Video: Dean on new terrorism warning

updated 8/3/2004 10:48:37 PM ET 2004-08-04T02:48:37

In an interview with Chris Matthews,  former Presidential hopeful Howard Dean responds to criticism of his remarks on Sunday about the latest terror warnings. 

Following is a full transcript of the interview: 

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Good evening, I’m Chris Matthews.  Most of al Qaeda’s surveillance of the financial buildings placed on high alert happened before the 9/11 attacks.  So does that mean the intelligence was outdated, or could al Qaeda still be in the planning stages?

Early this week, former presidential candidate Howard Dean said the decision to raise the terror threat level was politically motivated.

"I am concerned that every time something happens that is not good for President Bush, he plays this trump card, which is terrorism.  His whole campaign is based on the notion that, 'I can keep you safe (therefore in times of difficulty for America) stick with me.' And then out comes Tom Ridge."

MATTHEWS:  Governor Dean, how do you see the administration playing this, do you believe they jacked it up to create some heat, to cause a rally-around-the-flag mentality in the country?

HOWARD DEAN:  Well, here’s what happened, in the middle of June, in the middle of July, two operatives from al Qaeda were captured.  With the second capture, which happened almost three weeks ago, some information was released which then became public because of Tom Ridge and the president.

The buildings were then sealed and so forth and so on and highly guarded.  The truth is that these buildings—this information was three years old.  These buildings were identified three years ago, not anything new.

Now I don’t think for a second that there’s no terrorist threat in the United States.  There is a terrorist threat and it’s a serious one.  And I think this warning was a good warning in that it is specific.  In the past it has just been , watch out, watch out, watch out.  Which I find totally unhelpful.

Here’s what deeply concerns me.  If this information was three years old and if this al Qaeda operative, the most recent capture was on July 13, that means that this administration knew about this at least three weeks ago, that the information was three years old, that they could have chosen any date they wanted to to reveal this to the public.

Isn’t it unusual they might choose two days after the Democratic National Convention when John Kerry was in the middle of his bounce.  They --  this information is important information.  It is three years old and the administration has known about it for three weeks. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you this, according to your statement the other day over the weekend, you said, “I’m concerned that every time something happens that’s not good for President Bush, I assume you’re referring to the Democratic Convention, he plays this trump card which is terrorism.”  Are you saying he timed it after the Democrats to kill the bounce?

DEAN:  There’s no way that we can know that, but the president has made it clear that he’s going to run as a wartime president.  And unfortunately since that is his one really strong point with the American people—we know from the polls that every time terrorism is mentioned and put in the front issue, President Bush’s numbers go up a little bit. 

I find that since this information is three years olds, since the administration has known about it for three weeks, that it’s a very peculiar coincidence suddenly after three years of information and three weeks of knowledge that the barriers go up around Citicorp and the Federal Reserve and so forth.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let’s put you in a winning position.  Suppose, Governor, you were president now and you had this information and you knew the climate right now, politically as well as—just in terms of a sense of national security, and you found these tapes that show that they were casing these financial centers. 

And you also saw that in the tape was an updated bit of information, as recently of January of this year.  So you know it was an ongoing effort to case these particular financial centers.  If you hadn’t told the public, wouldn’t you feel like you’d let them down if something did happen in those places?

DEAN:  I think I would have been inclined to tell the public as soon as I got that information, which was in mid-July.  Probably I would not have waited until this particular moment. 

MATTHEWS:  So you think it’s timing?

DEAN:  The timing bothers me deeply.  This wouldn’t be such a problem if the president was credible.  But the president turned out to have said a great many things about us going into Iraq, which turned out not to be true.  Senior law enforcement officials in Washington, D.C., are quoted in “The Washington Post” this morning as saying they haven’t received any new information of any kind, that none of this information was new, and it was all known of them ahead of time.  This is deeply troubling, Fred, deeply troubling.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the Sandy Berger case us another example of where something was pushed into the public light to hurt the Democrats?

DEAN:  Well, again, Sandy Berger had been under investigation for two months because he allegedly took some documents home that were not supposed to be taken home.  The timing of that revelation is very peculiar.  Again, the administration has really made its own bed for this kind of stuff.  Most of the stuff they said about us getting into Iraq turned out not to be true.  The president has said that he is going to be—his major reelection issue is going to be being a wartime anti-terrorist president.  He has basically made this—created this situation, which allows us to question his credibility, because he’s raised questions about his own credibility.

MATTHEWS:  But what you’re saying here, Governor, is that there’s a political brain somewhere in the administrator which directs people like Tom Ridge and people like Ashcroft to exploit whatever info they have got to try to make it easier on the president for reelection, that someone is directing this timing?

