updated 3/31/2004 12:39:03 PM ET 2004-03-31T17:39:03

Guests: Richard Ben-Veniste, James Thompson, Anna Eshoo, Dana Rohrabacher, David Gergen

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Under intense political pressure, the White House reverses itself, and allows National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify in public under oath before the 9/11 commission. 

And President Bush and Vice President Cheney will testify jointly in private before the full 9/11 panel. 

Let‘s play HARDBALL. 

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews. 

In a complete reversal, the Bush administration has decided to let National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice publicly testify under oath before the 9/11 commission.  Up until today, the White House has been adamant that Rice only interview with the commission in private, not under oath. 

So why did the White House decide to reverse itself, and who pushed for Rice to testify publicly? 

Here‘s President Bush today. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Today, I have informed the commission on terrorist attacks against the United States that my national security adviser, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, will provide public testimony. 

I have also advised Chairman Kean and Vice Chairman Hamilton that Vice President Cheney and I will jointly meet with all members of the commission in a private session. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  NBC‘s David Gregory joins us right now from the White House.

David, what changed the president‘s mind?

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Well, there was certainly so much political pressure, Chris, that was brought to bear by not only members of the commission of both parties but also Republicans on Capitol Hill, who were saying repeatedly to this White House, “Look, you‘ve got to let it go.  She‘s out there, meaning Dr. Rice, talking about these matters.  Have her testify.  She can be a terrific spokesperson for this administration.  In any event, get her out there talking about this publicly.” 

But more important than that, this is a conversation that they simply did not want to have any more.  It was a conversation initiated by Dick Clarke in his book, expanded upon in his sort of starring role before the 9/11 commission and perpetuated by a strategy that backfired, going on television to rebut Dick Clarke, only the story to be her willingness to go on TV but not testify.  It became politically untenable. 

MATTHEWS:  Who were the people—Do you know the people fighting her going on the witness chair?

GREGORY:  Well, originally, it was the president, it was the vice president, who had, of course, the strongest voices, who felt a number of things, that there was a separation of powers issue here, that executive privilege needed to be protected.  And that in essence, there was another way out of this. 

There‘s no question that this White House underestimated the real potency of Dick Clarke, as a witness against them, in the broadest sense, not just before the 9/11 commission, but with the charges that he leveled against the administration. 

And they clearly thought that they could undermine him through massive kind of P.R. blitz they initiated out of here that the president sanctioned.  But by having Condoleezza Rice catch some of the flak for this but also answer some of the questions in a different form other than the commission. 

Now I think they realize that the best hope to neutralize the commission report, which comes out in the heat of the campaign later in the summer, is to cooperate, to get in the middle of it, to try to clear up inconsistencies, to answer contradictions, to try to get their imprint on this commission‘s work, so that the final report really does reflect that. 

MATTHEWS:  Are they still afraid of Dick Clarke?

GREGORY:  Well, I—you know, I don‘t think anybody would say that they are afraid of him. 

They certainly think he‘s got credibility problems.  They think that he is casting blame at them, largely because of his disagreement over Iraq, and that these were not things he brought up before. 

But they are afraid of this issue.  They don‘t want to continue to have a conversation about whether this president did enough to avert 9/11.  They want to have a conversation about how well he handled the war on terror immediately afterward and since.  And why it was wise to go into Iraq...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

GREGORY:  ... and ultimately, you know, prevent bigger, badder attacks

down the line with weapons of mass destruction.  They don‘t want to have to

re-litigate the issue of 9/11, and that‘s, in essence, what they are being

forced to do. 

And he‘s got a lot of detail on his side, Chris.  He has been able to answer them and go toe to toe with them.  And it‘s certainly up to people to decide whether he‘s credible, what his motives are, but he‘s raising questions that are being reported on, fueling a conversation, and they have been fueling conversation that they don‘t want to have. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much, David Gregory, at the White House. 

We‘re joined right now by Richard Ben-Veniste.  He‘s one of the 9/11 commissioners. 

Thank you very much, Richard, for coming on the program. 

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, 9/11 COMMISSIONER:  Good to see you. 

MATTHEWS:  Right now, the American people, according to the Gallup poll, believe there‘s nothing this president or country could have done to prevent 9/11. 

Is that your belief?  Nothing could have been done?

BEN-VENISTE:  Actually, we have a lot of intelligence prior to 9/11 that had been collected. 

We knew that two of the hijackers were al Qaeda and were in the United States.  We didn‘t know they would be hijackers, but we knew they were associated with Osama bin Laden‘s organization.  We did not find them in time to interrupt the plot. 

We knew that Moussaoui was acting very erratically.  He had no experience in flying airplanes, and yet he was tying to learn to fly a commercial airliner.  We knew that he was associated with Islamic Jihadist elements. 

And so it seems to me that if that information had percolated up, if there had been an all-hands meeting at the White House with the cabinet, if they would have shaken the trees to find anything that they knew in this extraordinary threat environment, where we were hearing that something spectacular was going to happen.

