updated 3/15/2007 12:33:55 PM ET 2007-03-15T16:33:55

Guests: John Ensign, Chris Dodd, Harold Schaitberger, Mark Benjamin, Sgt. Ronald Jenkins

MIKE BARNICLE, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR:  Political firestorms in Washington today—calls for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.  And 10 declared 2008 contenders, Democrats and Republicans, get all fired up at the International Association of Firefighters Forum.  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening, I‘m Mike Barnicle in tonight for Chris Matthews.  Today, more pressure today on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as Hillary Clinton joined the growing chorus of calls for Gonzales‘s resignation, including New Hampshire Senator John Sununu, a Republican who just called for the same thing.  This morning, the attorney general defended himself on the “Today” show.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ALBERTO GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL:  These firings were not politically motivated; they were not done in retaliation.  They were not done to interfere with the public corruption case.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  Today in Mexico, President Bush said that he agreed with Gonzales mistakes that were made, that the firings were entirely appropriate though.  Can Gonzales survive the scrutiny, or will he ultimately fall?  Tonight, we‘ll talk to Republican Senator John Ensign, who is very angry about the U.S. attorney‘s scandal. 

Plus the 2008 candidates for president descended on Washington today to speak before a powerful forum of firefighters.  It‘s part of the early fight for critical union support.  We‘ll talk to one Democratic candidate who was there, Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut.

And later in the show, HARDBALL takes you through a brutal expose by Salon.com, which reported that injured soldiers are being sent back to Iraq before they are healed. 

But we begin tonight with John Ensign from Nevada.  Senator, I guess right off the top I should get your thoughts, your feelings.  What you think, Senator John Sununu, New Hampshire Republican, same party, he wants Alberto Gonzales out of there.

SEN. JOHN ENGISGN ®, NEVADA:  Well, I happen to have one of the U.S. attorneys who was let go, a very fine man, Dan Bogden.  Everybody in Nevada, everybody in the legal community in law enforcement, FBI thought that Dan was doing a superb job and frankly, I was shocked when he was let go in December.

The deputy attorney general Paul McNulty called me, came up with some reasons - they sounded legitimate at the time, but upon my further investigation, there is no question that I believe he was let go for the wrong reasons.  There was no proper oversight, no one ever mentioned to him - they said he wasn‘t paying enough attention on obscenity cases.  No one ever talked to him and said, “Hey, we think you need to put a lot more priorities on this.”

The Nevada office, which 18 out of the last 19 years, we have been the fastest-growing state in the country.  Four years ago, he had more lawyers, more resources in the Nevada offices then he has today.  I believe this was a complete mismanagement on the attorney general‘s office, and admitting a mistake is one thing, but I think more correction needs to happen.

BARNICLE:  Senator you said, you think that he was let go for the wrong reasons—what were the wrong reasons that were given to you?

ENSIGN:  Well, as I mentioned, the basic reason is that he was not aggressive enough in pursuing obscenity cases.  But then when further asking, you know, did you mention it to him, did you take into account that they had fewer resources today and he had to set priorities about what he was going after - and by the way, our prosecutor out there, our U.S attorney has put public officials, Republicans and Democrats in jail for public corruption—he has gone after some of the most violent organized-crime people in Nevada.

He is just doing a superb job by all accounts in law enforcement, and when the deputy attorney general told me that these were some of the reasons on obscenity, that that‘s why he was let go, I was frankly flabbergasted, especially because they never even did basic management. 

If you have somebody who‘s working for you, Mike, and you don‘t think they‘re doing the proper job, I would think that you would say hey, I don‘t think you‘re doing it right, here‘s the way I think you should be doing it.  The attorney general‘s office did none of that.  It was complete and utter mismanagement, lack of oversight, lack of accountability.

BARNICLE:  That call to you from the assistant attorney general, McNulty, was that the first inkling you‘d had of their dissatisfaction with U.S. attorney Dan Bogden?

ENSIGN:  Yes, we had nothing - he had a 2003, the last job performance review that Dan Bogden got was 2003, and it was outstanding by all remarks.

So when I got the call, the attorney general‘s office had already made its decision, and unfortunately, I believe that they made a wrong decision.  I‘ve talked to the attorney general two different times, actually three different times now, and I‘ve asked the attorney general one, to get more resources into Nevada, which he‘s agreed to.  Two, to completely transform the way they do management with the U.S. attorneys, which they are transforming that, and I think that‘s a positive sign.  But three, they need to restore at least my U.S. attorney‘s reputation, because it has been damaged and it was wrongfully damaged.

BARNICLE:  Do you think they told you the truth?  Do you think the attorney general and the assistant attorney general of the United States told you the truth about the reasons they were removing Dan Bogden?

