  Is Hillary going to get as tough as Chuck Hagel over in Nebraska?

TODD:  I think that she‘s going to hug the Chuck Hagels of the world.  I‘ve always had this off idea that Hagel is the best chance of Hagel ever being vice president—that‘s right and he‘ll end up on the Democratic ticket in ‘08 because of that.  That he will be the way an Obama or a Hillary can look like they are still tough militarily, but against the war.

FINEMAN:  Hillary is like a race car driver at NASCAR.  She is trying to cut it just as close as possible to be able to make the next turn.  Hillary is back timing this from the general election.

MATTHEWS:  She is the only one doing that, probably. 

FINEMAN:  She is back timing it from the week before the election in Ohio and West Virginia.  And she‘s got to sell herself as commander in chief.  That‘s what she is doing.  And she is going to...

MATTHEWS:  ... And she is a woman.

FINEMAN:  And she is a woman and she is thought of as a liberal even though in some respects she is not...

MATTHEWS:  ... We had this dinner-table conversation the other night and somebody close to me said, maybe she is right.  With all the criticism from the Democratic Party, she is not tough enough against the war.  Maybe it‘s the shrewd move to do what you just described, protect herself for the general, because she‘s probably—according to the betting odds coming out of Vegas I just saw, she‘s 50/50 to win the whole thing, according to bettors.  We‘ll see how good they are when the time comes. 

FINEMAN:  Well, that‘s why she is pursuing this strategy of reluctance that she is doing.  But in her typical lawyerly way—and I remember when she was getting ready to give her big speech allowing Bush, authorizing the war, she is going to be like a lawyer making the case.  And she‘s going to there to come back...

MATTHEWS:  Can she light up the Democratic convention in Denver come next summer, the summer after this, with a real passionate speech against George Bush?  Or will it be a carefully carved, as you say, approach to his inadequacies and failure to execute rather than an ideological challenge? 

FINEMAN:  A passionate speech is not the first thing I think of when I think of Hillary Clinton.  I think of clinical intelligence.  And that‘s what she is—and if she tries to do something other than that, it will be a big mistake.  Because if Barack Obama runs and we‘re all hearing that he‘s going to jump in with an exploratory committee this week, he‘s the guy or John Edwards is the guy who is going to have the passion. 

MATTHEWS:  I think we‘ve got a leading indicator.  She traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan over this past weekend.  We‘ll see what her press conference yields tomorrow.  Perhaps she will announce within the week. 

TODD:  I think they are going to be both in by one week from today. 

MATTHEWS:  I think her running mate is traveling with her, Evan Bayh. 

TODD:  Well, he‘s trying out.

MATTHEWS:  I really believe Evan Bayh—he is at least auditioning for the role and she is checking him out for the role.  She wants a midwestern moderate.  She doesn‘t want somebody to her left on the ticket because they will have all the fun, right?  She will want to have somebody a little less exciting than she is. 

TODD:  I think she has to go the nonpolarizing—they are going to look at Republicans.  I‘m telling you.  The Democratic party will look at Republicans. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, it‘s easy to say here on television when the stakes are low.  Put some money up when you say things afterward. 

Anyway, thank you Chuck Todd, Howard Fineman—I probably broke an FCC rule there.

Up next, a report on the human cost of the Iraq war, serious business. 

And later will Barack Obama keep climbing in the polls?  Will the luster wear off if he actually says he‘s running?  We‘ll talk about it with the Reverend Al Sharpton and former Bush/Cheney White House adviser John Christie. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

We now take a closer look at the human toll of the war in Iraq.  From military deaths to life-changing wounds, the damage continues to mount.  HARDBALL‘s Jeremy Bronson has this special report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) 

JEREMY BRONSON, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Almost hour years into the war in Iraq and the human cost is still mounting.  Since March, of 2003, more than 3,000 U.S. service men and women have been killed in Iraq, and over 20,000 have been wounded, many of them severely. 

According to the Iraq study group, roughly 3,000 Iraqi civilians are also killed every month. 

