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MEET THE PRESS
GUESTS: Ambassador Paul Bremer, Presidential Envoy to Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, Commander of Coalition Forces in Iraq, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., David Broder, Washington Post, Ron Brownstein, Los Angeles Times, Lisa Myers, NBC News
MODERATOR/PANELIST: Tim Russert, NBC News
This is a rush transcript provided for the information and convenience of the press. Accuracy is not guaranteed. In case of doubt, please check with MEET THE PRESS - NBC NEWS(202)885-4598 (Sundays: (202)885-4200)
Meet the Press (NBC News) - Sunday, April 4, 2004
MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday, Iraq. More than 40 Americans killed this past week. Japanese, South Koreans, Italians, British, Canadian, American and other civilians taken hostage. The debate is heated. We'll stay the course in Iraq:
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We'll stay the course in Iraq.
SEN. TED KENNEDY, (D-MA): Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam.
MR. RUSSERT: With us: former POW and one-time presidential candidate, Senator John McCain of Arizona.
The White House releases the presidential daily briefing of August 6, 2001, entitled: "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US." How will this and the findings of the September 11th commission affect the race between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry?
Insights and analysis from David Broder of The Washington Post, Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times and Lisa Myers of NBC News.
But first, a very difficult and bloody week in Iraq. At least 47 Americans have been killed. For the very latest, we are joined from Baghdad by the presidential envoy to Iraq, Ambassador Paul Bremer, and the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez.
Ambassador Paul Bremer, good morning. Senator Joe Biden said the other day, "We are on the verge of losing control of Iraq." Is he correct?
AMB. PAUL BREMER: No. I have a lot of respect for the senator. He was out here visiting us not too long ago, but I think that goes too far. We've got several thousand people who are anti-democratic, who don't believe in the kind of Iraq that we are trying to build and which the majority of Iraqis want and we're going to have to deal with them. We'll deal with them militarily and politically and we'll continue to build a stable democratic Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, said the lid of the pressure cooker has come off. Would that be an accurate statement?
AMB. BREMER: Well, I have a different image I use. It's not all that different. I think it's fair to say that there was, over 35 years, a lot of poison was built up in the Iraqi body politic. And what's coming out now is that poison. We're seeing it in the form of these few thousand people who are standing against the Iraqi people. And we're going to have to deal with that. It's just as well that we're dealing with it now rather than later.
MR. RUSSERT: We have achieved a cease-fire in Fallujah. Will the United States insist that local officials turn over those who killed the four American contractors?
AMB. BREMER: Of course, we want the people who killed our contractors. We want the people who desecrated their bodies. We want the people who have been killing our people. But let's wait and see first if we can get the cease-fire stabilized. Then we'll get down to the actual discussions, which are being conducted by some very brave members of the Governing Council.
MR. RUSSERT: Will we insist on arresting the cleric, Muqtada Sadr?
AMB. BREMER: What you have here is a guy who is subject to an arrest warrant issued by an Iraqi investigating magistrate and a judge for murder. And we've said he has to face Iraqi justice. We are hopeful that we will be able to bring him to justice with a minimum of bloodshed.
MR. RUSSERT: Was it a mistake to shut down Sadr's newspaper, which seemed to rally support on his behalf?
AMB. BREMER: No, I don't think so. You know, we've known that this guy and his supporters were going to be a problem for some time. We've been working and watching what was happening. He was building up more and more violence. His newspaper was basically leading to incite people to go out and kill more Americans. And I think it was clear we could not allow that to continue because it was putting Americans at risk.
MR. RUSSERT: General Sanchez, if I could ask you a couple of questions. The Iraq battalion, their new army, refused to fight in Fallujah, saying they, "Didn't sign up to fight their fellow Iraqis." How much has that put American troops at risk that the Iraqi army won't fight by our side?
LT. GEN. RICARDO SANCHEZ: This one specific instance did, in fact, uncover some significant challenges in some of the Iraqi security force structures that have been put into place over the course of the last six months. We knew that there were some risks that we were taking by standing up security forces quickly and it's we also know that it's going to take us a while to stand up reliable forces that can accept responsibility for both the internal and the external security of the country. We've got to continue to work that. We're committed to establishing those forces and handing over that security mission where possible as quickly as possible.
MR. RUSSERT: Until the situation becomes more secure, will the 25,000 American troops that were scheduled to be rotated out of Iraq be staying in Iraq?
LT. GEN. SANCHEZ: Well, as we've stated already, we're going to manage the redeployment of those forces. I currently have 129,000 American soldiers or servicemembers here in the country, and we'll manage their redeployment as the operational and tactical situation dictates.
MR. RUSSERT: Will you need more American troops?
