Guests: Richard Holbrooke, Michael Isikoff
RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: Thanks to you at home for staying with us for the next hour. We are indeed in Washington, D.C., tonight, because today I sat down with uber-diplomat Richard Holbrooke. We sat down this afternoon for what ended up being kind of an incredible interview. That interview is coming up shortly.
We begin tonight though with major developments in what had been one of the biggest scandals to rock the Gulf Coast region before the BP oil disaster came along. Less than a week after Hurricane Katrina struck the city of New Orleans, an NBC News camera crew was filming on a bridge over the Industrial Canal when they heard a commotion coming from the next bridge over.
Here‘s what NBC‘s cameras caught that day. Police officers in a rental truck not marked as a police vehicle firing their weapons at something. It‘s not clear what from the NBC crew‘s vantage point.
According to the version of events offered by the New Orleans police, officers had confronted a gang of armed men. Those men shot at the police first and the police had returned fire. You can hear just how much fire in that clip.
That was the story from the New Orleans police at the time. What emerged later was very different story. The people on the Danziger Bridge, it turns out, were unarmed. They were simply crossing the bridge to try to find food and a safe place to stay as New Orleans drowned.
A police call did say that officers were being shot at on the bridge, but officers weren‘t being shot at. Seven officers responded to that call and when the smoke cleared, two civilians were dead and four were wounded. None of the victims were armed.
In the years since the Danziger Bridge shooting, the officers stuck to their story that they fired in self-defense. But that version of events started to unravel earlier this year when some of their fellow officers started pleading guilty to helping cover up what really happened.
In April, Officer Michael Hunter became the latest to plead guilty to a cover-up that involved a planted gun, phony witnesses, falsified police reports, and lying to a state grand jury that had convened to investigate the case.
In the course of entering his guilty plea, prosecutors revealed Officer Hunter‘s own account of what happened after the police began firing that day. According to the account, quote: “Defendant Hunter saw several civilians who appeared to be unarmed, injured, and subdued. Sergeant A suddenly leaned over the concrete barrier, held out his assault rifle, and in a sweeping motion fired repeatedly at the civilians lying wounded on the ground.”
The account also describes what happened when the two officers drove to the other side of the bridge in pursuit of three men running away from the scene. One of them was a severely mentally disabled man named Ronald Madison.
Officer Hunter‘s account continues, quote: “Officer A, without warning, fired a shotgun at Ronald Madison‘s back as Madison ran away. As Ronald Madison laid dying on the pavement, Sergeant A ran down the bridge toward Ronald and asked an officer if Ronald was ‘one of them.‘ When the officer replied in the affirmative, Sergeant A began kicking or stomping Ronald Madison repeatedly with his foot.”
Ronald Madison later died, as did 17-year-old James Brissette. Four other people, all unarmed, were wounded that day. Murder charges were brought in the case initially, but those charges were dropped in 2008. And all of that led up to what happened today. Nearly five years after those shootings, Attorney General Eric Holder appeared in New Orleans to announce federal charges against six current and former New Orleans police officers.
Four of them were charged today with firing their weapons illegally, resulting in the deaths of James Brissette and Ronald Madison, as well as the wounding of four others. One of the officers, Sergeant Kenneth Bowen, was also accused of kicking and stomping Ronald Madison as he was dying.
Those four officers have also been charged with lying about the shootings and conspiring to falsely prosecute the brother of one of the victims. He was arrested at the scene but charges against him were later dropped.
If convicted of these federal charges, the four officers could face life in prison or even the death penalty if the Justice Department decides to pursue it. Two other police officers were also charged today with participating in the cover-up, including falsifying evidence and witness testimony, and planting a weapon at the scene.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ERIC HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Today marks an important step forward in administering justice, in healing community wounds, in improving public safety, and in restoring the public trust in this city‘s police department.
We will not tolerate wrongdoing by those who are sworn to protect the public. This will not stand.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: All six officers indicted today have now officially surrendered to federal authorities. The U.S. attorney in New Orleans considers them all to be flight risks and is pushing to have them all detained, i.e., jailed before their trial.
This is huge news for New Orleans. This is huge news for the nation still not yet come to terms with the aftermath of what really happened after Hurricane Katrina. We will keep you posted as this story develops.