As Washington debates how and when to bring U.S. troops home, the comparisons to earlier American conflicts continue. 

During America‘s involvement in World War II, 406,000 Americans were killed, and 600,000 more were wounded. 

From 1950-1953, over 54,000 U.S. troops were killed in the Korean War another 8,000 were listed as missing in action. 

And between 1965 and 1973, 58,000 Americans were killed fighting in Vietnam.  Over 300,000 suffered serious wounds. 

The impact of the casualties in the Iraq war has been felt all across the country.  A new study from Duke University shows that between 75,000 and 141,000 Americans have a family member who has been killed in Iraq, and as many as 975,000 have a family member who has been wounded.  The study also concludes that between 4.3 and 6.5 million Americans personally know someone on the ever-growing list of casualties. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I have got about a platoon inside. 

BRONSON:  But the numbers of dead and wounded only tell part of the story.  Given life-saving advances in medicine and body armor, a record number of troops are surviving wounds that would have been fatal in earlier wars. 

According to military statistics, 23 percent of all wounded U.S.  troops in World War II died as a result of their injuries.  That number fell to 17 percent in Vietnam and to just 9 percent in Iraq. 

MICHAEL WEISSKOPF, AUTHOR:  Because more people are surviving this war, they are coming back with more grievous injuries.  Roughly twice as many American soldiers have lost limbs in this war than any previous war of the past century. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Much better.  Good. 

BRONSON:  The overall result is a new generation of veterans with life-changing injuries—blindness, paralysis, and brain damage.  The psychological toll of the war in Iraq also continues to weigh heavily on U.S. troops.  Since the war began, more than 73,000 troops have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, drug abuse and depression. 

And the prognosis could get worse. 

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, AUTHOR:  In many cases, soldiers who return home aren‘t really diagnosed and don‘t manifest symptoms of PTSD until months or even years after their return from the battlefield. 

BRONSON:  And many service men and women have also suffered broken marriages because of the distance and stresses of fighting in Iraq.  One well-known example is 21-year-old James Blake Miller, dubbed the Marlboro Man for this Los Angeles times photo.  After just one month of marriage, he and his wife divorced this past June after Miller suffered repeated flashbacks and nightmares. 

(on camera):  And while polls show most Americans in favor of bringing home U.S. troops, the debate now begins over whether to send more. 

Jeremy Bronson, MSNBC, Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Jeremy Berntsen.  Up next, what will be the cost of sending 20,000 more U.S. troops to Baghdad?  We‘ll have more on the cost of war with former CIA officer Gary Berntsen and the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  With more than 3,000 troops killed in Iraq so far and over 20,000 wounded, what will be the cost of sending 20,000 more troops to Iraq?  Gary Berntsen is a former field officer who served in Afghanistan.  He‘s also the author of “Jawbreaker:

The Attack on bin Laden and al Qaeda.”  And Washington Post columnist David Ignatius,  has visited Iraq several times. 

Let me start with Gary.  Gary, what do you make of the impact of sending in on an incremental basis, apparently, 20,000 more U.S. troops, most of them to Baghdad?  What would be the impact on the bloodiness of that war? 

GARY BERNTSEN, FRM. CIA OPERATIVE:  Well, very likely they are going to go.  And at least some of those troops are going to go, whether or not the president—IT depends on what happens of course with Congress.  But I think the goal has to be a reduction in the violence.  And if they are going in to try to stabilize this to help us get to a point where we can begin withdrawals, that‘s fine. 

The issue here, though, is it‘s still going to be the Iraqis‘ fight.  You know, we are going to have—hopefully those troops will be in a supporting role.  If the Iraqis are failing to show up for this fight and our guys are forced forward, our men and women are forced forward, it will be very bloody and the costs will be high indeed. 

MATTHEWS:  So if they are forced to do patrol duty in the streets of the Sunni areas where they are expected to basically be part of the ethnic cleansing because they will be shooting at Sunnis, they are going to get shot back at. 