LT. GEN. SANCHEZ: No. At this time, I think what we're seeing is that the forces that we have on the ground are adequate with the management of the redeployment.
MR. RUSSERT: More than 30 hostages have been taken. Will you be negotiating for their release?
AMB. BREMER: No, we don't negotiate for hostage release.
MR. RUSSERT: Not whatsoever.
AMB. BREMER: No.
MR. RUSSERT: June 30: You're going to turn the keys over to the Iraqis. Who do you turn them over to?
AMB. BREMER: Well, that's a good question, and it's an important part of the ongoing crisis we have here now. We've always said that there are two dimensions to dealing with the problems of Iraq. One, of course, is the military dimension, which we're working on right now, but the other is to give a political perspective for the Iraqis to have more and more responsibility. We've been working on that for months. We are now working with the secretary-general of the U.N.'s special representative here, Mr. Brahimi, to figure out the best way to get a representative government in place before the end of June so it has a little practice and then turn over sovereignty to it on June 30. And I'm confident that working with him and with the Iraqi people, we, in fact, will get that. We'll get a representative government in place before June 30.
MR. RUSSERT: Vice President Cheney, in the days before the war, said that we would be greeted as liberators. What happened? Why such a prolonged, fierce resistance?
AMB. BREMER: Well, first of all, we were greeted as liberators, and we are still viewed by many Iraqis as liberators. If you read the opinion polls, the Iraqi people are very delighted that we were able to liberate them from Saddam's tyranny. But then there are two contradictory things in those polls, and they've been there right from the start. One, they don't like to be occupied, and I don't blame them. It's not a nice word, to be occupied. But, secondly, they don't really want us to go home because they are worried that they are not capable of dealing with their own security. And one of the things that this last week has shown is that, in fact, there still is a lot of work to be done, as General Sanchez pointed out, building up a professional Iraqi security force. So I think we'll find as time goes on here that there's going to continue to be this contradictory view on the part of the Iraqi people. They don't really want us here and they really do want us not to leave.
MR. RUSSERT: John Burns of The New York Times was taken in custody for several hours, and his driver, who had been in prison for two years under Saddam, said, "It was God who finished Saddam, not the Americans," "The Americans broke all their promises to us, they have brought their infidel beliefs to Iraq. We hate them, and they are worse than Saddam." How do you deal with that mind-set?
AMB. BREMER: Well, first, isn't it nice that an Iraqi could speak his mind freely to a Western journalist a year after he would have had his tongue cut out for saying that under Saddam? Isn't that really the message?
MR. RUSSERT: But you're not concerned about the hearts and minds of the general population in Iraq turning against the United States and erupting, in effect, into a civil war?
AMB. BREMER: I believe we are seeing the few thousands of Iraqis who do not share the democratic vision of the future of Iraq that the vast majority of Iraqis show. Poll after poll, 90 percent or more want democracy here. What we see in these insurgents in Fallujah and in the mobs that support Sadr, we are seeing anti-democratic forces, enemies of freedom, and they simply have to be gotten out of the body politic here for Iraq to move forward. And that's the process we're in now. There will be some people, like the driver, who have that view, but that's not the majority view.
MR. RUSSERT: General Sanchez, how long should the American people expect that there be American troops in Iraq?
LT. GEN. SANCHEZ: Well, as I stated earlier, the requirement for us to hand over security to the Iraqi people will depend upon our ability to quickly stand up their security forces, the police, the army, and continuing to build a civil defense corps. And that's going to take us some time. We clearly showed some weaknesses here in the last couple of weeks, and we are re-tackling the problem with greater intensity to identify what leadership has to be built, and that will be all the way from the national level down to the local level, build the security forces down inside of small units, and police stations, to be able to provide the law and order in the cities and also to be able to give them the external security capacity over the course of the next couple of years. I think it's going to take us a while, but we're committed to it and we'll be here until it's done.
MR. RUSSERT: General Sanchez, we thank you and Ambassador Bremer for joining us. And, General, no matter what views Americans may have on the war, I know that this morning all your troops are in the thoughts and prayers of all of us, and we send to you and to them best wishes for a happy Easter and happy Passover.
GEN. SANCHEZ: Thank you, Mr. Russert.
MR. RUSSERT: And we'll be right back with Senator John McCain of Arizona after this quick break.
MR. RUSSERT: Iraq and the September 11th commission with Senator John McCain of Arizona, then our political roundtable, after this brief station break.
MR. RUSSERT: And we are back.
Senator John McCain, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN, (R-AZ): Thank you.
MR. RUSSERT: What should President George Bush tell the American people about Iraq?
SEN. McCAIN: That this is a tough, tough struggle. That democracy does not come easily to countries that have never known them before. We are going to do what's necessary to prevail. We cannot fail. The consequences of failure are so profound, we cannot contemplate it. The entire Middle East would evolve into a hot bed of terrorism that would strike directly at everything we stand for and believe in.
