updated 3/19/2007 11:16:03 AM ET 2007-03-19T15:16:03

Guests: Ron Brownstein, David Rivkin, Robert Raben, Matt Cooper, Sen. Mark Pryor, John Fund

DAVID GREGORY, GUEST HOST:  Former federal prosecutors say they were fired for political reasons. 

Former CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson breaks her four-year silence and tells Congress she was outed in 2003 for—quote—“purely political reasons.” 

The White House says they are wrong.  So, who is right? 

Let‘s play HARDBALL.   

Good evening everyone.  I am David Gregory, in for Chris Matthews again tonight.

The story rocking Washington all week is the Justice Department‘s firing of eight U.S. attorneys.  Tonight, we‘re going to zero in on the real questions in this case.  Was anyone fired for political reasons?  Were any of the investigations interrupted?  Did Attorney General Alberto Gonzales deliberately misrepresent the facts to Congress?  Or is all of this just a case of a bungled affair? 

Also, was top White House adviser Karl Rove involved in the firing? 

And, if so, is that important? 

The Democrats are calling on the president to fire Gonzales.  But would that really resolve this problem? 

This much, we do know.  Two months ago, the attorney general told senators, “I would never, ever make a change in a United States attorney position for political reasons.”

But, last week, fired U.S. attorneys said they believe they were ousted for political reasons.  And Gonzales, after his chief of staff resigned, admitted—quote—“Mistakes were made” in the handling of all of this.

We will get into these questions in just a moment. 

Plus, Valerie Plame Wilson, the mysterious spy at the center of the CIA leak case, spoke out today, under oath. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VALERIE PLAME WILSON, FORMER EMPLOYEE AT THE CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE

AGENCY:  My name and identity were carelessly and recklessly abused by senior government officials in both the White House and the State Department.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  HARDBALL‘s David Shuster will have a report on her testimony coming up. 

But we begin with the firing of the U.S. attorneys and the story that keeps growing.

NBC News justice correspondent Pete Williams has been covering it all week. 

Pete, thanks for joining us again tonight. 

PETE WILLIAMS, NBC JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT:  You bet. 

GREGORY:  Let‘s start with the White House, and Tony Snow saying today that recollections within the White House are a bit fuzzier now on where all of this originated. 

WILLIAMS:  That is right. 

Earlier this week, David, Tony Snow told reports that it was Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel, who first came up with this idea about getting rid of all the 93 U.S. attorneys, presumably to bring in new faces and start over again, just as you would at the beginning of an administration. 

And Alberto Gonzales said, when he heard about that, he thought it was a bad idea.  So, the clear implication from the White House was, and the flat-out statement was, this was Harriet Miers‘ idea. 

This story has been changing a little bit.  Now Tony Snow says, well, recollections are—Karl Rove‘s recollections are that he first heard about it from Harriet Miers.  But now they can‘t be sure who first thought this up. 

GREGORY:  It is interesting if—it really doesn‘t matter if anybody within the White House suggested firing all the U.S. attorneys.  There is precedent for it.  The Clinton administration did the same thing.  These are political jobs. 

Why is the White House making such an effort to say that Karl Rove thought that was a bad idea?

WILLIAMS:  Well, because there are several issues here.

First of all, one is getting the story straight.  Who really did think this up?  Whether you think it is important or not, it is probably important to get it right.

Secondly, the White House is saying, OK, here in ‘05, late ‘05, ‘06, right after the president is reelected, before he takes the oath a second time, White House people are talking about changing over all the U.S.  attorneys, which they can clearly do, because all the U.S. attorneys are political appointees. 

And the White House is saying:  That is all it was.  Bring in new faces.  We can do that—nothing improper about that.

What the Democrats are saying is, yes, but, if you go back down the line, at some point, at least for some of these seven, it did become political, they believe.  Some of the seven believe they were fired for political reasons, improper ones, pressuring them to either go easier on Republicans or tougher on Democrats, which is their claim. 

So, somewhere in between, they say, something happened.  And they want to—the Democrats want to trace it back as far as they can.  And, if the idea originated in the White House, they want to know what the motives were at the time.  And that is why they say it is important to find out. 

GREGORY:  All right, Peter Williams, thanks very much.  We will stay on top of this. 

WILLIAMS:  You bet.

GREGORY:  Robert Raben is a former assistant general attorney who had the responsibility of getting U.S. attorneys and judges confirmed in the Clinton administration.  And David Rivkin is a former Justice Department official during the Reagan years. 

Welcome to both of you.

Robert, let me start with you.

ROBERT RABEN, FORMER ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL:  Thank you. 

GREGORY:  The real question here is about the politics.  Of course these are political jobs.  So, if they‘re fired, it is for political reasons. 

But were they—were the firings, were the dismissals politicized in this case?  Were they done for political reasons other than them just being appointees?

RABEN:  I think it‘s worse than that.  It‘s clear that it was politicized.  It‘s clear that it was inappropriately politicized.  And now you have got some very sad bungling.  It‘s going to be a long weekend at the White House. 

GREGORY:  What is the proof, though, that these were actually politicized dismissals—dismissals, firings based on partisan politics?

RABEN:  You have got e-mails from the chief of staff to—chief of staff of the Department of Justice to the White House, in beautiful grammar, meaning that they were well-thought-out e-mails, talking about who is a loyal Bushie and who is not. 

Eighty percent are probably loyal Bushies.  Fifteen to 20 percent...

GREGORY:  This is Kyle Sampson, who is writing to lawyers in the White House counsel‘s office. 

RABEN:  Who was the first official at the Department of Justice thrown under the bus in this debacle.  I expect there to be more in the next few days.  It‘s very, very, very serious.