BERNTSEN:  If they are going house to house through places like Sadr City and we don‘t have the Iraqis doing that, it will be expensive in terms of human life.  And we‘re hoping, of course, that the Iraqis are the ones that will be doing this, that they will show up for this fight. 

In the past, they haven‘t shown up for some of these battles and the U.S. has been forced to take the lead.  Hopefully the Iraqis are ready at this point. 

But if they don‘t show up early on for this, and we‘ll see this early on, it‘s clearly going to affect the president‘s ability to get more troops to the field and to pull this entire plan off. 

MATTHEWS:  Same question to you, David.  What will this look like to have more troops going into Baghdad—Americans? 

DAVID IGNATIUS, WASHINGTON POST:  When we watched last summer with a kind of mini surge taking troops that were in Iraq and moving them into Baghdad, trying to control some of the toughest neighborhoods in the city, we saw that the house task searches with Iraqi troops were successful. 

I was with General Abizaid touring those neighborhoods in August.  And you know, with some loss of life but not tremendous loss of life, those neighborhoods were secured.  The U.S. army is mighty tough fighting force. 

The problem, obviously, is what happens when our troops pull back and what happens with the Iraqis, are they up to it?  If we thought they were up to it, we wouldn‘t be sending the 20,000 additional troops in.  I mean, that‘s the problem with this strategy.  The notion we‘re going doing it in tandem, if they were really ready to do that, this would be a whole different war. 

Whether it would be highly kinetic as the military says.  You know, street fighting of a kind that we really didn‘t see in the March invasion itself.  We can‘t predict.  I would doubt it, frankly. 

We haven‘t seen that all the way through.  You know, I think we‘re likely to see continuing attacks like the ones that we see now—I.E.D.‘s, mortar rounds that are fired. 

If the Shiites of Muqtada al-Sadr turn en masse against the U.S.  presence, if Ayatollah Sistani, the Shiite religious leader cannot hold his people, this could get bloody at a whole different level.  That‘s obviously not what the administration is expecting.  And then we can see significant loss of U.S. life.

MATTHEWS:  Gary, let‘s get back to the image of American soldiers, perhaps in a support role but marching, being—moving troop carriers down main streets or back streets of Baghdad.  Some general just recently said that they are really just going to be targets of I.E.D.‘s and other fire.  That they are not going to be able to aggressively grab the enemy because they don‘t know where they are.  They are basically put in a position that our marines were put in Lebanon back in 1983.  Just take causalities.  That‘s what their jobs are going to be. 

BERNTSEN:  Clearly, it would have been better to do the encirclement of these areas and the clearing early on in the war.  The fact that we‘re doing this four years on makes this very, very problematic.  It‘s almost as if we‘re starting anew here.  And it‘s harder to sell to the American people, you know. 

We need to establish some control there.  You know, we need to be thinking about where are we going to be in a few years from now?  If we start to withdraw, we need to make sure we don‘t leave a genocide behind. 

And I recognize the fact that no one wants additional troops on the ground, but possibly, you know, this is what may be needed, and it‘s going to—and, of course, every life is important.  Every American is important.  But I don‘t think we have much of a choice right now given the circumstances.

MATTHEWS:  What‘s the mission, Gary.  I have a hard time figuring out if I see guys going door to door, but they are basically targets themselves.  They are basically exposing themselves.  They don‘t have armor on.  They are out of their Jeeps, their out of their carriers, their tanks.  They are walking around, in uniform, in fatigues, ready to be shot at. 

BERNTSEN:  I understand the mission, though, is to sort of try to establish some level of control.  Can it be done?  I‘m not sure.  But if we don‘t do it now, it will pretty much be over and we‘ll have a withdrawal from there and we‘ll have events that will spin out of control likely in Iraq.  It will be much more violent than it is now.

And there is no one that wants to be there now.  And we recognize that.  And we need stability, not democracy there right now. 