The benefits of success are enormous because once democracy works in Iraq, the days of the religious extremists and the despots in the Middle East are gone, and the breeding ground for terrorism will begin to dry up, and this is a tough struggle. And most of all, as you just mentioned to General Sanchez and Ambassador Bremer, these young people are wonderful people. They'll do what's necessary. They're ready to sacrifice. One of our divisions now is going to have to be extended who planned on coming home. It's tough.
But finally, I would also say we're going to have to expand our military presence there, and we're going to have to expand the United States Marine Corps and the United States Army.
MR. RUSSERT: We're going to need more American troops in Iraq?
SEN. McCAIN: Well, right now, as you know, because of this transition that's going on, we have a lot more than they had planned. They're going to have to stay, and others may have to come over that did not anticipate in doing so. And, again, we grieve for the families. We grieve for the families. But we know that these young men know what's at stake--and women know what's at stake, and they'll do what's right.
MR. RUSSERT: Where are we going to get these new, fresh troops? Are we going to have to increase and expand the size of the military?
SEN. McCAIN: Absolutely.
MR. RUSSERT: How are we...
SEN. McCAIN: The Marine Corps and the Army, and we may have to make some tough choices. We may have to cancel this airplane that's going to cost between $250 million and $300 million a copy. We may have to clean up the Pentagon, the way they do business, where they just process, which was started in the United States Senate in the appropriations process, it was going to cost $5 billion more to buy some tanker airplanes. We've got to change the way that we do business and put priority where it belongs, and that is making sure that we succeed in Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: Will we have to increase the size of the deficit in order to expand the military?
SEN. McCAIN: Oh, I think there's one thing that's obvious about this, is that we are going have to ask for more money after the election, and it's going to increase the size of the deficit. And, again, maybe we're going to have to make some tough choices. You know, during the Vietnam War, they accused Lyndon Johnson of employing a strategy of guns and butter. Well, now we're employing the strategy of guns and pork. Look at the highway bill that had 3,000 pork-barrel projects on it, including bridges to nowhere in Alaska. So we're going to have to make some tough choices on--budgetary wise, too. We can't do everything we were planning on doing; otherwise Medicare goes broke, Social Security goes broke.
Alan Greenspan, as you know, a couple of weeks ago said that we're going to have to change the benefit for retirees. Do you know a politician that's going to vote for that?
MR. RUSSERT: Since the Civil War, every president who has been at war has increased taxes. Should the president consider postponing his tax cut?
SEN. McCAIN: I would have--I voted against the tax cuts because of the disproportionate amount that went to the wealthy Americans. I would clearly support not extending those tax cuts in order to help address the deficit. But the middle-income tax credits, the families, the child tax credits, the marriage tax credits, all of those I would keep.
MR. RUSSERT: You have advocated from the beginning to have a robust force in Iraq. The other day you were up in Boston and quoted as saying this: "[Sen. John McCain] took on President Bush for failing to prepare Americans for a long involvement in Iraq, saying, `You can't fly in on an aircraft carrier and declare victory and have the deaths continue. You can't do that.'"
Was it premature of the president in May a year ago to say major combat is over?
SEN. McCAIN: No, because it was OK to say major combat is over, because it was. We're now fighting a very robust insurgency but not that conflict. I didn't think we needed to have "Mission Accomplished" banner, which by the way the crew doesn't decide what banners go up on aircraft carriers. But rather than--by the way, that was taken out of context in this respect. I said, as I said to you, we must win. We will win. We will prevail in Iraq. We must do what's necessary. But the American people need to be told in no uncertain terms how tough this challenge is. And they will support it. The American people are not uninformed. They know what's at stake here. But they need to be told it, and they need to be told it in no uncertain terms.
MR. RUSSERT: Should the president address the nation?
SEN. McCAIN: If not an address to the nation, certainly a press conference, I would recommend.
MR. RUSSERT: You heard Ambassador Bremer say that it's a few thousand Iraqis who are resisting.
SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.
MR. RUSSERT: How do we know that to be the case? How do we know that the Iraqis really do want a democratic form of government? Or, as the driver for one of the reporters said, we hate America more than we hated Saddam.
SEN. McCAIN: Well, first of all, logic, and that is that no group of people would be anything but happy to not be under this brutal, despotic regime. You saw the pictures of eight- and nine-year-old boys coming out of prison. I saw a mass grave of 3,000 people where they just butchered people. And the majority of Iraqis are glad that he's gone and want us to prevail.
