updated 8/29/2004 5:04:42 PM ET 2004-08-29T21:04:42

Guests: Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Roger Simon, Ken Duberstein

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Tonight: The buck stops where?  Who should take responsibility for the abuses at Abu Ghraib?  An exclusive interview at the former commander of the Iraqi prison, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski.  Plus, John Kerry‘s military record comes under fresh fire from an admiral who served with him in Vietnam.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘m saying that he did not deserve the first Purple Heart, from what I saw.  You can characterize it any way you want.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  NBC‘s Lisa Myers has an exclusive report.

Live from New York for the Republican national convention, let‘s play

HARDBALL.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I want to be your president for four more years to make our economy stronger.  I want to be your president for four more years to make your future brighter and better for every one of our citizens.  I want to be your president for four more years to make our country safer.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews in New York.  and welcome to the first night of HARDBALL‘s special Republican convention coverage.  We‘ll be broadcasting live beginning Sunday from MSNBC election headquarters in Herald Square on Broadway.

This is the first time New York, by the way, is hosting the Republican convention.  And tonight, the city is bracing for the arrival of thousands of reporters, delegates, politicians and protesters.  MSNBC has wall-to-wall coverage of the convention, with reporters in the field and on the floor.  So stay with us all week long.

Tonight, we have an exclusive report from NBC‘s Lisa Myers featuring an interview with an officer who served with John Kerry in Vietnam and is now taking new shots at Kerry‘s military record.  Plus, the former commander of the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad about who‘s responsible for the prisoner abuse that took place there.

But first: U.S. officials tell NBC News tonight that a fairly senior Pentagon official is under investigation for spying for Israel.  NBC News chief Justice Department correspondent Pete Williams joins us now.

Pete, what do we know?

PETE WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS CHIEF JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Chris, first of all, there have been no arrests in this case.  We‘re told that this is something that‘s been under investigation for some time, that the case is maturing, arrests could come soon, but perhaps not within the next several days, they say.

This official who works in what‘s called the Office of the Secretary of Defense—that‘s a very large cadre of civilian employees who work for the secretary of defense.  This official is accused of passing information to—not to an enemy but to an ally, to the government of Israel.  And what the FBI is investigating, we‘re told, is whether this individual passed the information through Israel‘s lobby group here in Washington, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, commonly known as AIPAC.

Now, we‘re told that AIPAC has been asked for information and documents in connection with this case.  AIPAC has said it is cooperating with the government investigation.  This would be—Chris, if it turns out to be true, this would be one of the highest-ranking DoD employees to be caught up in an espionage case, and certainly, the biggest spy case involving Israel since the arrest of Jonathan Pollard in 1985.  He was the Navy analyst who was passing much more valuable—potentially much more valuable information to Israel about the nature of U.S. codes.

But this individual that‘s now under investigation, we‘re told, is accused of giving draft policy documents to Israel, including on the very sensitive subject of U.S. policy toward Iran, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Is this possibly information dealing with a possible contingency plan for a U.S. attack on Iran?

WILLIAMS:  We don‘t know specifically what the information is.  I suppose that‘s theoretically possible.  We‘re told that some of the documents here involve draft policy documents, draft presidential findings, so very sensitive documents.  But we don‘t know specifically what the nature of these documents are.

MATTHEWS:  Are there any allegations about policy influence from this official, attempts to influence U.S. policy with regard to the Mideast, or simply espionage?

WILLIAMS:  There are no allegations of that yet.  Of course, espionage is the criminal charge that would be involved here.  Whether that‘s something else the person did is beyond the knowledge of the people I‘ve talked to.

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you very much, Pete Williams, Justice correspondent for NBC News.

Now to the investigation into the abuse scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.  Joining us right now is a person at the center of this storm, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who was the commander at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Who‘s responsible for what happened?

BRIG. GEN. JANIS KARPINSKI, SUSPENDED ABU GHRAIB COMMANDER:  I think it‘s very clear right now, seven months after the original story broke or seven months after the original accusations were made, that this is a shared responsibility.  There are a lot of parts that were broken, a lot of things that went wrong—ineffective policies, misunderstood policies, policies that were applied when they shouldn‘t have been in Baghdad or anywhere in Iraq, quite frankly.

MATTHEWS:  Well, I‘m Chris Matthews, not Dan Abrams, and I‘m not interested in criminal cases, I‘m interested in policy.  What was the policy of treatment that you know about, the United States policy toward treating these resisters who were in prison, these Iraqis?

KARPINSKI:  Well, I do know when they were—when we were running the prisoner of war and interrogation facility, it was standard.  Everybody‘s aware of what the Geneva/Hague convention is, and the policy was consistent with the Geneva/Hague conventions.  And to my knowledge, the interrogation operations that were under way then and initially up at Abu Ghraib were perfectly acceptable.  They were by doctrine.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

KARPINSKI:  They were the ones that were approved.  And then it changed.  It transitioned.  When they turned the majority of Abu Ghraib over to the interrogation operations, obviously, major...

