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'The Rachel Maddow Show'for Thursday, April 2, 2009

Read the transcript to the Thursday show

Guest: William Cohen, Michael Isikoff, Clifford Alexander, Vicky Ward, Andrea Mitchell


RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST:  Your former chief of staff, Colonel Wilkerson, said that battlefield vetting was poor before sending people to Guantanamo.  Were you one of the senior officials who was aware of that?

GEN. COLIN POWELL, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE:  I was aware that people were being picked up on the battle field and there was sufficient cause—at the point of pickup, there was sufficient cause for them to be detained.

We also picked up teenagers who after a while—these people can‘t be responsible for anything or guilty of anything.  We picked up one gentleman who was 93 years old who ended up there.

MADDOW:  Was there an internal debate about whether the 13-year-old boy or whether the 93-year-old man should be released?

POWELL:  Yes.  And we pressed on it and there were discussions to that, these issues, sometimes down to the individual case.

MADDOW:  Who was fighting to keep those people in?


ANDREA MITCHELL, GUEST HOST:  Good evening.  I‘m Andrea Mitchell live from London tonight while Rachel Maddow has the night off.

We‘ll have much more of Rachel‘s interview with General Colin Powell, including just who was pushing to keep old men and children in Guantanamo Bay and what he really thinks about the military‘s “Don‘t-ask, don‘t tell” policy.  That‘s all coming up.

But, first, it was a big day for big pronouncements, a lot of promises and even little hope for global unity in attacking the world‘s big economic problems.  Even the factious (ph) French played nice.  Now the 20 nations have to deliver on their pledges instead of all going home and going their separate ways.

But if the world‘s leaders assembled here are to be believed, the summit was a victory in the efforts to stave off a global economic depression.  British Prime Minister Gordon Brown hailed an unprecedented level of cooperation between the world‘s biggest economic powers.  And President Obama called the summit a turning point as world leaders try to turn the corner from recession to recovery.

The conclusion of today‘s summit marked the end of the first leg of President Obama‘s big eight-day trip to Europe.  It is his first appearance on the international stage as America‘s president.  It‘s also his first opportunity to field questions from a global audience.

Obama spoke to reporters from across the world for almost an hour today.  He likened the global economy to a sick patient, saying he thinks the G20 leaders have succeeded in prescribing the right medicine to stabilize the patient.  He acknowledged America‘s role in creating the crisis in the first place.

And he spoke directly to the American people about what these achievements in London will mean for Americans watching back home.


PRES. BARACK OBAMA, UNITED STATES:  Look, I‘m the president of the United States.  I‘m not the president of China.  I‘m not the president of Japan.  I‘m not the president of the other participants here.  And so, I have a direct responsibility to my constituents to make their lives better.  That‘s why they put me in there.

If I‘m effective as America‘s president right now, part of that effectiveness involves holding—providing Americans insight into how their self-interest is tied up with yours.  And that‘s an ongoing project because it‘s not always obvious.  This kind of coordination really is historic.

I said in the meeting that if you‘d imagined 10 years ago or 20 years ago or 30 years ago that you‘d have the leaders of Germany, France, China, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, a president of the United States named Obama, former adversaries, in some cases, former mortal enemies negotiating this swiftly on behalf of fixing the global economy, you would have said, that‘s crazy.  And yet it was happening and it happened with relatively little—relatively few hiccups.

I would like to think that with my election and the early decisions that we‘ve made, that you‘re starting to see some restoration of America‘s standing in the world.  And—although as you know, I always mistrust polls—international polls seem to indicate that you are seeing people more hopeful about America‘s leadership.

America is a critical actor and leader on the world stage and that we shouldn‘t be embarrassed about that.  But that we exercise our leadership best when we are listening; when we recognize that the world is a complicated place and that with are going to have to act in partnership with other countries; when we lead by example; when we show some element of humility and recognize that we may not always have the best answer.


MITCHELL:  So, what did President Obama and his fellow world leaders actually manage to accomplish here in London?  A pledge of an additional $1.1 trillion in financing to the International Monetary Fund and other global institution like the World Bank; a commitment to crack down on global tax havens and hedge funds; and the creation of a supervisory body that will sound the alarm in the future when it sees problems emerging in the global financial system—although some already suspect it really won‘t have teeth.