In the Sunni triangle, as we've known all along, they were the group of Iraqis that were better off under Saddam Hussein because they were the favored few. And we are facing an insurgency here. And we need to recognize it and we need to go into Fallujah and take care of the problem, and we need to do it sooner rather than later. But there's no doubt in my mind that Iraq, America and the world are better off with Saddam Hussein gone. He used weapons of mass destruction. He had invaded his neighbors. He was a cruel and horrible despot, as were members of his family. And I believe the majority of the Iraqis need one thing now, and that is to know that we're there to stay, and we're going to do what's necessary to make sure they get a government that they can believe in and one that will satisfy the same aspirations and hopes that every person in the world has, and that's to live in a free and open and democratic society, and we can do it.
MR. RUSSERT: We're going to do what's necessary. We're there to stay. Should the American people be prepared for significant American casualties in a multi-year occupation of Iraq?
SEN. McCAIN: I think they have to be prepared for casualties. Every single American we lose grieves us all. I would remind you that during the Vietnam War, which we seem to draw these comparisons all the time, many times there were more Americans lost in a week than there has and there has been in this entire conflict. Yes, we have to prepare the American people for further casualties. And when we see these pictures of the families and the ceremonies, the funerals, it grieves us all. But they are fighting, Tim, for the noblest of all causes. And that is someone else's freedom, that someday the people of Iraq will have the same opportunities that we do. I know that sounds utopian, but I believe that all men and women are created equal. And so do they.
MR. RUSSERT: What if they choose an extreme Islamic fundamentalist state like Iran?
SEN. McCAIN: I don't think they will. And just as I don't believe that Iran today has the support--if Iranian people had their druthers, had their choice, they would throw this extremist government out. I cannot believe--the Iraqis are well educated, pretty sophisticated society. They wouldn't willingly choose that. They wouldn't choose Sadr over Sistani. Sistani has the majority support amongst the Shias in Iraq. I mean, it's just a fact. And we have to--suppose you're one of these Iraqi military guys who just came out of their training camp, and you're not sure the Americans are going to be there. What are you going to do? You're going to be a little bit cautious. As soon as the Iraqis are--it's made clear to them that we're going to do whatever is necessary, I think the better off we're going to be.
MR. RUSSERT: Might we have to reconstitute the draft?
SEN. McCAIN: I don't think so for several reasons. One is that the training that's required now doesn't lend itself to short enlistment. Second of all, the all-volunteer force has some of the finest men and women in our nation, and they're the very best. There's only one drawback to the draft, and it's obvious; not all Americans serve. And I have always believed that we should give every American an opportunity to serve--not draft them, but give them an opportunity, whether the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, all kinds of--Evan Bayh and I have supported for a long time a proposal that, for 18 months of military service, you get $18,000 in educational benefits. Americans are ready to serve. Let's give them the opportunity to do so. But I don't believe the return of the draft works.
MR. RUSSERT: Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said the other day we have good days, we have bad days. Did the administration underestimate the length and intensity of the resistance and put too few troops in Iraq from the very beginning?
SEN. McCAIN: I was over there last August, and I talked to sergeant majors and captains and colonels and others, and there was no doubt in my mind when I came back that we needed more troops in Iraq. And I had a breakfast with Secretary Rumsfeld and reiterated that as passionately as I could. And it's obvious that we're paying a heavy price, I think, for not having had enough troops there from the beginning. Having said that, things don't go well in wars. That's why we try to avoid them. In Korea, General McArthur, after organizing the greatest military operation in history, the Incheon landing, told President Truman the Chinese would never come into Korea. We make mistakes. And the thing to do now is fix it, but, yes, we needed more troops, and we're going to have to have some of these brave young people stay there longer than we would otherwise want them to.
MR. RUSSERT: You're also on the president's commission to find out what happened to the weapons of mass destruction. We all remember Colin Powell addressing the United Nations on February 5th of 2003, where he talked about these mobile launchers, trucks and rail cars, and showed those kinds of photographs. In his briefing, Secretary Powell went on to say, "Let me take you inside the intelligence file and share with you what we know from eyewitness accounts. We have first-hand descriptions of biological weapons, factories on wheels and rails," and the potency, he went on to say in his testimony, of all that.
The Los Angeles Times has now come forward with the following story. "Iraqi Defector's Tales Bolstered U.S. Case for War." And it says, "The Bush administration's prewar claims that Saddam had built a fleet of trucks and railroad cars to produce anthrax and other deadly germs were based chiefly on information from a now-discredited Iraqi defector code-named `Curveball,' according to current and former intelligence officials. ... Based largely on his account, President Bush and his aides repeatedly warned of the shadowy germ trucks, dubbed `Winnebagos of Death,' `Hell on Wheels' and they became a crucial part of the White House case for war--including Colin Powell's dramatic presentation to the United Nations"--we just saw. "Only later, U.S. officials said, did the CIA learn that the defector was the brother of Ahmed Chalabi's top aides, and begin to suspect that he might have been coached to provide false information."