DEAN:  Well, we know that’s true, too, actually.  Karl Rove wrote in a memo in 2002 that candidates for reelection, the Republican candidates for reelection should run on the issue of terrorism.  Presumably, he also thinks that the president ought to run on the issue of terrorism.  Look, I don’t—I don’t want to...

MATTHEWS:   You believe that Karl Rove is directing these cabinet secretaries in the case of the alert we’re going through right now in terms of the financial centers and in terms of the Sandy Berger case hopping onto the front pages.  Are you saying that there’s a political mind behind that, that is stirring these things up in a time the Democrats are trying to get some lift?

DEAN:  We don’t know that, Chris, but what we do know is there’s a very disturbing pattern of...

MATTHEWS:  Right, well, you sound like you’re... You do sound, Governor, like you do know.  You’re not – you’re acting like you are just speculating here out loud, when in fact you’re – it’s almost like push-polling.  You’re saying, “Could it be?” rather than just, “I’m thinking about these things.”  I’m suggesting it’s not only plausible, you’re suggesting it’s probable, what’s going on.

DEAN:  Chris, what I’m saying is let’s look at the pattern of evidence.  The president gets us into the Iraq war.  Most of the reasons he gave for getting us in turned out not to be true in the long run.  So he said a lot of things that turned out not to be true, some of which he had some reason, probably, to suspect it weren’t true. 

Secondly, Karl Rove writes a memo saying this is how Republicans ought to win elections; that’s two years old.

Thirdly, the senior law enforcement officials in Washington are saying there’s nothing new about this information. 

Fourthly, we know they have had this information since July 13, when they captured this gentleman in Pakistan.  This is a very disturbing pattern which gives the strong hint that the timing of the release of this information is more based on politics than it is based on stopping terrorism. 

I think that would be a grave problem for any president...

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but all you have to go on is the old who benefits rule.  Like some people would say  Lyndon Johnson had something to do with killing Kennedy, because he got to be president then.  That’s (INAUDIBLE) thinking.  Whenever there’s a beneficiary, that person must have been the motivator.

DEAN:  No, Chris, that’s not true.  There was no evidence whatsoever that Lyndon Johnson had anything to do with that. 

MATTHEWS:  But is there any evidence that the administration is timing these releases of information to benefit themselves politically?  Is there any evidence of that?

DEAN:  The evidence is in past problems that this administration has with credibility, and I just went through them.  It’s a sequence of specific events.  And the crazy stuff, the conspiracy theories about Lyndon Johnson, there is no evidence whatsoever, no pattern whatsoever, to suggest anything of the kind.  In this case, there’s a very specific pattern, actions on the part of senior people and the Bush officials, Karl Rove’s memo, the president’s declaration that he’s going to run as a wartime president...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

DEAN:  ... the fact that this information is three years old, that they’ve had this guy in captivity for three weeks, the information comes out two days after the convention in a political way...

... and the fact that the president was not truthful to the American people about how we got into Iraq, these are all very disturbing pieces of circumstantial evidence that are beginning to show a pattern that the president is using the release of information in order to bolster his political status.  That is a grave mistake.

MATTHEWS:  Well, looking ahead, a lot of people, and I’m one of them, of course, who believes that this election right between now and November 2nd, is going to be driven a lot by events, not so much by the quality of rhetoric or argument on either side, that things are going to happen.  And the way these things fall will decide how we vote.  Do you think that that’s being manipulated, those events?

DEAN:  I think—any administration, and I certainly had this advantage when I was governor, had the opportunity to release and make news in the way that the challenger does not.  Do I think this president is making news, and John Ashcroft—remember, John Ashcroft called a terrorist alert last May, and that was rebuked by Washington officials, and which turned out he didn’t have the power to do such a thing.

This is a disturbing pattern in this administration that we see again, and again, and again.  And, yes, any administration has the opportunity to manufacture news, and the question is, not is there a terrorist threat or not, there clearly is, not whether al Qaeda presents a danger to these five buildings, yes, it clearly does.  What of the timing of the release of this news?  Why are we getting news that’s three years old and that we had access to three weeks ago?  Why are we finding that out on the Sunday after the Democratic National Convention?

MATTHEWS:  OK, more back with Governor Dean.  We’ll be back in a moment with more Hardball.  And, later, inside the timing of the latest terror warning, more of that.  The information may be older, but how real is the threat?  “The Washington Post”’s Dana Priest, “The New York Times”’s Judy Miller, and Tony Blankley of “The Washington Times.”  They’ll all be joining us to look at this same question that Governor Dean’s been looking at.