Even early critics of the summit like French President Nicolas Sarkozy though who threatened to walk out if he wasn‘t satisfied with the outcome said today‘s results were beyond his expectations.  Put aside some of the united front forward by all of the world leaders, as the summit ended today, what was accomplished and did President Obama achieve what he came here for?

Joining me now is William Cohen, the former defense secretary under President Clinton.  He is now chairman of the Cohen Group which has clients that do business in Afghanistan.

Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for joining us tonight.  And ...


MITCHELL:  You have attended an—well, you‘ve attended a number of these summits across the world, you‘ve been to NATO meetings, you‘ve been to these kinds of meetings.  How do you assess President Obama‘s first performance on the international stage?

COHEN:  I think you have to say it‘s been an unqualified success in terms of how he has presented himself, the way in which he has carried the burdens of the office, knowing that this is a much different world than perhaps we‘ve seen since World War II.  But I think that looking at it from this side of the ocean, it looked like he carried out that responsibility very well.

He has a difficult job.  The United States is playing in a bigger field now.  As he was pointing out, it‘s a much larger group of people and nations that are represented; it‘s not the G7 or G8, but A G20.  And getting 20 nations together to have a conversation and a dialogue about how we go forward with the financial crisis that we‘re facing globally and also the situation in Afghanistan, I think it‘s a—it was a major triumph for him on his first venture abroad.

MITCHELL:  There‘s an extra burden though as well, isn‘t there?  Because, first of all, there‘s resentment around the world—a lot of people blame America, say that we started it even though, you know, they bought into it.  They bought those subprimes, their banks as well.  But many people here in Europe blame in America.

So, he was humble.  He said he came to listen not to lecture.  And there was a dramatic contrast with his predecessor and the perceptions, at least here on this side of the ocean, that George W. Bush dictated and tried to order people around.

Was that the big thing, being humble and not trying to say that America has all the answers?

COHEN:  Well, he used the word “humility,” you know, some humility and also the willingness to listen.  I think the word “listen” rings very loudly in Europe and elsewhere.  I was recently in the Gulf area when he gave a speech on Al-Arabiya, and when he said that we were going to listen to other countries, that word itself “listen” resonated very loudly there.  And people were quite enthusiastic about the interview that he gave.

So, I think it‘s a change.  On the one hand, many have come to expect that the United States has been acting unilaterally.  And what President Obama has said is we are going to engage on a multilateral basis.  I think they very much welcome that.

MITCHELL:  Now, one of the things that struck me in having seen some of these economic summits before is that he also, at the same time, for the first time met his Russian counterpart, Medvedev, and had—his first meeting as well with the Chinese and there are a lot of economic and other strategic issues with the Chinese right now.  So, he was juggling a lot of balls.

COHEN:  Right.

MITCHELL:  Was that taking too much on or was that inevitable given that he was meeting with these people in one time?

COHEN:  No.  Well, that‘s why they have the G20.  And he was, I‘m sure, well-prepared for it.

I just returned from China.  I spent eight days in China meeting with most of the leadership throughout the country.

And, obviously, they are in a much stronger position today than ever before.  And they hold some $1.7 trillion of our debt.  They have about $2 trillion in foreign reserves.  So, they are in a much stronger economic position and they come there carrying considerable weight, and many other countries are looking to them in the future in terms of being a major global player.

So, he has got to take that into account along with Russia as a resurgent Russia, given the size of that country and the fact they have a country of vast resources.  Russia, China and others will continue to play a big role in the international arena.

MITCHELL:  Let me quickly ask you about North Korea, because there‘s an expectation that North Korea could launch a missile, a long-range missile as early as tomorrow.  There is not much that the U.S. can do.  They say that they‘ll have a stern response.  But they are talking about the United Nations and Pyongyang doesn‘t seem to be listening very much to the United Nations these days.

What do you think is up?  What do you think North Korea is doing?  Is this a succession issue?  Is this a failing and feebled dictator trying to get attention, jumping up and down?

COHEN:  Well, North Korea doesn‘t have much to offer the world in terms of being a role model for anything that‘s positive.  They have missile technology they are developing.  They‘re developing to have a nuclear weapons capability and they are really tossing that around and say, look at me.

They want attention.  They want to try to gain some concessions from the United States and others.  So, I think it‘s really an issue of them trying to draw attention to themselves at a time when the G20 are meeting and to say that we are here and we‘re still something of a player.