Now, this is Mr. Chalabi, who's on the Governing Council, and he said this. "We are heroes in error. ... As far as we're concerned we've been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone, the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important."
SEN. McCAIN: Well, it's important in this respect. Why would we, by the way, depend on one defector for this information? But I still believe that we did the right thing by going in there because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, had used weapons of mass destruction. If he was still in power, he would be trying to acquire those weapons of mass destruction. Now let's set that aside and say that the greatest threat that we face is a use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States by a terrorist organization. The president of the United States needs the best possible intelligence information in order to make a decision to act pre-emptively if necessary. The world has changed. We may have to act pre-emptively. If that's the case, then we have to look back at what intelligence information you receive. Colin Powell also said in the last few days that he was not happy about the information he was given in his presentation to the U.N. Security Council and he wanted to know why. He said, "I've asked the CIA." That's the purpose of this commission, because we need to fix it so the American people will have confidence that the president of the United States is using absolutely accurate information when he makes decisions as far as military action is concerned.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Chalabi and his group are still getting $340,000 per month. That's $3.5 million a year, and no one can point to credible intelligence data they provided us. Should we stop those payments?
SEN. McCAIN: You know, that sounds logical that we should stop payment to a lot of organizations and people, but it's hard for me to know what the benefit or the loss of that is. I'm not...
MR. RUSSERT: If the president stood up today and said, "We have absolute, incontrovertible evidence and intelligence about North Korea and Iran," do you believe that people in this country and the world community would believe him?
SEN. McCAIN: I do, but I think there would be more questioning as a result of what happened prior to our invasion of Iraq, and that's why we need to fix it. And these are problems that are endemic and organizational, and--you know, for example, we know getting back a little bit to the 9/11 thing, we knew that a couple of people were taking pilot training in Phoenix and it was reported. Why didn't that get to the right place? So we've got a lot of questions that need to be answered.
And one of the things that's going to come out of this is a reorganization of our intelligence services, how we get information and how we use information.
MR. RUSSERT: You mentioned the September 11 commission. The White House released yesterday the August 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing. Dr. Rice had said prior to the release that it was "historical information based on old reporting." Having read the daily briefing, do you believe that that is an accurate description?
SEN. McCAIN: I think it's mostly accurate, because most of that memorandum was based on information they gained in the 1990s. Should it have raised more of an alarm bell than it--rang more of an alarm bell than it did? I think in hindsight that's probably true. But, you know, Tim, the administration, both Clinton and Bush administration, hold responsibility, our intelligence service, our Congress. Where was Congress? We have intelligence committees. Where was the media when some of this information came to light? We're all responsible. But there's one group that's to blame, and that's al-Qaeda and the people associated with them that continue to this day to want to destroy the United States of America and everything we stand for.
I thought Dr. Rice's performance was very good before the 9-11 Commission. Did she answer all the questions? No. But I think that she did a good job.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to your own future. The Boston Globe wrote this: "If there's a consensus among Kerry aides about who would be the boldest and most potent pick as vice president, it is Senator John McCain of Arizona, a Republican."
And The New York Times said this: "Democrats close to Mr. Kerry, including some advisers, said Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, remained a highly alluring choice. One adviser said the choice would almost guarantee Mr. Kerry's election."
Would you under any circumstances run as John Kerry's vice president?
SEN. McCAIN: When my kids were smaller, my wife used to wear a T-shirt that said, "What part of no don't you understand?" I'd like to start wearing that T-shirt myself. No, no and no. I will not leave the Republican Party. I cherish the ideals and principles of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. I will not be vice president of the United States under any circumstances. I feel I can be far more effective in helping shape policy in the future of this country as a United States senator, and I will not, I will not, stand for vice president of the United States.
MR. RUSSERT: What if you could stay as a Republican?
SEN. McCAIN: It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. I will not. I will not change.
MR. RUSSERT: And you'll vote for George W. Bush?
SEN. McCAIN: I am supporting President Bush. I have already campaigned for him. I am his co- chairman with Senator Jon Kyl in Arizona for his re-election. I believe that President Bush deserves re- election. Have we agreed on every issue? Of course not. We didn't agree on every issue when we ran against each other in the primary.
MR. RUSSERT: Well, you disagree with him on tax cuts, global warming, Medicare reform, gay marriage, energy bill. The list is long.
SEN. McCAIN: I agree with him on Iraq, on national security policy, on a broad variety of domestic issues that I think are important to the future of the country. And, yes, we have disagreement, but we have a cordial relationship. By the way, I'd like to mention that. And I think that he deserves re-election to be president of the United States.
MR. RUSSERT: Is he a better man that John Kerry?