ENSIGN:  Well, I will say because they kind of changed from what they told me in December, so I was either—they were either misinformed, or I was misled, because some of this information was coming up to them, and I don‘t know if the people were telling them that were feeding them this information to them, if they were feeding them the wrong information.  But bottom line is I was not told the truth, whether that was on purpose or not, I have no way of knowing. 

BARNICLE:  So, why not get them out of there?  Why not get a new attorney general?  I mean, how can you as a United States senator can sit there and say you were either misinformed or you didn‘t hear what he said?

ENSIGN:  Mike, I believe that people can make mistakes.  Good leadership means admitting those mistakes and then correcting those mistakes.  I am actually waiting for the attorney general to correct the final mistake, as far as I‘m concerned, with my U.S. attorney, and that is to make this guy‘s reputation whole. They are in talks with Dan Bogden right now to make sure that they can find him something else, something he would be satisfied with to re-establish his reputation.  But I believe the right thing to do would have been to admit the mistake and to re-instate him as our U.S. attorney.

BARNICLE:  Senator, as long as we have the mistake file out here on the desk, you are on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is in hot water in some circles for saying that he thinks homosexuality is immoral and he does not want homosexuals in the military.  Your view?

ENSIGN:  Well, I think that people should keep their personal opinions to themselves when it comes to a lot of those types of issues, and in particular this issue, because I believe you should focus on how do we have the most effective fighting force that we possibly can?  If military leaders feel that the don‘t ask don‘t tell policy is the most effective policy, they should do it not based on their personal feelings, but based on how they feel the military will be the most effective fighting machine. 

BARNICLE:  And your fellow Republicans perhaps picking upon you, have named you chairman of the GOP Senate Congressional Campaign Committee for 2008, and Senator McConnell said that for you to win back the majority in 2008, the Republicans to win back the majority, you‘d have to have a pretty good day.  You have a tough road to hoe.  You‘ve got Katrina in the background, you have Walter Reed right now in the front screens, you‘ve got the have U.S. attorneys scandals going on now.  This is a tough job for you, no?

ENSIGN:  No, it‘s no question.  You haven‘t even mentioned the fact that we have 21 Republicans up for reelection and only 12 Democrats, so the odds were stacked against us.  The Democrats are now in the majority. 

But just two years ago, nobody thought that the Democrats could actually take control of the United States Senate.  To me, this is a huge challenge, but also a great opportunity.  We have to convince people out there hopefully that Republicans learned something from the last election. 

We need to get back to our roots of fiscal responsibility, standing absolutely with our military, but looking for innovative solutions on education to make our country more competitive, looking for ways to make health care more affordable and accessible.  And we can communicate that to the American people, I believe that we actually can take back the United States Senate, but we will have to earn their vote, not just say what we‘re against for the Democrats.   We need to tell them what we‘re for as well.

BARNICLE:  Senator Ensign, thanks very much.  We appreciate it.

ENSIGN:  Thank you, Mike.

BARNICLE:  Coming up, Democratic presidential candidate Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut took part in today‘s presidential forum sponsored by the International Association of Firefighters.  We‘ll have more on that later with HARDBALL‘s David Shuster and the head of the Firefighters Union, Harold Schaitberger.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.       

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Today, the 2008 candidates for president jockeyed for union support of the big Firefighters Forum in Washington. 

One Democratic contender who‘s fighting to break into the top tier of candidates joins us now, Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut.  Senator, the latest conflict in Washington revolves around the attorney general of the United States.  It follows quite quickly after Walter Reed.  It follows during of the war in Iraq and with Katrina still on everybody‘s mind.  Is it arrogance or ignorance in this administration that pushes these things forward?

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), CONNECTICUT:  I unfortunately say it‘s arrogance, Mike.  I wish I didn‘t have to use that word, but I think that‘s a proper description of it here.

This is outrageous.  I mean, we‘d like to begin - we thought certain things were off bounds, or out of bounds, and to discover that the U.S. attorney‘s office around the country were being politicized by this administration takes it to yet another level where nothing seems to be off-balance when it comes to politics. 

And so I for one want to see a full investigation done immediately, and if the attorney general has his fingerprints anywhere near this, then he ought to be fired, he ought to resign, he ought to be thrown out of the office in my view.

I haven‘t called for that yet because I think an investigation is warranted here, but it doesn‘t look to me that this thing went - I don‘t believe this happened just by some underling at the Justice Department.  This was pretty high up, in my view.

BARNICLE:  But in past administrations, Democratic and Republican, the Bush administration says this, the “Wall Street Journal” today points out the Clinton administration removing U.S. attorneys, isn‘t this just politics as usual in this administration?

DODD:  No, not at all.  Look, most administrations when they come in, they will ask everybody to provide a letter of resignation.  That is pretty standard stuff.  These are political appointees, but usually when we make them - when I make them, you always have very good people.  You seek out who have wonderful records, because your reputation is on the line by the people that you send up to be confirmed.