I think the United Nations, if it‘s going to be taken seriously, has to start enforcing its Security Council resolutions.  And this—clearly, this launch would be in violation of the Security Council resolutions and it calls for some consequence.  And if the United Nations is going to have any kind of reputation, they‘ve got to start enforcing the resolutions they pass.  Otherwise, they‘ll be ignored and, frankly, should be ignored if there is no consequence of what they passed.

MITCHELL:  All right.  We have to leave it there.  But thank you so much.  Former Defense Secretary William Cohen, good to see you.  Thank you for your time tonight.

COHEN:  Good to see you, Andrea.

MITCHELL:  And there is much more to come from here in London on the president‘s trip.

But next: Everyone‘s favorite impeached former governor is now an indicted former governor.  Rod Blagojevich is indicted late today on a 16-count corruption charge.  Details ahead.

And, first, One More Thing about the G20 and the fair degree of Obamamania here in London.  President Obama has kept a prolific number of appointments with world leaders on a myriad of subjects, presenting an array of power dynamics.

And then there was the dynamic when the president met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.  Unlike any other leader we know of, Prime Minister Singh asked for an autograph.  He told President Obama that his daughter wanted the president to sign something for her.  And ever the statesman, President Obama bought that line about the daughter without question.



OBAMA:  There‘s been a lot of comparison here about Bretton Woods.  Oh, well, you know, last time you saw the entire international architecture being remade.  Well, if it‘s just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy, you know, that‘s a—that‘s an easier negotiation.




MITCHELL:  Well, it was only a matter of time before he was back in the news.  He is the man whose foul language on a federal wiretap made his hard-to-pronounce name a household word—Rod Blagojevich.  And late today in Chicago, when federal grand jury returned, a 19-count criminal indictment including 16 felony counts against the former Illinois governor.  The charges include racketeering, conspiracy, wire fraud, extortion conspiracy, and making false statements.  He was not indicted for cursing.  That is not a criminal offense.

Five co-defendants including the former governor‘s brother and chief of staff were also charged.  Among the detailed allegations—holding up funding of a children‘s hospital for kickbacks, trying to (INAUDIBLE) journalists in return for state help on the sale of Wrigley Field, and attempting to sell Barack Obama‘s open Senate seat.  There were also previous unknown allegations, including an attempt to extort a U.S.  congressman for campaign cash by withholding a $2 million state grant to a public school in the congressman‘s district, cash for pork?  And allegedly lying when FBI agents came to question him.

Blagojevich‘s response, he says he is innocent but adds he is, quote, “saddened and hurt.”  It‘s unclear if another Blagojevich media blitz will ensue.  He has reportedly packed up his family and presumably his legendary hairbrush.  He‘s currently vacationing in Disney World.

Joining us now, “Newsweek” investigative correspondent and MSNBC contributor, Michael Isikoff.

Michael, thanks for joining us.

You can‘t make this stuff up.  There are a lot of newly public charges here included in this indictment.  It‘s not just about trying to sell President Obama‘s Senate seat, as though that would not be enough.  Walk me through some of the allegations that we didn‘t know about until today.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, NEWSWEEK:  Right.  Well, this is a—it‘s a historical—it‘s a sweeping historical indictment that alleges for the first time that Blagojevich, even before he became governor, when he was first campaigning for governor, orchestrated a scheme to basically use state government, run it as a criminal enterprise for the benefit of him and his co-conspirators.

Now, what‘s significant is who those co-conspirators are.  They include his chief of staff, John Harris, who is cooperating in the investigation, his chief counsel, his chief fund-raiser, his—and several of his political associates, his brother, among them.

So—and at one point, the indictment specifically alleges that this is the Blagojevich enterprise, essentially alleging that he ran the state as a criminal racketeering enterprise.  There are a whole host of allegations that are brought together from investigations that have been going on for the last four or five years by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, to extort campaign contributions, to, you know, pay-for-play and withhold state benefits for people who didn‘t play ball by coughing up money for the Blagojevich enterprise.

MITCHELL:  Michael, I know it takes a lot to surprise you.  You‘ve seen it all, but did the sheer volume and variety of these charges surprise you?

ISIKOFF:  Yes, a little bit.  We had all focused a lot on, you know, the sensational and salacious allegations that were unveiled in December when Fitzgerald was arrested.  You know, the talk on the tapes.  If anything Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney, played that down a bit in this—in this indictment, he doesn‘t repeat all the cursing that was on the tapes, doesn‘t repeat, you know, all of that verbatim that was so shocking, but does put it into the broader context of this continuing criminal enterprise to use the powers of state government to—for financial benefit—for financial benefit.