Perhaps if their photographs had been put on television, if airports had been alerted, if the security measures that we might have put in place had been put in place, perhaps we could have interrupted 9/11. 

MATTHEWS:  Those are a lot of “if‘s.”  So far at the hearings, have you come across any one official who knew enough of those dots, or even two of them, that they could have connected them?

BEN-VENISTE:  Well, there are people all over the place have come forward now saying, yes, of course, everybody knew that planes as weapons had been something that had been discussed, and so forth.  And in fact, Dr.  Rice‘s statement after 9/11, that no one could have contemplated the use of airplanes as weapons... 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at that, Richard.  Let‘s take a second.  Let‘s take a look at what Condi Rice had to say on that subject, and then let‘s watch Dick Clarke contradict her, when she said no one could have imagined.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) 

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER:  I don‘t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon, that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile. 

All of this reporting about hijacking was about traditional hijacking. 

RICHARD CLARKE, FORMER COUNTER TERRORISM ADVISER:  As to your question about using aircraft as weapons, I was afraid beginning in 1996, not that the Cessna would fly into the Olympics, but that any size aircraft would be put into the Olympics. 

And during my inspection of the Atlanta Olympic security arrangements a month or two before the games, I was shocked the FBI hadn‘t put into effect any aircraft, air defense security arrangements, so I threw together an air defense for the Atlanta games, somewhat quickly, but I got an air defense system in place. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Richard, I think the person out there watching the show is trying to imagine, is there anyone official in a trusted position who knew the following points: that we had a couple of potential hijackers in the country, people involved with al Qaeda; that Moussaoui out there in Minnesota had been asking for flight training in the most advanced commercial jets, even though he couldn‘t fly a Piper Cub; and that we had this information, that the United States government through Richard Clarke had imagined use of airplanes as missiles. 

Is there any one person, including Clarke, that had all those three dots they could have connected?

BEN-VENISTE:  Well, that information had not come up to one person who was trying to protect the United States.  That was part of the problem.  This information was withheld, it never got up from the people in the FBI and the CIA who had it. 

But I think Dr. Rice will modify her statement, when she comes to testify before us—she already has in private—by saying, she could not have imagined, rather than no one could have imagined, because this was certainly a scenario that had been practiced for and had been contemplated. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of the contradictions pointed out in the “Washington Post,” by Walter Pinkus, one of the great investigator reporters, pointing out, for example, that the army had never been asked to develop a battle plan against al Qaeda, despite what she said. 

There had never been a CIA briefing, despite—requested, despite what she said. 

Do you see contradictions already in the papers between Condi Rice and what she actually did, what she said she did?

BEN-VENISTE:  I don‘t want to get into the specifics and prejudge it. 

We have received a great deal of information from a variety of sources.  We‘ve interviewed over 1,000 people.  We‘ve looked at two million pages of documents. 

I think that following Dr. Rice‘s testimony, a much greater illumination of the facts will be in the possession of the American public. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you have a sense of when she is going to come up to see you?

BEN-VENISTE:  I would think it won‘t be too long.  I would think that within the next few weeks. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Richard. 

Coming up, my interview with 9/11 commissioner James Thompson.  And later, NBC‘s Lisa Myers on how good a witness Richard Clarke is. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Still ahead, a hard look at Richard Clarke‘s testimony before the 9/11 commission.  Plus, President Bush takes aim at John Kerry in a new attack ad.  HARDBALL, back in a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Earlier today, I spoke with James Thompson, who‘s a 9/11 commissioner and the former governor of Illinois. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Governor Thompson, thanks for joining us tonight on

HARDBALL. 

Let me ask you about a discrepancy the other day.  It‘s over a period of days, actually, between what Condi Rice said and what Richard Clarke. 

Condi Rice said, and she said this on national television, she could not have imagined airplanes being used as missiles against the United States, whereas Richard Clarke said they had planned for that with regard to the Olympics in Atlanta. 

What do you make of that difference?

JAMES THOMPSON, 9/11 COMMISSIONER:   I‘m not sure exactly what she meant, but there‘s obviously a difference between the known event, the Olympics, a known place, Atlanta, a known time, and what happened on September 11 when out of over more than 4,000 planes in the air that day, al Qaeda picked out four. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about how—you know, you‘ve been in politics back when you were a governor a couple of terms.  You‘ve had private, very confidential staff people working for you.  Everybody knows I worked for Jimmy Carter and for Tip O‘Neill, and before that, for Ed Muskie. 

It would be tricky for me if somebody called me into a trial type situation where you‘re forced to testify under oath, and you‘re asked personal questions, was he nervous at the time?  Did he seem surprised?  Did he seem unaware of something? 

Those very professional questions, where the boss looks bad if you give them the right answer.  Are you going to avoid those kind of questions?

THOMPSON:  Well, I think in this case, you know, the president was right when he said that presidential assistants should not be compelled to testify by Congress, but we are not the Congress. 

But we‘re not the Congress.  We‘re the 9/11 commission.  There‘s no compulsion here, and I think the president rightly distinguished us from a congressional committee. 