SEN. McCAIN: Oh, I don't think we should judge it that way. I have said many times John Kerry is a friend of mine. I have many friends who are of different political philosophy that I wouldn't vote for but I think it's important to work with. You know, we have 51-49 Senate. You don't get anything passed without working in a bipartisan fashion, and I am not embarrassed to say that John Kerry is a friend of mine, but I want George Bush to be re-elected president of the United States.
MR. RUSSERT: And you will vote for him?
SEN. McCAIN: Not only vote for him, I have and will campaign for him.
MR. RUSSERT: Before you go, you have a new book out, "Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life." What's the most important lesson in this book?
SEN. McCAIN: That courage is something that based on love ideals and principles, and courage can be exercised, it can be obtained, and there are many people that I refer to in this book who have shown extraordinary courage, both ordinary individuals like John Lewis and great international heroines Aung San Suu Kyi who's led the fight for the freedom of the Burmese people. But courage is important, because as Winston Churchill says, all other qualities flow from it, and all of us can acquire courage and all of us can have a braver life.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator John McCain, thank you for your views. Happy Easter.
SEN. McCAIN: Thank you.
MR. RUSSERT: And we'll be right back with our political Roundtable, David Broder, Ron Brownstein and Lisa Myers.
MR. RUSSERT: And we are back.
Welcome all. Whether or not the 9-11 Commission hearings, the release of the presidential daily briefing, the situation if Iraq is going to play a role in the presidential campaign seems to be some indication that in the latest Newsweek polls, let's all take a look at them, John Kerry now has jumped into a lead, 50 to 43 over President Bush. Satisfied with the way things are going in the U.S.? Yes, satisfied, 36; no, dissatisfied, 59. Bush's handling of the economy, approve, is at 41, disapprove is 55. Handling of the war in Iraq, approve 44, disapprove 51. And Bush's handling of terrorism and homeland security, still strong number for the president, 59 to 35.
David Broder, what can we learn from this sampling of American public opinion?
MR. DAVID BRODER: Well, it's been a terrible week or 10 days for this country and therefore for the administration. But I think compounding it has been the fact that of all moments, the president chose this moment to disappear. At a time when the country really needs to hear from a president, from its president, and the world needs to hear from the president, he's gone silent on us, and it's inexplicable to me.
MR. RUSSERT: Ron Brownstein?
MR. RON BROWNSTEIN: Well, especially given how much they are trying to emphasize his identity as a decisive wartime leader as the core of the argument for re-election. What those numbers tell you, Tim, is that this election is primary a referendum on President Bush and his performance. The country seems to be judging him on three different variables. The economy, he has some good news, but his ratings on that are poor and may take some time to improve. Terrorism, he's under increased pressure and will be as the commission report continues, obviously, with the release of the daily briefing. But because we haven't been attacked since September 11th, his ratings on that have been strong and are likely to stay strong. And Iraq is sort of a wild card or a tipping point. The country's view of how Iraq is going and how the president is handling it is much more volatile than either of those other issues, the economy or terrorism. Very sensitive to contemporary events. It has plummeted over the last few weeks. It's brought down his approval rating with it, and when that happens, John Kerry moves into the lead.
MR. RUSSERT: I sense if there's anxiety about Iraq and anxiety about jobs and the economy, then an incumbent president has to worry?
MS. LISA MYERS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, especially one of the things the pollsters watch most closely are right track, wrong track, whether the country's at--in the right or wrong direction. And clearly this is a profound switch to find so many people who find what's going on in this country heading in the wrong direction, and that tends to be a referendum on the incumbent. But I talked to a lot of senior Republicans with a lot of political experience in the last 48 hours, and they're concerned primarily about a couple of things. They think the images coming out of Crawford are just terrible. It doesn't look like the president is in charge it. It doesn't look like he's concerned. They're particularly concerned that he doesn't seem to be showing more empathy for the families and for the troops in Iraq. And no one's suggested that the president doesn't care, but it's not being conveyed to the American people. I did notice the White House has added a visit to the wounded...
MR. RUSSERT: This morning.
MS. MYERS: ...to the president's schedule, and I think they're hearing a lot from Republicans around the country, "Hey, this has got to stop. You've got to get your act together and you've got to convey that you are in charge."
MR. RUSSERT: David Broder, have we heard anything specific or substantive from John Kerry as to what he would do about Iraq in some of these issues?
MR. BRODER: We've heard some general propositions that he would try to bring in more international support. But as many have pointed out, Kerry is limited in what he can say in this situation because of his own history on this subject. He voted for the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq and he voted against the funding for that war. He's not in a very strong position to say, "I have a different approach."