MATTHEWS:  David, can you give me a sense, just do a before and after.  Imagine two weeks ago in the streets of Baghdad, and now imagine when most of our complement of surging troops has arrived in three, four months.  What would that picture look like of the difference? 

IGNATIUS:  Well, you have whole parts of the city now that are pretty much no go areas.  There are places where people are in terror of death squads in Sunni neighborhoods, the Shiite death squads that roam the city at night terrify people.  Those death squads would be off the streets.  The people who are now the killers would be themselves afraid.  They would be in hiding.  You would have the restoration of order, which is what a solid military force can do. 

The problem is that militaries are good at moving quickly and decisively with overwhelming force, but they are not a police force.  And I think everybody looking forward, beyond this initial surge period I‘m sure will have a lot of impact.  I‘m sure that most of these neighborhoods will look calmer than they do now. 

But we‘re not there to police Baghdad.  That‘s not a job for the U.S.  military.  And there is no sign yet that the Iraqi police in Sunni neighborhoods or in Shiite neighborhoods are able to keep the peace in any meaningful way.  The peace, to the extent there is any, is being kept by the militias.  That‘s the problem.  And I don‘t see any evidence yet that we have something in Iraq, an Iraqi force that really is prepared to take over for the militias and replace them. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Go ahead, Gary.  Last word. 

BERNTSEN:  In addition to the military, you need to have civilians.  Iraqis need to have civilians to go through there, to get a census, to deliver services, to do these sorts of things.  If there is not a civilian force to go in behind the forces, it‘s not going to pay off. 

MATTHEWS:  I will be watching what you were talking about earlier, Gary.  That‘s whether Maliki, the prime minister out there, delivers those fighting brigades into downtown Baghdad or not, and whether he actually tries to neutralize Muqtada al-Sadr, his backer. 

Anyway, thank you both, Gary Berntsen, and thank you very much, David Ignatius, columnist for “The Washington Post.”

Up next, will black voters be split?  Well, everybody is going to be split in the 2008 elections, but let‘s talk about it.  Reverend Al Sharpton and former Bush-Cheney White House adviser Ron Christie are going to be here.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Barack Obama could announce his presidential exploratory bid this week.  That means he‘s really running for president.  Could he be the surprise winner of 2008?  Polls show voters are ready for it.  They are getting excited about this, but is Hillary Clinton ready for it? 

Reverend Al Sharpton is the president of the National Action Network, and Ron Christie is a former adviser to President Bush and Dick Cheney and the author of “Black in the White House.”

Let me ask you, Reverend Sharpton, are you sticking by those tough words about this—let‘s hear what you said—first of all, I have got to read you.  This is what you said to “The Times of London” about Barack Obama.  “Right now, we‘re hearing a lot of media razzle-dazzle.  I‘m not hearing a lot of meat, or a lot of content.  I think when the meat hits the fire, we‘ll find out if it‘s just fat, or if there‘s some real meat there.”

Well, I thought it was going to be a mixed metaphor, but you nailed it, with the fat and the fire.  But there is sizzle when there is fat, right? 

REV. AL SHARPTON, NATIONAL ACTION NETWORK:  Yes, and again, my statement to them is more on the media than on Obama.  I think the media has given us a lot of sizzle and razzle and not really saying where he or Hillary Clinton or, for that matter, most of the candidates are.  So that‘s not necessarily my assessment of him or any of the other candidates. 

I think the media hasn‘t really gotten down to the content, and until they do, we don‘t know whether any poll numbers are going to hold up, because when people start understanding what the candidates stand for, that‘s when they are going to rally around a candidate. 

MATTHEWS:  Hey, wait a minute.  What‘s the mystery here?  You act like he‘s a mystery box.  He has got a voting record in the U.S. Senate.  He‘s ran for the Senate in Illinois.  He has taken all the positions on the usual social and economic issues.  Everybody knows he is against the war from day one.  What issue do you still want to know about where he stands? 