Look, the president of the United States and the vice president of the United States and the former president and vice president are big boys.  They can take care of themselves. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you about the whole precedent question Ike Eisenhower back in 1954, during the McCarthy trials, basically—hearings rather, said anybody who testifies from my staff up on Capitol Hill will not have a job that night. 

So you clearly distinguish your role as a commissioner from that as a member of the Senate or the House? 

THOMPSON:  Oh, absolutely.  We‘re not the Congress, and we‘re not compelling.  If Condi Rice had not agreed or the president had not agreed to have her testify, we would not have subpoenaed her.  There is no compulsion here. 

And you‘ll remember that Admiral Leahy, who was the chief of staff under President Roosevelt, testified before the Pearl Harbor commission.  So there is a precedent, even for a congressional hearing. 

But we‘re not the Congress, and I think the president wisely decided that in these circumstances the good of the nation required testimony. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you believe that your body, which is composed in a bipartisan fashion, has performed in a bipartisan fashion?

THOMPSON:  I think so.  You know, we‘ve been in business, Chris, for over a year.  We‘ve never had a partisan vote.  And the vote today in the commission accepting the White House conditions for Condi Rice‘s testimony and the president and vice president‘s testimony was unanimous. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think you‘re better off—and we‘ve had some good hearings.  And you know this as well as I, we have had wonderful Senate hearings over the years, certainly with regard to Vietnam, the Army McCarthy hearings, the Vietnam hearings and all that, the rackets committee (ph).

And then we‘ve had pretty poor ones, like Iran Contra, that got completely out of hand because of showboating. 

Do you think you gentlemen perform more freely and more effectively because you don‘t have to face the voters?

THOMPSON:  I think the people on this commission—And I‘ll leave myself out of it.  The other nine commissioners are so professional and so well led by Governor Kean and by Lee Hamilton and so experienced, and they understand their place in history.

This commission is more important than any commission we‘ve had in the history of the country, and I think the commission will respond accordingly. 

MATTHEWS:  Have you read portions of the book by Richard Clarke?

THOMPSON:  I have. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of the rather stirring comment in the book where the United States policy is focused very much on getting the Taliban leadership broken and taken down so that we can destroy bin Laden‘s operation in Afghanistan. 

And then all of a sudden, the president is talking about Iraq within 24 hours of 9/11.  and the explanation given in the Clarke book is, Wolfowitz got to him, just one deputy member of a cabinet, secretary of defense, can you imagine staff—I am just asking a wide-open question, how can one person turn U.S. policy from chasing bin Laden to chasing Saddam Hussein?

THOMPSON:  The answer is he can‘t and he didn‘t. 

If you look at the Clarke book, when he recounts the time, I guess it was on September 12, when the president asked him about Iraq, he says in the book it was a perfectly legitimate, perfectly rational inquiry by the president because nobody knew at the time exactly what the connections were. 

When he got to the publishing of the book, and the interviews he gave at the time and the testimony that he gave before us, he said the president was trying to intimidate him. 

Now, he can‘t have it both ways.  There‘s no doubt that there are enormous contradictions between what he said in the book, what he said in the press interviews surrounding the book, what he said since that time, what he said in the testimony, and what he said in that now infamous press briefing in 2002. 

And that‘s why I was asking questions last week designed to get at the truth, what was true?

MATTHEWS:  What do you think his motive is, if it‘s not the truth?

THOMPSON:  Well, you know, I think it‘s a mixed motive. 

Look, I think Dick Clarke has done admirable work for the country, and I‘m not prepared to condemn him on a personal level, but I‘m charged by the people of America with finding out the truth.  And when I hear all the contradictory stories from one man within a very short piece of time, you know, I want to ask questions that the American people, I think, would want asked. 

Now you‘re going to interview him, as I understand it, tomorrow?

MATTHEWS:  Tomorrow.  We‘ve been waiting for it.  It‘s the big one tomorrow night at 7. 

THOMPSON:  Well, I heard you last night, I guess it was, talk about putting the hammer and tongs on him, going after him like a member of the Mafia.  I want to see those screws turned, man.  I want to see that vise tighten, and I‘ll be tuning in. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  You‘ll be meeting the Vilochi (ph) 2 here. 

Anyway, thank you very much, former governor Jim Thompson—former prosecutor Jim Thompson of Illinois.  Thank you, Mr. Commissioner.

Up next, NBC‘s Lisa Myers joins us for a look at Richard Clarke‘s testimony, and whether he‘s been consistent with his charges that the White House didn‘t do enough to fight terrorism. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Lisa Myers, who is NBC News‘ chief investigative correspondent, is here to assess the consistency of the statements made by both Richard Clarke and national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. 

Thank you, Lisa.  What‘s the basic charge that Clarke is making here?

LISA MYERS, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Well, the basic charge has changed over time in terms of the ferocity of it, but the basic charge is that terrorism in the early months of the Bush administration was an important but not an urgent priority.  That was one of the key sound bites for his—in his opening day testimony. 