MR. BROWNSTEIN: David, I'm going to disagree a little bit. I think that he is limited by those earlier votes, but he has had--on an issue where he has wavered and been accused of splitting hairs, he's had one consistent point. Going back to his speech last September at The Brookings Institution, and really without variation since, he has argued that rather than trying to make these decisions that you talked about with Paul Bremer ourselves--what the new government is going to be, who's going to take over, who writes the constitution--we should turn over that entire process to the U.N. They should have the authority, both as a way of increasing legitimacy of the product inside Iraq and also as a means of bringing in more troops, possibly, to support our effort there.
Now, the question he faces is whether that option has been overrun by events, whether other nations are now going to come in under any circumstance. But I don't think--I mean, I think he has had a clearer alternative than he's given credit for. And, in part, they've been reluctant to go out too aggressively and delineate this difference at a time when troops are literally dying in the field for seeming not to support American forces.
MR. RUSSERT: We had the release of the presidential daily briefing of August 6, 2001. And I want to put some of it on the screen and share it with our viewers because it's important that they read and see it. "Al-Qa'ida members--including some who are US citizens--have resided in or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks. We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from [redacted]"-- foreign intelligence--"service in 1998 saying that Bin Ladin wanted to hijack US aircraft to gain the release of the `Blind Shaykh' al-Rahman and other US-held extremists."
And then the final two paragraphs: "Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York. The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the U.S. that it considers Bin Ladin-related. CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our Embassy in the United Arab Emirates in May saying that a group of Bin Laden supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives."
Other portions of the report are much more historical in nature. Dr. Rice, in her testimony, said this was "historical information based on old reporting." Lisa Myers, Democrats and critics of the administration are saying that just doesn't hold up. There was some contemporary information, intelligence cited. And, in fact, warnings of, not specifically September 11, but general enough that it should be treated as, "new information."
MS. MYERS: Well, certainly it is largely historical, but it is not entirely historical. There is contemporary threat information. What actually surprised me in reading this document was how unimpressive it was. When the president of the United States asked his intelligence agencies for information on the possibility that bin Laden would strike in the United States and what he would do, the idea that he got back largely information from the '90s and very little information about what people were really worried about right then strikes me as odd. I would think that the president would have gotten more. Clearly you can read into this document what you'd like to read. If you believe that the Bush administration didn't do enough, you can say, "Oh, there were clues. Here it talks about a possible attack on Washington, information from '98. It talks a potential for a hijacking, information also from '98." But then, it does have the fact that there are suspicious patterns of activities going on. The White House says, "Look, we looked into this. None of this produced any information that was relative to what happened on September 11."
MR. RUSSERT: David.
MR. BRODER: Tim, what strikes me about this is that the two White House officials who briefed reporters yesterday when this was released were asked: What did the president do when he got this memo? And they said, "Well, we can't discuss the president's response." That's stunning to me because it fits into what I'm afraid has been a pattern of passivity on the part of President Bush in dealing with this whole question of terrorism, a pattern that continues even today when we don't know where the president is in his thinking about what's happening now in Iraq, what's happening with the 9-11 Commission. The country needs a president at moments like this.
MR. RUSSERT: Condi Rice said that President Bush had us at our battle stations during this period, Ron Brownstein.
MR. BROWNSTEIN: And that's why--the point David made is just going to be so important. I mean, from this brief, you're probably going to see two lines of argument spin out over the course of this week. One is the question of whether Condi Rice was accurate in the way that she described it and was candid in the way she described it to the commission. She's already in a tangle with them over whether she received a report, a plan from Dick Clarke on how to combat al-Qaeda. She says it wasn't a plan, it was a set of ideas. You know, kind of a fine distinction.
The second and perhaps larger issue is what did the president do in response, the point that David made. We do not know. Richard Ben-Veniste asked her last week at the hearings, Condi Rice, whether the president asked to meet with the director of the FBI as a result of this report and she said she didn't know, she would get back to him. But I think there's going to be a lot of focus--the president was on vacation. He stayed on vacation. That doesn't mean he couldn't have been working on it, but I think people are going to want to know did this ring any alarm bells with him, and if it did, did he take any action?
MR. RUSSERT: Newsweek asked: Did the Bush administration, in effect, take terrorist threats seriously before 9/11 and here's the numbers. Took terrorist threats seriously, all 23; underestimated threat, 60. And you break it down by party. Even 41 percent of Republicans think the administration underestimated the threat; 76 percent of Democrats; 60 percent of Independents. Lisa Myers, what do those numbers show you?