GREGORY:  Is that serious, in your mind? 

DAVID RIVKIN, FORMER ASSOCIATE WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL:  It‘s a purely political problem, no—no pun intended. 

But let‘s be clear about something.  There is nothing wrong with looking at political loyalty, which is a synonym for the affinity for the same policy preferences, the present attorney general has.  There is nothing wrong with that.  The whole reason—excuse me—the whole reason the 93 attorneys were summarily dismissed by Bill Clinton is because he critically surmised they would not have his same policy priorities. 

If you spend the first term in office, and you discover that a portion of the people working for you, be it the Department of Agriculture or Department of Justice, are not in tune with policy priorities on the key issues, things like prosecuting voter fraud, things like prosecuting immigration law violations, what is wrong with trying to move them out? 

Remember, these are not only people who work for you.  You are blamed if their policy agenda does not match your own. 

GREGORY:  Then why not explain it?  If you are the Justice Department, why not clearly say, these are people who didn‘t fit with our priorities?   

RIVKIN:  I cannot with you agree more. 

But the—let‘s be clear.  It is a bungling.  It‘s botching.  But it all occurred on the explanation side.  This is not even like a Libby affair. 

(CROSSTALK)

RIVKIN:  There is nothing that is underlying here that is fundamentally wrong. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Robert, David says it‘s all in the explanation.

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  How does one know that?

RABEN:  Clearly, the explanation is terrible.  And I—and I wish them luck in getting their story together better.  I hope that happens for them. 

Here is the problem, and here is why it is different.  This administration appropriately tells us that the number-one priority of the Department of Justice is defending us, defending us from terrorism, defending us from threats abroad and here. 

You have firings of U.S. attorneys that appear to be about whether or not they took enough voting fraud cases, appear to be about whether or not they pursued Republican and Democratic corrupt officials in the same way.  What happened to terrorism?  What happened to that being the number-one priority? 

I think, if the—if the Department of Justice or the White House came out and said that these U.S. attorneys weren‘t serious about defending our streets, about defending us from—from attack from abroad, we would have a very serious performance issue. 

RIVKIN:  That is...

RABEN:  But that is not what is going on here.

RIVKIN:  Terrorism is very important.  But allegations of voter fraud

and we should not be partisan about it—go to the very heart of the integrity of our electoral system. 

These are—allegations like this is what undermines people‘s faith in government.  I cannot imagine any serious Democrat suggesting, where we have voter intimidation, or voter fraud, felons voting, dead people voting, that that is not worth investigating.

GREGORY:  All right.  But—but this gets to the heart of the matter. 

I mean, David Iglesias, who is the U.S. attorney in New Mexico, is pursuing cases of voter fraud, and the senator from New Mexico, Pete Domenici, calls him personally.  I know a lot of prosecutors would say, that is just not done. 

RIVKIN:  That is...

GREGORY:  You don‘t call directly and ask if—if there is going to be an indictment by November, by the election.

RIVKIN:  You are absolutely right.  If that call took place in that particular mode, it‘s inappropriate, in my opinion.

GREGORY:  Does anybody deny it took place? 

RABEN:  It‘s not if.  It did take place. 

RIVKIN:  But exactly what was said?

But this is a matter for Congress policing themselves.  But let me just remind you that those things have occurred before.  I recall very vividly that a number of senior people in the House, including John Dingell, back in Bush 41 and back in Reagan administration—I have personal knowledge of it—would consistently go to the Department of Justice officials in the Environment Division, Antitrust Division, and say: 

Why aren‘t you prosecuting polluters more?  Why are you letting go...

RABEN:  That‘s entirely different.

RIVKIN:  No, no.  Why are you going easy on this company?  Why are you not being harder? 

My point is, it is common for members of Congress—unfortunate, in my opinion, but common for members of Congress—to try to impact the way that prosecutorial discretion is being exercised. 

GREGORY:  Robert, let me—let me put this pressure point to you, which is, even if there is a lot of smoke, even if there is talk about gumming up the works, running out the clock when it comes to getting their people in, or a loyalty test for some of the—the Bushies, as Kyle Sampson refers to them, that is a separate matter from being able to demonstrate that there was actually political pressure to hamper any of these investigations that—that were—may have been ongoing when these U.S. attorneys were discussed. 

RABEN:  When a United States senator who has the seniority of almost 30 years and is a political powerhouse in your state calls you up to ask the specifics of a particular prosecution, that is pressure. 

If they‘re calling on a status check, if they‘re calling to know if the brief is going to be filed on time...

GREGORY:  They would have a staff member do it.

RABEN:  That‘s right.  And they don‘t need to speak to the U.S.  attorney. 

Now, U.S. attorneys are grownups.  They‘re confirmed by the Senate.  None of them is a wallflower.  It is inappropriate for an elected official, of any stature, to call up a prosecutor and imply that:  Your relationship with me and your future in this state is dependent on the course of a particular prosecution. 

It is a horrible, horrible precedent.  Whenever it happens, it is wrong. 

RIVKIN:  I will stipulate to that.  But let‘s be clear.  These are apples and oranges. 

Those calls, to the extent they took place, had nothing to do—these individuals who were dismissed. 

Now, what may have happened is, you have a member of Congress calling and perhaps...

GREGORY:  But how do you know why—I mean, this is the problem.  How does anybody know why they were really dismissed?  Because there isn‘t a straight answer on that.

(CROSSTALK)

RIVKIN:  In fact, your introduction shows that there was a lead-in, long lead time process, going back to the 2004 elections. 