MADDOW: If there were an award for the hardest job in U.S. government, Richard Holbrooke would be in the running just about every time. He right now is the country‘s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the subject of the interview tonight. That‘s coming up. Stay with us.
MADDOW: American and NATO troops are fighting, are in combat with insurgent fighters in Afghanistan. The coalition and U.S. death toll in June was as high as it has ever been in the war in Afghanistan. But it also seems clear that no one thinks the end game, the goal in Afghanistan is a battlefield victory.
What they say is that the goal is an Afghan government that serves its people and thereby crowds out the possibility of the Taliban coming back, and bringing al Qaeda with them. That‘s the goal. That‘s what we have said we would call success.
Beyond the military effort there, headed up, of course, by General Petraeus now, there is also our embassy, our ambassador there, former General Karl Eikenberry, and there is America‘s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, the man credited, of course, with brokering the end to the war in Bosnia, with the Dayton Peace Accords.
The larger-than-life old Washington hand who has been a diplomat for every Democratic administration in this country going back to JFK and the Vietnam War, the man who is now charged essentially with figuring out how this all ends in Afghanistan. I came to Washington today to sit down with Richard Holbrooke for the interview.
MADDOW: Mr. Ambassador, thanks very much for this time. I know that you are not only always busy, but in particular right now, you‘re really busy. So thank you.
RICHARD HOLBROOKE, U.S. SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR AFGHANISTAN AND
PAKISTAN: It‘s great to see. That was a great set of shows you did from Afghanistan.
MADDOW: Thank you.
HOLBROOKE: That was the best television from a war zone since Stephen Colbert went to Iraq.
MADDOW: That is very kind of you. Hi, Stephen!
HOLBROOKE: Well, you didn‘t shave your head.
HOLBROOKE: That‘s a big step forward.
MADDOW: Although I was hot enough that I sort of wanted to down in Kandahar. We had—I could see the desire. The desire was there.
HOLBROOKE: It is. Yes, I was there at the same time as you. It was pretty rough.
MADDOW: Now, you‘re on your way back to—you‘re on your way to Pakistan via Germany. You‘re on your way on another...
HOLBROOKE: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India, leaving tomorrow.
MADDOW: OK. When you are world-traveling right now, when you‘re doing your job right now, and you‘re visiting all of those different capitals, who are you trying to connect? Who are you trying to draw together? Who are trying to get to read from the same hymnal?
HOLBROOKE: Well, the first part of the trip in Germany is to strengthen the international alliance supporting the civilian side of the war. We don‘t have a civilian organization like NATO which is essentially a military organization. But the Germans lead the coordination effort.
When President Obama and Secretary Clinton gave me this job, there was no other special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now there are about 35, including seven Muslim countries, from Egypt to Malaysia. And the Germans coordinate this effort. So I go to Germany a lot.
Now, when I get to Afghanistan and Pakistan and India, it‘s a whole different thing. This outcome in Afghanistan will be shaped decisively by the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan for reasons that you have well reported on.
And the Pakistanis and the Afghans have a long, historical ambivalence, to put it mildly. In fact, on the day after Pakistan declared independence in August of 1947, the Afghans opposed their entry into the United Nations. That little fact is something every Pakistani is taught in school.
The border is unresolved. the Pashtun ethnic group, very large, flanks both sides of border. And so that historical relationship has been traditionally overlain with the drama of the last 30 years. And the relationships between Islamabad and Kabul were very, very bad.
When we came into office, President Obama instructed that one of the core goals should be to bring the two countries closer together. That‘s why I was given this job, because in the previous administration Afghanistan and Pakistan were handled separately in separate desks. They didn‘t coordinate.
And we‘re trying to get them to be more—closer to one another, building trust. It‘s a long, difficult process. So that will be part of a very large agenda in Pakistan.
In addition, we‘ve been trying to improve U.S. relations with Pakistan. We came in, U.S. popularity was at 9 percent, lowest in the world. It has gone up but not much. Hillary Clinton went there last October and did a spectacular job wading into the crowds, defending America, explaining what we were doing.
And it helped with the polls, but it‘s a long process. We have these groups on water and electricity and women‘s empowerment and education, all of which have been meeting and I‘m going over to accelerate that effort.
MADDOW: I was struck when Secretary Clinton was in Pakistan that she was doing so much aggressive outreach trying to describe what America‘s role is in that part of the world, trying to dispel myths, there is so much anti-American sentiment in parts of Pakistan.