And for that basic charge, there‘s a fair amount of evidence to support his point.  Three other former White House insiders, including former Treasury Secretary Paul O‘Neill, have said that the White House was more focused on issues like Iraq, Russia, China, missile defense, than it was on terrorism in the early days of the administration. 

The president himself, in an interview with Bob Woodward of the “Washington Post” for his book, had said that before 9/11, he viewed Osama bin Laden as a menace but not with the sense of urgency that he viewed him after 9/11. 

Now, the White House counter is, look, we maintained the Clinton policy during this period.  We were working on a tougher, more robust policy to go after al Qaeda.  The CIA director says he was briefing the president daily on terrorism threats, and on what was going on operationally around the world. 

The 9/11 commission, interestingly, did seem to criticize the administration for taking nine months to hash out a policy, and also noted that during the nine months, there were no new military plans or capabilities developed to go after al Qaeda. 

MATTHEWS:  Richard Clarke in his book said, Lisa, the quote is, “I

briefed Rice”—that‘s Condoleezza Rice—“on al Qaeda.  Her facial

expression gave me the impression that she had never heard of the term

before.”  Never heard of al Qaeda.  “So I added, ‘Most people think of it

as Osama bin Laden‘s group, but it‘s much more than that. It‘s a network—

it‘s a network of affiliated terrorist organizations with cells in over 50

countries, including the U.S.‘”

What do you make of that?  He implied that she didn‘t know what she was talking about, in fact, she didn‘t know what he was talking about.  She never heard of al Qaeda.  Is that a credible charge?

MYERS:  Well, that may be one of the least credible passages in Richard Clarke‘s book. 

Chris, you know Dr. Condoleezza Rice.  She‘s a very bright, well-educated woman.  She‘s an international specialist.  We even found speeches, and one particular radio interview in the year 2000 where she talks about al Qaeda.  I think you have a brief excerpt. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

RICE:  We don‘t want to wake up one day and find out that Osama bin Laden has been successful on our own territory.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, it‘s clear she knew what the basic substance was.  I guess the only question, Lisa, was she familiar with the term, al Qaeda, the base in Arabic, and whether that‘s an important detail or not.  I‘ll ask him that tomorrow night. 

Let‘s get to what you think.  What do you think is his biggest stumbling block in terms of public credibility?  Where does he has a contradiction here that you see?

MYERS:  Well, there are a couple of contradictions.  One is what he said while he was in the administration, in background briefings.  There‘s one particular background briefing in 2002 when there was a critical article had appeared about what the administration had done in the early days before 9/11.

And at that point, Clarke did the briefing and said, “Look, we increased terrorism funding fivefold.  We were changing the policy involving Pakistan, Uzbekistan,” two or three other things.  He essentially boasted that the Bush administration was going from a policy of trying to roll back al Qaeda, to trying to eliminate al Qaeda.  Now, he now says that‘s spin. 

I think where he gets into—onto thin ice is when he has escalated his rhetoric.  For example, it‘s one thing to say that terrorism was an important issue but not an urgent issue in the Bush administration.  There‘s a fair amount of evidence to support that, at least before 9/11. 

But then for him to say that the president did nothing before 9/11, or that he paid no attention to terrorism...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

MYERS:  ... that‘s a much tougher argument to make. 

The other issue is, he seems much more critical of the Bush administration than he is of the Clinton administration.  When the Clinton administration had eight years, a number of missed opportunities, to get bin Laden. 

His response is, Clarke‘s response is, well, the president was worried about Middle East, or the president was worried about that.  But he doesn‘t cut the same slack for President Bush. 

MATTHEWS:  I think his thorough going defense of President Clinton is getting Clinton in deeper water than he wanted to be into. 

Anyway, thank you very much.  I agree.  Lisa Myers from NBC‘s investigative team.  She‘s head of it. 

We‘ll be right back.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  This half-hour on HARDBALL, Condoleezza Rice will testify before the 9/11 Commission.  We‘ll have much more on the political fallout with David Gergen and Tony Blankley.  Plus, President Bush takes aim at John Kerry in a new political ad. 

But, first, the latest headlines right now.

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice will testify in public and under oath before the 9/11 Commission. 

I am joined right now by two members of the United States Congress, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo.  She‘s a Democrat on the Select Intelligence Committee.  And Congressman Dana Rohrabacher is Republican on the International Relations Committee.  Both are from California. 

Let me go to Congresswoman Eshoo. 

Doesn‘t this once again put the Democrats kind of at disadvantage?  They asked for Condi Rice to be under oath in public.  They are getting her.  Now what do you have to say? 

REP. ANNA ESHOO (D), CALIFORNIA:  Well, I think the call for Dr. Rice by not only Democrats, Chris, but by Republicans as well, and members of the 9/11 Commission, is the right thing to do. 

And so I think that this is something that the American people deserve, certainly the families of the victims, and I think that the call for her to testify finally with the acknowledgment to do so is really kind of stanching the flow.  It was digging a hole.  And if you are in a hole and you keep digging, I think you need to stop.  So this is an accomplishment, and it‘s the right thing to do. 

