updated 8/23/2004 10:32:35 AM ET 2004-08-23T14:32:35

Guests: Pat Roberts, Jay Rockefeller, Richard Holbrooke, Thomas Oliphant, John Fund, Craig Crawford

ANDREA MITCHELL, GUEST HOST:  Tonight, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Pat Roberts, and vice chairman, Senator Jay Rockefeller, on intelligence reform and the campaign.  Plus, the Kerry-Edwards campaign files a legal complaint with the FEC against the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.  We‘ll talk to former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, a foreign policy adviser to the Kerry campaign.  And the sequel to the fireworks on last night‘s HARDBALL.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Why doesn‘t he deserve the award?

LARRY THURLOW, ANTI-KERRY SWIFT BOAT VETERAN:  I‘m not quibbling about the award.  I‘m saying he lied about the...

MATTHEWS:  Oh, yes, you are, sir!

THURLOW:  ... account.

MATTHEWS:  You are out here in an advertisement saying, quote, “When the chips were down, you could not count on John Kerry.”

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MITCHELL:  I‘m Andrea Mitchell, and this is HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Andrea Mitchell, in for Chris Matthews.  Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is now under the microscope.  Today‘s “New York Times” reports that the group was primarily financed by two men with ties to President Bush and his family.  And a firefight has broken out between the two campaigns over the organization.  After John Kerry called the group “a front for the Bush campaign,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan had this to say about the senator.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN:  I do think that Senator Kerry losing his cool should no be an excuse for him to lash out at the president with false and baseless attacks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MITCHELL:  Kerry campaign spokesperson Stephanie Cutter released a statement that said, “Mr. McClellan needs to understand that John Kerry is not the type of leader who will sit and read ‘My Pet Goat‘ to a group of 2nd-graders while America is under attack.  John Kerry is a fighter,” she said, “and he doesn‘t tolerate lies from others,” close quote.  We‘ll get to the latest on the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth controversy in a minute.

But first, today‘s “Los Angeles Times” reports that the CIA‘s final report on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq will downplay the fact that no banned weapons were found and instead speculate on what Saddam‘s weapons arsenal might have looked like years from now, if we had not invaded.

Earlier today, I spoke with Republican senator Pat Roberts, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Democratic senator Jay Rockefeller, the vice chair of that committee.  And I asked them what they thought about the Bush administration trying to shape the final report to focus on what weapons in Iraq might have looked like if we had not gone to with war.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. PAT ROBERTS (R-KS), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN:  It‘s a little late, to say the least, in regards to the pre-war intelligence.  I‘d be interested in their report.  I‘m not too sure it‘s a priority item.  But I think I recall that somebody was asking General Dayton about that and that he was not available for comment.  I think it would be helpful over the long term.

MITCHELL:  General Dayton, who, of course, was in charge of this initial search for the weapons.

Senator Rockefeller, is this a way of trying to avoid the crucial issue of the failure to find any weapons?

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER (D-WV), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE:  Andrea, I don‘t know if it is or if it isn‘t.  The point is, we haven‘t found anything there.  We spent millions and—hundreds of millions of dollars trying to.

And I always go back to something that Rolf Ekeus, who was the first head of the United Nations weapons searching, UNSCOM, back in the early ‘90s, and his view, and to some degree Max Blix‘s also—Hans Blix‘s—was that most of the things we found and said, Oh, well, they‘re going to reconstitute this or reconstitute that, were actually intended for the Iranians.  It was an aftereffect of the Iraq-Iranian war, which you know was millions of lives and took 10 years.  I‘ve never felt that we were going to find anything there, and we never have.  So I don‘t know what the hell this shakes out, but it doesn‘t sound to me like it‘s enormously important.

MITCHELL:  Well, all this is part of the whole reason why people are looking at changing the intelligence system.  Senator Roberts, what is your position now on the plan that the White House first promulgated to have national intelligence director, but not give that person budget authority, and still keep most of the real action in the Pentagon?

ROBERTS:  I don‘t think that‘s where they are right now.

MITCHELL:  You think you‘ve moved them?

ROBERTS:  I don‘t know if I‘ve moved them or if Jay has moved them or the intelligence committee has moved them.  If we have, I hope that‘s the case.  If you have a national intelligence director—a NID, that‘s the acronym for it now—that person ought to have full budget authority, and that person ought to have the lines of authority to get something done, i.e., the transfer of funds, and to reprogram funds and also be in charge of personnel.

Both Senator Rockefeller and I are working on draft legislation that, you know, hopefully, could be of help in that regard, and we‘re working with the 9/11 commission members and we‘re working with the Government Affairs people, we‘re working with the Senate Armed Services Committee, and we‘re also working with the administration.  I think it‘s very fluid right now, but I‘m very hopeful we can reach a consensus, like we did with our inquiry in the Senate, where we had a vote 17-0.  It was bipartisan, despite strong differences of opinion.

MITCHELL:  Well, Secretary Rumsfeld testified this week—there was plenty of opposition from Rumsfeld and others in front of Armed Services to having this kind of control take from the Pentagon and given to this new national intelligence director.  Senator Rockefeller...

ROBERTS:  I didn‘t read it that way, Andrea.  I didn‘t read it that way.

MITCHELL:  OK.