What is ironic here is, there was an idea, let‘s inject new blood—not ridiculous, by the way.  People do it all the time.  Jimmy Carter, two years into his presidency, asked all his Cabinet for resignations, and fired about half of his Cabinet. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  And why is that different even than what Bill Clinton did, getting rid of all the U.S. attorneys, which caused a stir at the time? 

(CROSSTALK)

RABEN:  We‘re at war.  We‘re defending against terrorism.  This department says that it‘s number-one priority.

These U.S. attorney generals come up a learning curve.  They manage scores and scores of attorneys.  They have got cases going through the pipeline.  It‘s wholly inappropriate to jettison all the leaders in your division. 

Now, if we are talking about the agriculture export control board, which I made up, people traveling around the country, promoting, that is one thing.  Go ahead.  Give a political position.  Give new people. 

(CROSSTALK)

RABEN:  But what you have here, I think, is political people at the White House, and possibly the Department of Justice, saying:  You know, I need a fresh face in so-and-so state, Arkansas, to get a couple of years of headlines, so that we can put them in the political pipeline and go run for office.  That is a terrible abuse of the process. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  All right.  We‘re going to..

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  We‘re going to take a quick break.  Both of you are coming back, if you would—Robert Raben and David Rivkin staying with us. 

And later on: Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor, who says Attorney General Gonzales lied to him.  We will get into the question of whether Gonzales should stay or go, as we continue.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Coming up:  Senator Mark Pryor says Attorney General Gonzales lied to him.  Will Democrats let Gonzales keep his job?

When HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

We‘re back with former Assistant Attorney General Robert Raben and former Justice Department official David Rivkin. 

Let‘s talk about where the White House is on this.  At end of this week, the White House still has not decided whether they are going to let White House officials go and testify on Capitol Hill.  Chuck Schumer is saying it is disappointing the White House is not coming forward with their plan to bring witnesses to testify. 

Fred Fielding, who is certainly an old hand in this town, is trying to negotiate with members of Congress. 

But it is amazing, isn‘t it, Robert, that they—that they would even send up the e-mails that got them in all this trouble in the first place from Kyle Sampson.  This has really made them look bad. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Why did they do that? 

RABEN:  It is unclear why they did that.  And it puts them in a very bad position. 

Obviously, a lot of information is out there directly contrary to what the attorney general and some—some lead officials had been saying about this.  So, that‘s a problem.  They now are all going to go back to Congress and explain who is on first. 

The other piece that you have—and this gets to be a—kind of a wonky piece of law—traditionally, the president will assert executive privilege, or the implication thereof, and say, you can‘t have this whole series of communications. 

Well, having shipped up a pile of e-mails already from the Department of Justice to the White House, it‘s going to be much harder for Rove and Bush and—and Fred Fielding, the White House counsel, to say to the Senate:  No, you can‘t have A, B, and C. 

It‘s going to be a long weekend at the White House. 

GREGORY:  Can Karl Rove fend off testimony on Capitol Hill?

RIVKIN:  Yes.  As a political matter, I agree with my colleague. 

As a constitutional matter, there is a difference between disgorging information and testifying in person.  If you are a senior official, an executive officer of the president, David, who has never been confirmed, you‘re in a different position, really, in the modern age of presidents.

Now, there have been a few instances where people testify.  What is interesting, in all those instances, there was an allegation of some underlying criminal wrongdoing. 

People do not testify in Rove‘s position, or White House counsel, or...

GREGORY:  Right. 

RIVKIN:  ... national security adviser, about policy and deliberative process. 

It has nothing to do with executive privilege.  This is an opportunity

for a president to get unfettered advice.  There are serious constitutional

what is ironic here is constitutional imperatives point in the opposite direction from political imperatives. 

I think, if Rove were to testify, it would help the administration buttress the case that this all a situation where it‘s much ado about nothing.  Constitutionally, it is problematic. 

GREGORY:  Rove has said—according to the White House, Rove‘s position was, the idea of firing all 93 was a bad idea.  What—what do Democrats want out of Rove?  What do they think is there?

RABEN:  Well, besides...

GREGORY:  By the way, the name Karl Rove, in Democratic circles, you know...

RABEN:  Yes, it is a possible this is a matter of politics.  The only thing better than having Karl Rove testify is having Karl Rove refuse to testify.

GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

RABEN:  Then—then folks get to run around and say what he might say.

Now, this White House, you know, Condi Rice is never going to testify.  She is never going to testify.  She is never going to testify.  Then she testified. 

GREGORY:  Right, 9/11 hearing.

RABEN:  So, it‘s a—it‘s a—it is a moving target.  They will do what they need to do to get back to what they consider...

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  You were saying this is real congressional oversight.  This group is not used to it.

RABEN:  Well, that—I actually think that is the big story here, that, for the first time in years, the Department of Justice and the White House is facing real congressional oversight. 

These are committed committee chairmen, with staff...

GREGORY:  Right. 

RABEN:  ... and counsel, that have a gavel, that have subpoena power, and they have the opportunity to ask the hard questions that have not been asked for a number of years.

If Republicans in the majority had hard questions of the White House, they asked them in private.  Now it‘s happening now in public.  And it‘s—it is a little precipitous for...

GREGORY:  All right. 

We are going to—we are going to leave it there. 

Thanks to both of you, Robert Raben and David Rivkin.

And up next:  Will White House officials be forced to testify, as we have been talking about here?  Will Alberto Gonzales survive this storm?  We will talk about it with Ron Brownstein of “The Los Angeles Times.” 

And, coming up later, HARDBALL‘s David Shuster reports on former CIA officer Valerie Plame—Valerie Plame Wilson‘s sworn testimony on Capitol Hill today, the first time we have heard from her, from Plame herself.  You‘re going to hear more coming up. 