But she kept getting asked over and over and over again about drone strikes. And she kept having to answer over and over again that she can‘t talk about that. Obviously, you can‘t talk about that either. Nobody in government can. CIA operations...
HOLBROOKE: What drone strikes?
MADDOW: Yes, well, we know that they‘re happening, and yet, nobody in government can be—can explain them or be held accountable for them because they are ostensibly secret. Doesn‘t that sort of loom very large over any effort to try to improve things between America and Pakistan?
HOLBROOKE: That is a really clever question.
MADDOW: Thank you.
HOLBROOKE: So your idea is that to talk about what we‘re not going to talk about, or I don‘t talk about it.
MADDOW: I know you won‘t talk about those drone strikes, but how can we improve relations without ever bringing those things into the realm of discussable material?
HOLBROOKE: I think if you go back to Pakistan today, one of the most interesting things you‘ll see is that that issue is not as prominent. It hasn‘t gone away, but it isn‘t as prominent as it used to be. Why? Because the Pakistani Taliban, the TTP, has been targeting Pakistanis more and more and more.
And anything that can be done to weaken them is welcomed, particularly by the people in the tribal area. These are vicious people, these Pakistani Taliban, and they have done some terrible things. And recently one of the groups destroyed the largest shrine in Lahore, the greatest shrine of the Sufis in the world. And that had a terrible effect.
And then there was the videotape of the whipping of the young girl, the teenager in Swat. And all of these things have escalated to get the people really angry. The army—the Pakistani army has gone into Swat, it has gone into the tribal areas. And anything that can be done to weaken these people is welcomed by more and more people.
MADDOW: Is Pakistan capable of, and I mean—when I say Pakistan, I actually mean the Pakistani government, the military, and the intelligence services, are they capable of dialing up or dialing back the insurgency in Afghanistan? Are they linked enough with the people who are shooting at U.S. troops and coalition troops in Afghanistan that they can really control the tempo?
HOLBROOKE: In my experience in the U.S. government, I‘ve never seen intelligence in which there is more argument and dispute than the one you ask. I‘m not going to go into all the details because a lot of this is kind of based on sensitive material.
But I think you have to differentiate between the different groups of bad guys that are out there. First you have al Qaeda. Then you have the Afghan Taliban. Then you have the Pakistani Taliban I just mentioned. Then you have the LET, the group that targets India, which is more Punjabis, and caused the Mumbai bombing.
And then you have, last but definitely not least, the separate group of terrorists called the Haqqani network, which is—I know you heard on your trip to Afghanistan is the group that is—that goes in from the eastern part of Afghanistan right into Kabul. And they attack the Indian embassy and so on.
So all of these different groups, the Pakistanis are fighting the Pakistani Taliban very aggressively. They‘ve taken over 4,000 casualties. The Pakistani Taliban is the group that gave the training to the botched Times Square bomber. And they‘re very—they have begun to target the United States in addition, so we have to pay particular attention to them.
And on my trips to Pakistan, the one I am starting tomorrow will be my 14th trip since I took this job. That has been a major subject of discussion. The Afghan Taliban, I think we all feel that we can do more and we want to do more and we want to work with the Pakistanis to further our common interests. And so on and so forth.
MADDOW: Do more against them, do more to disrupt them even as they take sanctuary in some places in Pakistan?
HOLBROOKE: Put them under more pressure.
HOLBROOKE: It is a very serious issue because to succeed in a guerrilla war of this sort, sanctuary is the greatest vulnerability.
MADDOW: One of the main things that you‘re working on is how this all ends, whether or not there can be negotiation, whether there can be a political settlement, whether groups can be brought to settle their differences essentially through talking rather than through fighting these things out.
If the Afghan government wants to include the Haqqani network in talks, in resolution talks in Afghanistan, what‘s the U.S. government going to say about that? The Haqqani network, blamed, as far as I understand, for the murder of those CIA officers in Afghanistan, linked to al Qaeda certainly, but they‘re not seen as anathema in Pakistan and Afghanistan the way as we see them. So if the Afghans want to talk to them, will we stop them?