SHARPTON:  I think that the issues here will be not that broad.  It will be, you‘re against the war, but what type of withdrawal, what are the timetables, what are you willing to do in terms of voting for or against funding the war?  Or what do you do in terms of confirming some of the Bush people like Condoleezza Rice that executed the war? 

I mean, there is a lot of substantive issues.  Rather than just—all of them are going to say I‘m against the war.  Why am I going to vote for you?  What is it specifically that you can show me that makes you...

MATTHEWS:  You‘re not just asking this guy to jump through hoops, are you? 

SHARPTON:  No, I‘m not asking him—I‘m talking about all of them.  I‘m not asking questions now I didn‘t ask in ‘04.  In ‘04, everybody started going against the war, but then they had to deal with the votes, they had to deal with the timetables... 

MATTHEWS:  Guess who—guess the two guys that didn‘t come out against the war—Kerry and Edwards. 

SHARPTON:  That‘s correct. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  They were part of the other side.  Let me ask you this, Ron Christie, I know you‘re Republican...

RON CHRISTIE, FORMER WHITE HOUSE ADVISER:  I am.

MATTHEWS:  But we‘ve got an interesting fight going on here.  It looks like Hillary Clinton‘s going to announce her exploratory committee as early as this week. 

CHRISTIE:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  She‘s certainly making all the moves.  And also, Barack Obama is apparently going to beat her by a few days.  And we have got John Edwards out there, campaigning harder than anybody.  It‘s going to be an interesting fight for the Democratic base, which is code for African-American Democrats. 

CHRISTIE:  Sure.  No, it‘s going to be fascinating, I think.  And here we are on Martin Luther King Day, where we‘re talking about an African-American senator who could be taken very seriously as a viable candidate for the presidency. 

What I want to know, however, is...

MATTHEWS:  Does your heart soar enough to maybe vote Dem this time if it happens?  Come on, I bet you‘re thinking about it. 

CHRISTIE:  I would look at the candidates.  However, I would imagine that the people who aren‘t going to be raising our taxes, the people who are going to have a responsible war strategy, people who are conservative will be the ones that I cast my vote for. 

But to answer your question, Chris, I think that Senator Clinton is at a very interesting spot right now.  Traditionally, when she was elected to the New York Senate and reelected to the New York Senate, she relied heavily on the African-American vote.  Senator Obama does not have much of a record, as Reverend Al has pointed out.  But what are African-Americans around the country going to do?  Are they going to vote for him just because he happens to be a person of color, or are they going to look and delve deeper into the substance?  

MATTHEWS:  You say he happens to be. 

CHRISTIE:  Well, he happens to—no, he happens to be a person of color, but are folks going to dig deeper and say, what would President Obama do about health care?  What would President Obama do about the war, other than he happens to be a black gentleman who is running for the presidency? 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s your gut tell you, Reverend?  You‘re a politician.  You‘re a preacher, of course, but you‘re a politician.  You have been around this track.  Is this country ready to make a big move and say look, let‘s try something here?  This guy has an interesting background.  He doesn‘t seem to be angry at me if you‘re a white guy, doesn‘t seem to have a Jim Crow past.  He‘s almost born free, had a white mother, an African father.  He seems to come into this thing with a fresh attitude.  And let‘s try—let‘s roll the dice with this guy.  What do you think? 

SHARPTON:  I think that the country is ready for a lot of things.  The

question, though, is that even if you say I‘m ready, they still will vote -

blacks, whites, anybody—on their interests.  And I think that‘s the sizzle that I‘m saying the media—the media is painting this picture of, you know, things that really—when a voter goes in the booth, they don‘t go by a guy who was born here, did this.  A person stands for what I‘m concerned about.  That‘s who gets your vote.  And I don‘t think that that‘s what we‘re talking about here. 

I think that Barack Obama is a fresh face.  I mean, he is four or five years younger than me.  He‘s not that young.  He‘s new.  And I think that Hillary Clinton...

MATTHEWS:  He‘s skinny, though.  He‘s skinnier than you. 