You are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

So, how important is Karl Rove‘s role in the U.S. attorney firings?  Will the drumbeat for testimony from Rove and other top White House aides succeed? 

Ron Brownstein is the national affairs columnist for “The Los Angeles Times.”

Ron, good to see you. 

RON BROWNSTEIN, NATIONAL AFFAIRS COLUMNIST, “THE LOS ANGELES TIMES”: 

Hi, David.

GREGORY:  All right. 

So, tell me about the political climate on this whole story this week in Washington. 

BROWNSTEIN:  Well, I—I mean, this is really an example of the enormous sea change that we saw as a result of the election of ‘06.

For the first six years of the Bush administration, there was extraordinarily little congressional oversight.  The Republican majority essentially viewed itself as the junior partner in something approaching a parliamentary system, in which they were very reluctant to pursue issues that might cause embarrassment to the administration. 

And now you have Democrats with subpoena power.  And they are exercising it across a broad range of fronts.

GREGORY:  And this administration is not responding well. 

BROWNSTEIN:  Yes. 

GREGORY:  That‘s the president‘s own admission. 

BROWNSTEIN:  Right. 

GREGORY:  I mean, if you look at how do you handle some of the tougher questioning, it is not going well...

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  ... not on the part of Gonzales, not on the part of Justice Department officials.  The White House is changing its story from a couple of days ago. 

BROWNSTEIN:  These are muscles that have not been exercised. 

(CROSSTALK)   

BROWNSTEIN:  I mean, they have not been asked to provide this kind of documentation or answer these kinds of questions.  And I think that shows very clearly in the halting and confused way they are responding to this. 

GREGORY:  What is Karl Rove‘s role, as we know it at this point?  And does it matter? 

BROWNSTEIN:  Well, look, I think people get kind of overwrought about the fact that different arms of an administration talk to each other.  You would expect the White House to be talking to the Justice Department on matters of significance. 

I think the threshold question that we have to cross, and that your previous two guests were debating, was whether something improper was done or not.  I mean, I think you can get lost in kind of—often, in Washington, we do get lost in the details of who was talking to who when and so forth. 

The real question is, were these U.S. attorneys dismissed improperly?  Were they—was this beyond what is normally done?  Obviously, they serve at the pleasure of the president.

But I think most Americans would feel that, if they were dismissed because they went after targets the White House didn‘t want them to go after, or they didn‘t go after targets the White House did want them to go after, that that would cross a line.

GREGORY:  Right. 

BROWNSTEIN:  It‘s a murky line.

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  ... political interference...

BROWNSTEIN:  But there‘s a line.

GREGORY:  ... in the cases they were pursuing or were not pursuing?

BROWNSTEIN:  Right. 

GREGORY:  And—and—and was that the loyalty test for being a loyal Bushie, as Kyle Sampson wrote? 

BROWNSTEIN:  Yes. 

We have—we have—we have seen administrations—and, certainly, the Clinton administration did, and—and the Bush administration, a little more slowly—they replace U.S. attorneys at the beginning of the administration.  Reagan replaced virtually all of them as well.  It is not unusual. 

I think the question here is, were they replaced because of the decisions they were making on individual cases, and as a result of a White House judgment on whether or not their—their choices benefited or hurt Republican causes?

And I think that is the question that has to be examined.  And, until we cross that threshold, who talked to who when doesn‘t seem, to me, of great moment. 

GREGORY:  I have spoken to some White House officials this week who say, you know:  Nothing has changed on the question of whether Gonzales will resign.  We still have full confidence in Alberto Gonzales—which, by the way, doesn‘t respond to the question about whether he is going to resign. 

How do you read the president‘s response to this and the temperature, particularly among Republicans?

BROWNSTEIN:  Well, we certainly know the president does not like to be pushed into making decisions on personnel.  I mean, he resists enormously.

“I am the—I am the decider,” he said famously...

GREGORY:  Right. 

BROWNSTEIN:  ... when a chorus of generals told him to get rid of Don Rumsfeld. 

Alberto Gonzales is someone who has been very close to him for a long time.  I think he will resist on that sense.  He doesn‘t want to be seen as throwing someone to the wolves.

On the other hand, as others have said, his statements were less emphatic than they have been in the past, his statements about Gonzales.  You see nervousness among Republicans.  And one of the things Gonzales has a problem with is that you have Republicans from Democrat-trending states who are sticking with the president on Iraq and may be looking for a place to demonstrate independence.

And I think John Sununu in New Hampshire, a state that emphatically moved toward the Democrats, is a good example of that.  He called for Gonzales to resign.  He‘s not breaking with him on Iraq.  I think he wants to show something that—to prevent Democrats from saying he‘s in lockstep with the administration. 

GREGORY:  All right.  We‘re going to take a break here.  Ron is staying with us.

And, coming up next, HARDBALL‘s David Shuster reports on former CIA officer Valerie Wilson‘s testimony before Congress today—more on that when HARDBALL returns. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Today for the first time, the public finally heard the voice of the former CIA operative whose identity and covert status were at the center line of the CIA leak case.  Valerie Plame Wilson told her story today under oath on Capitol Hill.

HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster reports.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. HENRY WAXMAN (D-C), CHAIR, OVERSIGHT AND GOVERNMENT REFORM

COMMITTEE:  I‘d like to ask you to stand and raise your right hand.

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Testifying under oath, a hearing today marked Valerie Wilson‘s first public statement since administration officials leaked her status to reporters nearly four years ago.

VALERIE PLAME WILSON, FORMER CIA OPERATIVE:  My exposure arose from purely political motives..

