updated 6/2/2004 10:23:54 AM ET 2004-06-02T14:23:54

Guests: Sean McCormick, Richard Lugar, Michael Weisskopf, Jane Mayer, Bob Zelnick, Michael Wolff, Franklin Foer

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  President Bush welcomed the new Iraqi president and the interim government today.  Tonight we‘ll get response from Senator Richard Lugar, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Plus the inside story of why the Bush administration dumped its man in Iraq, Ahmed Chalabi. 

And did “The New York Times” swallow bad information aimed at selling the war in Iraq?

Let‘s play HARDBALL. 

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews. 

The president spoke today from the White House, telling the world that a new government has been established in Iraq.  But the troubled country‘s new president didn‘t have U.S. support and is a critic of the coalition. 

Later we‘ll talk to two reporters about how the Bush administration got so bogged down in Iraq with Ahmed Chalabi and whether the media helped promote his credibility. 

But first, joining us from the White House is Shawn McCormick, spokesman for the National Security Council. 

Shawn, thank you very much for joining us.  Let me ask you this.  What does new president think of the new president of Iraq?

SHAWN MCCORMICK, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL SPOKESMAN:  Well, Chris, I think the president believes that today is a hopeful day for Iraq and the Iraqi people. 

He has spoken with President Ghazi.  He‘s also spoken with Prime Minister Allawi just this afternoon.  And both leaders expressed their intent to work in partnership with the United States and also to express their appreciation to the president and the American people for the sacrifices that America‘s military forces made in liberating Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  Is there an irony here, Sean, that in order to have someone credible in Baghdad, they have to be a little bit anti-American?

MCCORMICK:  Well, I think, Chris, we have—politics has broken out in Iraq.  We‘re not going to like every word that come out of the Iraqi interim government and they‘re not going to like everything that they hear us from necessarily. 

But there‘s a definite—a definite desire to work in partnership together, to stabilize Iraq so that the Iraqi people can realize a free, prosperous and democratic Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  You know that old expression, he that pays the piper calls the tune. 

MCCORMICK:  I‘ve heard that one, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well, you know politics because you‘re there standing on the White House lawn.  You wouldn‘t there be if you didn‘t. 

Let me ask you about this.  Who is paying the budget for all these office holders in Iraq, for their cars, their gas money, their salaries?  Where is all that money coming from?

MCCORMICK:  Well, in this immediate period before sovereignty is transferred, Chris, and I expect afterwards, we‘re going to help the interim Iraqi government with a lot of different needs, whether that be building schools or helping with sewage treatment plants or helping out with security. 

But the Iraqis understand that they need to and want to step up to the plate when it comes to their own security and stabilizing the country for their own people. 

MATTHEWS:  But if we‘re paying their salaries, don‘t they look like our employees?

MCCORMICK:  Well, Chris, they have also their own income streams.  They‘re going to have Iraqi oil revenues.  They‘re going to have aid and assistance from the international community.  So our portion of this will be only one part of what the Iraqis will have to rebuild their country. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about—So basically, we‘re subsidizing but they‘re also paying part of the cost of their government. 

MCCORMICK:  Well, we‘re helping with the reconstruction.  But they also have their own revenue streams coming in, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about this tricky question to come out of “TIME” magazine this week, the contract.  The latest contract.  It‘s called the—what‘s called the reconstruction of oil, of Iraqi oil deal, whatever it was, in Iraq. 

And it said in a memo from the Army Corps of Engineers, that the contract had been coordinated with the vice president‘s office.  Now everybody knows that Dick Cheney, the vice president of the United States, was the long time CEO of Halliburton. 

Is there a connection between his job as V.P. and his former job as head of Halliburton?

MCCORMICK:  Chris, not that I‘m aware of.  To my knowledge, all the contracting that‘s been done in Iraq has been done under contracting procedures that are well established and well within the norms of the law. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, why did his office have to check off for a deal then?

MCCORMICK:  Chris, I‘m not aware that they in fact had to check off. 

I just don‘t have the details of that story. 

MATTHEWS:  Can you find out?

MCCORMICK:  I‘ll certainly check into it for you. 

MATTHEWS:  Because I think a lot of people are wondering about whether he might be helping out his old company or not.  Just—you know, we live in a skeptical society, Sean.

MCCORMICK:  Sean. 

MATTHEWS:  And people say, well, if a guy was head of a big company, and now he‘s not, he may have some interest in that company. 

And now somebody in a memo, the Army Corps of Engineers, says this has been coordinated through the vice president‘s office.  They may get idea the V.P. has a hand in letting these contracts. 

MCCORMICK:  Yes.  Chris, again, I don‘t have the details of the “TIME” story.  But I understand that the contracting procedures have been followed in all the Iraq contracting cases.  And I‘m certain that the vice president‘s office would want to see that done that way. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about a tricky question of the power of the new Iraqi government, the interim government.  We‘re confident, right, that this government will be able to take over at the end of this month?

MCCORMICK:  What‘s going to happen at the end of the month, Chris, is that sovereignty will be transferred back to the Iraqi people in the form of transferring it back to this—back to this interim government, which is going to prepare the way for elections to be held at some point in the future. 