ROBERTS:  I was there at the hearing, and he asked—he was asked some very specific questions.  Now, the day before, Chairman Warner had three former secretaries of defense—actually, had two, and then he had a person that worked in the DoD...

MITCHELL:  That‘s the Armed Services Committee.

ROBERTS:  Yes, at the Armed Services Committee.  And they—and you know, I asked the question.  I said, are you for a NID?  Are you for a national intelligence director with full authority?  They all said no.  Well, in the Government Affairs committee that Jay and I both attended, why, there were three former CIA directors.  We asked them the same question, and they said yes.

I think this thing is still fluid.  I think the administration is still trying to work out what they call the mechanisms.  I don‘t think they‘re locked in.  And I think the Intelligence Committee, because of our expertise on the committee and our bipartisan past record, I think we can play a very important role.

MITCHELL:  Senator Rockefeller, do you think that there is such strong opposition from the Pentagon and from, frankly, your colleagues on Armed Services that they will not give this full authority to the new intelligence chief?

ROCKEFELLER:  I believe that‘s still an open question.  And I want to say something very frank here.  This is really all about the ultimate consumer of intelligence, the person who makes the most serious decisions about whether we go to war or not.  That happens to be the president of the United States.  And I think it‘s extremely important that this just not be thrashed out in the press and in the Congress, but that the president actually go to Vice President Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, both of whom, obviously, are or were secretaries of defense and both are whom, I think, are fairly clearly opposed to these changes because it would take away something, in their minds, from their domain, and say, Look—and say, Look, I‘m the president.  I‘m making a decision that a unified budget under a national intelligence director is the way we‘ve got to go.  And the question is, will he stand up and do that?

MITCHELL:  You‘re suggesting the president the United States, the commander-in-chief, so far has not been tough enough to stand up to his vice president and his secretary of defense?

ROCKEFELLER:  I‘m saying that the—and to some—I‘m not saying he‘s not been tough enough, I‘m just saying it hasn‘t happened, as far as I can tell.  And secondly, he certainly is tough enough to say that.  And I think he needs to be tough enough to do that,because, otherwise, I‘m not sure that Vice President Cheney or Rumsfeld, with their enormous power in that relatively small circle, which we‘re aware of, that they‘re going to carry—I think they may carry the day.  And I don‘t think that would be good for intelligence or for the war...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS:  ... just respond to that?  Might I just respond to that?

MITCHELL:  Sure.  Go ahead, Senator.

ROBERTS:  You know, the president has been holding teleconferences with his national security team, and that involves everybody, for about the past two weeks, not so much to say who has the power, who doesn‘t have the power, but Will this work?  Both Jay and I know that we have an urgent need to implement the goals of the 9/11 commission.  We also know that we have to do it right.  I don‘t know how many times we‘ve said that.  I think probably everybody that‘s had a hearing up here on Capitol Hill has said that.

But I don‘t denote any—as a matter of fact, I don‘t know what the vice president‘s position is.  I know that Rumsfeld, during the hearing, backed away from any specific questions, saying that the administration had not made a decision yet.  So I still think it‘s open.  I still think it‘s fluid.  I think this business, more especially in the media, that there is somehow a big, you know, confrontation here as to whether the national intelligence director is going to have the authority versus the Pentagon, and there‘s this sort of a fight or a turf fight—I think it‘s very premature.  It could turn out that way, but I don‘t expect to it happen because the stakes are too great.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MITCHELL:  More with the senators Roberts and Rockefeller in just a moment.  And when we come back, we‘ll also be asking them about that swift boat controversy.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITCHELL:  We are back with Senators Pat Roberts and Jay Rockefeller.  Well, you both served with John Kerry in the Senate.  Now his character is being attacked by some of those who served with him in Vietnam.  What are your comments?  Senator Roberts?

ROBERTS:  Well, I don‘t—I don‘t make it a practice to comment on any of my colleagues‘ character, more especially in regards to their service in the military.

MITCHELL:  But do you think that this is fair, these advertisements—there‘s a new one out now, attacking—attacking his service in Vietnam?  And it is clearly connected to prominent Republicans in Texas, who are closely tied to Karl Rove and others in the Bush camp.

ROBERTS:  Well, basically, I think there‘s been a large issue raised in regards to the president‘s service and his record.  And obviously, there‘s a lot of attention now being paid to Senator Kerry.  Quite frankly, I think that if you‘ll talk to most veterans, they would probably say, Why don‘t we move on and really talk about the future of health care and the VA and the future of our defense policy and our national security policy?

I‘ve just always made it a practice not to campaign against any individual but to campaign for the office.  I don‘t mean to say I‘m sanctimonious.  But on the other side of it, quite frankly, with the McCain-Feingold Act, we have seen 527 organizations pop out of the woodwork, and you never know what they‘re going to say.  You might not even have any control over them.

And you know, this campaign‘s gotten pretty nasty from the first, about six months ago.  I‘ve never seen a campaign with so many, you know, personal accusations on both sides.

MITCHELL:  Clearly, Democrats spent more and have had more of these 527 groups.  But now these swift boat veterans against John Kerry, clearly tied to, as we say, people very close to the president.  Should the president condemn these ads?

ROBERTS:  Well, if it‘s an independent expenditure and they share the same party lines, and these people have that—believe they have every right under freedom of speech to go ahead with, you know, whatever campaign commercial that they want.  If it‘s not an independent...