MATTHEWS:  Congressman Rohrabacher, do you agree that this has been a bipartisan call for Condi Rice to testify? 

REP. DANA ROHRABACHER ®, CALIFORNIA:  Excuse me. 

I think that, under these circumstances, that Republicans and Democrats would expect that the highest level of the administration would be there to explain things.  Let me note that there‘s been a lot of politicizing of this by the Democrats.  And it‘s outrageous.  The fact is, we had eight years of the Clinton administration, which laid the foundation for this tragedy that occurred on 9/11, and, in fact, al Qaeda was well on the way—this terrorist operation was well on the way the day George Bush was sworn into office.

And now we have some people trying to focus on those few months prior to 9/11, rather than all of the things that Clinton could have done and didn‘t do to get rid of al Qaeda and the Taliban? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, what about the charge by Richard Clarke that Condi Rice was totally unfamiliar with the al Qaeda organization, that when he mentioned the phrase to her, she seemed out to lunch?  What do you make of that? 

ROHRABACHER:  I don‘t believe a thing that that person has to say.

I will tell you something.  Richard Clarke was in the National Security Council and in a position to do something about the Taliban, to do something about al Qaeda.  He was at the highest levels of our government, and he let it go.  The Clinton administration was a total failure.  That‘s why al Qaeda was so entrenched in Afghanistan and had so much money that they were able to carry out an operation like 9/11. 

Richard Clarke should be apologizing to the American people. 

(CROSSTALK)

ROHRABACHER:  By the way, if he‘s sincere, let him give the money from his book to the victims of 9/11. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.

Let me ask you, Congresswoman Eshoo, is Richard Clarke—does he fill role in American life, like classic whistle-blower, the John Dean, the David Stockman, the Whittaker Chambers?  Is he one of these guys, the Valachi, who we need to have come out, even if they aren‘t the most enjoyable personalities, to tell us the truth, or don‘t you believe them? 

ESHOO:  Well, I think that he should be taken seriously.  I think that he is—obviously, he is an individual that has served with four administrations, three of them Republican, one of them Democrat.  So I think that what he has said should be taken seriously.  I take it seriously. 

Dana, it‘s too bad that you didn‘t get to testify before the 9/11 commission.  Most, frankly—all of the testimony, both from the former administration, eight years, and eight months of this administration, it doesn‘t jive with what you are saying. 

(CROSSTALK)

ESHOO:  I think it‘s a little over the top.  I think it‘s a little over the top. 

(CROSSTALK)  

ESHOO:  I think it‘s a little over the top.  But I could finish answering Chris‘s...

ROHRABACHER:  OK.  I thought you were addressing me. 

ESHOO:  Chris‘s question. 

ROHRABACHER:  Oh, I thought you were addressing me.  I‘m sorry. 

ESHOO:  That when people write and put information like this out, that it is important for the American people to weigh and measure what the individual says.  This is a recordation of our history and one of the most important parts of American history, not only the lead-up, but the day that our country was attacked. 

So, if we can learn from what the individuals have to say, in this case, Mr. Clarke, then we can better mend and fix what needs to be fixed in our intelligence community.  So I do take it seriously.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Congressman—I want to give Congressman Rohrabacher a healthy chance here.

Sir, you said that you didn‘t think—you obviously don‘t think much of Richard Clarke as a public official. 

ROHRABACHER:  No, I don‘t.  As you know, Chris...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Wait a minute.  Why did they put him in charge?  The big question here.  When we were hit the worst we have ever been hit, 9/11, the vice president and Condi Rice both, the two highest officials on deck at the time, turned over responsibility for all the first responses and all the direction of national policy to Dick Clarke.  If he is such a bad guy, why did they trust him so much? 

ROHRABACHER:  This is unfortunately what happens when you get involved in government.  You turn to the guy with the most experience, even though he has the most experience in flubbing the issue. 

Here was a guy who had enormous power for eight years.  I‘ll give you one example.  And you know, Chris, how involved I was in Afghanistan and with trying to get the Taliban and al Qaeda for the entire Clinton administration. 

I remember 1998, we could have—the Taliban had lost a battle in Mazar-e-Sharif.  And we had them.  I, in fact, talked to the leaders of the Northern Alliance at the time, said, now is your time to act.  Under Richard Clarke, no doubt had a say in this, they went and saved the Taliban.  They convinced the Northern Alliance, no, no, don‘t attack now.  Now is the time to negotiate when they had them right where they wanted. 

This happened time and time again during the Clinton years. 

There was either no action taken or the action actually bolstered the Taliban. 

ESHOO:  Chris, can I say something about this? 

ROHRABACHER:  All under Richard Clarke. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.

ESHOO:  I would like to weigh in on this.  I think for politicians to be credible, that we not go so far over the top.  The economy is Mr.  Clinton‘s fault.  The attack on this country now is President Clinton‘s fault.  I don‘t think so. 

I think we have to be a lot more measured, and I think that whether we like what—whether we like the person or not, the accounting that he has given, the American people are paying attention to.  What the outcome is going to be, we don‘t know. 