HOLBROOKE: Well, we have vital national security interests in these countries. We‘ve got almost 100,000 troops in the country and more coming. And we have a legitimate role to play in these decisions. And the Haqqani group is killing Americans. They have shown no interest in meeting our red lines on what they have to do, renounce al Qaeda, give up their weapons, reintegrate into society, accept the constitution.
So for the leadership of the Haqqani group to participate in some kind of thing like you talked about, a political settlement, in your phrase, that strikes me as a bridge too far. But the rank and file people who fight are often very misguided people.
And I don‘t know if you interviewed David Rohde after he was—got out of captivity, but he—The New York Times reporter who spent seven months with them, I talked to David quite a bit when he got out, and he had lengthy dialogues with these people.
And the younger people who fight with Haqqani are illiterate, uneducated people who believe the Koran sanctions suicide bombers, which it doesn‘t, who believe that—all of this terrible stuff about Americans, one of the things that he had constant arguments with his captors about was that the young men who were capturing him kept saying things like, 60 percent of American women are prostitutes.
And, you know, how do you know that? They have sex with animals. These grotesque things. These are uneducated, illiterate people, who are easily manipulated. If those people want to come in from the cold and join the reintegration programs of Afghanistan, they‘d be welcome.
But the two or three top leaders of the Haqqani group, they would fall under what David Petraeus and I would call “probably irreconcilables.”
MADDOW: More with America‘s uber-diplomat Richard Holbrooke coming right up.
MADDOW: At a base in Helmand province, at about 2:00 a.m. today, a group of British soldiers were in a base control room. An Afghan soldier picked up a shoulder-mounted rocket-propelled grenade launcher and shot a grenade at those British troops, three killed, four wounded. The Afghan soldier then reportedly fled to an insurgent-controlled area, he is still at large.
Remember, us and the British and the other NATO forces were not supposed to be fighting the Afghan army. We‘re supposed to be fighting with the Afghan army against the insurgents, which apparently doesn‘t come all that naturally all of the time since this isn‘t the first time something like this friendly fire incident has happened.
I asked Richard Holbrooke, America‘s top diplomat for Afghanistan and Pakistan, about this latest incident today.
MADDOW: Some brutal news today out of Afghanistan. Three British soldiers killed, four British soldiers wounded in an attack that seems to have been carried out by an Afghan soldier. Are we being naive in thinking that the Afghan people—Afghan civilians, people who would be potential recruits into the Afghan army, for example, are we being naive in thinking that they definitely want to fight the insurgency more than they want to fight us?
HOLBROOKE: In the case that you‘re describing, I‘m not familiar with the details, but it sounds more like a planned case of somebody who joined with the specific intention of doing what he did, but I don‘t know.
In the—the statement that we can‘t want to fight more than they want to is both a tautological statement, it‘s obviously correct, and I think it is also somewhat misleading. Every single public opinion poll taken in Afghanistan, ABC, BBC, ARD, The Charny Group, which briefed us yesterday here in Washington, they always show that the support for the Taliban is in the single digits, 7 to 9 percent.
People remember the black years. The women are even more overwhelmingly negative on the Taliban. They know what it meant for them. So the idea—and furthermore, Afghan soldiers fight very well. Police is a more difficult problem, as you know.
So I don‘t think that that is the issue. Recently I went out to Walter Reed to visit some of the wounded Americans, and I talked at length to a lieutenant and a sergeant who had been partnered with an Afghan army unit on the Pakistani border. And they got into a fierce firefight with the Taliban.
And these guys had both been wounded in the legs. They‘ll both recover fully. And they said that the Afghans they were with were really good fighters. Really good. It‘s in their DNA. But they said they don‘t have a good logistical system and their NCO corps is not yet where it should be.
So I called up Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and I said I just heard this from some members of the 101st Airborne who have been wounded. And he said that‘s exactly our analysis as well. That‘s why the training, equipping, and supporting of the Afghan army and police is the key to the long-term strategy we‘re following in Afghanistan.
And I know that David Petraeus shares this view. We have a brilliant three-star general, William Caldwell, in charge of the training of everyone. And it‘s finally a unified effort with our NATO allies.
MADDOW: Finally being the key word there. I was just—I was at the Kabul Military Training Center, and I was struck by what a large effort it is, how intensely proud the people who are running it are of how things are going right now.
HOLBROOKE: You met Caldwell, didn‘t you?