MITCHELL:  It is a right.  I‘m just saying, shouldn‘t he, as the—as the candidate, the leader of the party, say to them, Take this down?

ROBERTS:  Well, I can‘t put words in the president‘s mouth.  He can turn the thing around and say, Can we stop all the Moveon, you know, .org, or whoever does it—I‘m not paying much attention to it—in regards to all of the attacks on the Bush record?  I wish both of them would stop.

MITCHELL:  Senator Rockefeller, let me ask you.  If Senator Kerry attended all of these sessions of the Intelligence Committee, both public and private, why not release his records?  Have you urged him to release his records?

ROCKEFELLER:  First of all, I didn‘t serve with John Kerry on the Intelligence Committee.

MITCHELL:  No, I know that.  He served from ‘93 to 2000, before you were on...

ROCKEFELLER:  And the other thing I want to say is that I just think, as I‘ve said before, and sort of political matters, it‘s late August, people are bringing up things which will garner attention, there aren‘t a lot of people around, get into a food fight.  And I agree with Pat Roberts.

I‘m very uncomfortable to have the chairman of the Intelligence Committee and vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee—and I‘m called a vice chairman, Andrea.  This is not going to shake the future of the Western world, but I‘m called vice chairman, unlike any other ranking Democrat, because of the bipartisan nature of our committee.  I‘m the only vice chairman in the Congress, so to speak, on the Senate side.

I don‘t wish to engage in the politics of going back.  I don‘t want to get into the business of having to have a committee vote on going all the way back to 1976.

MITCHELL:  But isn‘t he leaving out...

ROCKEFELLER:  No, no.  I want to finish.

MITCHELL:  Isn‘t he leaving out the whole issue, though?  It‘s hanging out there that he didn‘t attend.  Perhaps the Republicans didn‘t attend.  Perhaps these were really poorly attended sessions because they weren‘t on camera.

ROCKEFELLER:  Yes.  And maybe that‘s true.  And also, don‘t we have committee rules that we have to abide by?  And if you‘re going to do that, then you‘ve got to go back all the way to 1976, when the Intelligence Committee started under the chairmanship of Dan Inouye, and you got to ask that about every single person.  You got to put the whole record out.  You can‘t just selectively go through—like, I don‘t want to do—you know, Vice President Cheney was on the House Intelligence Committee.  I‘m not interested in what his attendance record was because I know that he‘s very good at intelligence because Pat and I spend a lot of time with him.

I know that John Kerry is very good at intelligence because I serve on the Foreign Relations Committee with him and I‘ve discussed intelligence (UNINTELLIGIBLE)  I know that Edwards is good at it, and they‘re both qualified, as are the two on the Republican side, to do this job because they have—they get all these secret briefings, and they‘re well-versed in international affairs.  And I know, in John Edwards‘s case, I did serve with him, that during the joint investigation of the House and the Senate into the 9/11 thing, John Edwards was one of the most aggressive questioners on many of the key points.

MITCHELL:  OK.  Thank you.  We‘re out of time.  Senators Pat Roberts and Jay Rockefeller.

And up next, a top Kerry adviser, former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, on John Kerry‘s efforts to defend his war record.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MITCHELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  I‘m Andrea Mitchell.

Richard Holbrooke served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Clinton and is now a foreign policy adviser to the Kerry campaign.  Ambassador Holbrooke also—you served in Vietnam as a foreign service officer and, of course, worked on Vietnam during the Johnson years.  So what is your reaction to this current controversy?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.:  I‘m dumbfounded by it, Andrea.  Everyone who served in Vietnam should get the respect of the rest of America, including these people who are attacking Senator Kerry.  I cannot understand what they‘re doing.  Why are we having a debate about a war that took place 34 years ago and about events in which John Kerry was clearly and unmistakably a genuine hero, when we‘re not—we ought to be talking about a war going on right now in Iraq?

MITCHELL:  Well, there are two points there...

HOLBROOKE:  I find the swift boat attacks on Senator Kerry absolutely incredible.  He is a genuine war hero.  There is no merit to these attacks.  And today‘s “New York Times” showed clearly that the people who are paying for this have direct ties to the White House.  And I think that that article requires a White House explanation of what they‘re up to here.

MITCHELL:  Well, let me make a couple of points.  First of all, John Kerry made his Vietnam service one of the central metaphors of the Democratic convention.  So he certainly opened up his record to scrutiny.  And secondly, it is having an effect.  “The New York Times” poll today shows that, at least among veterans, there has been a big reversal of support.  So did he wait too long to start fighting back?  Which he clearly now is doing.

HOLBROOKE:  I‘ve talked to John Kerry about this a lot over the years.  In fact, Vietnam was probably one of the most constant themes in our dialogue.  He‘s proud of his service.  He was a hero.  I think the American public should remember that he volunteered three times.  He didn‘t have to go to Vietnam at all.  A lot of other people of his generation avoided the draft entirely or had National Guard duty, or in the case of certain members of the administration, like the vice president, simply said they had—and I quote Vice President Cheney—“other priorities.”  So Kerry volunteered for the Navy.