SHARPTON:  He‘s just a little skinnier than me.  That‘s right.  But I think that Hillary Clinton has a longer record.  I think then you can‘t discount John Edwards.  John Edwards came out swinging... 

MATTHEWS:  I know.  I‘m just trying—I‘m not... 

SHARPTON:  That speech at Riverside Church is going to resonate with a lot of black voters and a lot of other voters.  I think it‘s going to be an interesting time. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the fact that a lot of white people are out there who aren‘t necessarily liberal Democrats tooting this guy‘s horn is making a lot of African-American Democrats worried—“Hey, wait a minute, why do these guys like this guy so much?”  Is there some of that going on in the atmosphere? 

SHARPTON:  You hear some of that, but I think Obama has his own support as well.  I think what is going to happen—my advice to Obama would be—and we have talked and talked about it, is that he‘s got to be very careful, if he‘s going to in fact run, that he do a bottom up, not a top down, because you can build a backlash if you go top down rather than bottom up.  But I would give the same advice to Edwards and the same advice to Hillary Clinton. 

CHRISTIE:  Well, he‘s just got to stand for something. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll talk about that when we come back. 

We‘ve got to talk about Hillary, too.  It looks like Hillary‘s moving

that train is moving a little faster than we thought. 

We‘ll be right back with Al Sharpton and Ron Christie about he coming battle royal among Hillary, John Edwards and Barack Obama.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

We‘re back with former Bush White House adviser Ron Christie and the Reverend Al Sharpton. 

Reverend Sharpton, where are you on Hillary Clinton?  Are you close colleagues?  I mean, she‘s getting ready, apparently, to announce an exploratory committee.  We‘re getting intonations of that now.  Would you be likely to back her or run against her?

SHARPTON:  I mean, I haven‘t decided either way.  We have a cordiality.  I wouldn‘t say we‘re close.  I, being in civil rights, I try not to be close to any incumbent because I reserve the right to disagree with them.  But we stay in touch when we need to, as I do with the other prospective candidates.  None of that will decide ultimately what I decide to do. 

MATTHEWS:  Will she invite you up on the stage to join her in these victory parties?  In other words, will she identify with you?  Will she say, “Al Sharpton is one of my best supporters and I‘m proud of him as a supporter?”  Will she do that or will she eschew your presence and say, “I‘ll take you votes because you‘ve got a lot of clout in New York State, but you‘re not on my team when people are watching.”?

SHARPTON:  Well, I mean, she—when I supported her has brought me on stage.  She‘s come—been at every Martin Luther King Day at our headquarters on stage.  She was in Iraq today.  I think last year, you covered her at my event.  So she has not shied away from identifying with us if we agreed and if we identified with each.  And when we didn‘t agree, well, like, I disagreed with her on the war, we both kind of didn‘t want each other on each other‘s stage.  So it goes by whatever issue.

But she has been a very competent, hard-working senator.  She has surprised a lot of people with that. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about your party, Ron.  I hear from the sharpies in your party, and I read about...

CHRISTIE:  The sharpies?

MATTHEWS:  The smart guys, the money guys, the touts (ph) -- that you are—they always say don‘t underestimate Hillary Clinton.  Is this one of those, “Don‘t blow me in the briar patch” kind of things where they‘re your party‘s trying to trick the Democrats who they think they can really beat the easiest? 

CHRISTIE:  Look, I think Senator Clinton will have a formidable ability to raise money.  I think she has a great organization.  She‘s taken a lot of advisers off to field, so that other folks like Edwards, Obama, won‘t have them on their side.  I would never rule her out.

MATTHEWS:  But do you think she could win a general with a guy she runs—a guy probably she‘ll run against?  Do you think she can stand right there and get 270 electoral votes from the American people, given the history of our country? 

CHRISTIE:  I think Senator Clinton will be able to do very well in states like New York, California, some of the larger states around the country where she will be...

MATTHEWS:  She‘s bi-coastal? 

CHRISTIE:  She will be a—yes.  She will be...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  There‘s a huge country between Reading, Pennsylvania, and Carson City, Nevada. 