(CROSSTALK)

ESHOO:  But I think he has offered very important testimony. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK.

(CROSSTALK)

ROHRABACHER:  We are told by the al Qaeda prisoners that we have captured that it was the weak response during the Clinton years that convinced them that they could attack us on 9/11 with operation like that.  That‘s Richard Clarke. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher.  Thank you, sir.

Thank you, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, both of California.

ESHOO:  Thank you, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you both for joining us. 

If you are watching us from one of the 20 battleground states, the odds are pretty good you are going to see a campaign attack ad or two tonight.  The Bush campaign, as well as two organizations supporting John Kerry, have all unleashed a flurry of negative ads tonight. 

And as HARDBALL election support David Shuster reports, all of the ads contain distortions or misleading claims or both. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, NBC ELECTION CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  The latest negative ad from the Bush campaign tries to paint John Kerry as somebody who doesn‘t care about higher gas prices. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, BUSH-CHENEY CAMPAIGN AD)

NARRATOR:  Some people have wacky ideas, like taxing gasoline more so people drive less.  That‘s John Kerry.  He supported a 50-cent-a-gallon gas tax. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  But that was in a magazine interview 20 years ago.  Kerry quickly dropped the idea and never supported or promoted it in Congress, so this charge...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, BUSH-CHENEY CAMPAIGN AD)

NARRATOR:  If Kerry‘s gas tax increase were law, the average family would pay $657 more a year. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  ... is disingenuous.  Domestic issues, though, are at the heart of the latest Bush attack ads, and while it‘s the president who has lost more than two million American jobs, in this ad that started running last week, he tries to turn the tables. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, BUSH-CHENEY CAMPAIGN AD)

NARRATOR:  John Kerry‘s economic record, troubling.  Kerry voted to increase taxes on Social Security benefits. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Actually, John Kerry voted to raise taxes on Social Security payments to the wealthy.  It was in 1993 in part of the Clinton budget package that helped turn deficits into surpluses.  The Bush ad also claims:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, BUSH-CHENEY CAMPAIGN AD)

NARRATOR:  Now John Kerry‘s plan will raise taxes by at least $900 billion his first 100 days in office. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  However, Kerry has not proposed a $900 billion tax increase.  The Bush campaign came up with the figure by making assumptions about the cost of Kerry‘s programs.  Meanwhile, the president hasn‘t explained his own budget gaps, offered a specific plan to close the deficit, or accounted for the cost next year of the Iraq occupation. 

On the other side, Democratic groups are launching their own ads targeting the president. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MOVEON PAC AD)

NARRATOR:  George Bush shamelessly exploited 9/11 in his campaign commercials. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  But actually the Bush commercials use a fleeting image of 9/11, not the lingering focus that shameless exploitation implies. 

MoveOn.org, which, for legal purposes, now calls its ad unit MoveOn Pac, produced this ad on the president in less than five days, using 9/11 testimony last week from terrorism czar Richard Clarke. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MOVEON PAC AD)

RICHARD CLARKE, FORMER COUNTERTERRORISM ADVISER:  I find it outrageous that the president is running for reelection on the grounds that he‘s done such great things about terrorism.  He ignored terrorism for months when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  But Clarke himself told reporters during a background briefing terrorism was a top Bush administration priority.  Another ad attacking the president comes from a Democratic group called the Media Fund. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MEDIA FUND AD)

George Bush, he supported tax breaks for exporting jobs and he raided Social Security to pay for a tax cut for millionaires. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  But the surplus has long been used to help cover budget deficits, and the corporate tax breaks were in place before President Bush took office. 

(on camera):  Still, all of these attack ads are now slotted in key battleground states.  It‘s a part of the country where early impressions are especially crucial and where strategists say the benefits from distortions far outweigh the costs. 

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  When we come back, I‘m going to ask former presidential adviser David Gergen about National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testifying before the 9/11 Commission. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, David Gergen and Tony Blankley with the political fallout over the administration‘s decision to let Condoleezza Rice testify before the 9/11 Commission. 

HARDBALL back in a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  David Gergen hasn‘t been here in a while.  He‘s an adviser to four presidents over the years.  He‘s now at Harvard University.  Tony Blankley is editorial page editor of “The Washington Times.” 

I love your smirk, David, because I‘m going to ask you a smirkable question.

Could it be, am I the biggest cynic in the world, to think that maybe, just maybe, getting Condi Rice not to testify for all these weeks was the old Uncle Remus game on Disney?  Please don‘t throw me in that briar patch, please don‘t make Condi Rice testify, and then she becomes America‘s sweetheart two weeks from now?

DAVID GERGEN, HARVARD UNIVERSITY:  Well, I don‘t think this is Brer Rabbit?

MATTHEWS:  Are you that cynical?

GERGEN:  You know, I don‘t this so, Chris.  That is the ultimate HARDBALL solution, right? 