So normally, you get a shift.  That happens normally.  These people were selected out, specifically.  We know for certain at least seven of the eight, seven of the nine here were directly involved in either cases where they were pursuing Republicans or were unable to reveal information about Democrats.  These are the U.S. attorneys appointed here claiming that they lost their jobs because they were considered not loyal enough politically in this administration.  That is very different than asking every U.S. attorney in a new administration to submit a letter of resignation.

BARNICLE:  So why haven‘t you asked for the attorney general‘s resignation again?  Off of what you just said, it sounds like that would be enough.

DODD:  Whether or not this - did it go that high?  Did it go up to his office?  Was he aware of it?  And that may be the case, and if it is, then he‘s out.  But frankly, I don‘t know that yet, that‘s why you have an investigation.

BARNICLE:  You‘re at a firefighter‘s forum today, big union thing.  You‘re running for president of the United States.  According to the latest polls, 70 percent of Democrats, when polled, indicate that they‘re satisfied with the field as is.  Many of them look at the field as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards.  Where you fit into this puzzle?

DODD:  Well again, I think people are satisfied with the field.  I don‘t think it‘s limited to that.

That is kind of how the national media talk about the race.  But I‘ve been around politics long enough, Michael, to know the difference between the courtesy and someone who wants to see more of you.  And I‘ve done a lot of these town meetings in New Hampshire and Iowa.  They have a different perspective on this.  They want you to come back, we‘ll get good commitments and people volunteering, offering to step forward to help out in the campaign.

And we‘re 10 months away from the first primary caucus.  If we had followed that standard, let me just cite two polls to you, September 26th, 1991.  The guy who was in sixth place at two percent in the polls won the nomination 16 weeks later was a guy named William Jefferson Clinton.

Four years ago, the guy who was at four percent on December 17th, one point behind Reverend Sharpton, was a guy named John Kerry.  Four weeks later, he was the nominee of the party.  These people out Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina, they don‘t want to be told by the national media this is a two-person race.  They want to hear from these other people.  Joe Biden deserves to be heard.  Bill Richard deserves to be heard.  I deserve to be heard, and people are telling us that.

BARNICLE:  OK, let‘s take the national media out of this, and pretend that I am Joe Undecided sitting in my living room in Ames, Iowa or Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and you‘re in my living room with me and I ask you the question, “What would make you a better president than Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton?

DODD:  Well, I won‘t go into the comparative game here with you, that is something you‘ll have to do.  And they each bring strengths, they are good people.  I‘m not going to engage in that kind of politics.  I think it would be more harmful.

Let me tell you what I bring to it and then let people decide whether or not those qualities are ones they think they‘d like to embrace as a nominee and ultimately as the president of the United States.

This is a time I think where the stakes have never been higher in your lifetime or mine, Michael.  There‘s an awful lot riding here over what we do over the next couple of years in terms of national leadership, both in terms of what happens at home and abroad, and people want problem solved.  They want people to not only talk a good game, but have the proven ability to get things done. 

For 26 years in the Senate, I‘ve taken democratic principles and made them national policy.  From the Family Medical Leave Act to childcare legislation to leading with HeadStart and children‘s health issues.  I‘ve been involved in every major foreign policy debate.  I speak a second language fluently, served in the Peace Corps, served in the National Guard and reserves back in the ‘60s.

I have a good idea and understanding of what needs to be done to restore our reputation around the world.  I can talk about experience and I have a good idea of what needs to be done to rebuild the optimism and sense of confidence in the country, and I think those qualities are things that people are looking for.  That is what I‘ve been talking about, and I‘m getting a good response to it.

BARNICLE:  All right, I am still in my living room.  What are you going to do about Iraq, Senator?

DODD:  Well, I‘ve said simply look, I happen to believe that we ought to be redeploying out of Iraq tonight, from these large urban areas.  I don‘t think we ought to waste anymore time at this.  These future dates and benchmarks and the like leave me dizzy.

I think it‘s wrong for us to be in Baghdad, a city of 23 million people - excuse me, six million people with 23 militias operating there.  The idea that 17,000 troops of ours are going to restore order in a civil war, I think is insane.

We could a training mission; we could do a border control mission to some degree, in counter-terrorism.  But I think the days are over where we can bring these people together on our own.  They are going to have to do that.  That is what I‘d be advocating, as well as promoting the kind of international support that we need within the region.

I‘d be negotiating with Syria.  I‘d be negotiating in Iran with people other than Ahmadinejad to find out whether or not there‘s some common ground here.  We‘re just sitting around enflaming a situation that‘s only getting worse in my view. 

BARNICLE:  Senator Chris Dodd out on the campaign trail.  Thanks very much, Senator.

DODD:  How did I do in your living room?

BARNICLE:  You know something, I‘m undecided still, but I appreciate you being here.