They‘re going to need some help.  They‘re going to need some help from us and from the international community.  And we‘re going to be there to lend a hand. 

MATTHEWS:  Who‘s going to be there?  You know, I don‘t know.  I‘m older than you so I remember Vietnam.  And we had a lot of prime ministers and presidents of Vietnam while our Army was there.  But with a half million troops in the country, I think we were the boss. 

Are we the boss still after June 30?  Or is this new government the boss?

MCCORMICK:  Well, Chris, I think that we‘re going to transfer full sovereignty back to this government.  This is going to be the Iraqi government that serves the Iraqi people.  It‘s not going to be the Iraqi people serving one master, as it did with Saddam Hussein. 

We‘re going to have an ambassador to this new government.  So this is going to be relationship between two sovereign countries. 

MATTHEWS:  Can they drop diplomatic relations with us and tell our ambassador to go home?

MCCORMICK:  Well, I don‘t expect that to happen, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  But could they?  Could they?

MCCORMICK:  They have—they will full sovereignty.  And I expect that they will exercise full sovereignty. 

But as part of that sovereignty, I expect that they‘re going to work in partnership with the United States, as well as the international community. 

MATTHEWS:  But having sovereignty, they do have the theoretical right. 

In fact, they have the constitutional right to tell us to leave.  Right?

MCCORMICK:  Chris, I expect that they‘re going to work in partnership with us, as we... 

MATTHEWS:  But could they, if they wanted to?  Would we leave if they told us to leave?

MCCORMICK:  Chris, I really don‘t anticipate that happening. 

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t?  Why wouldn‘t you anticipate that?  Wouldn‘t they want to show their independence by saying, “We don‘t need you, Uncle Sam.  Go home.  We‘re able to take over our own country now”? 

Why are you so sure they won‘t do that?

MCCORMICK:  Well, what we have to go on, Chris, are the facts.  And just in the phone calls today with the prime minister and the president, the new prime minister and the new president, both of those leaders expressed to the—to President Bush that they wanted to work in partnership with the United States, as well as the international community. 

They know—they realize that they have a task ahead of them, and they‘re looking for help from us and the international community.  But they also want to stand on their own two feet. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Sean McCormick. 

Kevin Kellems, the vice president‘s spokesman called and gave us this statement just now.  “The vice president and his staff have had no involvement whatsoever in government contracting decisions since he left private business to run for vice president.”

When we come back, Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on the countdown to the transfer of power in Iraq, when HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Senator Richard Lugar is—of Indiana is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

Senator Lugar, thank you for joining us from the capitol today.  Let me ask you about your general sense of this war with Iraq.  And this may sound shuddering, but I do wonder, do you think the war with Iraq was a blunder?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR (R-IN), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN:  No.  I think that we‘re going to have success.  That is, the Iraqis and the United States the rest of the world. 

But very clearly, it‘s going to call for some very cool heads and some very pragmatic activity for the next 30 days and then for a good while after that. 

MATTHEWS:  The reason I ask that is because some things you‘ve said, the question about whether the administration has a full appreciation of the situation. 

But also because the secretary of defense was on this program awhile back and seemed surprised that this is a difficult occupation.  And I wonder why anyone thought we could take over any country and not have a difficult occupation.  People are nationalistic. 

Are you surprised at the lack of preparation by this administration for the occupation?

LUGAR:  Well, I‘m not surprised in the sense that we had hearings that indicated that the preparation was inadequate.  That the understanding of Iraqi history and what was likely to be the reaction of the Iraqi people clearly was inadequate. 

On the other hand, there really is no value I can see, except an historian situation of going back and forth over that again and again.  We‘re at this point, whether the preparation was all right, is one—this is now real action presently. 

I think we‘re better prepared for this moment.  I think, as a matter of fact, the negotiations with the United Nations, Ambassador Brahimi, our Mr. Blackwell, the Iraqi Governing Council, things turned out differently in the selection than anyone would have anticipated. 

There were short lists of people.  The people selected for prime minister, for president, for vice presidents, were on the short list.  Not necessarily our first choice or anybody‘s, but pretty good choices.  Pragmatic, tough Iraqi politicians. 

MATTHEWS:  Can they stand up against what may a recurring effort by the neo conservatives in this administration, the Defense Department, et cetera, the vice president‘s office, to try to resurrect some role for Ahmed Chalabi?  Whether it‘s working as sort of the one guy wearing the suit in a Shia government, somehow involved in his relationship with the Iranian government. 

He seems like a guy who‘s not going to—almost Freddie Kruger in one of these horror movies, that keeps coming back in every sequel.  Are we rid of Ahmed Chalabi?

LUGAR:  No.  Even as we speak, Ahmed Chalabi, as I understand it, is busy attempting to negotiate some peace in Najaf with the young al-Sadr, which may or may not be productive. 

What I do notice, also, on the front page of “The New York Times,” a fairly well-informed story, as I understand it, that shows quite a substantial change.  Namely, that our armed forces are going to see as a prime mission, the protection of these new Iraqi politicians. 