MS. MYERS: Well, it shows you think, I think, that American people have a pretty good take on things. I think the Bush administration clearly underestimated the threat. I mean, it's obvious or we would have done more prior to 9/11. The Clinton administration underestimated the threat. I think if you did that poll and you substituted Clinton administration, FBI, CIA or the media, you would get much the same findings. Everyone underestimated the threat. I think politically what is far more dangerous to the president is what's going on now in Iraq and how he has handled the terrorist threat since 9/11, the whole issue of whether Iraq was a war of choice or a war of necessity. And I think that that will play much larger in the election than the arguments, which are gonna continue, about whether he did enough prior to 9/11. I don't think anyone has made a compelling case that anything--that the Bush administration could have done anything during its time that would have prevented 9/11.
MR. BROWNSTEIN: I completely agree, Lisa. I think the fact is what John McCain said to you is right. People view every institution in society as failing on this, from the media to the Congress to the FBI, by definition, because it happened, and as a result I think they are very reluctant to assign blame to President Bush or President Clinton for what happened before 9/11. I think the president is going to be judged far more by what he's done after 9/11, both on the terrorism front and especially on Iraq, because while the failure to prevent 9/11 may have a thousand authors, the war in Iraq is President Bush's. It is his signature contribution to the war on terror. It is the centerpiece of his vision on how you suppress terrorism, how you build a momentum toward democracy in the Islamic world, and the judgment on that, I think, pro or con, is going to reverberate much more powerfully than the verdict at hand.
MR. RUSSERT: But the president has to convince the American people Iraq is a centerpiece in the war on terror, because they support him on the war on terror. If they think it's a foolish, "side venture," then he does...
MR. BROWNSTEIN: Not only a side venture, but more people are making the argument that it's actually counterproductive. I mean, there's an argument out there saying, A, that he's diverted resources, the Dick Clarke argument, or, B, that he is allowing al-Qaeda to recruit, is becoming a recruitment tool for them to recruit Islamic extremists. So that is a threat to him, no doubt.
MR. BRODER: And the calendar works against the president at this point on Iraq because he is insisting on that June 30 hand over-date. And when you asked Ambassador Bremer, "To whom are you going to hand power," his response was, "That's a good question, Tim." That is not a good answer. And when we do not know--and not only don't we in the press know, not only does Tim Russert not know, but we've had the leading members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Lugar and Senator Biden, say, "Nobody in the administration is talking to them about what we think will happen or what we want to happen in Iraq after June 30th."
MR. RUSSERT: What are going to be the cutting, driving issues in this campaign, David?
MR. BRODER: Well, clearly Ron is right, that whatever the current state of affairs is in Iraq will have a huge impact. The economy is not going away as an issue, despite the good news that we have on the last month's employment figures. You talk to people, there is still anxiety about current jobs or future jobs.
MS. MYERS: One of the things, I think, that the Republicans around the country are worried about most right now is there are certain things that are beyond the White House's immediate control, but they have made an enormous number of mistakes since January on everything from economic reports, on the issue of outsourcing, on the whole handling of the 9-11 Commission. They have--the suspicion that the Bush White House has something to hide is something that the Bush White House simply created by bungling its relationship with the 9-11 Commission.
MR. BROWNSTEIN: If you were to say that the three big issues will be Iraq, terrorism and the economy in some order, I don't think anybody would disagree. But there are more of the intangible things that are going to matter, too. The most obvious one is the assessments of the personal follies, strength of leadership--the White House puts a lot of strength on that, and I think it's going even beyond that, beyond what the candidates talk about: the cultural divisions in the country. We've moved from a politics in which the electorate divides along lines of interest to one in which it divides more along lines of values. Indicators like how often do you go to church are becoming a very powerful predictor of how people vote. And I think an awful lot of the result is really out of the control of the candidates and is really in basic views about everything from abortion to gun control and the nature of the modern family that divides the country pretty close to in half, and leaves relatively few people out there to be heavily influenced by these things that we're talking about like the economy and terrorism and Iraq.
MS. MYERS: And when it comes to the president's personal characteristics, what is critical is the issue of trust. You see the Democrats out there every day trying to hammer away that the president has no credibility on health care, on a whole series of issues, and the White House is actually tried, I think, to do a much better job of giving the impression that the president is on top of things and is being straight with the American people.
MR. RUSSERT: And the Republicans pounding away on the flip-flops of John Kerry, day after day after day. In that Newsweek poll, President Bush is behind, but his supporters are much firmer in their support of President Bush than John Kerry's are right now.
My last point, incumbent presidents Clinton, Reagan win big landslides; Carter, former President Bush lose big landslides. Even though elections, we say, are going to be close, sometimes when it's an incumbent president, they either win or lose big, David Broder.
MR. BRODER: Because the judgment is made, as Ron had said earlier, about the person who is in office much more than his opponent, and that's why this election will really be about President Bush, not John Kerry.
MR. RUSSERT: To be continued. We'll be right back.
MR. RUSSERT: If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS. Happy Easter. Happy Passover.
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