'The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell' for Wednesday, May 4th, 2011
Read the transcript to the Wednesday show
Guests: Richard Wolffe, Howard Fineman, Rep. Mike Rogers, Matthew Alexander, Dana Milbank
LAWRENCE O‘DONNELL, HOST: NBC Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski said this morning that when it comes to reporting on the military, quote, “It is an absolute truism that first reports are always wrong. And you accept the fact that there‘s going to be a changing narrative.”
Tonight, it‘s time to change the narrative—again.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: America will ensure the justice is done.
ERIC HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL: He‘s killing was appropriate.
O‘DONNELL (voice-over): Osama bin Laden is dead and you‘ll just have to take his word for it.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, “HARDBALL” HOST: Photo? No, no.
ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS: It‘s breaking news right now. Savannah Guthrie reporting from the White House—
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, NBC NEWS: The president has decided not to have these photos released.
MITCHELL: The photos of Osama bin Laden --
GUTHRIE: Described to me by several sources as ghastly.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The photograph of his blown up face.
GUTHRIE: A gaping wound over the left eye.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Brain tissue --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No real strong drum beat for releasing it.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA: It‘s not necessary.
SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: I personally think it‘s morbid.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I support the president‘s decision.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I share the president‘s view.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lindsay Graham said he respectfully disagreed with the president‘s decision.
GUTHRIE: Because everyone knows photographs can be manipulated.
REP. PETER KING ®, NEW YORK: I don‘t want a conspiracy theory developing.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF, NBC NEWS: You can never fully put them to rest.
O‘DONNELL: But what really happened inside the compound?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: More details are sort of seeping out.
JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: What I said yesterday stands.
JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC ANCHOR: Questions about whether he was armed or whether he wasn‘t armed.
GUTHRIE: The changing narrative.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can imagine the chaos with gunfire and the like there are going to be differing accounts obviously.
CARNEY: I don‘t have any information for you on that.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The first reports are always wrong.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: U.S. officials are providing a clearer picture of the kind of firefight that took place here.
O‘DONNELL: What do the details tell us.
CARNEY: This operation was lawful.
HOLDER: It‘s lawful to target an enemy commander in the field.
CARNEY: Bin Laden was the head of al Qaeda.
HOLDER: Conducted the attacks of September the 11th.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And it wasn‘t our mission to shot him is so absurd.
HOLDER: You had to believe that this guy was a walking IED.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Exactly.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They were prepared for Osama bin Laden to be wearing a suicide vest?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: President Obama is seeing a surge in approval.
O‘DONNELL: And the American people approve.
SCARBOROUGH: Most Americans are just excited.
O‘DONNELL: Good evening from New York.
NBC News has learned new details about what happened when Navy SEAL Team Six raided the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed. There was no prolonged firefight.
U.S. officials now tell NBC News that three of the four men shot and killed, including Osama bin Laden, were unarmed and never fired a single shot. According to this latest account, the only shots fired by the enemy came from a courier who was not in the building where Osama bin Laden was found. That courier who was shot and killed was in the guest house on the compound.
Another group of SEALs entered bin Laden‘s house and conducted what is being described by U.S. officials now as, quote, “precision clearing operation.”
One man was reportedly killed on the first floor. The SEALs found stashes of weapons in barricades while making their way through the house. They encountered bin Laden‘s 19-year-old son who was unarmed coming down the staircase. He was shot and killed.
Bin Laden‘s bedroom was on the third floor. The SEAL team threw open the door. One of bin Laden‘s wives rushed towards the commandos. She was shot in the leg. That same commando pointed his gun at bin Laden and fired two shots—one to the chest, one to the head. Though bin Laden, who was reportedly in pajamas, was unarmed, there were weapons in his bedroom.
This new account is significantly different from the one initially provided by senior counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, on Monday.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN BRENNAN, SENIOR COUNTERTERRORISM ADVISOR: The concern was that bin Laden would oppose any type of capture operation. Indeed he did. It was a firefight. He was engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house he was in. And whether or not he got off any rounds, I quite frankly don‘t know.
Thinking about that from a visual perspective, here is bin Laden who has been calling for these attacks living in this million-dollar-plus compound, living in an area that is far remove from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: The White House had already amended Brennan‘s account, saying bin Laden was not armed and did not use anyone as a human shield, before the latest version of events emerged tonight.