He then volunteered for Vietnam.  He found himself on a slow boat off the South China Sea coast, the Vietnamese coast.  He asked for swift boat duty.  Now, I was down in the same area of Vietnam he was, although as a civilian I was not in the same area of Vietnam he was, although as a civilian, I was not in the same degree of danger.  I know those mangrove swamps, Andrea.  They are very dangerous.  He was wounded three times.  That is his record.

And these ads that are coming from a group of men, some of whom had previously praised him, being paid for by people with personal ties to Karl Rove and to the Bush White House, are simply diversionary.  It‘s not what the American people want to hear.  It‘s disgraceful attacks, and they ought to stop it.

But you know what?  They‘re not going to stop it.  They think they have a good issue.

And to go to your question, Senator Kerry resisted responding for a long time, even though he was very angry about this.  But finally, yesterday, he decided, quite properly, it was time to fight back and stand up and say the truth again.

MITCHELL:  Let me ask you, can you clear up the confusion over what happened in Christmas in Cambodia?  Was he there?  Was he not there?  Can you clear that up?  Because there is real confusion over that claim of his.

HOLBROOKE:  I don‘t know what that issue‘s about.  And frankly, it doesn‘t concern me very much.  The issue is very simple.  John Kerry is a war hero.  These attacks are fabricated and trumped up and paid for by people who are working in direct collusion with the White House, as far as anyone can tell, as far as “The New York Times” has reported today.

MITCHELL:  Now, you‘ve been on record on another subject, about the president‘s speeches this week about redeploying troops from Germany and Korea.  You criticized the redeployment from Korea at a time when, of course, there are negotiations, sensitive negotiations with the North Koreans, that this would weaken our hand.  Yet three weeks ago, John Kerry said, quote, “I think we can significantly change the deployment of troops not just there but elsewhere in the world, in Korean peninsula perhaps, in Europe perhaps.  There are great possibilities open to us.”

Now Kerry and you and others in the campaign are criticizing what the president said.  Are you trying to have it both ways?

HOLBROOKE:  Not at all.  Senator Kerry‘s comments about Korea refer to such obvious redeployments, as opposed to withdrawals, as getting out of the golf course and headquarters in the middle of Seoul, which we should have been out of 10 years ago and which everybody is in favor of getting out of.

Senator Kerry had no idea, nor did I, or nor did anyone else, that they were talking about a 25 percent reduction of American troops, which they want to announce, at the height of a very difficult negotiation with North Korea, a country that really has real weapons of mass destruction.  That‘s no way to negotiate.  Everyone knows that.

As for Germany, we‘ve been in continuous reductions in Germany since the end of the cold war.  When I was ambassador in Germany, we had three base drawdowns, but we did it quietly and carefully.  We didn‘t make a major announcement that appears to weaken America‘s commitment to Europe.  The argument that Germany is a—simply a—no longer needs our support, as Krauthammer did in today‘s “Washington Post,” is also wrong.  Those bases are in our own national interest.  The German people and the government pay over a billion dollars a year to support them, and we won‘t save any money by that withdrawal.

MITCHELL:  At this stage, what are you and the Kerry campaign proposing, though, in terms of troop deployments, troop redeployments?  It isn‘t really clear.  We only have a few minutes left.

HOLBROOKE:  Andrea, this isn‘t an issue to debate in a presidential election.  This is an issue for careful consideration and working out.  This speech was a political speech that President Bush made before the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Cincinnati.  It was—the travel was paid for, as you know, by the Republican National Committee.  And at the end of a vicious attack on Senator Kerry on all sorts of issues, he just stuck in this massive redeployment, this withdrawal.  That‘s no way to do it.

MITCHELL:  We‘ve got to leave it there, but thank you very much, Richard Holbrooke.

HOLBROOKE:  Thank you.

MITCHELL:  And up next, a look at the firestorm sparked last night right here on HARDBALL over attacks on Kerry‘s record in Vietnam.  And for all the latest on the swift boat controversy, if you want to tell us what you say you think, go to Hardblogger, our election blog Web site.  Just go to hardblog.msnbc.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MITCHELL:  This half hour on HARDBALL, the ongoing controversy over John Kerry‘s service in Vietnam and the effect it will have on the battle for the White House.  But first, let‘s check in with the MSNBC news desk. 

(NEWSBREAK)

MITCHELL:  Welcome back.  In Washington today, where the interests of the media and politicians often intersect, this has been quite a day for all of us here at HARDBALL.  For weeks, this program has examined the dispute over John Kerry‘s service in Vietnam.  But the interviews that Chris Matthews did last night have touched off a firestorm.  Here is HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  It began Thursday night on HARDBALL, when Chris Matthews interviewed Larry Thurlow, a Vietnam swift boat commander who says John Kerry‘s boat did not come under fire, when Kerry pulled James Rassmann out of the water, an incident that would earn Kerry the Bronze Star. 

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Why does he deserve the award? 

LARRY THURLOW, ANTI-KERRY SWIFT BOAT VETERAN:  Well, I don‘t—I‘m not quibbling about the award.  I‘m saying he lied...

MATTHEWS:  Oh, yes, you are, sir.  You are out here in an advertisement, saying, quote, “when the chips were down, you could not count on John Kerry.” 

THURLOW:  That‘s exactly right. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s a pretty strong—because of what are you saying this? 