That is, the protection of the people that were given sovereignty.  The protection of some of the buildings that we‘re building or the oil well repair or the reconstruction of roads. 

In other words, there‘s a sense now that our role will be much more one of enclosure of this experiment so that Iraqis can make it work. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s something I think all sides in this argument can agree on, so let‘s talk about it. 

It seems to me whether you‘re for or against this war, you thought it was blunder or not—and that pretty much includes the entire country, either they think that or they don‘t—you have to like the guys who are willing to stick their necks out, literally, and join our effort to democratize and stabilize that country. 

But what we‘ve seen so far is this almost commuter kind of war, like we saw in Vietnam.  Where everybody goes to, in this case, Saigon, which is the Green Zone, and spends the nights in there and then goes out on patrol once in awhile, leaving the Iraqis out there.  The people especially, as you say, we‘re putting our money on, who have been putting their money on us. 

How do we enlarge that notion of security beyond the Green Zone?

LUGAR:  Well, we enlarge it by much more careful and rapid training of police and Army people in Iraq.  We‘re bringing back, getting (ph) young people that were dismissed from the Army. 

We had to do that in a hurry at Fallujah, where essentially we hired an Iraqi general and several people from the armed forces in the past to go in after the insurgents, our Marines on the periphery. 

Now, this was widely politicized as simply ending the war in Fallujah.  In the same way people trying to negotiate with al-Sadr down in the south were criticized for trying to enclose the problem. 

But that‘s what we‘re going to be doing here.  We are, in fact, are turning over to Iraqis responsibility. 

Now one problem is we turn it over to some security Iraqi forces without giving them the arms they were promised.  Our shipments, our logistics support was faulty.  So that‘s got to be corrected, too, as a part of this equation. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you believe, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, that this new government being set up today as we speak, the interim government in Iraq, which is the government that was put together by the United Nations and the people over there in the governing council, in a kind of a coalition effort, do you think it will be recognized by the world community?

LUGAR:  Yes.  I think that there are good odds that the Security Council resolution that Great Britain and the United States have drafted and that now is being actively massaged is going to be adopted because it does undergird the international responsibility. 

Now, the U.N. itself, those folks are going to require security.  We‘re going to have to try to guard them, along with our few allies who are still there with us at this point. 

But that‘s worth doing, because they can be helpful in pulling together Iraqis from all over the country who will come to Baghdad or someplace else, who will have sort of the equivalent of a Loya Jirga in Iraq and bring forward some principles that might be a part of the constitution and the election rules for either December or January when they hold them. 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s your biggest worry about our turnover of authority?  It begins, of course, with the turnover to the new enter interim government at the end this month and ends with a general election in the beginning of next year. 

What do you see as a hurdle for us basically, really, really liberating that country and turning it back to the Iraqis?

LUGAR:  I think the expectations Iraqis will have for the new government.  In other words, suddenly, these folks, the new president and prime minister and what have you, the ministers, are in charge. 

The United States may still be blamed, but we‘re going to be sharing it with Iraqis now.  As a matter of fact, even though more power will come on and more oil may be pumped and more roads may get built, a lot of Iraqis are still jobless. 

And they are likely to become more and more rusty (ph).  In other words, it‘s going to become more of a bread and butter politics situation with the few insurgents thrown in, that we will try to eliminate with surgical strikes. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well, thank you very much, Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

Up next, an in-depth look at how Ahmed Chalabi went from White House favorite to persona non grata.

And later, did “The New York Times” swallow bad intel, bad intelligence meant to lead this country into war with Iraq?

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

How did Ahmed Chalabi go from being the Bush administration‘s most trusted Iraqi ally to its enemy?

According to this week‘s “TIME” magazine, “The White House has been steadily losing patience with its former client.  The beginning of the end came in February when Chalabi was quoted in a ‘London Daily Telegraph‘ article saying that even if the intelligence about Saddam Hussein‘s weapons programs that Chalabi passed to the United States before the war was faulty, it was not important”—Those were his words, “not important”—

“compared to the end result of toppling Saddam.”  Quote, “We were heroes in error,” he said in the article.  “Chalabi insists he was misquoted, but the damage was done.  Quote, “That set the president off,” a senior administration official told “TIME.”  The general feeling among top officials was “we‘ve got to do something about this guy.” 

Michael Weisskopf writes—write the “TIME” magazine piece on the U.S. fallout on Chalabi.  And Jane Mayer also wrote, I must say, a much longer piece chronicling Chalabi‘s fall from grace in the “New Yorker” magazine this week. 

Thank you both for coming on.

This is a fascinating story.  Whenever the United States gets involved with a third world country, we always have our favorite guy.  Whether it‘s Sim Vimbi (ph) in Angola or it‘s Diem in Vietnam.  It‘s usually the guy that can speak English we seem to fall in love with. 

Why did the United States fall head over heels for Ahmed Chalabi?

MICHAEL WEISSKOPF, “TIME” MAGAZINE:  Well, to begin with, he was a secular Shia, which was important in trying to get a force there capable of putting together a coalition, and the Shia, of course, make up the majority of Iraq, to topple then a Sunni power in Saddam. 