In an interview today with CBS News, President Obama explained why he will not release the photos of Osama bin Laden‘s dead body.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: There‘s no doubt that we killed Osama bin Laden. It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence, as a propaganda tool. You know, that‘s not who we are.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: But, of course, fake photos of dead bin Laden have already turned up on the Internet, along with pictures claiming to be of others killed inside the compound.
New details continue to come out about bin Laden, the compound and the aftermath of his killing. Bin Laden reportedly had 500 euros, about $750, and two telephone numbers sewn into his clothing when he was shot.
Pakistan‘s ambassador to the United States said today Pakistan plans to launch a series of internal investigations into how they missed bin Laden and to find out if anyone in the Pakistani government had helped him. But Pakistan doesn‘t plan to involve the United States in its inquiry.
Late today, the “Associated Press” quoting U.S. officials reported that Navy SEALs shot bin Laden after they saw him appear to lunge for a weapon. Attorney General Eric Holder testified to the Senate today that there is no doubt that the killing of Osama bin Laden was legal.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HOLDER: The operation in which Osama bin Laden was killed was lawful. He was the head of al Qaeda, an organization that had conducted the attacks of September the 11th. He admitted his involvement. As you indicate, he said he would not be taken alive.
The operation against bin Laden was justified as an act of national
self-defense. It‘s lawful to target an enemy commander in the field. He
was, by my estimation and the estimation of the Justice Department, a
lawful military target. And the operation was conducted in a way that‘s
consistent with our law, with our values. If he had surrendered, I think -
attempted to surrender, we should have accepted that. But there was no indication he wanted to do that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: Joining me now is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Congressman Mike Rogers of Michigan.
Thank you very much for joining me tonight, Mr. Chairman.
REP. MIKE ROGERS ®, MICHIGAN: Lawrence, it‘s good to be here.
Thanks for having me.
O‘DONNELL: First of all, what do you make of the inconsistencies that have emerged from Sunday now and the White House account of exactly what happened at the compound?
ROGERS: I think the White House was eager to get information out. I heard conflicting stories in the beginning as well. And I think they probably went with what they had.
You know, in those kind of environments—I used to be an FBI agent, I have cleared houses before. Your heart is pumping, it‘s confusing.
No one really knows all of the circumstances until it‘s all done. The action has stopped and you can sit down, take a breath in safety and be debriefed.
I think what you‘re seeing coming out today is the most accurate report about what happened in an operation to take down a very lethal, somebody‘s been responsible for the slaughtering of thousands and thousands of men, women and children over the last few decades.
And I think we‘re going to spend a lot of time fly specking these little details. At the end of the day, Osama bin Laden is dead after the U.S. military entered his compound and brought him to justice.
O‘DONNELL: Chairman Rogers, you said that you agree with the president‘s decision not to release the pictures of Osama bin Laden. Have you seen those pictures?
ROGERS: I have.
O‘DONNELL: And having seen them, does that inform your decision or is there—is it a matter of something you just wouldn‘t want to release no matter what those pictures looked like?
ROGERS: Well, my concern as I said earlier today is we don‘t want to treat Osama bin Laden like a trophy.
I just talked to a soldier today who served after the Abu Ghraib pictures came out. And their units, right the day and the day subsequent, were reminded that it‘s likely to get more dangerous. They had to double their first aid kits. They had to double their patrols. Spend more time on patrols and violence had an uptick.
And when you look at that and you say, what value do we have in showing this photo versus what we know are soldiers who are in harm‘s way, in places that we know some people—I‘m not talking about people who are against this, they‘re going to be against this. But, you know, in a village in, say, Ghazni, Afghanistan, there may be a village elder who‘s wondering, should I be for the United States or should I be for the Taliban, I don‘t want any reason whatsoever for him to say, no, I‘ll be for the Taliban. These guys don‘t like Muslims or offended me in some way.
It‘s just we don‘t need to add to that soldier‘s difficulty. I just, again, don‘t think there‘s anything on it. The wives have come out and said that they it‘s Osama bin Laden and yes, he‘s dead. We have DNA of 99.7 percent accuracy.