One kind of interesting new wrinkle was Blagojevich was actually interviewed by the FBI in 2005 when this investigation was first heating up, and was asked about some of the allegations, was asked.  And his answers were, he has a firewall between his campaign work and his state government.  He doesn‘t even keep track of who his campaign contributors are, pays no attention to that, and in light of everything that‘s come out since, one of the allegations in the indictment is he lied to the FBI when he made those statements.

MITCHELL:  Do you think he‘s going to go on another media tour or is he going to go underground now, now that all of these are laid out to the public?

ISIKOFF:  You know, look, with Blagojevich, it‘s—who knows what he might do.  He defied the counsel of his lawyers during the impeachment episode, went on the media tour, gave interviews to every—to every TV talk show host in the world, and, you know, obviously, that was not a smart legal strategy.  It didn‘t help him in the impeachment process before the Illinois legislature.

But you know, with a guy like this and with so much stacked against him here, who knows.  He obviously enjoys the limelight.  He was doing a radio talk show host just a few days ago in Chicago.  You know, he could do anything.

Is that going to help him in the end?  Is there any way he could get off given the volume of these—of the allegations here, given the tapes that the FBI has, given the cooperating witnesses including his chief of staff?  It seems highly doubtful.

MITCHELL:  All right.  “Newsweek” investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff on the Blagojevich beat tonight—thank you for joining us.

ISIKOFF:  Thank you, Andrea.

MITCHELL:  And still ahead, more of Rachel‘s exclusive interview with General Colin Powell.  Tonight, Rachel asks if Powell knew that innocent people were being sent to the prison in Guantanamo Bay.


MITCHELL:  Teenagers and a 93-year-old man locked up at Guantanamo Bay just because someone in the Bush administration believed that they had intelligence related to possible terrorism.  That revelation and much more from former Secretary of State Colin Powell in his exclusive interview with Rachel Maddow coming up.

But, first, it‘s time for a couple of RACHEL MADDOW specials, those holy mackerel stories in today‘s news.

Far from London, far from everywhere else to that matter, in Alaska today, 100 miles southwest of Anchorage, Mount Redoubt continues to send gas, steam and ash 14,000 feet into the air.  So far, the volcano has not caused any serious structural damage, but there is growing concern about the nearby Drift River Oil Terminal.  The terminal stores 6 million gallons of oil.  Now, if the volcano‘s refuse hit the oil the effects could be disastrous.

And finally, ThinkProgress is reporting that the Bush administration‘s Department of Homeland Security paid more than $15,000 to print and distribute books honoring “the boss,” Secretary Michael Chertoff.  The books were collections of Secretary Chertoff‘s speeches.  Now, I‘m sure they were great speeches, but they were, of course, all speeches that were already available online, free of charge.  Not a lot of money from the budget, $15,000, but not a lot of homeland security for the buck either.


MITCHELL:  Welcome back.  I‘m Andrea Mitchell in London sitting in for Rachel Maddow who is off tonight.  In a moment, we‘ll hear more from Rachel‘s interview with former Secretary of State Colin Powell including his response to allegations that top U.S. officials knew that innocent people were being held indefinitely at the Guantanamo Bay prison. 

First though, news today of America‘s policy of detaining prisoners overseas.  A federal judge has ruled that three non-Afghan prisoners being held at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan do have the right to challenge their detention in American courtrooms, a decision counter to arguments from both the Obama and Bush administrations. 

If that that ruling stands, it could mean major changes for President Obama‘s detention policy even as his administration works to shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay. 

Colin Powell was secretary of state when the prisoners from the war in Afghanistan first began arriving at the prison.  Here is Rachel‘s conversation with Gen. Powell about Guantanamo and the decisions that landed people there. 


RACHEL MADDOW, HOST, THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW (on camera):  Your former chief of staff Col. Wilkerson said that the battlefield vetting was poor before sending people to Guantanamo. And he has said - made a little bit of a splash recently - he has said that senior U.S. government officials understood the implications of that, that essentially Guantanamo was quite full of people who were basically innocent and should be released.  Were you one of the senior officials who was aware of that?