And as you say, he spoke English.  He was educated.

MATTHEWS:  He said the right things.  He was for democracy, he wasn‘t against Israel.  He was—he was for stability and modernization.  Everything we wanted to hear.

WEISSKOPF: That‘s right.

MATTHEWS:  Was he a B.S. artist or was he telling the truth?  Do we know?

WEISSKOPF:  That remains to be seen.  And of course, the main area people want to know what his credibility was like as in his intelligence.  Particularly, as it has to do with the unconventional weapons he claimed were in Iraq and we are now finding, were not there, of course. 

And that was the beginning of the end for him in terms of the administration, because this administration had rested its case so strongly, not only on his information, but in part, in a central way. 

MATTHEWS:  So what did he say?  I mean, most Americans who pay attention to this war, and that‘s about 70 percent of the people—a lot, actually—they do wonder why there are no weapons of mass destruction when we got there.  We were told there were going to be and that was the main reason a lot of us were told we were going to war.  The country was a danger to us. 

Some third world dictator is not much danger if he‘s got bows and arrows.  But if he‘s got nuclear, chemical and biological, look out. 

Why did he get away with it?

JANE MAYER, “THE NEW YORKER” MAGAZINE:  Well, he really provided a marketing campaign to the administration.  He was kind of like their Madison Avenue arm, you know? 

And what he provided were a bolstering of defectors, Iraqi exiles who said that they had personal knowledge of these weapons programs.  And one by one, they came out and they talked about chemical weapons and biological weapons and even nuclear weapons.  And...

MATTHEWS:  What is his defense of all this, throwing all this slop at us that wasn‘t true?  And he‘s the guy that gave us these guys.  He said, “Here‘s some guys that know about these weapons programs.”  And then it turns out that they were all lying to us. 

MAYER:  Well, he‘s been pretty unrepentant, really.  I spoke to him just a couple weeks ago.  And basically, what he was saying was, “I never said that what they were saying was true.  I just gave them to you.  You know, you can do whatever you wanted.  Believe them or not.” 

MATTHEWS:  In other words, he gave us what we wanted. 

MAYER:  He gave us very much what we wanted.  He studied what we wanted. 

That‘s the other thing about Chalabi, is he is one very bright operator.  And he studied American history, and he went to college here.  He went to graduate school here.  And he followed how Roosevelt saw World War II, and he tried copy it.  He just really worked the levers in Washington. 

MATTHEWS:  When you visit the Arab world, you usually meet the rug guys, the guys who sell the nice rugs.  Or they‘re selling potions.  You know, potency potions of whatever they‘ve got.  They‘ve got everything to sell over there. 

They know what we want.  They say, “I know what you want.  You know, my sister went to college with you.”  You know, they make up these incredible stories.  And they‘re really charming about it.  Is he one of those guys? 

MAYER:  He is incredibly charming. 

MATTHEWS:  He‘s the guy in the suit that‘s a charmer. 

MAYER:  He‘s incredible.  I mean, he charmed many of the top people in our government.  Paul Wolfowitz adored him.  Cheney‘s office...

MATTHEWS:  Did he charm Judy Miller at “The New York Times”?

MAYER:  I think she‘s very—been very taken with him.  And “The New York Times” has been taken by him. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  And all those big stories about WMD.

The neo conservative people who really believed in going to war with Iraq, they didn‘t like this guy.  They wanted regime change.  Who came first?  His argument that there was weapons of mass destruction there, that he gave to them, or did he know what they wanted, and he gave it to them?

MAYER:  His people said to me, they actually said, “We knew they wanted WMD information, and we sent out a bulletin saying find it.”  And so they gave it to them.  They knew what was needed to sell the war. 

MATTHEWS:  So he is a casting director. 

MAYER:  Just about.

MATTHEWS:  He went out and found people that would say they wanted what they—So we went to war because a guy knew there was a market for a war, and he sold us a war? 

MAYER:  He enabled the war.  There was—I think there was a feeling that the war was worth fighting among many people in this administration.  But in order to convince the country, they needed to try to get the populace behind it. 

And what Chalabi was able to do was to say Iraq was a threat to America.  So they—it was enough to pull public opinion. 

MATTHEWS:  How is this any different than William Randolph Hearst, the original guy back in the late 19th Century, who got us into a war with Spain?  How is it any different than this—this crowd, using “The New York Times,” using—Well, we‘ll come back. 

MAYER:  Well, it‘s (UNINTELLIGIBLE).  I‘m trying to say.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s a cloying question.  But anyway, Jane Mayer, Michael Weisskopf, we‘ll be right back to talk about the whole question.  How we got into war, thanks to the good offices of the vice president of the United States and Ahmed Chalabi.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  This half-hour on HARDBALL, did “The New York Times” hype the war in Iraq by relying too much on Ahmad Chalabi?  Plus, new blistering attacks from the Bush campaign against John Kerry.  How much more negative will the presidential campaign get? 

But, first, the latest headlines right now. 

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, we‘re already talking about it during the break here. 

Welcome back to HARDBALL.