MADDOW: I didn‘t meet General Caldwell, but I did meet the NATO senior officers in charge of training both the army and the police, as well as Brigadier General Anne MacDonald, who is the deputy of the U.S....
HOLBROOKE: Yes. She is—I know her very well. We work very closely with her.
MADDOW: What I was struck by there was that until January, Afghan national army recruits graduating from basic training, so having completed their basic level training, were qualifying as marksmen at a rate of 30 or 35 percent. And that‘s when they‘re done. That‘s not what they came in with. That‘s when they were done.
Now with the NATO training mission really stepping things up there, they‘re paying very close attention to basic skills like that, they‘re up in the 90 to 95 percent qualifying rate. They were able to do that in a matter of months.
And while that is very inspiring progress, it makes me think, what were we doing for nine years? Why was it so bad for so long? What were we doing?
HOLBROOKE: You know, as a private citizen I had written about this, visited three times on my own, and had raised a lot of these questions, particularly the one you raised. But I have to tell you honestly, Rachel, nothing prepared me and my colleagues for what we inherited.
And it‘s like this, another example in the same field, literacy. We were training police who were not literate, churning them out. Why were we doing that? How can a policeman be unable to even read an ID card? So one of the first things we did was to insist that policemen have mandatory literacy training.
Now they‘re only getting 64 hours. I don‘t think the course is as long as we‘d be comfortable with.
Gen. Caldwell and Gen. McDonald and their colleagues are working on this intensely and we‘re supporting them. But the question of why things happened the way they happened is very difficult to answer.
People in the previous administration, many of whom are friends of mine and former colleagues, when you ask them about this, they almost always say, Iraq took our - diverted us.
It‘s ironic, because in the campaign in 2008 that was exactly what the senior Democratic candidates in the race - one of whom is now president and another is the vice president, the third is my boss, the secretary of state. They kept saying, we‘re taking our eye off the ball in Afghanistan, and it turned out to be more serious than we expected.
So the process of fixing things has been expensive and time consuming. But, and this is the key point, we‘re in Afghanistan because it really matters. We‘re in Afghanistan because if we fail in Afghanistan, it will have a direct, immediate danger to us.
It will increase al-Qaeda‘s worldwide reach. It will come back with the Taliban in all likelihood and they will gain a worldwide success which will be very dangerous for our national security interests. So we have to be clear. The American public needs to be clear on why we‘re in Afghanistan.
This is not Vietnam, a war which I participated in as a State Department civilian (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in the government. This is not the Balkans. It‘s not Iraq. This is quite different, and this one relates directly to our safety at home.
And so you‘ve identified, you‘ve picked out the number one weak link in our chain. And luckily for us, so has this administration, starting with the team we‘ve mentioned, David Petraeus, Bill Caldwell, Gen. McDonald, and other people through the chain of command.
We‘re really focused on the police. I can also tell you that in the policy review last fall, which President Obama personally conducted, which was the most intense policy review I‘ve ever been involved in, we spent more time on the issue of police and army training than any other single issue as we were so focused on its importance.
RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: I think the question strategically has been, well, what can we do in year 10 that we couldn‘t do in years one through nine? And having gone there, I feel like the nuance or the sort of deeper part of that question that I still have now is about how we counteract the negative effect of the time we have spent there.
It‘s not just that we were doing a bad job with, say, training the Afghan army before and now, we‘re doing a better job. Once you‘re doing it in year 10, you‘re actually doing some harm because you are trying to create an Afghan government in an atmosphere in which you - they‘re used to 10 years of American presence.
They‘re used to 10 years of international presence. And frankly, every month that goes by and we dump another $5 billion into the Afghan economy and all of its corruption and ineffectiveness, seems like we do a lot of harm just by staying, that maybe the clock has just run out.
HOLBROOKE: Well, I don‘t think so. I think the Afghan people - first of all, just a pedantic point, it‘s really not 10 years. It‘s really like a little more than eight. And secondly, a lot of that time was in a wholly different atmosphere.
The resurgence of the Taliban really began about five years ago and it was completely neglected by Washington. And that‘s why we find ourselves in that position. But to go to your core point, I don‘t see evidence that people are turning away from the international presence.
The polling data does not support that either. The feelings of desire that the international coalition, the U.S. remain, remain quite high but the people want several things which they‘re very clear on. They want a system of government that is just and so corruption becomes a huge issue and we focused on that.