COLIN POWELL, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE:  I was aware that people were being picked up on the battlefield and there was sufficient cause at the point of pick up when they were interviewed by the GIs or the Afghans who turned them over to us or the Pakistanis who turned them over to us.  There was sufficient cause for them to be detained, either in Afghanistan or sent to Guantanamo Bay. 

Guantanamo Bay was a good solution initially because it was separate from the United States and we could sort our way through people.  But over time, it became clear that many of the people we picked up in Guantanamo Bay we really couldn‘t link them to terrorist activity. 

And as a result, many of them have been released. We‘re down to, you know, a number of 200 or so.  But at one time, we were up to 700 or 800.  Well, where did they go?  They were released over time as any intelligence value they might have was determined and no more intelligence value goal.

We also picked up teenagers who, after a while - these people can‘t be responsible for anything or guilty of anything.  We picked up one gentleman was 93 years old and he ended up there and we said, “Fellows, come on.  We‘ve got to send this guy back.  And so we worked that population down over time but ...

MADDOW:   But their initial resistance to those claims that there was an internal debate about whether the 13-year-old boy or whether the 93-year-old man should be released.

POWELL:  Yes.  Yes.  And we pressed on it, and there were discussions about these issues sometimes down to the individual case.  And ultimately, cases as obvious as that, the old man and the teenagers - they resolved and they were sent back home.

MADDOW:  Who‘s fighting to keep those people in?

POWELL:  There were people who wondered whether or not they still had some intelligence value even if they were 93 years old or 13 - did they know something about it?  Or were they involved? 

And it was not a trivial matter to make sure that if somebody did know something about it, you find out about it, regardless of age or anything else because you have to remember the post-9/11 environment. 

America and its leaders wanted to make sure that something like that didn‘t happen again.  But we found at a time that a lot of people had been swept up, and if you couldn‘t pass the test of them actually being combatants or a danger if they were released.  And so they were released. 

And now we‘re down to a much smaller population of a couple of hundred and we‘ll have to work our way through those.  I, for one, have advocated closing Guantanamo, not only since I left the position as secretary, but while I was secretary because I thought there were other ways to handle this in our civilian court system, with military courts-martial or through the Federal court system. 

And I felt we were paying too high a price for Guantanamo.  In terms of the public opinion around the world, we were losing. And frankly, the moral basis of our fight against terror was being undercut by Guantanamo and all the people who could point to Guantanamo and say, “Is this justice?” 

People have been there four, five, six - now seven years.  How long do you plan to keep them without doing something about it?  And so I‘ve always been one for doing something about Guantanamo.  And now, President Obama says he‘s going to have it closed by the end of the year. 

It doesn‘t mean they‘re all going to get released.  Some of them are really, really bad.  Well, let‘s put them in our court system.


POWELL:  We‘ve got 2 million people in jail in this country, the highest incarceration rate in the world.  All of them had lawyers.  All of them had access to a writ of habeas corpus and courts found them guilty and put them in jail. 

I‘m confident that even - although evidence may be not adequate or even tainted in some cases, as we know, I have confidence in our Federal court system.


MITCHELL:  Gen. Colin Powell went along with the “don‘t-ask, don‘t tell” policy that has put more than 12,000 service men and women out of work since its inception, including highly skilled Arab translators trained in Monterey, California who are desperately needed in Iraq. 

So what does Colin Powell think about that policy now?  He‘ll tell Rachel, next. 

But first, one more thing from Rachel‘s interview from Gen.

Powell and the war on terror. 


MADDOW:  The phrase “Global War on Terror” is apparently out with the old.  Secretary Clinton confirming that this week, the administration is not going to use that.  Do you think that‘s important?  Do you have an opinion on what we should call the wars?  Do you think the “War on Terror” phrase is appropriate?

POWELL:  I don‘t think I ever used it very much.  I just referred to terrorism.  We have a concept called terrorism and we have terrorists.  Now, let‘s get the terrorists.  And there are many ways to go after them.  You can go after them through police activity, through intelligence activity, by drying up the ponds in which they emerge and lots of ways.

And when you call it not only the “War on Terror” but the “Global War on Terror,” it took a connotation that this is a war that somehow would be won someday.  But we‘ve had terrorism throughout history and we‘ll continue to have terrorism in the future. 

We have to make sure that we are defending ourselves well and that we are going after terrorists and the sources of terrorism. 