I have seen the photos. I have requested that the rest of my committee—and I understand today they‘ll honor that will see these photos. I just think that‘s the appropriate way to do it, and so that we can get on with it and realize that we have a whole bit of network of al Qaeda still to get after here.
O‘DONNELL: Did you—have you had a chance to see any of the video from Sunday?
ROGERS: We‘ll be seeing that I believe tomorrow.
O‘DONNELL: And photos, how many photos have you been shown?
ROGERS: It was not a formal briefing by any means. I happened to be at the headquarters and it was informal. But I‘m going to guess three or four.
O‘DONNELL: And why do you think it‘s important for the rest of your committee to see the photos? And would you extend that to the rest of the members of the House?
ROGERS: Well, I personally would. I would let members who wanted to come in and see the photo to do that. I just—because we‘re in the intelligence committee, because we‘re responsible for oversight and policy of the entire intelligence community, because this was an intelligence-based operation under the laws and rules of regulation that put the CIA in charge of this operation, I felt it was important that my committees see all of the information that we had available in order to make good policy decisions going forward.
O‘DONNELL: Based on what you know as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is it your sense that the hardware that was captured there, the five come computers, the 10 hard drives may be the single most valuable snatch that we‘ve picked up in all of our intelligence gathering?
ROGERS: Well, I am cautiously optimistic about the items and the evidence that were picked up on the way out of that building. It could be great and it could be nothing. I don‘t want to get people‘s hopes up.
I feel that there‘s some value there. I think it certainly has impacted al Qaeda already in the sense that we know they‘re trying to make changes and do other things. So, I‘m very hopeful that this will give us an even more complete picture about certain things and certainly the individuals that Osama bin Laden was talking to and communicating to and how the network was working.
And remember, this started over five years ago with a nickname, which is just incredible—but a nickname of somebody they believed might be a courier for Osama bin Laden five years ago. That‘s like saying go find “Little Joe” in Texas and, oh, by the way, he has a Southern accent. I mean, it is completely a difficult task. They did it from that little piece of information that was gleaned through an interrogation.
Imagine if we can get any piece of information like that, only 10 times better, it is really going to get our effort to dismantle the al Qaeda network.
O‘DONNELL: And, finally, Chairman Rogers, what has this mission taught us about how to fight the war on terror? This was a very light footprint mission. A few helicopters, a couple dozen SEALs flying in there to conduct the single most important one-day mission in the history of the 10 years of the war on terror. Does that tell us that that approach is more effective than planting hundreds of thousands of troops in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and trying to occupy and run them?
ROGERS: Yes. Well, I‘ve heard that. Well, clearly, we don‘t want to occupy and run them. I do think sometimes, each circumstance is different.
Remember, we‘re fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. And that is a very different fight because it‘s a larger armed paramilitary, if not military, organization that is seeking to gain and hold ground so that they can sell poppy and other drugs and go back to making sure that women—where it‘s against the law for women to be taught to read. That‘s who you‘re fighting there. That‘s a different fight than going after the al Qaeda network.
And I think we need to be careful. This was one great successful operation. We didn‘t hear—at least the public didn‘t hear—about lots of other unsuccessful operations and dry holes where information just wasn‘t right. We heard about this because it was big and it was right. I think they performed expertly and we should be proud of the intelligence analysts, all the way down to our military Special Forces team that went in and did this work.
So, we can‘t use this as the end all, cure all for all events. It just wouldn‘t work. They do three or four of these a night in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, our Special Forces do. It‘s really quite an amazing thing. And our intelligence folks are working leads for bomb makers and facilitators all over.
And, again at the same time, our soldiers are fighting the Taliban, which is different thing.
So, I would be really cautious about trying to lump it all together and say, aha, we have found the winning formula. This is one thing that we know has worked today and has worked in the past. But it can‘t be all things to all our problems when it comes to the war on terror.
O‘DONNELL: Michigan congressman and House Intelligence Committee chairman, Mike Rogers—thank you very much for joining us tonight.
ROGERS: Hey, thanks, Lawrence. Enjoyed it.
O‘DONNELL: Joining me now, MSNBC political analyst, Richard Wolffe. He is also the author of “Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House.”
Thanks for joining me tonight, Richard.
RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: My pleasure, Lawrence.