And President Karzai has agreed and he has upgraded the office against corruption in the government. They want to feel this is not a war without end just like Americans; hence, the enormously important addition of the reintegration and reconciliation programs.
They want to feel that they will get their lives back and that means emphasizing agriculture. It‘s an agricultural country that used to export agri products until the Soviet invasion of 1978.
And we need to restore agriculture. We made agriculture the top non-security priority in this administration. In the previous administration, they were spending more money destroying poppy crops than agriculture.
You saw that yourself when you were down in the south, how we‘re not going after the poor poppy farmers anymore. We‘re going after the big drug lords and interdictions. So we had to make all these changes. The people see these changes. But we also have to produce the most critical issue which is security. And security is the key.
MADDOW: While I was in Kandahar, I saw all of these police checkpoints being set up around Kandahar city, police substations within the city, obviously the military operations around there, all this work being done on law and order and security.
But what happens when those police arrest people? Right now, Kandahar has on the books authorization for something like 87 judges.
They‘ve only got nine judges actually working. So you‘ve got this security
thing happening -
HOLBROOKE: And they‘re way underpaid.
MADDOW: And they‘re way underpaid and they‘re in danger. So you‘ve got the security thing happening but you don‘t have civilian government coming in behind it. And so if you are a Kandahari civilian who has got some dispute that you want resolved, a land dispute, livestock or something, the Taliban is frankly offering a much better service.
They have a reputation for less corruption and there isn‘t the kind of wait that you have in a whole province of a million people with nine judges.
HOLBROOKE: Although their form of justice can be pretty brutal.
MADDOW: Yes. But if I wanted to get something resolved, would I want to go to the Afghan government? Not there. It‘s hard to imagine that getting better over the course of the next year.
HOLBROOKE: And that‘s why one of the most important programs we have and one of the most difficult is the rule of law program. I say it‘s difficult because there are many different types of law in Afghanistan - traditional law, modern law, Sharia law which can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, and this brutal but swift justice system of the Taliban you describe.
And we‘re all mindful of the fact that the Taliban used this issue you just described as their path to power in 1992 to ‘95. So we‘ve invested a lot of money in this. And again, there isn‘t much to show for the money that was invested prior to the last year.
HOLBROOKE: And so we‘ve - this program is under intense scrutiny and we are - we have significantly revamped it.
MADDOW: You famously started your diplomatic career during the Vietnam era. But we tried to do counterinsurgency in Vietnam, too, pretty explicitly. I mean, we even called it that. And we don‘t think about that war that way when we look back at it.
But when you look back at those efforts, all those years ago, do you really have confidence that a foreign country can help create a state somewhere else, that we really can stand up an Afghan government?
Obviously, we can create security and hope they fill in that room with their own interest in governments. But can we really help build a government there?
HOLBROOKE: I think we can if we do it right. And I hope we‘ve learned some lessons since Vietnam, which is now a long way in the past. And it ended, after all, 35 years ago this year.
But there are some obvious structural similarities but there is a fundamental difference. And the fundamental difference is the one you and I just already mentioned. It matters to our homeland security. Vietnam did not, although at the time, the administrations in power did say it did, but they were wrong.
Now, to your core point, we need to be always mindful of the fact that we are there to help the Afghans take over their own government, take over responsibility. We are not there to replace the Afghans.
That‘s difficult in a situation like the one you just described with judges in Kandahar. That‘s a real - that‘s a perfect example of the problem. We‘re not going to replace the judges, but we have to give them the support to get those judges trained, paid, with facilities.
A lot of these judges that you mentioned don‘t even have phones. They have no protection. They‘re very vulnerable. It‘s a - it‘s a process which is not easy. And you only embark on it if you decide that it is absolutely critical to the U.S. national interests, which it is.
MADDOW: When we come back Richard Holbrooke tells me what he really thinks about American journalists. Got a little awkward. That‘s coming up next. Stay with us.
MADDOW: Holbrooke, quote, “That‘s a very creative question, but it bears no resemblance to reality.” Question, quote, “OK. Thank you.” Holbrooke, quote, “There‘s nothing in your question that relates to anything I do, so there‘s no point in trying to explain it.” Question, quote, “Thank you, ambassador.”