And the sources of terrorism, the attack not just with armies and police forces, but with more increases in development assistance and foreign assistance funding so we can help people understand that if you stay away from this kind of activity, America will help you build an economy, create a democracy, alleviate poverty, give you clean water, help you and dry up these ponds from which terrorists emerge from time to time.


MITCHELL:  And Hillary Clinton said this week she doesn‘t use the word or the phrase “war on terror” either.  More of Rachel‘s interview when we come back.


MITCHELL:  Despite the overwhelming response that President Obama received here in London, the real star of the trip - well, that may very well turn out to be First Lady Michelle Obama.  Today, she visited a school in London and talk about rock star. 


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The first lady of the United States of America, Mrs. Michelle Obama. 


MICHELLE OBAMA, UNITED STATES FIRST LADY:  All of you are jewels.  You are precious and you touch my heart.  And it is important for the world to know that there are wonderful girls like you all over the world.  All over the world. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Michelle Obama hugged me! 


MITCHELL:  No wonder the British press have now dubbed her “Mighty Michelle.”



MITCHELL:  Back in January, when asked if President Obama would end the policy of “don‘t-ask, don‘t tell” for gays in the military, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said just one word.  Yes.  But as to when that might happen, well, the administration has seemed less certain. 


ROBERT GATES, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  I think the president and I feel like we‘ve got a lot on our plates right now.  Let‘s push that one down the road a little bit. 


MITCHELL:  As for the opinion of Colin Powell who advocated the original policy back in 1993 when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff - well, Rachel Maddow sat down with him yesterday to see what he thinks about it now. 


MADDOW:  Do you think that - do you still think that “Don‘t Ask, Don‘t Tell” is necessary for good order and discipline in the military?  You have discussed the idea that it should be reviewed.  Would you support the move if Congress decided to get rid of that policy?

POWELL:  If Congress decided to get rid of the policy and if the military leaders of the Armed Forces are a part of that, of course I would.  And if the president decided to do it, I would support the president.

In 1993 when this became an issue and President Clinton came in I was never given, nor was Secretary Aspin at that time ever given an instruction by President Clinton to get rid of the policy. 

We studied and came to a conclusion that at that time, in 1993, “don‘t ask, don‘t tell” was a pretty good solution for the moment.  I didn‘t want it to happen but Congress made it a law.  So it is not policy anymore, it is a law, and only the Congress can change it as Secretary Gates mentioned last week.

But it‘s 15 years later.  A lot has changed.  Attitudes have changed and so I think that is a time to review that policy and review it before congressional committees to see if a change of law is now appropriate. 

I am withholding judgment because I am not the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff anymore and I think we have to hear from our senior military leaders about the effect a change in the law would have on the force.  And if they came forward and said, “Let‘s do away with it or let‘s modify or change it,” that would mean a lot to me in terms of my point of view.  But ultimately it‘s going to have to go before the Congress as a law to be changed, not a policy to be changed.

MADDOW:  The examples of other countries that have successfully integrated openly gay people into their forces, are those good reference points for that sort of study?

POWELL:  Those are reference points that have to be taken into

account.  Sure, I would study every one of those cases.  Many of them have

happened since 1993 with a number of countries.  And I think all of those

should be looked at.  I don‘t think, however, the Armed Forces of the

United States is the same of the Armed Forces of one of our European

friends or Canadian friends

And therefore, as the courts have held traditionally over the years, and the Congress has as well, the military is a unique institution with rules and regulations and a way of living in close proximity of our soldiers and you‘re told whom you‘re going to live with.

That the military can have a set of regulation and rules that would not pass any kind of legal or constitutional muster if it was in civilian society.  And so I think because it is the quality of the force and the ability of the force to apply the nation‘s power wherever it‘s called upon to do so.  We have to be careful when we change this policy.

But if the military leaders think that enough time has passed since 1993 that we ought to take a look at this and perhaps change the policy, I‘ll be completely supportive.  But I‘m not going to make a judgment until I hear from the chiefs.


MITCHELL:  Gen. Colin Powell not alone though among military men in thinking that the policy should be re-evaluated. 

Our next guest thinks it should just be thrown out.  Joining me now is Clifford Alexander, former secretary of the Army under President Carter and the first African-American to hold that position and the former chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Johnson.  Secretary Alexander, thanks very much for joining us tonight. 