THURLOW:  Because he had this master plan, that was...

MATTHEWS:  Give me an example.  OK.  Let‘s go to your theory of the plan.  Have you seen it written down?  Have you heard him tell this account to someone?  How do you know in any real way he had this plan? 

THURLOW:  Because of the fact that he engineered three Purple Heart incidences that allowed him to go home after he spent about one-third of his tour there. 

SHUSTER:  None of the swift boat veterans have yet to produce any evidence that John Kerry‘s wounds came from anything but combat.  But that‘s not the impression conservative columnist Michelle Malkin seemed to want to leave, when she came on later in the show. 

MICHELLE MALKIN, COLUMNIST:  Why don‘t people ask him more specific questions about the shrapnel in his leg? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He didn‘t get shot at in Alabama...

MALKIN:  There are legitimate questions about whether or not...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He didn‘t get shot at (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

MALKIN:  ... it was a self-inflicted wound. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  ... a fighter pilot in Alabama.

MATTHEWS:  What do you mean by self-inflicted?  You say he shot himself on purpose?  Is that what you‘re saying? 

MALKIN:  Well, did you read...

MATTHEWS:  I‘m asking you a simple question.  Are you saying he shot himself on purpose?

MALKIN:  I‘m saying that some of these soldiers...

MATTHEWS:  I‘m asking a question. 

MALKIN:  And I‘m answering it. 

MATTHEWS:  Did he shoot himself on purpose? 

MALKIN:  Some of those—some of the soldiers have made allegations that these were self-inflicted wounds. 

MATTHEWS:  No, no, no one has ever accused him of shooting himself on purpose. 

MALKIN:  That these were self-inflicted wounds. 

MATTHEWS:  No, no, are you saying he shot himself on purpose? 

MALKIN:  I‘m saying that I read the book...

MATTHEWS:  That‘s a criminal act. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Chris, that is the most irresponsible thing that...

MALKIN:  I read the book...

MATTHEWS:  Are you saying he shot himself on purpose?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I want an answer yes or no, Michelle. 

MALKIN:  Some of the veterans say...

MATTHEWS:  No, there are...

MALKIN:  Yes.  Some of the veterans say that!

MATTHEWS:  No one has ever accused him...

SHUSTER:  No, none of them say that.  What they do say in their book is that John Kerry, quote, “got hit by a piece of shrapnel from a grenade that he had fired himself.  He fired it too close to the shore, and it exploded on a rock or something.” 

If that actually caused Kerry‘s injury, it would be called in military terms a self-inflicted wound.  But to the military, it is a descriptive term, not a damning one.  And there is still no evidence Kerry intended to harm himself. 

MATTHEWS:  Is there a direct accusation in any book you have ever read in your life that said John Kerry shot himself on purpose to get a credit for Purple Heart?  On purpose? 

MALKIN:  On...

MATTHEWS:  On purpose?  Yes or no, Michelle?

MALKIN:  In the February 19, 1969...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

MALKIN:  ... In the February 19, 1969 event...

MATTHEWS:  Did they say he did it on purpose?

MALKIN:  ... there are doubts about whether or not...

MATTHEWS:  There are doubts about—that‘s...

MALKIN:  ... there was intense rifle fire or not.

MATTHEWS:  ... the kind of—just tell me...

MALKIN:  And I wish you would ask these questions of John Kerry...

MATTHEWS:  I had never heard anyone say he shot himself on purpose.

MALKIN:  Have you—have you tried to ask?

MATTHEWS:  And I haven‘t heard you say it.

MALKIN:  Have you tried to ask John Kerry these questions?

MATTHEWS:  If he shot himself on purpose?  No, I have not asked him that.

MALKIN:  Have you—don‘t you wonder?

MATTHEWS:  No, I don‘t.  It‘s never occurred to me.

SHUSTER:  Following her experience on HARDBALL, Malkin appeared on C-SPAN and Rush Limbaugh to talk about it. 

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  Well, I was out last night, and I got back home, and I was checking my e-mail, and it was loaded with people that were just—you won‘t believe what happened to Michelle Malkin last night on HARDBALL!

SHUSTER:  She said, Matthews tried to pin her down unfairly. 

(on camera):  So what does Chris Matthews have to say?  Well, today Chris is on vacation.  But he‘s back on Monday.  And stay tuned. 

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL, in Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MITCHELL:  Thank you, David Shuster.  Chris is on vacation, but I‘m not.  Joining me now is John Fund of OpinionJournal.com, Craig Crawford of “Congressional Quarterly” and Thomas Oliphant of “The Boston Globe.”  Today the Kerry campaign filed an FEC complaint against the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.  The Bush campaign now has this response, quote: “This is a frivolous complaint that even John Kerry‘s chief strategist has said they have no evidence to support.  Real coordination is what John Kerry‘s campaign has been engaged in with the Media Fund, America Coming Together and MoveOn.org.”

Craig Crawford, help us sort this out.

CRAIG CRAWFORD, CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY:  Well, first of all, I want to wait until Monday to see what Chris has to say. 

MITCHELL:  We‘ll all have to be here Monday.