When you read the transcripts of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke‘s interviews and his briefings, he is often just blithering to the people who are questioning him. He was not that way with me in our interview today, but I did ask him about his legendary propensity for barbecuing journalists.
(on camera): May I ask you just one last question? This is a little bit different than what we‘ve been talking about, but I was really struck in prepping to talk to you today, reading a lot of your briefing transcripts and your interview transcripts with other people.
And upon - you are - you are combative with your questioners often. You‘ve not been very combative with me, which I‘m taking with a grain of suspicion.
HOLBROOKE: Well, you know, I‘m not confusing you with Chris Matthews.
MADDOW: No one ever does. I wonder if you are combative with questioners often, both in briefings and in interviews, because you feel like the media is often getting the story of the war in Afghanistan wrong. Do you feel like the media is blowing it? Do you feel like the American people understand really what‘s going on?
HOLBROOKE: I think the journalists on the ground in Afghanistan are really good, really good - among the best ever. And I get the - I don‘t have - I don‘t always agree with everything they wrote. They have their job to do.
But I‘m not going to take issue with somebody like Carlotta Gall or Dexter Filkins or Pamela Constable. They are brave people. They‘re out with the troops, and I read what they write with great interest.
I think people - I think journalists in Washington have a different affect, and you are neither. You‘re neither in Afghanistan. And I‘ve never combated with the journalists in Afghanistan nor was I competitive with the journalists in other areas I was involved.
But Washington journalists are not journalists in the sense that you‘d think of. They have narratives and they are addicted to their narratives. But these aren‘t - these aren‘t real interviews. You and I are having a conversation here which I hope illuminates the situation.
Am I combative by nature? Well, I‘ve read that, but it‘s really
in my view, it‘s inherent in the job. This is a job that involves combat. We have American men and women putting their lives at risk every day, giving their lives, being wounded, and we, who are working on this issue, owe it to them to do the best we can.
And time is precious here. I don‘t want to see it slip away. But what I‘ve just said to you is my own deep conviction but it‘s also something President Obama has said in a slightly different context both publicly and privately and I not only agree with him, but I think that we all have to remember what this is about.
We‘ve sent young men and women out to one of the most difficult places in the world, as you showed so wonderfully last week, to risk their lives. And those of us sitting in Washington have to do everything we can to get them the support they need and to make the strategy work.
MADDOW: Ambassador Richard Holbrooke the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, thank you for this much of your time. It‘s a real honor, sir. Thanks a lot.
HOLBROOKE: My honor.
MADDOW: There is yet more of my interview with Richard Holbrooke.
Yes, still more to say. That will be posted soon at MaddowBlog.MSNBC.com.
Also, a big dramatic international intrigue spy story is coming up, a big, dramatic, intrigue spy story that is not the Russian one but another one. We are rich in 007 news this summer. That‘s coming up next.
MADDOW: Coming up on “COUNTDOWN,” Keith talks with Joe Torre and Ken Burns about the death of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. But first, on this show, Michael Isikoff joins us to talk spies who are not like us at all. Please stay with us.
MADDOW: If you like real life spy stories, real life international intrigue that makes you inexplicably want to ruin your martini by having it shaken and not stirred, then this has been a good summer of news for you.
First, there was the Russian spy story, 10 Russian long-term sleeper agents uncovered and arrested. They pled guilty. And then on the tarmac of an airport in Vienna, they were traded by the U.S. for a few Russian prisoners.
An 11th Russian sleeper agent was also charged but he got away in Cyprus and remains at large. Even as we continue to not totally understand the why and how of the Russian story, we‘re already on to intriguing spy story number two, this time, not Russians but an Iranian; to be specific, an Iranian nuclear physicist who disappeared last year while on a trip to Saudi Arabia.
Yesterday, the scientist turned up at the Iran intersection at the Pakistani embassy in Washington. Now, Iran says the nuclear scientist was kidnapped by the CIA in Saudi Arabia, drugged and forcibly brought to the U.S.
Iranian media, in April, broadcast a video they say bolsters these claims. In the video, a man who was supposedly the scientist, speaking in Farsi, says he is in Arizona, says he was abducted by the CIA in Saudi in June of 2009.
One day, a single day after that video was posted on YouTube, a second video appeared, again, supposedly starring this scientist. Only this time, the guy says essentially, “Hey, everything‘s fine. I wasn‘t abducted or taken prisoner. I‘m just studying to get my PhD in the U.S. of A. And besides that, I don‘t know anything about nukes anyway.”