No, I think they truly did not want to do this, and I think it was not the question of just this testimony.  This administration has been committed for some time to rebuilding executive authority that they think has been weakened over the years by the press, by various—giving things up to Congress, abandoning too much control to Congress and the press.  And Dick Cheney insistence upon not disclosing names on the energy thing was all about trying to rebuild executive authority. 

I think this was the same thing.  And I just think they reached the point where they saw the handwriting on the wall.  They were digging themselves a hole.  and they saw that and they had to get out of the hole.  I think they cut their losses.  Good for them.  It will be ultimately good for the president, but, most importantly, it‘s good for the country that she is now going to testify under oath. 

TONY BLANKLEY, EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR, “THE WASHINGTON TIMES”:  I think David is right technically.  They have been concerned about executive privilege.  They do stand on that prerogative.

On the other hand, I talked to a lot of senior Republicans who believe that every day that the national debate is about terrorism, even if the news doesn‘t really look great for Bush on any given news cycle, it‘s good news for the president because he is still winning 60-40, 57-43, by very dramatic numbers, on that topic.  And to some extent, this is going to come back again in three weeks.  The Democrats are hooked in to having to talk about it and take it seriously. 

I don‘t think there‘s any smoking gun in here against the president. 

GERGEN:  Tony, Tony?

(CROSSTALK)

BLANKLEY:  Yes?

GERGEN:  Yes, Tony, let me just ask you.  Do you think the White House would welcome having Dick Clarke on front page every day next the three weeks and having him on television every day? 

BLANKLEY:  Well, the way you put it, the instinctive answer is no.  On the other hand, if it‘s not really having a deleterious effect—the topic of the president and terrorism—look, I happen to believe public has a lot of common sense. 

They understand, before September 11, neither Bush nor Clinton was seized with a sense of urgency.  And I think they take that for granted. 

The question is, what did the president do since then and what did the

Democrats and Republicans and everyone else do since then.  Remember, in

1942, Roosevelt ran against congressmen who had been isolationists.  And

almost all of them won because the public judged that it was a reasonable

before Pearl Harbor Day and it was only unreasonable afterwards.  So

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to that point.  Let me get to that point, both of you. 

The public polling as of today says that two-thirds of the American people believe that nothing really could have been done to prevent 9/11.  Are the Democrats stupid to keep going up against that brick wall, David Gergen? 

GERGEN:  I don‘t—I think the Democrats ought to not be going up against that wall.  I think that‘s a charge that won‘t stick against President Bush or against President Clinton, and it only invites all these Clinton stories anyway. 

I think the real issue is partly Iraq, but I think the larger issue that Dick Clarke has gotten to is, was the leadership—has the leadership in the war on terrorism been as effective and as tough-minded and as aggressive as it‘s been portrayed to be?  And I think that Dick Clarke has had a corrosive effect on that, that if it were allowed to stand—I think the reason they carpet-bombed him after he first appeared was, they could not stand to let his charges just air and be unconfronted.  They had to deal with them.

MATTHEWS:  So you so saying this has—you‘re saying that this has tended—the force of the last couple of weeks of debate over pre-9/11 behavior by the administration, do you believe it has brought down that percentage who believe blindly, or completely, I should say, intuitively, that the president isn‘t to blame? 

GERGEN:  I think the country has concluded that the president is not to blame for 9/11.  I don‘t think there‘s any evidence in Dick Clarke‘s testimony that contradicts that. 

This was a Pearl Harbor.  The president is not to blame for that, but I do think it‘s been corrosive for the White House.  And I think that‘s the very reason they reversed themselves today, because they realized they have been taking a beating the last two weeks.

(CROSSTALK)

GERGEN:  They have not handled this well. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Tony.

BLANKLEY:  It is uncomfortable for Democrats, but the Democrats are in a difficult strategic position.  They can‘t win this election unless they convince the public that the president was either dishonest or fundamentally wrong on his terrorism-Iraq policy. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘m not sure they have a strategic position.  You? 

BLANKLEY:  Well, I don‘t know. 

But—so the one point so, in one sense, they have got to get to that issue and beat them in it.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

BLANKLEY:  On the other hand, it looks like he‘s got a pretty solid position with the public on that based on the public‘s judgment of it.  So they sort of have to keep going at it, even though it‘s probably a loser for them. 

MATTHEWS:  I think they got tricked into going after someone who is extremely attractive and likable and she could be Miss Congeniality if she were not so smart, Condi Rice, and it looks like they were going after her, not the president. 

GERGEN:  Chris, this White House went ballistic with the Dick Clarke

event.  This was all about going after Dick Clarke.  They never wanted her

to testify.  Long before Dick Clarke appeared, they have been taking this

position.  The White House has gone completely

(CROSSTALK)

GERGEN:  They got themselves way out they.

MATTHEWS:  David Gergen, you are saying the White House is not as smart as I think they are? 

GERGEN:  I think the irony here is that Dick Clarke, who has been accused of lacking all the social skills, has been masterful in his political response to the White House.  I think he was outmaneuvering them. 

MATTHEWS:  More with David Gergen and Tony Blankley. 