CHRISTIE:  That‘s exactly right.  But if you look at Al Gore, if you look at John Kerry, they did not do very well in the inferior of the country.  They played very well to the coasts.  The question will be: “Will Senator Clinton be able to overcome some very...”

MATTHEWS:  Does she have to focus on how to dress?

CHRISTIE:  I‘m not going to go there.

She will be difficult to win a generally election because I think there are a lot of people who have had Clinton fatigue.  You and I have talked about this before.

MATTHEWS:  I know.  I know.  I think we‘ve gone around this block.

Let me as you that, Reverend Sharpton.  Do you think we suffer from having seen this sitcom for too many years, the Bushes and the Clintons, the Bushes and the Clintons?  Or do we want to try a new world? 

SHARPTON:  Well, I think that we probably want to see a new world, but I think that we‘ve got to be sure that the new world is something familiar to us.  I mean, it‘s almost a contradictory position.  As I travel people want to see something different, but not that different.  They want to see something different that they—that resembles what they‘re stable and sure of.

MATTHEWS:  You‘re so smart.  I always say you are the smarted guy because you know what you‘re saying with different words?  John Kenneth Galbraith, the great, you know, economist, said that people won‘t accept anything new until it‘s 75 percent old. 

SHARPTON:  Right.  And that‘s exactly what I am saying. 

MATTHEWS:  So, let‘s see who‘s—Hillary Clinton‘s 75 percent old, right? 

CHRISTIE:  She is.  Look, I think—I do not believe that she‘ll win the general.

MATTHEWS:  John Edwards is 75 percent old.

CHRISTIE:  That‘s right. 

MATTHEWS:  He‘s been around the track before, but he‘s never been up front. 

SHARPTON:  One thing we do know is that the Bushes are 110 percent old, so they‘re gone, Ron. 

CHRISTIE:  Come on, Reverend Al.  I knew you—I was waiting for you take some sort of Bush shot.

Look, we don‘t even need to go there.  I just think that the Democratic Party, as we head into a new election need to put new blood and find a way to invigorate the country, and the same thing on the Republican side.  And will those candidates go out and be able to appeal to people based on, “We‘re going to improve health care, we‘re going to improve the situation for national security and wage and win the war on terrorism,” rather than saying, “Well, you know...”

MATTHEWS:  You know what?  You know what, fellows?  I think we‘re on the verge of a national health care plan.  You know why I think so?  Because the middle is moving. 

CHRISTIE:  That‘s right.

MATTHEWS:  Romney and Schwarzenegger.  It‘s not just Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton.

What do you think, Revered Sharpton, is this the magic time where we figure out how to do Medicare for everybody or something like that—

Medicaid for everybody?

SHARPTON:  When I see Romney and Schwarzenegger, and Schwarzenegger taking it on as a cause in California, I think that this is the time to strike.  And I think we can really get a health care plan.  And that‘s good.  And I think that we ought to really take advantage of the moment.

(CROSSTALK)

CHRISTIE:  I agree.  I have a lot of affection of Mitt Romney.  I think he will be a formidable candidate.  But Massachusetts is a very small state, and Massachusetts...

MATTHEWS:  California is a huge state.

CHRISTIE:  Yes, California is a huge state, but California also has a lot of debts.  Can the entire country...

MATTHEWS:  You know what we have to do?  We‘ve got to make young people like you buy health insurance, and then the older people will be covered.

CHRISTIE:  I‘ve already got my health care.

MATTHEWS:  We‘ve got to make you do it, make you do it.

Anyway, thank you, Mike. 

Reverend Sharpton, as always.  I‘m a fan, sir. 

SHARPTON:  Thanks you.

Happy King Day.

We need new blood in the Democratic Party.  Ron Christie, come over.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s a holiday, what are we doing here?

Anyway, play HARDBALL with us Tuesday for the start of the trial of Vice President Cheney‘s confidante and long-time chief of staff Scooter Libby.

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.

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