O‘DONNELL: Richard, we‘re watching this story evolve. The White House has struggled for a bit consistency in the details of the account since Sunday. First, there was the idea that there was a firefight, that bin Laden was armed, that he was shooting. That‘s all been corrected.
And, now, we‘re down to the point today where there‘s that detail that gets thrown in officials saying they saw bin Laden appear to lunge for a weapon, which is the classic line that appears in every police report of every questionable shooting by police where it turns out the person was unarmed. They always kind of reach over for at least that element of it.
Is the White House being a little bit too frantic in the way it‘s letting this information come out? If they‘ve discovered that there are inconsistencies, wouldn‘t it be better for them to release one clear, coherent version at once?
WOLFFE: Well, the simple answer is yes. And thank goodness the Navy SEAL teams were vastly more competent and professional than this communications operation. It has stumbled. It has managed to make the story about themselves, about their own accounts.
And, you know, as a journalist, of course, you‘ve got to applaud the openness here—as anyone who admires this system of open government, you‘ve got to say this is a tremendous exercise in trying to clear up the facts. I‘ve heard criticism from some people on the left and also some international folks that this is evidence of a deceptive, lying propagandist administration. And, yet, actually what you‘re seeing is them trying to correct the record.
What puzzles me from a national security, intelligence and communication perspective is, for a start, there are at least several dozen intelligence leads and ongoing operations right now as a result of the information they picked up from this location. And so, there are compromises every time they talk about what they‘ve got and what they don‘t have. And what they may have found, how they approached this building. I am astonished as someone who covered the aftermath of 9/11 and the Bush administration that they would go into sources of methods like this.
And then, on the communication side of this, when you have a live event, when you have murky facts, you stick to the bare minimum until you‘ve done a thorough investigation and you push this out in a managed fashion. I think they were too excited themselves to determine to respond to all of the questions. And they should have taken a deep breath on Monday. By this stage, they actually take—need to actually take a full step back and say, this needs to go under a full review. This drip, drip approach doesn‘t help them in the slightest.
O‘DONNELL: Richard, let‘s listen to what John McCain said this morning about releasing photographs of Osama bin Laden.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA: That‘s a judgment that has to be made by the president and taking all things into consideration. My initial—my initial opinion is that it‘s not necessary to do so. I think there‘s ample proof that this was Osama bin Laden.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: Not long after, the White House announced that President Obama had decided not to show the photographs of bin Laden‘s body.
Might John McCain‘s statement have been that final tipping point that made it clear to the White House they don‘t have to do this, they should not release the photographs?
WOLFFE: Well, McCain is an important data point in terms of the politics of this. But the politics is mixed here. And there are good people and critics on both sides of this internally, externally. Obviously, you‘ve got Lindsay Graham disagreeing with John McCain, his old friend.
And, internally, it‘s not an easy call here. I mean, there‘s one side of it which is about the sort of conspiracy theorists. How do you prove death? If they‘re showing these photos to the members of Congress, they should show the photos to journalists, too.
O‘DONNELL: Richard Wolffe, author of “Revival,” also of MSNBC—thanks for joining us tonight, Richard.
WOLFFE: You bet, Lawrence.
O‘DONNELL: Coming up, President Obama‘s trip to Ground Zero tomorrow.
Why did President Bush decline the invitation to attend?
And later, the torture debate. Senator John McCain says today waterboarding did not play a role in capturing bin Laden.
O‘DONNELL: Coming up: tomorrow‘s service at Ground Zero. Should be President Bush be there to show the world a unified United States?
And later, why is Glenn Beck attacking President Obama for paying his respects to the victims of September 11th? That‘s in tonight‘s “Rewrite.”
O‘DONNELL: Tomorrow afternoon, President Obama will visit a New York City fire house, lay a wreath at the 9/11 Memorial, and then meet privately with approximately 50 family members who lost loved ones in the attack 10 years ago. It will be the first time he has visited Ground Zero as president.