SHUSTER:  Wilson accused the president, vice president and their top aides of being careless and reckless, and she attacked the claim that her outing could not have been a crime.  She testified her status at the time of the leak was covert, undercover and classified.

WILSON:  I also traveled to foreign countries on secret missions to find vital intelligence.

SHUSTER:  Wilson testified the CIA advised her just before her identity was compromised that columnist Bob Novak was planning to criticize her husband and that Novak had learned her CIA status.  While agency officials urged the columnist not to publish, Wilson testified, they also went into overdrive to minimize the potential fall-out.  Still, Wilson described the Novak column as shocking.

WILSON:  And I immediately thought of my family‘s safety, the agents, the networks that I had worked with.  And everything goes through your mind in an instant.

SHUSTER:  Evidence in the Scooter Libby case established that he and other White House officials leaked Wilson‘s status to undercut her husband‘s criticism that the war had been sold on false claims.  Four months after President Bush declared Saddam was seeking nuclear materials from Africa, Joe Wilson wrote this column about a CIA-sponsored trip he took to Niger, where he found the claims were false.

WILSON:  I did not recommend him.  I did not suggest him.  There was no nepotism involved.  I didn‘t have the authority.

SHUSTER:  Wilson said the CIA set up the mission following a query from the vice president‘s office.  But Wilson testified she was not the one at the CIA who first mentioned her husband, his diplomatic experience or his credentials for the mission.

WILSON:  My colleague suggested this idea.  And my supervisor turned to me and said, Well, hen you go home this evening, would you be willing to speak to your husband, ask him to come in to headquarters next week, and we‘ll discuss the options, see what we can do.  Of course.

SHUSTER:  Wilson said the false White House claim that she was involved was built around a CIA statement taken out of context about how her husband was notified.  Wilson attacked Senate Republicans for issuing a false report about her husband‘s trip, and she blasted President Bush and his top aide for throwing away her work and career.

WILSON:  Karl Rove was clearly involved in the leaking my name, and he still carries a security clearance to this day, despite the president‘s words to the contrary that he would immediately dismiss anyone who had anything to do with this.

SHUSTER:  The hearing provided great theater for House Democrats, who are trying to build on Scooter Libby‘s perjury convictions to hurt the Bush administration politically.  And Chairman Henry Waxman hammered the character of top officials involved in the leak case.

WAXMAN:  Did any of those people—the president, the vice president, Karl Rove or Scooter Libby, Ari Fleischer—did any of them ever call you and apologize to you?

WILSON:  No, Chairman.

WAXMAN:  None of them ever called you to express regrets?

WILSON:  No.

SHUSTER:  Committee Republicans defended the White House by summoning testimony from conservative legal analyst Victoria Toensing.  Toensing wrote a law for Congress 25 years ago related to the disclosure of CIA agents.  She testified that under the law, no administration official could have been charged with revealing Wilson‘s identity because Wilson was based at CIA headquarters and was not based overseas.  And despite Wilson‘s own testimony earlier, Toensing claimed that for legal purposes, Wilson was not covert.

VICTORIA TOENSING, FORMER CHIEF COUNSEL TO SENATE INTELLIGENCE

COMMITTEE:  I know what the intent of the act was.

WAXMAN:  I‘m not asking what the intent of the act was.  Do you know that she was not a covert agent?

TOENSING:  She‘s not a covert agent under the act.

WAXMAN:  OK.  SO...

SHUSTER:  But the verbal gymnastics prompted fireworks.

WAXMAN:  Do you know that the White House—no one in the White House leaked this information?

TOENSING:  Well, I don‘t even know how to deal with the work “leak” here.  I know that people in the White House...

WAXMAN:  Well, Karl Rove admitted he leaked it.  Do you think he‘s not telling us the truth?

TOENSING:  Well, the words are important, and I‘m not sure what...

WAXMAN:  Oh, so you want to completely define the word so there‘s so narrow a meaning that your statements can be credible, but not honest.

SHUSTER (on camera):  Hammering Toensing was important for Democrats because she‘s been a leading advocate on these issues for the White House.  In any case, this day really belonged to Valerie Wilson, who has now added her voice to the storyline that the Bush administration was willing to compromise intelligence and hurt the CIA if it would only help defend the case for war.

I‘m David Schuster for HARDBALL in Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREGORY:  David Shuster, thank you very much.

Back with us is Ron Brownstein of “The Los Angeles Times,” and joining us now is Matt Cooper, a former reporter with “Time” magazine, of course, who testified before the grand jury in the Valerie Plame case, and in the trial, of course, of Scooter Libby.  He now works for “Portfolio” magazine.  Matt, good to see you.

MATT COOPER, “PORTFOLIO”:  Good to see you, David.

GREGORY:  Let me start with you.  What did we learn from this testimony today?

COOPER:  Well, a few things, David.  Look, I think there‘s always been some question about exactly what her status was.  And you know, she was very clear today that she was covert.  And very importantly, she said that she had been out of the country in the last five years on work, on covert work for the CIA, and that...

GREGORY:  Which, by the way, is how you qualify under the Identities Protections Act.

COOPER:  That‘s right.  I mean, a lot of commentators have been very glib in saying, Oh, she‘s not been out of the country in the last five years.  She corrected that today.

I think it was—I think it was very powerful testimony, and that‘s leaving aside just, you know, how incredibly photogenic she is, how well she carried herself.  I thought, you know, when you add this in with the whole problem with the U.S. attorneys, this was quite a bad day for the White House.

GREGORY:  Ron?

BROWNSTEIN:  I don‘t know.  I mean, I think that she filled in some pieces of the story, but I‘m not really sure where we—what we actually advance in terms of public policy or choices before Congress.  I mean, I think the Democrats do have to be cautious and careful.  In the U.S.  attorneys matter, they‘re investigating something that obviously has tangible effects on what the administration has done and what it may do going forward.