Please stay with us.  We‘re coming back with HARDBALL‘s David Shuster, who is going to take a look at the new crop of political books hitting the shelves.  Lots of impact coming from the best-seller list, including Dick Clarke‘s book.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  The presidential campaign is already filled with charges and countercharges and speeches and TV ads.  Now the attacks are coming fast and furious in published books by former White House insiders. 

Once again, here‘s HARDBALL election correspondent David Shuster. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CLARKE:  ... in our cities. 

SHUSTER (voice-over):  After watching Richard Clarke pound President Bush over al Qaeda...

CLARKE:  Although I continued to say it was an urgent problem, I don‘t think it was ever treated that way. 

SHUSTER:  ... and after noticing Clarke‘s books skyrocket towards the top of the best-sellers lists, the Bush administration is finally getting some literary relief.  The newest political book comes from former White House adviser Karen Hughes.  A softer, more gentler Hughes appeared Monday night on ABC‘s “20/20.”

KAREN HUGHES, BUSH-CHENEY CAMPAIGN ADVISER:  So I remember this terrible, by day at the White House, knowing that we were working on really important things and how could I walk away from this, and at night, thinking, I have got to go home to Texas.  And it was awful. 

SHUSTER:  While Hughes may help bolster the president‘s caring image, the hammering on Iraq that began months ago with a book from former Treasury Secretary Paul O‘Neill will continue. 

O‘Neill wrote that the administration was obsessed with Iraq from the beginning.  In Richard Clarke‘s book—quote—“From everything I saw and heard, he,” O‘Neill, “is right.” 

Rush Limbaugh is already pummeling a Bob Woodward book on the president and Iraq, even though “Plan of Attack” doesn‘t come out for three more weeks.

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  I‘m told, by the way, that the Woodward book makes this one look an afternoon in a sandbox.

SHUSTER:  And at the end of April, Ambassador Joseph Wilson will release a book naming the White House advisers he blames for ruining the careers of CIA operatives, including Valerie Plame, Joe Wilson‘s wife.  Wilson‘s story began when Vice President Cheney sent him to Niger to investigate a claim of uranium being shipped to Iraq. 

Wilson determined the claim was unfounded, but the president‘s State of the Union speech included it anyway. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. 

SHUSTER:  After Wilson publicly criticized the speech, the White House retaliated, and a federal grand jury is trying to determine who in the administration leaked his wife‘s identity to reporters and whether the case warrants criminal charges. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  But, for now, the battle, the political battle, is over the author of the moment, Richard Clarke.  And he‘s about to begin a second round of interviews, including right here on HARDBALL Wednesday night.  And so, Chris, my question to you is, what are you going to ask this guy? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I‘m going to ask him the big stuff. 

And what I find about him that is fascinating is not the disputes over details, as much as the fact that here we have a real live insider.  This administration has been excellent at keeping secrets.  I want to get to a guy—and we are going to spend an hour with him tomorrow—trying to get secrets out of him.  The very things that they are trying to keep in, I want to get out tomorrow night. 

SHUSTER:  It sounds like you are a little surprised at how the White House has handled all this the last week. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I think that they were smart to assert executive privilege, because it‘s a 50-year-old executive privilege.  It‘s come down from Ike Eisenhower.  You can‘t do better than that in terms of credibility.

But I do think that they must have been aware that, sooner or later, they are going to have to come public.  And I think, tomorrow night, we‘re going to have the big enchilada talking. 

Tony, I got him tomorrow night, Clarke.  What do you think I should ask him? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t trust him, right? 

BLANKLEY:  What?

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t trust him.

BLANKLEY:  I think he—I don‘t know.  I think he has obviously

slanted his story from the past.  At least he has different stories

(CROSSTALK)  

MATTHEWS:  But is the kernel still true and whole? 

BLANKLEY:  Well, the kernel is that Bush was prepared before, that he wasn‘t urgent before the war and he was focused on Iraq afterwards. 

MATTHEWS:  Iraq afterwards.

BLANKLEY:  Well, he was focused on Iraq, but he did go to Afghanistan. 

So I have never understood how the gravamen of his attack is fundamental to

Bush, because I think

(CROSSTALK)  

MATTHEWS:  David, if you had him in a box, what would you ask him? 

GERGEN:  Chris, I think everybody is curious about his motivations here.  And he‘s clearly a very wounded individual and a passionate individual. 

I don‘t think he is doing it for partisan purposes at all, nor do I think he is trying to sell—just trying to sell books.  This is a fellow who, after all, on 9/11, when the plane was coming toward the White House and everybody ran, he stayed in position, put his life on the line. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  That‘s where we are going to start tomorrow night. 

GERGEN:  And you‘ve got to get to that.

MATTHEWS:  We‘re going to have him give us a complete narrative on what happened in the White House 9/11. 

Thank you, David Shuster.  Thank you, David Gergen and Tony Blankley.

Richard Clarke is my guest tomorrow for the whole hour.

Right now, it‘s time for the “COUNTDOWN” with Keith.

END   

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