DODD:  Thank you.

BARNICLE:  Up next, we will hear from John McCain, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the other presidential candidates who spoke at today‘s Firefighters Forum and find out why Rudy Giuliani wasn‘t there.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Presidential hopefuls from both parties were in Washington today to address the nation‘s largest Firefighters Union.  HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster was there and has this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over:  In front of 1,000 delegates from the bipartisan International Association of Firefighters, the forum today was the first this year to feature most of the presidential candidates from both parties, leading on the left, Hillary Clinton. 

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), NEW YORK:  When you plunge headfirst into burning buildings for a living, you have more than earned the right to organize for better conditions on the job.

SHUSTER:  Headlining the Republicans, John McCain.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  The federal government spends too much money on too many things of dubious, if any utilities.  It is time to put first the needs of the people who to rest up first.

SHUSTER:  None of the candidates today addressed the latest Bush administration scandal, the politics-related firing of eight federal prosecutors, and the calls for Attorney General Gonzales to resign.  But a few candidates noted the problems at Walter Reed, and they nearly all of the candidates spoke about the war in Iraq.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS:  We shouldn‘t be sending more troops to Iraq.  We should be bringing them home.  It is time to find an end to this war.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), NEW MEXICO:  I think this war is a mistake.

SHUSTER:  Republican Duncan Hunter suggested sending every Iraqi unit into combat, whether they‘re ready or not. 

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER ®, CALIFORNIA:  And they carry the load for the security in Iraq and we can move the Americans out and move them to other locations.

SHUSTER:  Arizona Senator John McCain, who supports the Bush troop escalation, claimed today the plan is beginning to work.

MCCAIN:  We have a long way to go, and success is far from certain, but I‘m guardedly, and I stress guardedly, encouraged that General Petraeus‘s plan is achieving more success than expected.

SHUSTER:  The forum today was an opportunity for some of the lesser-known candidates to try and make inroads with the working-class audience.

DODD:  I‘m proud to say over 32 years, I have stood with unions.  For 26 years in the Senate and the House of Representatives before it.  I‘m proud to say it here, I say it everywhere.

SHUSTER:  Republican Jim Gilmore, a former governor of Virginia, boldly predicted a conservative upheaval on the GOP side, benefiting him.

JIM GILMORE ®, FORMER GOVERNOR OF VIRGINIA:  And that means that I will win this nomination over McCain, Romney and Mayor Giuliani.  I can assure you of that.

SHUSTER:  Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who leads in the Republican polls, did not attend to the forum because of what his staff called a scheduling conflict. 

Months after 9/11, however, Giuliani and firefighters tangled over issues including his demand to scale back the body recovery efforts at Ground Zero.  The protest led to arrest, many firefighters said they would never forgive Giuliani, and several firefighters today said they were glad Giuliani stayed away from this event. 

But the Giuliani campaign pointed to a letter by one retired New York firefighter who said, quote, “There is no one who respects firefighters and first responders more than Rudy Giuliani.”

In any case, most of the attention today was on Hillary Clinton, whose labor-friendly speech received the most praise from leaders at the events.  Clinton blasted the Bush administration for stylish health-care plans that she said lack substance.

CLINTON:  It‘s great for the photo ops, but how about taking care of the people who have taken care of us across our country?

SHUSTER:  And, she decried the situation in Iraq.

CLINTON:  We do not want our young men and women in uniform to be in the middle of a sectarian civil war where they don‘t know who is shooting at them and they can‘t figure out whose side they are supposed to be on.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  It was, said several firefighters, a spellbinding performance by Mrs. Clinton, but the candidate who may have gained the most today was Joe Biden.  Late this afternoon, he gave a very emotional speech.  He stuck around with the longest of all the candidates, shaking hands, even inviting the firefighters to join him for a beer at a nearby tavern. 

And Mike, as you know, the firefighters unit may not have the most money to give to any particular candidate, but they could be extremely helpful to a lower-tier candidate like Joe Biden, who is looking for some organizational help.

BARNICLE:  Boy David, you‘re right about that.  Ask John Kerry about New Hampshire and the New Hampshire Firefighters Union.

Quick question David, I‘m going to ask you to put on your “American Idol” hat.  You‘d be a combination of Randy and Simon - the theatrics of the speakers today, what did you see?

BARNICLE:  Well, I saw what the firefighters saw.  Mrs. Clinton was on her game, she either has a new speechwriter, or she‘s been practicing this one for a long time.  It was spellbinding.

From what we saw of Joe Biden late today, he was very emotional as he talked about his own house burning down and his kids being killed and him being rescued b firefighters, a very emotional appeal by Joe Biden.

Some of the candidates did not do as well as expected.  I think there was some disappointment with Barack Obama.  He gave a rather flat speech today.  And some of the candidates just didn‘t seem to be very polished or very aware of the particular audience and what the audience wanted to hear.