In this case, it‘s not really clear what they‘re gaining by further

exploring this, other than playing to the blogosphere that is—Democratic

blogosphere, that is fascinated with this case.  And so, I mean, look,

Republicans point out correctly that the GOP majority—now looking back -

paid a price by seeming to persecute Clinton and focus on every possible area of investigation.  Democrats have to be cautious about what they do...

GREGORY:  Is there an accountability question, though, about the president saying, I will deal with anybody who leaked classified information?  He never said, Matt—he never said, I‘m going to deal with somebody who violated the Identities Protection Act, he said anybody who mishandled classified information.  Is that at what the heart of this hearing is all about?

COOPER:  Well, look, I disagree with Ron.  Look, there has been exactly one congressional hearing on this topic.  This is not at all equivalent to the myriad hearings you had in the ‘90s about various Clinton scandals.  Look, you‘ve had one hearing about the mishandling of classified intelligence.  And the fact is, look, you know, the vice president and Scooter Libby unilaterally decided to disseminate part of the National Intelligence Estimate.  Many people leaked Valerie Plame‘s identity, including to me, and as I heard at trial, possibility to you, David.  And I think that‘s a very legitimate topic.  It‘s hard—it‘s hard to say they‘re piling on if they‘ve had a sole hearing.

BROWNSTEIN:  No, I guess I was saying—I wasn‘t—I wasn‘t suggesting they were overdoing—they‘ve been poring over this obsessively, but they have a lot of different investigations now under way of the administration after six years in which there was, as I said, virtually no congressional oversight.  And I think they have to be careful about picking their shots and focusing on the things that have the most direct impact on policies that affect the lives of the American people.

I guess I felt today I wasn‘t sure what they were doing here except feeding what has been a tremendous concern of Democrat activists.  Last summer, there was an interesting moment at that Daily Kos annual convention.  Joseph Wilson appeared on a panel with several bloggers and he said, You know, I‘m sitting here in a room with people who know more about this case than I do.  There‘s no doubt that there‘s great interest among—about this among Democrats.

But what are they—what is the benefit to the country right now of focusing on this further?  I‘m not sure they fully answered that today.

GREGORY:  But as a—whatever the peril, as a political matter, is the president going to be pressured to account at some level for his very harsh statements about anybody who peddled classified information to discredit a war critic?

COOPER:  You know, I think it‘s—it puts a little more heat on him.  And look, it‘s not all, you know, ancient history today.  Look, I mean, one, you‘ve got an issue with Valerie Plame trying to write her book and the CIA saying she can‘t, that she might disclose that she was classified, which seems sort of absurd at this point.

And second, you know, I think he‘s still going to have to answer questions about Rove at some point and why—you know, what happened with Rove.  So I don‘t know.  I think it—you know, I think it does accrue to the Democrats‘ benefit.  I don‘t think it was just a pander to the far left and—but we‘ll see how it plays out.

GREGORY:  There‘s also this question of security clearance, too, for officials like Karl Rove.  Did he, did others do their due diligence?  If they were going to deal in this kind of information about Valerie Plame, did they go that extra mile to find out whether she was—you know, covert or not?

BROWNSTEIN:  And in fact, that was one of the interesting things about the hearing today was the White House official testified that the normal investigation—that an investigation into the disclosure of classified information was not undertaken.  Now, Republicans argue there were reasons for that.  But that is—and that they might, in fact, go back and do that.

Look, I don‘t dispute that there‘s a real issue here.  I guess I‘m questioning—Democrats have to choose their battles to where they‘re going to focus their investigative and legislative energy, and I‘m just not sure this is something that is at the top of the mind, at this point, with the Libby case decided for most Americans.

GREGORY:  All right.

COOPER:  But the Libby pardon‘s not decided.

GREGORY:  The Libby pardon‘s not decided.  Do you think that‘s a foregone conclusion, Matt?  Do you think...

COOPER:  No, I don‘t think it is, by any means.  Look, it‘s at the sole discretion of the president, but he‘s been loath to give too many pardons in the past.  So I wouldn‘t at all bet that he will give on.  And I think the more that there is a human face to Valerie Plame, you know, I think it puts a little more pressure on him not to.  But you know, who knows.

GREGORY:  All right, we‘re going to leave it there.  Thanks to Ron Brownstein and Matt Cooper.

Coming up next, more on the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys.  We‘ll talk to Arkansas senator Mark Pryor, who says Attorney General Gonzales lied to him.

This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARK PRYOR (D), ARKANSAS:  When the attorney general lies to a United States senator, I think it‘s time for that attorney general to go.  And again, he not only lied to me as a person, but when he lied to me, he lied to the Senate and he lied to the people I represent.  And for that reason, I‘m asking him and demanding that he resign today.  Thank you, Mr.  President.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  That was Arkansas senator Mark Pryor speaking on Thursday.  One of the eight fired U.S. attorneys, Bud Cummins, was based in Little Rock.  He was on this program last night.  Senator Pryor joins us now to discuss what questions remained unanswered and why he thinks Attorney General Gonzales should go.  Senator, welcome.

PRYOR:  Thank you.  Thanks for having me.

GREGORY:  What was the lie that Gonzales told you?

PRYOR:  I had a couple of telephone calls with Attorney General Gonzales, and in those calls, he assured me that he was going to send Tim Griffin through the normal confirmation process.  He assured me he was going to nominate him and send him through the process.  Over and over we talked about this.  When we get the e-mails that were released this week...