MITCHELL:  Why do you believe that repealing “don‘t-ask, don‘t-tell” is a good idea?  Thanks for being with us.

ALEXANDER:  “Don‘t ask, don‘t tell” is a little bit like having a bowl of bigotry surrounded by a curtain of silk.  It takes the basic integrity of a person and says you must forget it.  It turns people into liars. 

Would we ask, at this particular point, for a Muslim to act like a Jew when he was in the service?  Would we ask for a Buddhist to act like a Catholic?  It is the same kind of thing. 

It is in our country that every individual should be judged according to their skills, not their sexual preference, not their race, not their religion.  And so this has been an inconsistent foolish policy.  It should have been thrown out a long time ago. 

It is really something that not only affects the individuals who have to lie day by day as they serve our country and risk their lives, but it does affect their families.  It does affect colleagues in the service because some of them may know about it and not want to rat on their fellow service men and women. 

And I do think, Andrea, if you look at it this way, when I was secretary of the Army, I said about women - women in the army are soldiers in the army.  Gays in the army are soldiers in the army.  Straights in the army are soldiers in the army.  They should be judged according to what their MOS is - that is Military Occupational Skill. 

For us to pretend that somehow it is going to affect negatively the way our nation and brave men and women serve it is absolute nonsense. 

We do know they‘ve been thrown out -

MITCHELL:  One of the things -

ALEXANDER:  Go ahead. 

MITCHELL:  One of the things - sorry.  I didn‘t mean to interrupt you.  You know, 12,000 service members have lost their jobs since this policy was initiated in 1993.  And we do know one small instance perhaps, but one that I‘m aware of is the Arabic translators.  How has the military lost the service of effective people at a time when we need service members because of this policy? 

ALEXANDER:  Because it is a bigoted policy.  And we‘ve let bigotry overcome good sense.  We want to protect this country as best we can - all of its citizens, male and female, gay and straight.  It should never be a requirement that - we own to having it many, many years ago, that we would keep people out of the service because they were gay. 

I do think it is very important to get over this nonsense of let‘s study it.  There‘s nothing to study here.  The question really is, are we believers in the true tenets of democracy that judge people according to their skills, that individual talent is what we need within the service.  It might be an Arabic translator.  It might be any particular skill. 

Gays in this country have the same skills as straights in this country.  We have grown up and we‘ve started to realize that more and more, that we have been narrow-minded in the past. 

Let‘s not be narrow-minded in the future by delaying this.  Now, it is on our elected officials.  Let‘s not put everything in the White House.  There are 435 members of the House, and there are 100 members of the Senate, all of whom have responsibilities, I think, to look at this issue, and they could do it very soon. 

We are able to walk and chew gum at the same time.  So it is possible to look at this with some sense of urgency in the interest of democracy and in the interest of fairness and in the interest of the protection of our rights and the rights of all of the citizens of this country. 

MITCHELL:  Let me ask you though about a letter.  I want to share this with you and get your response.  More than 1,000 flag and general officers just wrote a letter to the president, reading in part, let me quote from it, “Our experience as military leaders leave us to have great concern about the impact that repeal of the “don‘t ask, don‘t tell” law would have on morale, discipline, unit cohesion and overall military readiness.  We believe that imposing this burden on our men and women in uniform would undermine recruiting and retention, impact leadership at all levels and eventually break the all-volunteer force.”  Let me get you to respond to that.  

ALEXANDER:  I think it‘s nonsense.  I do think people obviously have a right to their opinion as I do mine.  To just come to that conclusion without any evidence - and there is no evidence for this.  And if you look around the world, country after country has included all people in their service. 

Now, we really do have to treat this as a serious issue that faces individuals and individual rights.  And we also - to have a policy the same people who are writing that letter had within their units gays and lesbians because as we know, we have this ridiculous policy of “don‘t ask, don‘t tell.” 

So as long as it was not known what their sexual preference was, they were able to serve and did serve admirably. 

But now, let‘s take those of us who may or may not be straight.  Do we ask about what our sexual preference is before we go in and say yes or no on the basis of that?  Of course not.  So I do think if they want to be like lemmings to the sea, those who would sign a petition like this without evidence are acting without facts.  

MITCHELL:  All right.  Clifford Alexander, former secretary of the Army, by the way, whose daughter, Elizabeth, incidentally, composed and recited the inaugural poem on January 20th.  Mr. Alexander - Secretary Alexander, thank you very much for your time and insights tonight.  