We‘re back with “The New Yorker”‘s Jane Mayer and Michael Weisskopf of “TIME” magazine.

Michael, I guess it‘s so much a big story, it is almost hard to buy, that this one guy, this smooth operator, business guy, made a lot of money around the world, went to the vice president‘s office, got up to see Scooter Libby, the chief of staff, got to see the vice president, became best friends with the vice president, with people like Doug Feith and all at the people at the Defense Department, and convinced them that he had the goods to sell us on a war with Iraq. 

And it did work.  And the phrase was, he‘s the only guy to ever get his country back through the vice president‘s office, like he‘s a constituent.  I got this problem, Mr. Vice President.  I want my country back.  And the vice president says, what have you got?  He says, I‘ve got weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear.  He said, that‘s what we need.  We can make the case. 

WEISSKOPF:  Well, the threat here is oversimplifying this. 

After all, since the first Gulf War, the CIA has been amassing information, trying to find good enough reasons to go in after Saddam. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

WEISSKOPF:  And with a great deal of money.  This is an operation

that, as yet, in this administration, was earning about $350,000 a month

from the Department of Defense and amassing

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Who approved that money, that 4.2 a year.

WEISSKOPF:  Congress.  Congress. 

MATTHEWS:  And direct it to the INC, the Iraqi National Congress, to this guy‘s operation.

(CROSSTALK)

WEISSKOPF:  Yes. 

But it is too much to say, I think, too much to put it at the doorstep of one guy.  Clearly, he provided probably the tipping point in the days and the years leading up to the invasion.  But it, really, I think begs the point by saying, by blaming it entirely on him. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do people like—well, I have them on the program all the time here.  Lets‘ go, Perle, Richard Perle, Woolsey, the former FBI—

CIA director.  I can go through whole usual list of people who are neoconservative hawks, you might say.  They like him.  In fact, they‘re still out there fighting for him now.  Newt Gingrich is another fellow.  They‘re out there going to the vice—where did they go this week, to Condi Rice‘s office, demanding this guy be let off the hook. 

(CROSSTALK)

MAYER:  Well, he‘s a terrifically charming guy.

I interviewed him and found I liked him, too.  He‘s very intelligent.  He‘s quick.  He‘s funny.  He‘s smart.  He says wonderful things about democracy.  He has a tolerant view toward Israel.  These are all very good things.  It‘s just that it was sort of pie in the sky.  He said that we could do this war without many American troops.  And that was the other thing. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I wish these guys were a little less charming.

I may sound foolish and naive, but I fall for—I really like Perle.  I like Rumsfeld.  Some of these guys come on the show and they‘re unbelievably charming.  They‘re likable guys.  They have a great wry sense of humor.  Bibi Netanyahu has got a sense of humor.  These guys are hard-nosed hawks. 

MAYER:  It‘s just that...

MATTHEWS:  And they want war.  They are real warriors who seem to think the solution to the world‘s problem is an aggressive foreign policy that goes from Iraq to Iran and then keeps going. 

MAYER:  Well, it sounds great, except that it is not as easy to do as they make it sound.  And I think that‘s what everybody has seen.  And what was the plan?  Where was Chalabi to be in the end of this plan? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, how about this idea?  Suppose the United States goes to war.  We lose maybe 1,000 men.  We lose 4,000 guys badly injured.  OK, that happens.  At the end of it all, there‘s a Shia government over there headed formally by a cleric named Sistani.  But he doesn‘t know about world economics or politics. 

So there‘s a guy there in the finance ministry who actually runs the whole damn place, runs the utilities, the oil ministry and everything else.  His name is Chalabi.  I would say he won. 

MAYER:  I interviewed Scott Ritter, who was the U.N. inspector who knew Chalabi very well over the last seven years.  And he said that Chalabi privately told him that Chalabi would be running the country someday and running the oil concessions and he would take care of his friends.  Now, maybe this was just delusions of grandeur. 

(CROSSTALK)

MAYER:  Who knows.

MATTHEWS:  Who says he can‘t do it?  Who says we didn‘t fight a war so he could do it? 

MAYER:  Well, I asked him, because the State Department and CIA says he is finished.  And I said to him, so they say you‘re finished.  He said, I think my future is bigger than the CPA‘s. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I think he left out two ingredients, the vice president‘s office and the Defense Department, because we have a divided government here.  And you say the CIA and State Department don‘t like him.  Well, let me tell me.  That automatically tells you some other people do like you. 

And their names are Woolsey, Perle and Gingrich, who went to see Condi Rice this week to make the case.

WEISSKOPF:  Well, this all may leave him stronger in Iraqi politics. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, because he‘s anti-American.

(CROSSTALK)

WEISSKOPF:  Yes.  Now he claims he‘s been toppled in a political coup led by the Americans, which will strengthen his hand. 