BARNICLE:  David Shuster, as always, great report, thanks very much.  Up next, more on today‘s Firefighter Forum with their president Harold Schaitberger and the “National Review‘s” Kate O‘Beirne.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Both Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls are gathering today in Washington at a forum hosted by the International Association of Firefighters.  Harold Schaitberger is the president of that organization, and MSNBC political analyst Kate O‘Beirne is the Washington editor of “The National Review.”

Harold, let‘s go to you right off the top.  Rudy Giuliani—what is the deal with the firefighters union and Rudy?  Is it just New York?  Does it extend through the union?  What are the ripple effects here?

HAROLD SCHAITBERGER, INTERNATIONAL ASSOC. OF FIREFIGHTERS:  Well, I think the ripple effects are that Rudy‘s going to have to answer to 280,000 of our members—today we had 1,000 of our leadership from every congressional district around the county—and quite frankly, answer for his decisions that we found egregious and disgraceful when he rolled back the firefighters off that pile on November 2 while they were trying to continue with the dignified recovery of our fallen and those citizens that were murdered on that horrific day.  He went to “scoop and dump” and decided that it was more important to get that site cleaned up and to get the assets out of the Bank of Nova Scotia than it was to continue with the dignified recovery of the fallen.

BARNICLE:  That‘s tough stuff, Harold.  I mean, you‘re accusing the former mayor of New York, running for president as a Republican, of paying more attention to the assets of bank than to the remains of fallen firefighters.

SCHAITBERGER:  Well, I can tell you that he said he was concerned for the safety of those firefighters.  All I can answer is with the facts, and that is the firefighters had been on that pile for 52 days.  They‘d been on that pile in the most dangerous environment during the most dangerous time in the most unstable condition in the most disastrous incident in the history of this country.  And then 52 days later, he‘s concerned about their safety?  That happens to follow within two days of the retrieval of those assets, and the pressure he was getting from the redevelopment community to get that site cleaned up before he left office.

We‘ll let the facts speak for themselves.  Those families and firefighters had marched (ph) on that site.  That was a union officers‘ march on that site.  Those were firefighters and families demanding that recovery continue.

BARNICLE:  Kate O‘Beirne, you‘re sitting there.  You hear what Harold is saying.  And yet in the minds of many Americans, I would think, the image of Rudy Giuliani is of September 11, is of a heroic leadership effort, and perhaps many Americans think that firefighters probably are in love with Rudy Giuliani, but we‘re hearing a different story here.  How does that impact the image and his candidacy?

KATE O‘BEIRNE, “NATIONAL REVIEW,” MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Mike, I agree with you that that‘s probably the assumption on the part of the public.  Look, the American public had a really unique experience of Rudy Giuliani.  Rarely do they decide what they think of a politician based on a personal intense experience, which is what Americans had with Rudy Giuliani on 9/11.

Now, Harold obviously feels very strongly about the complaint he has with Rudy Giuliani about a very emotional issue, the treatment of the remains of firefighters.  But there are two sides, I‘m guessing, to this story.  And what the American public also saw Rudy Giuliani do for weeks following 9/11 was be a very welcome presence at the funerals of those heroes of 9/11.  And like in so many other cases, my assumption will be that there‘ll be firefighters who disagree with Harold‘s strong opinion and the water will be muddied on this issue, and it‘s going to be, I think, extremely difficult to overcome the public‘s personal experience with Rudy‘s behavior on that day.

BARNICLE:  Harold, on the issue of Iraq—and I know that several of the candidates who spoke to the forum today brought up the war in Iraq—I was speaking with a firefighter a couple of weeks ago, Boston firefighter, just returned from his third tour of Iraq.  Can you speak to the effect the impact that the war and Iraq is having through reserve troops, through National Guard troops, on various fire departments throughout this country, where members of their departments are serving in Iraq?

SCHAITBERGER:  Well, I can tell you that we know we have about 842 that we can identify of the proud women and men of the IFF that serve their communities who traded in one honorable uniform for another and are now serving their nation abroad.  Although our union and our members are going to absolutely insist and stand strong with our men and women in the military and that they should be afforded every resource they need in order to do this terrible and difficult job they have, the fact of the matter is it does have an effect on the nation‘s homeland security and our domestic defenders being able to have the staffing and the training that they need to protect our communities and our cities.  And so you know, you can‘t get away from the fact that the resources that are flowing in order to resource our proud men and women of the military definitely take its toll on the ability to resource our domestic defenders.

BARNICLE:  Yes.  Hey, Kate, you know, the firefighters forum today,

all the candidates are there, first responders—everybody thinks first

responders—they want money for better equipment, and yet the war in Iraq

it‘s everywhere.  It does not go away, no matter what group you‘re talking about.