CRAWFORD:  He might be on vacation, but I bet he has something to say.   I really see this whole episode as benefiting John Kerry more than George Bush.  I think that‘s the best evidence that the Bush campaign is not behind this.  I think it would be stupid for them to put—to get behind an ad like this, where none of these people can defend themselves and change their stories.  And anything that puts Vietnam into this campaign, I don‘t see how that helps George Bush. 

The only benefit for George Bush is every day we‘re talking about Vietnam, we‘re not talking about Iraq. 

MITCHELL:  Well, John Fund, let me ask you about this whole Kerry versus Bush on these 527‘s, these so-called independent groups.  Who benefits from this kind of debate over Vietnam? 

JOHN FUND, OPINIONJOURNAL.COM:  Well, I can tell you who doesn‘t benefit, and that‘s the American people.  You know, Andrea, we were told after McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform we were going to clean up politics and take the soft money out. 

Well, guess what.  David Broder, who‘s the dean of the Washington press corps, has admitted McCain-Feingold is a complete failure.  We now have more 527‘s, we have more soft money.  George Soros has already pumped $16 million into these groups; now we have some Republicans doing less money. 

I have to tell you, this is a disaster for the American people.  I don‘t think it helps either candidate.  I don‘t think it helps this election process one bit.  These groups are more anonymous than the parties that they replaced, and they‘re spending more money than ever before. 

MITCHELL:  And in fact, I‘ve talked to Fred Wertheimer and I‘ve talked to Larry Noble about this, these people who are trying to clean up the system, and they‘re throwing up their hands, because they say the real problem is the FEC.  The FEC, again, punted yesterday—they had a meeting, and they went for sort of a half-baked plan...

FUND:  Andrea, you covered this.  You know that everyone knows that the FEC is a toothless dog.  It has never worked.  It never can work.  To pass McCain-Feingold leaving the FEC in place was the height of insanity.  I sympathize with them, but they should have known better. 

MITCHELL:  Well, let me ask Tom Oliphant about this, because the Democrats are the ones who really been advantaged by using these groups.  The Republicans came late to the party, and are complaining now because they see that the Democrats are for the first time spending more money, soft money, unregulated money, unlimited money, than the Republicans are.

THOMAS OLIPHANT, BOSTON GLOBE:  On the assumption that we‘re playing hardball here and not dodgeball, there is one thing that a conservative can never get away with, and that‘s being shocked, appalled or anything about a big expenditure of money on television advertisements.  Sorry. 

MITCHELL:  But aren‘t the liberals, quote, and the Democrats being hypocrites here?

OLIPHANT:  Now, here is the other thing.  The other thing we learned is to never pay attention to a Democrat filing an FEC complaint.  You might as well be putting it in the waste basket.  I know there technically is an FEC, it‘s down the street, there is a building, there are people in it, but there is no evidence that they have ever done anything. 

Politics is the exploitation of loopholes and opportunities for the benefit of your candidate.  We‘re playing a big grown-up game here.  Bush has got a problem, because he didn‘t anticipate that the Democrats were going to use 527s the way they did.  John Kerry has a problem because he‘s doing something that he used to oppose. 

MITCHELL:  But according to a “New York Times” poll, which came out today, this is working, because in fact, according to “The New York Times” poll, this issue is, Craig, really hurting John Kerry with veterans. 

CRAWFORD:  He has lost a lot of support among veterans, and I think part of it is the dark side of John Kerry‘s Vietnam years is the years after his combat service, which he didn‘t emphasize so much in his convention, when he was an anti-war activist. 

MITCHELL:  Isn‘t this really why he took this issue up yesterday, because when he went to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, they sat on their hands. 

CRAWFORD:  Right. 

MITCHELL:  And they‘re upset with him not because...

CRAWFORD:  And I think it‘s less...

MITCHELL:  ... of any other issue.

(CROSSTALK) 

CRAWFORD:  ... the questions about how he earned his medals than it is about this new ad from the Swift Boat Veterans, I think is far more effective than the other one, showing his testimony and talking about the crimes against...

MITCHELL:  Let‘s take a look at it.  Here is a portion of the new ad.  We‘re not going to show you the whole thing, because they have not bought time yet.  So let‘s just show you what their whole issue is.  Take a look. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY:  They had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads. 

JOE PONDER:  The accusations that John Kerry made against the veterans who served in Vietnam was just devastating. 

KERRY:  Randomly shot at civilians. 

PONDER:  And it hurt me more than any physical wounds I had. 

KERRY:  Cut off limbs.  Blown up bodies. 

KEN CORDIER:  That was part of the torture, was...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MITCHELL:  Isn‘t that the issue, just briefly, John Fund, that they don‘t like his anti-war record? 

FUND:  Yes.  And John Kerry completely skipped over that, even though he used to talk very proudly about the fact that he came home and opposed the war and testified before Congress. 

And you know, he only spent 70 words on his 20-year Senate career during his acceptance speech.  He has unfortunately loaded up his campaign with references to four months that he spent in Vietnam, and I have to tell you, I think he was—should have expected some of this blow-back, because in April and May, when Terry McAuliffe said that President Bush had been AWOL, AWOL from the Air National Guard, and Michael Moore said that President Bush had been a deserter, John Kerry was nowhere to be seen in condemning that language.  Nowhere.  So I have to say...

(CROSSTALK)

FUND:  He‘s gotten some enemies because of this, and now they‘re on television. 