After all, this interim government we‘re putting together now, or was put together by Mr. Brahimi, doesn‘t really reflect popular will in Iraq.  And so he is on the outside, now claims that the Americans no longer have an interest in him.  He can claim a certain mantle of respectability. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you think it is going to be like, having been over there?  And you‘ve suffered for it, obviously.  You got it.  Tell me about this, Michael.  When we were over there, we have put up one government now.  Is this going to be an iterative process, where we—where one government gets stood up for a while and everybody says, well, to hell with then, and then another government gets stood up for a couple more months, and then it is like the Russian Revolution, another finally some real tough, hard-nosed guy, tyrant type, whether his name is Sistani or whatever, takes over the country?

WEISSKOPF:  Well, certainly the current interim government as it is announced looks an awful lot like the American-appointed Governing Council. 

I think six of the top or seven of the top 10 posts came out of the Governing Council. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, Allawi came out of the CIA.

WEISSKOPF:  Yes, well, he came also from the Governing Council. 

MATTHEWS:  But he was on the payroll of the CIA and now he‘s head of the government.

WEISSKOPF:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I mean, I might question

(CROSSTALK)  

WEISSKOPF:  Well, look at them all.  Most of them were American educated. 

WEISSKOPF:  Yes. 

WEISSKOPF:  And have had contact with this government at one point or another. 

Now, that‘s not unusual, because, after all, who would you expect to move back in but people who were exiled...

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

WEISSKOPF:  ... and were able to gain the influence and power from the outside that it took them to get back in?

MATTHEWS:  So when we‘re looking at guys and people who got hurt in that war and American citizens who paid for it so dearly, what do you see we end up with over there in the next couple years? 

WEISSKOPF:  That‘s the big question, whether or not any kind of government appointed by the U.N. or by us and eventually put to some sort of electoral test will survive.  There is a country that‘s really the fiction of a British cartographer.  It is made up of very strong interests. 

And whether they can stay together in a coalesced form is a big question, whether it will devolve into civil war, despite the best efforts of everyone.  After all, Saddam was a tough guy and it took a tough guy to rule that place for 30 years. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  What is the future of Iranian-Iraqi relations, because they‘re have a long war?  Is it possible that somebody like Chalabi will bring those two countries together?

MAYER:  Well, that‘s what he‘s been promising to do.  And he‘s been pretty—recently, we‘ve all seen there have been charges that he‘s been spying for Iran and double dealing the United States. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Well, that‘s the reason he‘s in bad favor, right? 

(CROSSTALK)

MAYER:  I think it is a convenient reason that he is in bad favor. 

But I think in many ways he‘s in bad favor because he just became baggage, because he‘s really actually been open about his ties to Iran for a very long time and has promised that somehow he‘s going to bring the U.S. and the mullahs into some kind of new harmony together, which I don‘t know. 

Yet again, it seems like he talks a great game.  It‘s just what

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Did the vice president of the United States approve this crackdown on Chalabi?  Did he ever say, OK, you can pick him up, you can go in there and raid his offices? 

WEISSKOPF:  The closest you get to the White House is Condi‘s office, not the vice president‘s office.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, the vice president is standing on the side and watching this happen.

WEISSKOPF:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  Maybe he‘s not the best friend after all.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you, Jane Mayer, Michael Weisskopf.

Coming up, did “The New York Times” hype the threat posed by Saddam Hussein by relying too much on the word of this guy Chalabi?  Michael Wolff and Bob Zelnick will join us.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) 

MATTHEWS:   Coming up, “The New York Times” and the buildup to war with Iraq.  Did “The Times” hype the threat Saddam posed?

HARDBALL back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  “The New York Times” has written a letter of explanation

for its coverage leading up to the war in Iraq in which they say—quote -

·         “We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been.  In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in reexamining the claims as new evidence emerged or failed to emerge.”

In this week‘s “New Yorker” magazine, Franklin Foer writes about “The Times”‘ coverage before the war.  And I asked Mr. Foer why they leaned so heavily on Ahmad Chalabi. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Is there any difference between the fact that “The New York Times,” the—quote—“paper of record,” got it all wrong and bought this argument that Ahmad Chalabi, that this country of Iraq was loaded with weaponry, ready to attack us, dangerous as hell, we had no choice, we had to go it alone?  Any different than them buying it or people like the Defense Department civilians buying it, like Dough Feith and Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby and the vice president and the secretary of defense?  They all bought it.  What‘s the difference? 

FRANKLIN FOER, “NEW YORK”:  Well, they were both wrong to buy it.  But the difference is that “The New York Times” is supposed to be this skeptical eye that‘s being cast on the people in power. 

MATTHEWS:  You mean they‘re supposed to be journalists.  Were they? 

FOER:  I think that, when you go—it is interesting.  When you go back and you look at each specific piece of journalism, you can see that journalism was done to an extent.  There was always caveats.  There was always interviews with CIA critics of Chalabi that were done. 

But when you look at the aggregate picture, when you look at all these pieces stacked up against one another, they form this really frightening image of what was going on within Saddam Hussein‘s Iraq. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  “New York Times” believes this, right?  That was the message. 

FOER:  Yes.  Yes. 

(CROSSTALK)

FOER:  You don‘t devote that kind of space to an issue if you‘re not trying to send a message. 

MATTHEWS:  And that‘s why people I respect in journalism would come to me and say, oh, we know he has got nuclear weapons.  We know it.  What are we going to do about it? 