President Obama invited President George W. Bush to attend the ceremony, but President Bush declined the invitation. His spokesperson said, “He appreciated the invite, but has chosen in his post-presidency to remain largely out of the spotlight.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the invitation was extended in the spirit of post-9/11 unity.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This was a moment of unity for Americans. And a moment to recall the unity that existed in this country in the wake of the attacks on 9/11 and he wanted to—he invited President Bush because he had hoped that if President Bush were able to come, that he would—he would join the president in visiting the World Trade Center site. We completely understand that he‘s not able to come.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: Joining me now is Howard Fineman, MSNBC political analyst and editorial director of “The Huffington Post.”
Thanks for joining me tonight, Howard.
HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Hi, Lawrence.
O‘DONNELL: Howard, you know George W. Bush, as well as any journalist could possibly know him. What do you make of his declining the invitation to come to Ground Zero?
FINEMAN: Well, first of all, on a personal basis, I think it‘s true.
He‘s largely stayed out of the political spotlight.
I have to say, having covered his entire presidency, that this was a guy at best had a very mixed attitude towards politics and towards the limelight. So, you have to give him some credit or at least some understanding for that.
But beyond that, talking to Republicans and Democrats, you get two very different views. Republicans I talked to said, hey, he doesn‘t really think it‘s a great idea to validate what the president is going to do by way of a victory lap up there, by way of, you know, expressing the fact that he had gotten Osama bin Laden.
You talk to Democrats and what they say is George W. Bush doesn‘t want to be there because he didn‘t catch Osama bin Laden. And because after having said initially that he wanted Osama bin Laden dead or alive, the president, not long thereafter—President Bush not long that after, you know, seemed to let go of the trail, said publicly, I don‘t really care that much about where he is anymore and seemed to have dropped the ball.
So, depending on how you view it, partisan—in terms of partisanship, I think those are the two answers.
But I think, knowing him, he wanted to just stay away so as not to bring more controversy to himself. He had enough of it during his tenure.
O‘DONNELL: So, he—I guess he‘s content to let others argue that he deserves some credit or half credit, or in FOX News case, 100 percent credit for the capture of Osama bin Laden.
O‘DONNELL: And while he deserves absolutely no blame for the current economy, of course.
FINEMAN: That‘s right.
O‘DONNELL: And so, that‘s the better play for him is staying. Is there just a kind of old fashioned Bush Yankee family modesty about this is someone else‘s moment and I don‘t want to take the stage?
FINEMAN: I think so. Yes, I think to some extent that‘s probably the case. George W. Bush had a very mixed attitude toward a lot of the pageantry and game playing of politics. He hired other people to do that, Lawrence. He hired some of the best and the toughest and the most cold-blooded in the business, whether it was Dick Cheney in foreign policy or Karl Rove in domestic politics.
But George W. Bush always satisfied himself or told himself that it was other people who were doing that. As for him, personally, you know, if he has his rudders, he‘d stay away from it. His father was very much like that. And George W. was a little bit like that, too. He‘d just assumed and let the others argue, and avoid both another pageantry of praise, or a pageantry of blame.
O‘DONNELL: Are there any other controversial invitations the president might be issuing to this event? Who else is he bringing in for this?
FINEMAN: Well, my understanding from talking to White House officials tonight is they did invite former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani. And the mayor accepted. So, the word as of a couple hours ago is that Mayor Rudy Giuliani will be there. I think that‘s the key one.
There was also some talk of perhaps President Clinton coming. But I think once George Bush said no, I think the White House decided not to make it a pageant of the presidents in any sense, but to just keep it to President Obama talking in a careful and considerate and compassionate way to families of survivors of 9/11.
O‘DONNELL: And what does the president have to do tomorrow to make sure that doesn‘t have any campaign overtone to it?
FINEMAN: Just talk to the survivors. Just talk to the families. Don‘t make a big speech. Keep it low key. Just show that he‘s paying respects to the memory of the people who died at 9/11. There weren‘t a lot of arguments, Lawrence, about who was armed and who was unarmed at the moment in the World Trade Center building when those airplanes hit. And he‘s paying respect to the people who were victims there and whose families are grieving still.
I think if he makes it almost a sort of quasi-religious moment, a moment when the American people can think back over the last decade, I think that will be a service to the whole country, not necessarily to himself.
O‘DONNELL: Howard Fineman of MSNBC and “The Huffington Post”—thanks for joining us tonight, Howard.
FINEMAN: Thank you, Lawrence.