U.S. officials, including (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in authority than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself say that despite Iran‘s claims that this guy was kidnapped and taken prisoner here, he is in fact a free man.
He can go any time. And as soon as he‘s got his passport and his plane tickets in order, he‘s good to go. No spy craft here. Nothing to see. The scientist‘s name is Shahram Amiri.
He expected to try to fly back to Iran as soon as possible. We will see that if he is accompanied to the airport by either of these guys.
Joining us now is NBC News national investigative correspondent, Michael Isikoff. Mike, thanks for your time.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF, NBC NATIONAL INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Great to be with you.
MADDOW: Let‘s start with those YouTube videos. There was actually a third one in which the scientists claims he escaped from the CIA.
MADDOW: Who is the intended audience for these videos? What do they tell us about the (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
ISIKOFF: Well, there are two intended audiences, but the first intended audience is clearly the world public opinion but an Iranian public opinion itself.
The first one is kind of crude. It‘s made on a laptop. This is the one where he‘s claiming to be tortured. And then, the second one - the second one which is the next day, is a polished YouTube video. There‘s a library in the background.
You can see a globe, a chess set, and that‘s where he says he‘s here freely. He‘s very happy to be in the United States. He‘s studying to get his PhD. You can - you can imagine which one had the assistance of perhaps American intelligence and which one was crudely put together with perhaps not so polished assistance.
MADDOW: Well, is there something important about this case? Can the basics of the case be inferred from just the pure fact that he is in the United States? That he‘s here?
ISIKOFF: Yes, sure. Look, he disappeared in Saudi Arabia in June of last year. We heard nothing about him until March of this year, when the fact that he was an asset to U.S. intelligence was first reported. It was hailed as a coup for U.S. intelligence.
ISIKOFF: No. This is exactly the kind of guy we want access to. We want to tap his brain about the Iranian nuclear program. And suddenly, that coup turned into what has to be a bit of an embarrassment.
The guy returns - you know, shows up yesterday, last night, at
the Iranian intersection of the Pakistani embassy saying he wants to go
back. You know, not a good message if the goal for the CIA is to encourage
Iranian scientists to defect -
ISIKOFF: To help us with insight into the Iranian nuclear program. The fact he was pressured, as U.S. intelligence agencies believe - pressure put on his family to give it all up, return to Iran, propaganda coups for the Iranians, they can trot him out to talk about how he was tortured by the Americans and, you know, kidnapped in Saudi Arabia.
And secondly, the message it sends. I think that‘s the real damage here. The message it sends. You can defect, but your family might be endangered and you‘ll end up coming home at the end of the day.
MADDOW: Do you feel like this is - this is sort of the last thing that we‘re going to know for sure about this case now that he‘s in the United States, is more likely to come to light or is this going to be totally undercover?
ISIKOFF: I think, first of all - look, I mean - I think we‘ll hear more from him. We are likely to hear more from him when he returns to Iran.
ISIKOFF: But you know, what is the credibility of what he‘ll be saying in Iran? I mean, you know, the assumption of American officials and they believe they have some evidence for this, is that there was pressure put on his family. That‘s the reason that he changed his mind.
MADDOW: NBC News national investigative correspondent, I‘m very proud to say, Michael Isikoff, it‘s great to see you here.
ISIKOFF: Yes, great. Thank you.
MADDOW: We will be right back.
MADDOW: What do you get when you build a $10-billion-a-year army in a country that‘s only got a $14-billion-a-year economy? We‘re about to find that out, in Afghanistan, because that‘s what we‘re doing.
On tomorrow‘s show, we‘ll have more on the day I spent in Kabul with NATO forces training the Afghan army and police, including our addressing the mystery of why they‘re not using AK-47s in the Afghan army anymore.
We will see you again tomorrow night from our home studios in New York City. Meanwhile, there‘s lots to add to what you‘ve seen on the show. We‘re very proud of our excellent blog at MaddowBlog.MSNBC.com. Our E-mail address - we do actually read your E-mail - it‘s email@example.com.
And of course, you can always get our free podcast over at iTunes. “COUNTDOWN WITH KEITH OLBERMANN” starts right now. Thanks for being with us tonight. Have a good night.
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