ALEXANDER:  Well, thank you so much for having me on. 

MITCHELL:  Thank you.  And coming up on “COUNTDOWN”, Karl Rove‘s accusation that President Obama is using Chicago-style politics in the White House.  And did the first lady mess up royally or is it all too much ado about nothing?  That‘s up next here.

But first, one more thing about the Obama agenda.  Earlier tonight in Washington, the House of Representatives passed President Obama‘s budget.  The vote was 233 to 196.  Not a single Republican voted for it, and 20 of the president‘s fellow Democrats voted against it.   


MITCHELL:  And our cocktail moment tonight, possibly the most touching moment of the Obama stay in London.  The first lady and queen of England with their arms around each other.  The image sparked a flurry of speculation over whether Michelle Obama overstepped royal protocol. 

Even though in a tribute to her huge popularity here, the British tabs didn‘t seem to mind.  And Buckingham Palace said that the gesture was appropriate.  But it still calls to mind some other awkward moments in Anglo-American relations like when the podium being too tall during the queen‘s visit to the White House in 1991,so all anyone could see was a talking hat. 

Or when President George W. Bush winked at the queen two years ago, or when Mickey Rooney kissed her majesty‘s hands, or when President Ford asked her to dance in 1976 at the White House and the band launched into “The Lady is a Tramp.” 

Joining me now, Vicky Ward, a contributor to CNBC and “Vanity Fair” magazine.  Thank you for coming on the show. 


MITCHELL:  So given all of the other awkward moments that her majesty appears to have handled and suffered at the hands of we, Americans, is a half hug really all that bad? 

WARD:  The answer, I think, was written over her majesty‘s face.  She clearly loves the Obamas.  And you know, if she had been angry about it, we would have known. 

But I do think it was actually an important moment for Britain, in that - you know, we haven‘t seen warmth and hugs and physical closeness like this in the royal family since Princess Diana died. 

And in some ways, it was a great thing to see.  And here‘s why I don‘t think it was carelessness on the part of Michelle Obama - because nothing about what she said during her visit was careless. 

She talked about a council estate.  To most Americans who don‘t know what a council estate is, that‘s the equivalent of housing projects.  They gave very careful gifts to the queen - a song by Richard Rogers.  

MITCHELL:  The iPod? 

WARD:  Yes.  But the Richard Rogers - very few people know that the queen, who doesn‘t actually like ballet or the fine arts, does like easy on the ear musicals.  So they thought very carefully about this visit.

So I don‘t think that the fact that she put her arm around the queen was careless in any way.  I think it was a wonderful gesture.  I think it‘s broken the ice.  And I think set the tone for a great relationship between Britain and America going forward. 

MITCHELL:  And in fact, the BBC is reporting that the queen told Michelle Obama, quote, “Now that we‘ve met, will you please keep in touch?”  And that suggests a comfort level and a relaxed informality on both sides with being touched and having an arm around as well.  

WARD:  Absolutely.  And apparently, when they were arm-in-arm, they were discussing shoes which is an indication of two women who are very comfortable in each other‘s presence despite the gap in size.

MITCHELL:  President Obama is now the - exactly.  President Obama is 11th U.S. President her majesty Queen Elizabeth has met since ascending the throne.  How do you gauge her reaction to him stacking that up against other presidents? 

WARD:  Well, I thought the thing that was so interesting watching their meeting was the obvious joy on the face of the queen and Prince Philip, who are not known to be overtly emotional people, was really revealing.  And not just actually because it was different from their reaction to previous American presidents.  But also, they haven‘t sort of been as effusive about British leaders.  You know, Cherie Blair famously didn‘t get on with the queen.  I think (UNINTELLIGIBLE) - the Queen and Margaret Thatcher look at each other like that.  So it‘s fairly remarkable. 

MITCHELL:  It is remarkable.  Vicky Ward, contributor to CNBC and “Vanity Fair” magazine, a pleasure to have on the show.

WARD:  Thank you, Andrea.

MITCHELL:  And I‘m Andrea Mitchell in London tonight in for Rachel Maddow.  And she‘ll be back on this show tomorrow night.  And I‘ll be back tomorrow in Washington hosting “ANDREA MITCHELL REPORTS” at 1:00 Eastern right here on MSNBC.  “COUNTDOWN” with Keith Olbermann starts now. 



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