O‘BEIRNE:  Well, sure, just like the rest of us, of course.  It‘s the

we‘re a nation at war, and firefighters, of course, are concerned about the progress or lack of it in Iraq, as anybody else.  And of course, as Harold points out, they are probably, given that they are the kind of people who volunteer, a little overrepresented in the ranks of our National Guard.  And that‘s another opportunity they‘ve chosen to serve but—and they serve willingly, but they didn‘t sign on for multiple tours.  And owing to how thinly stretched the military is, of course, National Guard has been asked to do multiple tours.

BARNICLE:  Kate O‘Beirne and Harold Schaitberger are staying with us.

And later: Is the Army sending wounded soldiers back to Iraq before they‘re ready?

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  In what may be bad news for Rudy Giuliani‘s presidential hopes, his former police commissioner, Bernard Kerik, has rejected a plea deal offered by federal prosecutors that would have required Kerik to serve time in prison.

Jonathan Dienst of WNBC in New York broke this story, and he has all the details.

JONATHAN DIENST, WNBC-TV:  Mike, federal prosecutors and the FBI have been investigating Bernie Kerik for many months now on federal allegations of possible tax fraud, mortgage fraud, illegal—conspiracy to commit illegal eavesdropping while he was working as a private investigator, and a litany of other counts.  And during plea negotiations that occurred over the last several weeks, federal prosecutors offered Mr. Kerik a plea deal, basically saying, If you plead guilty to one count of tax fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit illegal eavesdropping, we will drop the federal investigation into all the other counts, but we would want you to serve some sort of sentence of about six months—that deal rejected by Kerik and his attorneys, his attorney telling us that Mr. Kerik paid his taxes and has done nothing wrong.

Now, as you know, Mr. Kerik, while correction commissioner and police commissioner under Rudy Giuliani, and then he was nominated as homeland security chief.  It was during that nomination that the wheels fell off the wagon, if you will, and a lot came out about Mr. Kerik‘s past and his alleged wrongdoing.  He later pleaded guilty to state charges, state misdemeanor counts on accepting tens of thousands in illegal gifts and construction work on his Riverdale apartment.  But the feds have been continuing their investigation, and one part of that investigation also includes allegations that he lied on his application to become homeland security secretary.

BARNICLE:  Jonathan, what‘s next in the federal drip treatment, the federal judicial drip treatment for Bernard Kerik?  Now that he‘s rejected this plea deal, where do we go from here?

DIENST:  Well, experts we spoke with yesterday about this say the federal government never likes having their plea offers rejected, and that therefore, they will be moving full steam ahead with the litanies of counts.  And several people we spoke with say in the weeks and months ahead, expect charges to be filed if no sort of deal can be worked out.  So that is one part of it.

And we are told that there are other counts and other allegations about Mr. Kerik‘s income and questions about his income during his private security days that they‘re looking and raising questions about.  And part of he reason why Mr. Kerik obviously—in addition to his insistence that he‘s innocent and has done nothing wrong, if he were to plead guilty or get convicted on a felony count, he would perhaps lose his ability as a private investigator or as a consultant to win government contracts.  He would be persona non grata in many circles.  With just the misdemeanor counts at the state level, he has been able continue his work and—and continue.

Now, most of the country just knows him as a hero of 9/11 and his attachment to Rudy Giuliani here in New York.  His troubles have been pretty well known and continue to be reported extensively here in the city.

BARNICLE:  Jonathan Dienst, thanks very much.

We‘re back with the HARDBALLers, the president of the International Association of Firefighters, Harold Schaitberger, and Kate O‘Beirne of “The National Review.”

Well, Harold, you heard that latest little juicy tidbit about the Giuliani campaign.  But let me ask you today, in terms of the candidates who appeared before the forum, which ones do you think hit the hot buttons of firefighters today?  And didn‘t—and which ones didn‘t?

SCHAITBERGER:  Well, I can tell you—let me just—listen, they all, I thought, made their positions clearly known.  I thought they each had their own style and message.  But certainly, John Edwards, Chris Dodd, Duncan Hunter, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton...

BARNICLE:  Oh, man, Harold...

(LAUGHTER)

SCHAITBERGER:  ... they all did—they all did a fine job.

BARNICLE:  Oh, you sound like a politician yourself.  One didn‘t outshine the other?

SCHAITBERGER:  Well, I can only tell you the reaction from the crowd.  I really thought that those I mentioned really hit the issues and the points.  They were able to connect with the firefighters in that hall, and the response to each of those that I mentioned was very strong and very energetic.

BARNICLE:  Hey, Kate O‘Beirne, on another issue, Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general of the United States—Senator John Sununu, Republican from New Hampshire, earlier this evening announced that he wanted him gone.  This is pretty shocking news from within the Republican Party, no?