MATTHEWS: Governor Dean, over the weekend, you said that, as we were talking about, the White House may be guilty of timing these emergency alerts with regard to possible terrorism attacks for political gain.  Governor, you were responded to by the candidate, John Kerry, with, quote, “I don’t care what he says,” he’s talking about you, “I haven’t suggested that, and I won’t suggest that.”

“I don’t care what he says”?  That’s not a very respectful commentary from a candidate.

DEAN:  Oh, John Kerry and I are good friends, and he’s the Democratic presidential candidate.  I’m going to support him vigorously.

MATTHEWS:  Has he called you—did you clear your thoughts with him before you made them, your comments?

DEAN:  No, no, no, I don’t...

MATTHEWS:  Have you heard back from people in the campaign?

DEAN:  No, I have not.  I have had discussions with people in the campaign, but I certainly haven’t been reigned in in any way.

MATTHEWS:  But have they called you and said, “Be careful”?

DEAN:  No.

MATTHEWS:  They haven’t?

DEAN:  No.

MATTHEWS:  Have they cheered you on?

I’m trying to nuance—I’m trying to fine tune the information...

DEAN:  No, we’re not...

MATTHEWS: ... everybody assumes they called you up and said, “Next time you’re going to the accuse the administration of trickery, let us know ahead of time, at least.”

DEAN:  I’m not—Chris, you are doing a little putting words in my mouth.  I’m not accusing the administration of trickery.  What I’ve accused them of, and I believe it’s true, that they’re using the timing of the terror announcements in order to announce their political gains.

I’ve also said that terrorism is a very serious problem, and I think these buildings are, you know, at some risk, clearly, over the period of years, and we need to defend them. 

I’ve commended the administration for being very specific in this warning.  This is the first warning in almost three years September 11th that hasn’t been this, sort of, “Oh, I hear more chatter, therefore we’re going up to orange.”  That is very unhelpful. 

I think this warning was very helpful.  The only problem is they had this information for quite some time before they gave it to us, and that combined with the pattern of exaggerating and not being truthful about other military matters, is deeply disturbing.

MATTHEWS:  Well, Jack Kennedy once said, “I don’t recognize my words when they come out of Richard Nixon’s mouth,” so let me be clear about what you did say:  “I am concerned that every time something happens that’s not good for President Bush, he plays this trump card, which is terrorism.”  And you’re saying that’s not accusing the president of trickery?

DEAN:  I don’t think there’s anything tricky about it.  I think that’s politics.  Unless you think all politics is tricky, which I suppose there’s a reasonable case to be made for.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let’s get at something much more sound here, which I really like to discuss, because it comes down to what I think is the crux of this election decision by most people watching right now who haven’t yet made up their minds completely. 

The candidate of the Democratic Party, John Kerry, said over the weekend that the policies of this administration, by which he primarily meant the timing of the decision to go to war with Iraq and the way we did it, are encouraging the recruitment of terrorists, a very hard argue, which many people believe is true, especially people like President Mubarak of Egypt, who has said that going to Iraq was like creating a thousand bin Ladens, in terms of young people and recruitment in the Arab world.

The president came back on that, and didn’t say he disagreed with that.  He said it was ridiculous to think something like that was the case, that we were encouraging anti-Americanism by Arabs by attacking an Arab country.  Your thoughts?

DEAN:  Well, I think that that’s the biggest problem with President Bush’s foreign policy.  He has no conception of what the consequences of his actions are.  We got into Iraq, which I disagreed with, but we got in with the support of many Americans of good will, only to find out that the president had no idea what to do once we got there.

We’ve lost over 900 soldiers, brave American men and women, because this president had no idea what he was doing when he sent combat troops in Iraq.  No idea what the exit plan was.  He wouldn’t listen to General Shinseki.  He wouldn’t listen to General Powell—Secretary of State Powell. 

I’d like a president who either has combat experience or is willing to surround himself with people who have served in the military and will actually—and he will actually take their advice.

MATTHEWS:  You know, an old boss of mine, Ed Muskie of Maine, the great governor, great senator, great secretary of state, once said the only—he said this after he’d just won his last reelection as senator from Maine.  I’ll tell you, it was the most amazing statement...

He said: “The only reason to be in politics is to be out there all alone and then be proven right.”

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Do you think Howard Dean is going to be proven right that this was a bad war?

DEAN:  I think I have been proven right.  But you know, Barry Goldwater once said: “I’d rather be right than president.”  I think Barry Goldwater didn’t know what he was talking about.

MATTHEWS:  Well, we’ll see.  Thank you very much, Howard Dean. 

DEAN:  Thanks, Chris.

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