FOER:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  Right?

FOER:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  And we started to those, because “The Times”‘ headlines that suggested he was aggressively seeking nuclear weaponry, etcetera, etcetera.

FOER:  Right. 

Listen, I think that a lot of these journalistic questions are really tough when you go and look at them.  But if you look at what “The New York Times” ended up doing, in the role that “The New York Times” plays in our culture, when they print something like that, it has an impact on the way that people think.  It lends a certain weight, a certain heft to that opinion. 

MATTHEWS:  Michael Wolff writes for “Vanity Fair” magazine and Bob Zelnick was a longtime correspondent at the Pentagon for ABC News.

Michael, this contretemps about “The New York Times”‘ coverage of the days leading up to war, in fact the case made for war, have they apologized enough for having blown it? 

MICHAEL WOLFF, “VANITY FAIR”:  You know, I want to step back here, because I don‘t think it is “The New York Times.”  I mean, I think “The New York Times, it‘s good they apologized.  They should apologize.  But it is everyone across the board.  The American media got this all wrong. 

Chris, you got it wrong. 

MATTHEWS:  Where did I get it wrong? 

WOLFF:  Virtually everybody subscribed to this.

MATTHEWS:  When did I get it wrong? 

WOLFF:  You subscribed to the weapon.  You were as bully on the weapons as virtually anybody else. 

MATTHEWS:  No, no, you haven‘t been watching the show. 

WOLFF:  Chris, it is not true.  I saw you.

MATTHEWS:  You haven‘t been watching the show.  I have been the biggest critic and skeptic of this war from day one.  I have never thought that we had a justification for going to war.  I always thought it was distraction from going after the real terrorists, the al Qaeda.  I haven‘t said it like that as bluntly, but I have certainly been skeptical.

(CROSSTALK)

WOLFF:  This is not true.  You never rejected.  Like the “New York Times,” you never said, the weapons, this is completely illogical.  You were on board like everyone else.  And I think that is the important point. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I agree with you about one point.  I never thought that so many people could be so wrong.  I never thought that there were no weapons of mass destruction. 

WOLFF:  OK, well, if that‘s the

(CROSSTALK) 

MATTHEWS:  I never thought—I agree with you.

My view was that, even if there were, we should not have gone to war. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go to the another view here.

Bob Zelnick, your view of this.  “The New York Times”‘ initial coverage based on the week of Judy Miller, basically taking the intelligence reports she was getting through the good offices of Ahmad Chalabi and the more recent example of a case where “The New York Times” said, we blew it, we shouldn‘t have played those stories the way we did, what do you think of it?

BOB ZELNICK, FORMER ABC NEWS PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT:  I think the apology was called for.  I also think that Judith Miller is a distinguished journalist.  She once worked for me back at National Public Radio in the mid-‘70s.

For 20 years, she‘s been outstanding on covering the Middle East, covering weapons of mass destruction, covering developments in the Islamic world.  She‘s made a unique contribution.  I think in this case she was misled.  She‘s not the only one.  I think there was some lax editorial oversight.  Reporters who work with anonymous sources need editorial oversight. 

And I think “The Times” did fail in this respect.  I think Judith did fail in this respect.  But she failed by doing things the way she had been doing them for 25 years with great success. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me just play a little bit.  Here‘s what “The New York Times” reporter Judith Miller told me back in October about the paper‘s coverage of the Iraq war.

Let‘s take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) 

MATTHEWS:  “The New York Times”‘ coverage, do you think your newspaper has given a full picture of what‘s going on in Iraq? 

JUDITH MILLER, SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”: 

Well, I think my paper has done an excellent job of giving as good a picture as we possibly can give of what is going on in Iraq.  Almost nobody is happy with news coverage, I‘ve learned.  But I think that, on balance, it has been very fair and you hear both good news and bad news from Iraq. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, maybe that‘s not fair showing that from back then. 

But let me to go Michael Wolff now.

Michael, you may point out the fact accurately that most of us bought the idea that there were weapons of mass destruction.  Some of us had different views about the correct policy and response to that.  Mine was, it still didn‘t justify a war, but most people thought did it.  And let me ask you this.  Do you think that this is a problem of journalism or a problem of very smart politics by the administration in pushing forward Ahmad Chalabi as a source of information? 

WOLFF:  Well, I think it is both.  Obviously, they went hand in hand. 

The administration managed to sell precisely the case it wanted to sell and the media bought it with relatively few questions, now, which sort of prompts the further question, well, what do you do?  How do you report a story which is about 3,000 miles away in a country that you can‘t get—

4,000 miles—in a country you can‘t get access to? 

If you can‘t believe your own administration, what—where does that leave us?  Now, one of the things it did, because I was in the Persian Gulf also, and one of the things perhaps it is necessary to say is, we don‘t know.  And that‘s the kind of thing that the American media is not allowed to say.  You can‘t go on television and say, hell, we don‘t know. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to this.  Let‘s go to some—I want some journalistic judgment here.  Let‘s pretend we‘re at journalism school right now. 