O‘BEIRNE:  Well, the way the Department of Justice mishandled the replacement of these eight U.S. attorneys has, of course, given lots of ammunition to their partisan typical critics but has also annoyed Republican senators.  You heard from Senator John Ensign earlier tonight, a Republican in Nevada.  Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona is annoyed at the way this was handled.

Now, they have every right, as you know, Mike, to replace eight presidential appointees.  They can do so for no reason or any good reason.  They can‘t do it for a bad reason, which would be, you know, politically interfering with an investigation or prosecution.  I don‘t think there‘s not much evidence of that yet, although the situation in new Mexico raises those questions.  But it was handled so ineptly on this one, they can‘t even count on their typical allies on Capitol Hill defending them.

BARNICLE:  Kate O‘Beirne, Harold Schaitberger, thanks very much.

Up next: Are injured American troops being sent into Iraq before they‘re healed?

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  As President Bush sends 8,000 more troops to Iraq and Afghanistan on top of the 21,000 surge already taking place in Iraq, Salon.com reports that the Army is deploying injured troops who are medically unfit for battle.

Mark Benjamin broke the story for Salon.com, and Master Sergeant Ronald Jenkins fought deployment because of his medical condition.  Mark, briefly, what‘s the story?

MARK BENJAMIN, SALON.COM:  Well, there are two questions that my reporting, I think, uncovered down at Fort Benning.  One Is, should we be sending injured troops to Iraq, so who are so hurt that they can‘t wear their body armor?  The second is, if we‘re going to make that decision to send people to Iraq who—you know, people who can‘t wear their body armor -- what kind of review—can they—can we just have them walk into a room and take a quick look at them and have a conversation with them and decide that, in fact, they are fit for duty, or should they have some sort of, you know, serious medical review, exams, X-rays, that kind of thing?

BARNICLE:  Sergeant Jenkins, did you have a medical review?  You are not going to Iraq, right?

MASTER SGT. RONALD JENKINS, U.S. ARMY:  No, I‘ve been informed I‘m not going now.  I was there in a meeting we had with some of the soldiers from my brigade.  On 15 February, I was brought in.  I sat down with my brigade surgeon and my division surgeon.  And  he—you know, they welcomed me into the room, and they looked at a few things on the screen as far as my military medical records, as far as what they had on the screen.  They didn‘t actually have my medical records.  My medical records were over in military correspondence being copied.

And he made a statement as to the fact that the Army—more than likely, I should have been Rear D (ph), which Rear D is someone who stays in the rear while they deploy.  Then he also stated the fact that I could be sent to a—deployed to a place where I don‘t have to wear any gear.  And also in the same conversation, he told me that if a mortar round hit that I wouldn‘t have time to grab a Kevlar anyways, which I didn‘t really find the humor in that.

BARNICLE:  So Sergeant, you are career Army, correct?

JENKINS:  Correct, 21 years.

BARNICLE:  Twenty-one years in the service.  And what was—what‘s your medical issue?

JENKINS:  My medical issue is I had a spinal surgery, where I had a spinal fusion.  I had four of my—my C-3 through C-6 vertebrae were removed in the back, and I have titanium rods and screws in my neck now, neck and upper back.

BARNICLE:  So how much does a Kevlar vest weigh?  It‘s pretty heavy, isn‘t it?

JENKINS:  Well, when you have the plates in there, as well, you know, the body armor, it has a little bit of weight on it.

BARNICLE:  Mark, do think that the Army is using these medical boards just to make their numbers, to get more troops to Iraq to meet their numbers?

BENJAMIN:  That is certainly what the soldiers that I interviewed down at Fort Benning believe.  And I certainly don‘t have a memo that says, you know, the 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division is desperate for troops.

Having said that, you know, let‘s think about this for a second.  The

3rd Infantry Division has now—this is the third time that the 3rd

Infantry Division is going back to Iraq.  So this is—you know, these are

these are—this is a very stressed unit.  And the Army is very stressed.  And as the Army is very stressed, they‘re clearly pressing into combat some soldiers very similar to Jenkins.  In fact, I interviewed a soldier just last week that had a similar problem, also can‘t wear body armor.  That soldiers is now in Kuwait and headed north.

BARNICLE:  Sergeant Jenkins, let me ask you—you said that you went into the medical board with some of your fellow soldiers.  How many of you were there in total, do you recall?

JENKINS:  I was told there were 75.  I actually thought there were more than that, but I was told 75.

BARNICLE:  And how...

JENKINS:  It was a process that lasted—go ahead, sir.

BARNICLE:  How many doctors were there, Sergeant?

JENKINS:  There were two.  There were my brigade surgeon and my division surgeon.

BARNICLE:  And what was—what did that take, two or three days to go through that, 75 soldiers?

JENKINS:  No.  I was in there—it started probably at about 9:30 in the morning.  By the time I was seen—I left and came back.  I was seen about 7:00 o‘clock in the evening time.  There were probably a couple of guys left after I left out of there.