GREGORY:  By his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson.

PRYOR:  ... by his chief of staff, it is very, very clear that he—they purposely were telling me that.  In fact, it says, Let‘s gum this to death.  Let‘s run out the clock.  And that‘s exactly what they were doing.

GREGORY:  To what end?

PRYOR:  It was almost as if he was reading that e-mail when he was talking to me on the phone.  And so he had no intention of ever nominating Tim Griffin.

GREGORY:  That—in other words, he didn‘t have any intention of providing any other alternative for you.  He wanted—he was going to muscle Tim Griffin in, is your point.

PRYOR:  Absolutely.  He did the interim appointment, which—by the way, this all started really over the summer, when we started hearing rumors in Little Rock that Bud Cumins was being forced out and Tim Griffin was coming in.  In one of the e-mails over the summer, it says, We have a senator problem in Arkansas.  Well, I‘m the senator problem.

And so—I‘ve been working on this behind the scenes for a long time.  Finally, I call him in December and say, Look, I‘m not saying I‘ll ever support Tim Griffin.  I may or may not.  I don‘t know.  I don‘t know enough about him.  But please nominate him and send him through the process.  I don‘t want a recess appointment.

At that point, I thought we were talking about a recess appointment.  I didn‘t even realize that they had snuck this provision in the Patriot Act.

GREGORY:  That basically allowed the president to nominate Tim Griffin, in this case, and sidestep the nomination process.

PRYOR:  Well, actually—yes.  What the Patriot Act provision is, it‘s not to nominate but actually to appoint...

GREGORY:  Appoint.  Right.

PRYOR:  ... on an interim basis, so there is no Senate confirmation.  And when you really look at the memos, when you look at them all together over the last year or so, it‘s very clear that they had a plan and a scheme to do just that.

GREGORY:  But you‘re not naive about—this is a political process.  But your point is that the attorney general took it too far and there was actually communication about, you know, jimmying this whole process up here to basically sidestep you.

PRYOR:  Absolutely.  And listen, I‘ll be the first—I‘m a realist.  I know that there are a lot of U.S. attorneys out there that have been appointed for political reasons, and I‘m OK with that.  But the point is, nominate them and let them be confirmed by the Senate.  Let‘s make sure that they‘re the quality of lawyer and person that we want in the U.S.  attorney‘s office.

GREGORY:  Bud Cummins, who was on this program, said, Look, I understand why I was being removed.  It was to make room for Tim Griffin, who worked for Karl Rove, political adviser to the president.  It was basically a patronage job.  I get that.  And maybe Tim Griffin was being groomed for political reasons, to be an office holder one day.  But you know, this is how the game is played.

Again, what makes that a dismissible offense, in your mind, for the attorney general?

PRYOR:  Well, it‘s not so much that they decided to move Bud Cummins out and put Griffin in.  That really is fine.  If they had done just that, that‘s fine.  But again, nominate Tim Griffin, let him go through the process.

But then on top of that, they deliberately misled me and the Congress.  Now, again, up here, they may say deliberately deceived or purposefully misled, whatever they want to see.  But in Arkansas, we call that a lie.  When you tell—when you sit down in front of someone and tell them that you‘re going to do this—Oh, yes, we‘ll take care of it, we‘ll take this into consideration, we‘ll work with you—when we know now by e-mail they had no intention to ever do that, that‘s a lie.

GREGORY:  You don‘t trust the attorney general.

PRYOR:  He just—I‘ve just lost confidence in him.  You know, we‘ve had good relations in the past.  I voted for him.  I was one of six Democrat that voted to confirm him.  And I gave him a chance.  You know, I thought that, Let‘s let him—let‘s put him in that office and see how he does.  I think he‘ll be OK.  While  my colleagues thought he‘d be too close to the president and too loyal to the president.  And unfortunately, they were right.

You know, this is a position—the attorney general is a little different than most other cabinet-level secretaries.  It‘s in the Constitution.  And they should be all about the pursuit of justice.  Obviously, there‘s political—we know that.  But fundamentally, they should be about the pursuit of justice.  When you read these e-mails, you know he was about politics.

GREGORY:  There‘s about 30 seconds left.  Let me turn to the issue of Iraq.  This week, you were one of only three Democrats to vote against a measure proposed by Democrats that would set a timeline, a goal for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.  Why?

PRYOR:  Very, very tough decision there, but my position on that is I‘m opposed to a public timetable.  I think we ought to get out of Iraq.  I think we ought to work on that, and I think we ought to turn as much authority over to the Iraqis as quickly as possible.  I‘m opposed to the surge.  But I think it should be a classified timetable.  And we do that on our own terms.  It‘s just like in World War II.  The Germans knew we were coming at D-day.  They didn‘t know when and where.  I don‘t want to telegraph what we‘re doing to the other side.

GREGORY:  Do you think that, as we begin the fifth year of operations in Iraq, that the mission is salvageable, winnable?

PRYOR:  I hope it is.  I really have serious concerns about the surge.  I think the president is wrong on that.  I hope I‘m wrong.  I hope he‘s right, but—I hope he‘s right.  I want to succeed.  I have serious questions about whether we‘ll ever succeed in Iraq.

GREGORY:  All right.  Senator Mark Pryor, thank you very much for coming on the program this evening.

Up next, HARDBALLers John Fund and Ron Reagan on all the big developments of the week and in the race for 2008.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Hazy memories at the White House on who ordered the firing of U.S. attorneys.  Valerie Plame tells Congress her CIA cover was carelessly and recklessly blown to discredit her husband.  And will “Law and Order” TV star and former senator Fred Thompson take a run at the Oval Office?