O‘DONNELL: The successful hunt for Osama bin Laden has reopened the torture debate. Would we have found him on Sunday without waterboarding anyone?
And Glenn Beck gets the “Rewrite” for attacking the president over his visit to Ground Zero tomorrow.
O‘DONNELL: In tonight‘s Spotlight, we again consider the question of how much of a role did waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques play, if at all, in finding Osama bin Laden. Last night, CIA Chief Leon Panetta told NBC‘s Brian Williams at least some of the intelligence came from detainees who had at one time been waterboarded.
But this afternoon, the White House refused to get any more specific.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Information was gathered from detainees. Yes, we have multiple ways of gathering information from detainees, from different methods that we have of getting information. The work that was done that put the case together was done primarily by analysts gathering tiny bits of information and putting it together and creating a body of work, if you will, that led to the finding of the location where Osama bin Laden was hiding.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: Senator John McCain offered this today after leaving a classified intelligence briefing.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA: So far I know of no information that was obtained which would have been useful that by, quote, enhanced interrogation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: But in a new interview with “Time Magazine,” a former head of counterterrorism at the CIA during the Bush era, Jose Rodriguez, says “the enhanced interrogation techniques use on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libbi were indeed what eventually led to bin Laden.”
Joining those claiming a win for torture tactics, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD RUMSFELD, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: I think that anyone who suggests that the enhanced techniques—let‘s be blunt—waterboarding did not produce an enormous amount of valuable intelligence just isn‘t facing the truth.
The facts are General Mike Hayden came in. He had no connection with waterboarding anybody. He looked at all the evidence and concluded that a major fraction of the intelligence in our country on al Qaeda came from individuals—the three—only three people who were waterboarded.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: Joining me now Matthew Alexander, a former senior military interrogator, who conducted or supervised over 1,300 interrogations in Iraq, leading to the capture of numerous al Qaeda leaders and the killing of Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
His latest book is “Kill or Capture, How A Special Operations Task Force Took Down a Notorious al Qaeda terrorist.”
We should note, Matthew Alexander is a pseudonym he uses for obvious security reasons.
Thank you very much for joining us tonight.
MATTHEW ALEXANDER, FORMER MILITARY INTEROGATOR: Thanks for having me, Lawrence.
O‘DONNELL: You just heard Donald Rumsfeld say that anyone—anyone who suggests that the enhanced techniques, waterboarding, did not produce an enormous amount of valuable intelligence just isn‘t facing the truth. Did we get an enormous amount of valuable intelligence from waterboarding?
ALEXANDER: Well, what former secretary Rumsfeld should explain to us then is how come we didn‘t find or locate Osama bin Laden back when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded in 2002 or ‘03, after his capture, and when these other detainees were exposed to other enhanced interrogation techniques.
Those techniques ended years ago, and never resulted in the critical pieces of information that would have handed us bin Lad and his exact location. This notion that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed gave us a critical piece, first of all, it came a year after he was waterboarded.
So it wasn‘t those techniques that got that information. What he gave us was a nickname of a courier that bin Laden used. That nickname was Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti.
Now if you understand the way al Qaeda indicates, they often use nicknames to indicate positions, not people. It‘s the equivalent of saying somebody is loggy (ph) to indicate they‘re a logistician in the United States Army.
So that information not particularly useful when you‘re trying to locate somebody, to name them, get their real name, their location, and then to follow them to your target.
O‘DONNELL: Now here‘s what makes no sense to me: the administration that says, as Rumsfeld did just then, we got enormous amounts of valuable intelligence from waterboarding, that is the same administration that ends waterboarding. This thing that‘s enormously valuable, they say, you know what‘s enormously valuable, but we‘re not going to do it anymore because we don‘t need it.
Why would you ever stop doing it if it was enormously valuable?
ALEXANDER: The reason why—and this is what you‘ll never hear torture advocates talk about—is because of the long-term negative consequences of using torture and abuse, which greatly outweigh any benefit you get from them.
I saw in Iraq when I was overseeing the interrogations of foreign fighters that the number one reason they stated for coming to Iraq to fight was because of the torture and abuse of prisoners at both Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
So we had effectively handed al Qaeda its number one recruiting tool. Those statistics were tracked by Department of Defense. I saw them in briefings. And this resulted in the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands of American soldiers in Iraq.