BARNICLE:  Boy, that‘s pretty good.  We should note that the Army issued a statement that reads, in part, “In the majority of cases, more than two thirds of the cases, the soldiers were either sent for further evaluation or to a specialist for an ongoing workup or care.  However, during the course of these seek (ph) screenings, a few of these profiles were determined to be outside the medical command and Army regulation guidance and were changed in order to more clearly reflect the soldier‘s capabilities to perform his or her assigned duties.  Specifically, Army regulation 4501 states that profiles should not make blanket statements such as ‘non-deployable.‘  This was not an effort to increase the number of deployable soldiers.  No soldier was purposely put at increased risk.  Soldiers are only being deployed within their medical limitations.  At no time did commanders pressure the medical providers to change profile limitations.”

Sergeant, were you afraid to speak on the record?  You spoke on the record to Mark.  Were you afraid of any lash-back at you?

JENKINS:  Well, I‘m concerned about reprisal, you know, but this is something that—this is about taking care of soldiers.  And you know, this is what I‘ve done my whole career.  And for me to go in there and have this happened to me, and you know, my profile was adjusted or changed, and that was not the correct thing to do.  So yeah, I had a big problem with that.  And a lot of soldiers, like I say, they can‘t speak out.  And I‘m not saying I‘m the advocate for this.  Like I say, I was just a guy that was approached and I had a situation that occurred, and I spoke out about it.  And yes, I do have concerns, though.

BARNICLE:  Mark, any sense in your reporting that returning veterans from Iraq and/or Afghanistan now lined up to go back for another tour of Iraq or Afghanistan, perhaps suffering from PTSD—are they being redeployed back into a theater of war, even though some of them might obviously have PTSD?

BENJAMIN:  I didn‘t—most of the soldiers that I met at Fort Benning were suffering from musculoskeletal problems.  You know, some of them had injuries from previous tours in Iraq.  And I did not see post-traumatic stress disorder soldiers being sent back.  I would say that I believe “The Hartford Courant” has done some reporting on that issue and did seem to suggest that there were people with post-traumatic stress disorder being sent into—back to Iraq.

And I just wanted to add—you know, the Army is not disputing—when I interviewed the brigade commander here, he‘s not disputing that he is sending people back to Iraq with some of these problems.  What he‘s saying is, I‘ll put them behind a desk and they‘ll be safe.  The soldiers, frankly, just don‘t buy it.  I mean, they‘ve been to Iraq before, and there are not that many safe places.

The only thing that is under debate here is when the—when the command brought 75 soldiers to the troop medical clinic on February 15, lined them up in a line and brought them into a room—these are people that doctors had previously in some case said, You can‘t go to Iraq—and changed that decision—was that OK?  That‘s the only—that‘s the only dispute that remains in this particular story that I‘m ware of.

BARNICLE:  Sergeant Jenkins, do you think it‘s just the Army trying to make the numbers here?

JENKINS:  That is something that I really—I‘m not sure about.  Like I say, I know what I dealt with and what I went through and as far as anything else above that, I‘m not sure.  That‘s nothing I can comment on.

BARNICLE:  What do you think your future is with the Army?  What do you want it to be?

JENKINS:  I‘m going through a medical board.  More than likely, I‘ll be out of the Army within 70 days.  And I‘m still—you know, I have appointments ongoing.  I have appointments tomorrow.  And my division installation (ph) general—excuse me—inspector general‘s office is inquiring about my processing right now.  I received a call yesterday.  And so I‘m ongoing with that.  My career is done.

BARNICLE:  Mark, do you get the sense from your initial reporting here that it‘s more than just the 3rd Infantry Division, more than just Fort Benning?

BENJAMIN:  That is such a good question, Mike.  And at this point, I have to say that we just don‘t know.  We do know that the 3rd Infantry Division is under—is under extreme stress.  They‘re on accelerated deployment.  They‘re part of this surge.  There are 3,900 troops there that are part of this surge, and we just don‘t know, frankly, whether it‘s across the 3rd Infantry Division, across the Army.  But the Army is under real serious stress.

BARNICLE:  Sergeant Jenkins, we want to thank you very much for your service.  Mark...

JENKINS:  I‘d like to add one thing?

BARNICLE:  Sure.

JENKINS:  I‘d like to add one thing before we end this.  To the soldiers of the 3rd Brigade that are over there who are very professional soldiers, be safe, and we‘re waiting for your return home.

BARNICLE:  Sergeant Jenkins, Mark Benjamin, thanks very much.

Play HARDBALL with us again on Thursday.  We‘ll see you then.

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

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2007 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2007 Voxant, Inc. (www.voxant.com) ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

               

               

transcript

Watch Hardball each weeknight at 5 & 7 p.m. ET

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,