CRAWFORD:  The payroll records, John, the payroll records that came out last month showed the president didn‘t show up for service then. 

FUND:  No, no.  The president got an honorable discharge.  The president released his dental records. 

CRAWFORD:  OK, it still doesn‘t matter.  He wasn‘t paid during those months that he allegedly went missing.

FUND:  Craig, do you believe it was fair to call the president AWOL or a deserter?  

CRAWFORD:  I‘m just saying he didn‘t show up for service. 

FUND:  But do you believe it was fair?

CRAWFORD:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE) payroll records.

FUND:  No, it‘s not.  Both men—both John Kerry and George Bush—both John Kerry and George Bush served honorably. 

(CROSSTALK)

FUND:  Let‘s talk about something other than Vietnam.

MITCHELL:  Hang on a second, hang on a second, guys.  Still to come, when we come back on HARDBALL, the White House responses to charges that some of its top supporters are funding those swift boat ads.  And for the latest on the presidential election, sign up for HARDBALL‘s daily e-mail briefing.  Just log on to our Web site, Hardball.msnbc.com.  We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MITCHELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Earlier today, White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, was asked about a “New York Times” article connecting a top Texas Republican fund-raiser, Bob Perry, to the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans group. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  I don‘t know.  They know each other, I know that.  But that‘s still—shouldn‘t be used to draw any connection there, because we have not been involved with this ad whatsoever.  And Senator Kerry, you know, appears to have lost his cool and now he‘s just launching into false and baseless attacks against the president.  The Kerry campaign has fueled these very kinds of attacks against the president. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MITCHELL:  Tom Oliphant, you‘ve covered John Kerry for a long time.  Is there any truth, do you think, to these charges, to the substance of the charges about his war record? 

OLIPHANT:  I don‘t think any of the charges crosses the threshold of credibility, because the people making them have either—are either contradicting previous statements they‘ve made, or are contradicted by the official record and eyewitnesses who were closer to the events. 

I think what‘s represented by Scott McClellan‘s comments, though, is another dimension to this story, that Craig alluded to earlier, that‘s worth pausing to examine. 

And that is, when you fool around with soft money people, by indirection, at least, the thing you risk is that the other side, perhaps a little unfairly, can say, Bush supporters are doing X.  Now, the mistake I think this particular 527 has made is it got funded by people who are really close to the Bush family. 

MITCHELL:  We‘re talking Bob Perry...

OLIPHANT:  We‘re talking like this.  And it was stupid, because it—they could have had distance, they could have found some zillionaire who had more distance. 

MITCHELL:  And it‘s the same production company that did the attacks against John Kerry...

OLIPHANT:  Absolutely.

CRAWFORD:  Well, there was a story in Florida today, with the rally down there for the Swift Boat Veterans that the Bush campaign and Florida Republicans were passing out the leaflets for.  There was a direct connection. 

MITCHELL:  Let‘s point out, also, that the MoveOn people, the Democratic groups are...

OLIPHANT:  Up to their eyeballs.

MITCHELL:  ... next to the Democrats—they were...

OLIPHANT:  Up to their eyeballs.

MITCHELL:  ... (UNINTELLIGIBLE) next to them at the Democratic Convention. 

OLIPHANT:  Absolutely.

MITCHELL:  I mean, there is no separation here.

OLIPHANT:  Absolutely, but the only mistake is in pretending otherwise.  And I think the problem that‘s arising now comes from an ad that we haven‘t seen yet this evening.  But I think may be important because it‘s already up and on the air.  And this is the Kerry ad that has gone up, in the three states where this...

MITCHELL:  The Democratic National Committee ad.  Let‘s take a look. 

OLIPHANT:  Yeah, and this is—the beginning of it is what you want to focus on. 

MITCHELL:  I think we do have that available. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. MERRILL A. MCPEALE, USAF, RET.:  As a fighter pilot, I saw my share of combat.  As chief of staff, I led the Air Force during the first Gulf War.  And four years ago, I endorsed George Bush for president.  But this year, I‘m voting for John Kerry.  Nothing is more important to me than protecting America.

John Kerry has the strength and common sense we need in a commander in chief, and something more.  A real strategy to make America safer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The Democratic National Committee is responsible for the content of this advertisement. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MITCHELL:  They had wanted to be dark in August, they wanted to save their money, DNC money, Kerry campaign money, and just rely on these so-called 527s.  But they had to put this up.  They‘re on the defensive.

OLIPHANT:  There is another now.  There is another one.  The one that‘s on opposite the swift boat thing in the three states involved, Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin.  Starts out, “Bush supporters are saying Kerry lied about his medals.”  They are going to say, Bush supporters, Bush supporters, Bush supporters, with real money behind it.  And I think that may have been one reason why Craig wondered if there wasn‘t a boomerang in this story. 

MITCHELL:  John Fund, have they basically caused their own problem

here?   Is this going to back-fire on them? 

                FUND:  I think everyone has caused a problem here.  Look, Kerry‘s

former campaign manager, Jim Jordan, joined Harold Ickes in a 527.  Fred Barron, who was chairman—finance chairman of Kerry-Edwards ‘04 gave money to 527s.  Both parties are riddled with conflicts here. 