So these torture advocates, they don‘t want to talk about these long-term costs of having used torture, and how they far outweigh any benefit we ever had.
O‘DONNELL: I have always wondered about the torture discussion, whether, in your experience, the opposite of torture might actually work more easily. For example, treating someone very well, giving them the best food and the best blankets and making them the most comfortable, and then taking them away, Just taking those things away if they don‘t cooperate.
Trying to induce cooperation by giving them goodies.
ALEXANDER: What I found, Lawrence, is I never had to take things away. What I found is that when I treated people with respect, when I built a relationship of trust, when I changed their attitudes about me as an American interrogator, and what I stand for, I was able to get them to cooperate.
Our success rate in Iraq for my team was upwards of 80 percent. I have no doubt that American interrogators are more than capable of defeating al Qaeda terrorists in the interrogation booth, in the battle of wits.
O‘DONNELL: Matthew Alexander, former senior military interrogator, thank you for joining us tonight. Thank you for your service and your integrity in your service.
ALEXANDER: Thank you, Lawrence.
O‘DONNELL: On his radio show this morning, Glenn Beck said President Obama‘s scheduled trip to Ground Zero tomorrow is disgusting. Beck gets tonight‘s Rewrite.
And later President Obama asked for unity following the death of Osama bin Laden. But Republicans have a presidential debate scheduled for tomorrow. So much for unity.
O‘DONNELL: In the Rewrite tonight, the narrative on the far right is starting to shift around President Obama‘s decision to kill Osama bin Laden and just what kind of decision that really was. Here‘s Rush Limbaugh earlier today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I mean, it was gutsy on Sunday. But on Monday, it was really gutsy. And yesterday, it was profoundly gutsy. And today, it was unbelievably, incomprehensibly gutsy.
But isn‘t that a bit of a stretch, especially in view of the fact—look at it this way, if it ever got out that Obama had passed on a chance at capturing or killing bin Laden, Obama‘s political career is over.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: Now you would think that a president‘s political career would be over if he passed on a chance to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. But that‘s not what happened to George W. Bush. He passed on a chance to get Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora less than 90 days after 9/11.
Yes, he was criticized by some for that. But not by Rush Limbaugh. Senator John Kerry criticized Bush for letting bin Laden escape at Tora Bora. John Kerry actually had real experience making kill decisions in combat in Vietnam, the war that Rush Limbaugh and George W. Bush exercised their cowardly prerogatives of avoiding service in.
John Kerry did not exactly end Bush‘s political career.
Glenn Beck has now grown impatient. Glenn Beck thinks President Obama should have taken one bow for killing Osama bin Laden, then left the stage. Here is Beck from his radio show today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GLENN BECK, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: President Obama is going to visit Ground Zero. George Bush is not going to go with him. George Bush turned down Obama‘s invitation to go to the site because he wanted to stay out of the spotlight.
I would think that maybe it‘s because you would need hand sanitizer afterwards, because you‘d feel so slimy after doing this. This is the first visit to Ground Zero that Obama has made since he was a candidate.
What is the occasion other than UBL? Is there another—is there another reason or is it just to sop up some more glory and take a victory lap? It‘s disgusting.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: I know. I know. You‘re thinking Beck would never have said that if a Republican president had killed Osama bin Laden. There would be no limit to how many victory laps Beck would urge a Republican president to do if a Republican president had been smart enough or lucky enough to kill Osama bin Laden.
But in this case, Beck, never much for consistency, is actually contradicting the position Beck took on Monday after a Democratic president killed Osama bin Laden.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BECK: You may have seen students jumping into the lake in Ohio and rushing to the White House baring signs and smoking cigars. As I watched these things happen last night, I couldn‘t help but be reminded of when the Palestinians danced in the streets and passed out candy after the 9/11 attacks, when they danced in the streets over the killing of five American students and the slaughter of a Jewish family.
All of these things you know and I know were offensive. All of those victims were innocent. America, we are better than this. We‘re better than jumping into lakes and holding signs and cigars. I think we‘re better than that.
I mean, why hand out candy? When you can have cookies and confetti and a marching band?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: Cookies and confetti and a marching band. So after saying the event was worthy of a marching band, Beck now says that the president of the United States going to the place that made Osama bin Laden the most famous and dangerous terrorist in history is inappropriate. In Beck‘s word, disgusting.