Bob Zelnick, the defense that Chalabi gives is that you asked me to find you people that would talk about weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein.  I steered you to those people that were willing to talk about weapons of mass destruction in his hand.  I didn‘t tell you they were credible people.  I didn‘t tell you he had weapons of mass destruction.  You had these interviews.  You wrote the stories.  Don‘t blame me. 

ZELNICK:  Well, I think that‘s a little bit disingenuous.  He was the facilitator, the enabler.  He married the sources with the reporters. 

And I think he does bear some responsibility along that line.  On the other hand, I think we ought to not forget the fact that the weapons of mass destruction was not manufactured out of whole cloth.  This is a man who has used weapons of mass destruction.  He had massive programs that he kept secret.  He kicked weapons inspectors out, made it impossible for them to function there.  It was not an unreasonable surmise that he did have these weapons of mass destruction.  I think one of the great unanswered questions is, what happened to those programs? 

WOLFF:  Well, I disagree with that.  It was an unreasonable surmise and turns out to be not only an unreasonable, but an absolutely absurd surmise. 

There is not one trace of evidence that such weapons existed.  And I think, if you looked at this, and in hindsight, and start to realize and start to remember that this was a regime that we had basically—well, No.  1, we had bankrupted, No. 2, we had surrounded, No. 3, we had created an environment in which the elaborate, the—all of the production, the elements in producing weapons of mass destruction just were not there. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, Michael, you know what disturbs me and I think the deadly fact here is that the administration decided that the one selling point they could use internationally to get this war going was weapons of mass destruction.  And that‘s the very thing that “The New York Times” began to promote, that issue. 

In other words, they selected what the argument was they wanted.  And I wonder how much went in to getting those sources to the “New York Times” from the administration.  There was a middleman here, I will bet you. 

Anyway, thank you, Michael Wolff.  Thank you, Bob Zelnick.

When we come back, the Bush campaign‘s tough new attack against John Kerry.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  As Mr. Dooley said, politics ain‘t bean bag.  And this year, John Kerry‘s campaign is getting a brutal lesson.  The Bush campaign is now hitting Kerry with a ferocious negative assault. 

HARDBALL election correspondent David Shuster reports. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, NBC ELECTION CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Today in Missouri, it was Vice President Cheney‘s turn to hammer John Kerry over homeland security. 

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  He now calls the Patriot Act a—quote—“blind spot in the American justice system.”  He now says he wants to let vital elements of the Patriot Act expire at the end of next year. 

SHUSTER:  Cheney‘s speech followed the latest Bush campaign television ad. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)

NARRATOR:  President Bush signed the Patriot Act, giving law enforcement vital tools to fight terrorism.  John Kerry, he voted for the Patriot Act, but, pressured by fellow liberals, he‘s changed his position. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  The problem is that the charges are false.  Kerry has never endorsed scrapping vital law enforcement tools and his proposal to give judges greater control is the same position held by several top Republicans.  Last year, the Bush campaign repeated another misleading charge raised in television ads weeks ago. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)

NARRATOR:  He supported the 50-cent-a-gallon gas tax.  If Kerry‘s gas tax increase were law, the average family would pay $657 more a year. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Actually, Kerry never introduced such a gasoline tax.  He mentioned the possibility 10 years ago in a magazine interview and then quickly dropped the idea. 

TERRY HOLT, BUSH CAMPAIGN SPOKESMAN:  This election is extremely important, and when John Kerry is not well known to the American public, there are key facts about his record that need to come out. 

SHUSTER:  According to an independent organization called the Media Analysis Group, which has examined campaign ads in the top 100 television markets, 75 percent of the Bush ads so far have been negative, compared to 27 percent for the Kerry campaign.  Underscoring the difference today, Kerry released his newest ad, a positive biographical message. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)

NARRATOR:  For John Kerry a stronger America begins at home, real plans to create jobs here, not overseas. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  But Kerry has been helped by Democratic groups slamming the Bush administration. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)

NARRATOR:  And his new Medicare law would actually ban the government from negotiating lower prices from drug companies. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  And the negative ads on both sides have been effective. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)

NARRATOR:  While jobs are leaving our country in record numbers, George Bush says sending jobs overseas makes sense for America. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  According to an Annenberg survey of voters in the 18 battleground states where most of the ads have run, 61 percent surveyed said they believed the false charge that President Bush favors sending jobs overseas and 46 percent believe John Kerry want to raise gas taxes by 50 cents a gallon. 

(on camera):  Republican strategists say the Bush campaign‘s assault on John Kerry is crucial and will only intensify, because with the president facing low approval numbers and instability in Iraq, the strategists say it is easier to tarnish John Kerry‘s image than to promote the Bush administration‘s own record.

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  And the great irony is, the more that gas taxes go up for us right now, instead of hurting Bush, they give a greater opportunity for the Bush ad writers to go after Kerry for wanting to raise it by 50 cents.  Politics is full of ironies. 

Anyway, join us again tomorrow night at 7:00 Eastern for HARDBALL and a special report with “The Washington Post” on the countdown to that June 30 transfer of power over there in Iraq.

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

END   

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