I don‘t think the American voters looking at this are going to do anything except throw up their arms and say, this is sandlot politics.  And I think the election is going to be decided on things like the economy and health care, and this is a classic August story.  We wouldn‘t be talking about it if this were after Labor Day. 

I think it is ridiculous for us to be debating a war that happened 35 years ago on either side.  I also think it was also ridiculous to say that President Bush was AWOL and a deserter during his Air National Guard duty.  All of this, as far as the American voter is concerned, is bizarre and silly. 

MITCHELL:  Stand by just a second.  We‘ll be right back.  And coming up, Iraq.  As the standoff with rebel forces in Najaf continues, what will be the political impact of that situation on the presidential election?  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MITCHELL:  We‘re back with Craig Crawford, Tom Oliphant and John Fund. 

Craig, Iraq.  A real war that is still going on, not one 30 years ago.  This standoff in Najaf threatens the entire game plan for the administration—elections, withdrawal in the future.  What is the political impact of that? 

CRAWFORD:  This is why I said earlier I think it‘s one benefit to the Bush campaign in this swift boat debate is it‘s keeping us off the focus on this current war in Iraq.  And there are plenty of kids over there now living the experiences that all these men are trying to remember from 35 years ago, not to mention the fact that Iran acted very war-like this week.  That‘s a story that scared me.  I began to wonder if we‘re going to war against Iran. 

MITCHELL:  But Tom, is it hard for John Kerry to campaign on the Iraq issue since he, himself, has been inconsistent in his explanations at least? 

OLIPHANT:  Hard bordering on impossible.  Let‘s be candid here.  Also, you can‘t Monday morning quarterback each day‘s military activities.  So effectively, Kerry is out of this story, but that doesn‘t help the president. 

I see two problems right now with what‘s going on.  First of all, it sometimes appears in the middle of a news cycle that some Iraqi government official in Baghdad is telling American military forces who are losing kids in combat what to do.  Bad idea. 

Secondly, war on terror or are Americans dying to keep one faction of Shiite Iraqis from gaining dominance over another faction of Shiite Iraqis?  And if that‘s the case, what are we doing there? 

MITCHELL:  And let me raise another issue, which could become a problem for the administration.  John Fund, $50 a barrel oil?  What does that do to the Bush administration‘s game plan? 

FUND:  Well, I agree with Tom that John Kerry really doesn‘t have a coherent ability to explain why he would go to war differently in Iraq or whether or not he would have a different game plan in withdrawing us from Iraq.  But $50 a barrel for oil is serious, because it has repercussions for everybody driving, and it also calls into question whether or not we will have another terrorist attack in October, not so much on a sort target in the U.S., but perhaps on Saudi Arabian oil refineries, and that shock could send the price of oil soaring to $60 a barrel.  That may be what al Qaeda is trying to do as their final card to have their revenge against George W. Bush. 

MITCHELL:  Craig, will the economic issues begin to rise?  We saw in a Pew poll this week that for the first time, maybe the first time since 1968 or 1972 that foreign policy issues are really dominant on voters‘ minds. 

CRAWFORD:  They are, but I think people are looking for some energy from the president.  Some sense that he gets up every morning worrying about their economic lives.  And I don‘t think George Bush has communicated that to people.  I think Kerry is further down the road convincing people that‘s what he‘ll do every morning when he gets up. 

MITCHELL:  But the guy who was supposed to communicate that was John Edwards.  Tom, what‘s happened to John Edwards? 

OLIPHANT:  Making a big difference.  I‘m still amazed at the spread between this guy‘s positives and negatives, which makes him more useful than any running mate I have seen in a long time. 

MITCHELL:  So he‘s being covered locally.  It‘s just that we‘re not seeing it.

OLIPHANT:  Under the radar screen.  It‘s astonishing to put his local media coverage on the screen and compare it to Cheney‘s. 

MITCHELL:  I was afraid that Edwards was at an undisclosed, secret location. 

OLIPHANT:  Well, in time his office won‘t be worth a pitcher of warm spit, but not right now. 

FUND:  Andrea, remember, the biggest impact will be the vice-presidential debate, because that‘s what millions of Americans are going to watch, not just the local news.  But that debate is going to solidify people‘s impressions.

MITCHELL:  And I‘ve been told that people are already spending some prep time on that. 

Craig, will we get the full debates, or is the Bush camp going to try to duck out of at least one of the presidentials? 

CRAWFORD:  We better—let me tell you, make my one pitch, my soapbox is if the American people are going to give these candidates $70 million, $75 million each to run these campaigns, they should debate and shouldn‘t have any say over the format. 

OLIPHANT:  Four states.

CRAWFORD:  They should be forced to debate on our terms.  The American people who are paying for the campaign. 

OLIPHANT:  They‘re scheduled in four swing states.

MITCHELL:  Absolutely.

OLIPHANT:  That says it all. 

MITCHELL:  OK.  That‘s all we have time for tonight.  Thank you all. 

John Fund, Craig Crawford and Tom Oliphant. 

For more on the swift boat controversy, tune into “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY” at 10:00, when Joe talks to one Vietnam veteran who was on the swift boat with John Kerry.  And Chris will be back Monday with more on the swift boat controversy, I can assure you of that.  Is it the fog of war, or a political hit job?  Right now, it‘s time for COUNTDOWN with Keith Olbermann.

END  

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