Disgusting. As he‘s proven time and time again, disgusting is way too nice a word for Glenn Beck.
O‘DONNELL: Despite President Obama‘s call for post 9/11-like unity after the killing of Osama bin Laden, politicians will always be politicians. And the slow starting Republican presidential primary campaign has its first debate scheduled for tomorrow.
The current Republican front runners, the overly serious Mitt Romney and the joke, Donald Trump, will not be participating. Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum are the only candidates with any chance of being on the Republican ticket who will participate.
Joining them will be Ron Paul, Hermann Cain and Gary Johnson, whoever he is. We are just learning that the Associated Press will not be covering the debate. Its statement in part reads, “the debate sponsors, Fox News Channel and the South Carolina Republican Party, will only allow photos to be taken in the moments ahead of the debate and not during the event itself. These are restrictions that violate basic demands of news gathering.”
Joining me now, “Washington Post” columnist Dana Milbank. Thanks for joining me tonight.
DANA MILBANK, “THE WASHINGTON POST”: Good evening, Lawrence.
O‘DONNELL: Who is going to watch this debate for what reason? This is Pawlenty versus Santorum for the vice presidential nomination, isn‘t it?
MILBANK: Lawrence, this could be the most embarrassing moment in television since Tucker Carlson was --
O‘DONNELL: Now you‘ve got me interested. Now I might have to watch it.
MILBANK: Think about it. How bad must these guys who are participating feel that even Newt Gingrich said, all right, this is so embarrassing, I don‘t even want to be seen with you guys.
So what‘s going to happen here, of course, is it‘s a freak show. Ron Paul is easily the most recognizable guy there. You couldn‘t pick Gary Johnson out of a lineup. He‘ll dominate the debate.
Then poor Tim Pawlenty—you‘re generous saying Santorum could win. But Tim Pawlenty is arguably the only serious candidate there. He‘s going to be dragged into the muck with the rest of these guys. So the smartest ones are those who have sat it out.
O‘DONNELL: Isn‘t it a warm up exercise for Pawlenty and Santorum, see how it feels to be up on that stage when no one is watching?
MILBANK: They want to gain some visibility. I think the smartest guy of all is Mitch Daniels. I saw him speak in Washington today. He said, look, I took a chance staying out, that the thing would get away from me and couldn‘t get in this late.
He said, well, look what‘s happened here. It turned out there was no risk at all. He‘s looking better than he ever has, and—as well as whatever ghosts are out there that could still join.
O‘DONNELL: Now what can they say about President Obama? Surely Osama bin Laden will come up at some point in this debate. How are they going to play it.
MILBANK: Well, I‘ve seen very little hesitation. I clocked it in about 13 hours the bin Laden piece, the era of national unity. That‘s gone already. I suspect they‘ll quickly move beyond the whole foreign policy thing and just have it be open season on Obama.
That‘s largely what‘s happened in the Congress. The House of
Representatives didn‘t even have a resolution, a ceremonial resolution to
say hey, that‘s a good job. Glad we got this killer out there. They just
they have ways of bringing up these resolutions. They chose not to do that.
I suspect they‘ll just move along and get right into gays, guns and abortion, which is what‘s been dominating this primary field.
O‘DONNELL: We may be hearing George W. Bush getting an awful lot of credit for the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden tomorrow.
MILBANK: If not Dick Cheney.
O‘DONNELL: Right, right. Sarah Palin, by the way, before we close, did a very brave Tweet today, after the president decide t not to release the photographs. She sent out that Tweet she had ready, saying “you should release the photographs.” Everyone believed she had one for either—whichever way the president decided it?
MILBANK: Imagine the optics tomorrow. You have the president, despite Glenn Beck‘s protest, appearing there at Ground Zero. And then you have these other candidates dueling with Ron Paul on the stage in South Carolina.
O‘DONNELL: “Washington Post” columnist Dana Milbank, I won‘t ask you what you‘ll be watching tomorrow night?
MILBANK: THE LAST WORD..
O‘DONNELL: All right, set your Tivos for this hour tomorrow night. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be here. “THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW” is up next. Good evening, Rachel.
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