Let‘s bring in the HARDBALLers, MSNBC analyst and radio talk show host Ron Reagan and John Fund of Opinionjournal.com.   Welcome to both of you.

RON REAGAN, MSNBC ANALYST, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  Thanks, David.

GREGORY:  Ron, let me start with you.  Is this U.S. attorney story going to get bigger or is it going to stay where it is?

REAGAN:  I think it‘s going to get a little bit bigger, at least, go a little bit deeper.  You know, there‘s illegal and there‘s improper.  I‘m not a lawyer.  I‘m not qualified to discuss the legality of any of this.  But I think the American public, when they see the big picture of this, not just the prosecutors but also the Plame affair, they will understand that while nothing illegal may have been done—it may be that nothing illegal has been done, but nevertheless, there‘s something very squirrely going on here.

GREGORY:  John, is this going to get bigger?  Is this—is there something more that we haven‘t found out yet?

JOHN FUND, OPINIONJOURNAL.COM:  With unlimited subpoenas, it has to get bigger.  I think the person in the biggest trouble is Pete Domenici, the senator for New Mexico, who‘s had to hire a big-time defense lawyer.

As for the U.S. attorneys issue, I don‘t think anything illegal has come up so far, but I‘ll tell you, it shows such manifest incompetence in the Justice Department.  Al Gonzales I know has the president‘s confidence, but he also has zero credibility on Capitol Hill now.  You know, the president said he‘s going to stick with him.  He also said he would stick with Harriet Miers, and we all know what eventually happened.  I think Al Gonzales may have so little credibility, he will have to go.

GREGORY:  Talk about Fred Thompson.  I know you interviewed him.  He‘s his toe into the water for the race.  Is he running?

FUND:  I think he‘s up to his ankle in the water.  I interviewed him last night.  My interview will be in “The Wall Street Journal” tomorrow.  And he said if he runs—he‘s not made up his mind—he will run a completely different kind of campaign, using the Internet, using all kinds of new technology, talking about issues in much more depth than his consultants would want, and he‘ll have a lot fewer consultants.

GREGORY:  Is he a conservative alternative?  Is he a strong candidate?

FUND:  He bridges two wings of the party.  He is a Howard Baker moderate.  That was his protege in Tennessee—I mean, his mentor in Tennessee.  But he also has a very conservative voting record.  I think—

Paul Weyrich, who runs Free Congress Foundation, says he‘s broadly acceptable, although not loved, by all elements of the Republican coalition.

GREGORY:  Ron Reagan, let me ask you something about politics, getting ready for the 2008 race, and the image of your father.  Here is “Time” magazine, and here is the cover of it, whether the right has—“How the right went wrong,” and a digitally remastered picture showing a tear.  How have you reacted to that and your family reacted to that?

REAGAN:  Oh, Well, you know, I take no offense to seeing my father on the cover of “Time” magazine.  I think it‘s an interesting point.  I think that he would feel and I know that a lot of conservatives feel that somehow the Bush administration and these Congresses of late have betrayed the conservative agenda.

As far as Fred Thompson goes, just to weigh in on that...

GREGORY:  Yes.

REAGAN:  ... you know, we‘ve seen—we‘ve seen actors move into politics and have some success.  This would be a case of somebody who was an actor, then went into politics and then went back to acting, and then came back into politics to take a run at the White House.  Ordinarily, I would say that he would probably not get into the race and that if he did, he would have very little chance.  But 60 percent—nearly 60 percent of Republicans say that they‘re dissatisfied with candidates choice—the choice of candidates they have.  And so maybe he‘s looking at that...

FUND:  David?

REAGAN:  ... and thinking, yes.

GREGORY:  Yes, John?

FUND:  James Carville told a trade association group in Washington this week he does not think the Republican candidate is someone who has yet announced.  And he says that candidate will also not be Newt Gingrich.  So a lot of consultants are looking at Thompson and saying he may defy the odds.

GREGORY:  It‘s interesting, some of the conversations we‘ve had on HARDBALL this week, some about Rudy Giuliani, the marriage issue, how many marriages he‘s had, how McCain‘s had, Mitt Romney‘s only had one,  Giuliani‘s son has come out and talked about their estranged relationship, and a lot of social conservatives, some on this program this week, saying, Look, there is a certain threshold, and three marriages is too many.

I mean, is that part of what‘s afflicting the Republican side this time, John?

FUND:  Well, I think both parties are looking for character.  One of the problems that Hillary Clinton has in the Democratic field is people view her as inauthentic.  Barack Obama‘s viewed as fresh and honest.  So both parties are looking for character, and I think in both cases, they look at the field and they say, Isn‘t there anything more?

(CROSSTALK)

REAGAN:  And it was a relatively small thing—since John brought up Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—but their reaction to Peter Pace‘s remarks about homosexuals...

GREGORY:  Right.

REAGAN:  ... didn‘t speak well to their authenticity and courage, I have to say.

GREGORY:  The Joint Chief of Staff saying that homosexuality...

REAGAN:  Immoral...

GREGORY:  ... is immoral.

REAGAN:  They basically punted when they were first asked that question and then, you know, went back to their offices and, I don‘t know, consulted a focus group or something...

FUND:  No profile in courage there.

REAGAN:  No profile in courage, no.

GREGORY:  All right.  We‘re going to leave it there.  Thanks to John Fund and Ron Reagan.

Be sure to watch MSNBC all day Monday for a special report, “Iraq War Begins: Four Years Later.”  It‘s a full day of coverage of the very start of the war and the four years since that day.  HARDBALL‘s guests on Monday include Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean.

Right now, it‘s time for “TUCKER.”  I‘m David Gregory.  Have a good weekend.

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

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