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let me suggest...

KARPINSKI:  ... changes were made.

MATTHEWS:  ... a context.  We‘re in a very difficult resistance, as the president said yesterday.  We didn‘t expect this amount of resistance.  It was miscalculated.  We found ourselves with a tremendous operation of people fighting us over there in Iraq.

KARPINSKI:  Correct.

MATTHEWS:  We wanted to crack that resistance.  The word comes from somewhere, We got to get some intel out of these people or we‘re going to lose this fight.  How did that work, as you understand it?  How did that political decision, that we face something we didn‘t expect to face—I think stupidly, we should have expected it—huge resistance.  We got to crack these resistors.  Where did that decision work its way down to your prison from?

KARPINSKI:  Well, it didn‘t work its way down to my prison because the prison operations, the detention operations in the prison and every one of the facilities was consistent.

MATTHEWS:  What about the MI guys (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Pappas, et cetera? 

What were they up to?

KARPINSKI:  Well, they moved—the commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade moved out to Abu Ghraib in September.

MATTHEWS:  Their mission?

KARPINSKI:  Their mission was to conduct interrogations operations. 

Shortly after the visit by General Miller, who came to assess and assist with the interrogation operations, to get more actionable intelligence out of them, things started to change dramatically.  And I just saw that from a distance, but I could tell that things were changing out there.

First off, we were holding record numbers of security detainees, and there wasn‘t clear policy guidance.  The policies that they were trying to implement were really designed for other locations—Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan—where, clearly, the prisoners that you‘re picking up, the detainees, are more along the lines of terrorists or related to terrorist activities.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the implements.  When you were on the program in May—you were nice enough to come on this show, and I asked you about, you know, Where do all these implements come from, hoods, dog collars, things like that?  You said at the time that your troops were never issued that kind of material.

KARPINSKI:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  Well, who brought it in?

KARPINSKI:  Well, I don‘t know because...

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s the—the reason I go on that sort of thin line of investigation is I assume people don‘t bring this stuff from home.

KARPINSKI:  They absolutely do not.

MATTHEWS:  And they‘re not issued it as government issue.  So somebody in the MI must have been issuing this stuff.  So it wasn‘t like—everybody likes to say—I mean, Jim Schlesinger, in his report the other day, said it was—you know, it was “Animal House.”  Well, “Animal House,” the guys bought the beer.  In this case, somebody else bought the beer.

KARPINSKI:  Somebody issued that equipment.

MATTHEWS:  Who brought in this equipment?

KARPINSKI:  Well, as I said, there was a transition.  During September and October, in particular, they already had the sons, Uday and Qusay, and they were still very much interested in finding Saddam because they linked all of the insurgencies to Saddam and his former Fedayeen members who were out there orchestrating these things.  Or that was the original direction.

So when—after General Miller came to visit and these—now I know that they were contract interrogators, started to arrive from other locations, it‘s likely that they brought some of that equipment, some of their tools with them.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  My favorite question when I talk to people I work with, my colleagues, when they say, Well, they told us to do this, I say, Who‘s they?  When you asked that question over in Abu Ghraib and you said, Who is “they” that brought in this equipment—did it come from the civilians in the Defense Department?  Did it come through Cambone, did it come through the other guys up there who were very gung-ho about this war?  Did it come—or does somebody get a creative writing award in the MI service?  I sense it comes from the policy makers.  What‘s your belief?

KARPINSKI:  The equipment or the...

MATTHEWS:  The whole—the whole decision to sexually humiliate Arab prisoners because of some knowledge of their anthropology, that one way to get an Arab to talk is to expose them nakedly to some other guy.  Get them involved sexually to some other guy because he‘ll never live it down.  This‘ll make them break.  Who came up with that idea?  I don‘t think the people from West Virginia thought that up.

KARPINSKI:  No, absolutely not.

MATTHEWS:  OK, who thought it up?

KARPINSKI:  I‘m in agreement with you.  It had to be people that knew that these policies or these procedures worked in other locations.

MATTHEWS:  So it came in as part of the Geoff Miller operation from Gitmo?

KARPINSKI:  It was imported from some location where they had...

MATTHEWS:  OK, he was sent there...

KARPINSKI:  ... success with that.

MATTHEWS:  ... by Cambone?

KARPINSKI:  He was.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s the chain, you think, of responsibility here.

KARPINSKI:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  SO you believe the decision to torture these prisoners in the matter of sexual humiliation, the stacking them together like they‘re hot dog wieners and all that kind of thing comes from the civilians at the Defense Department.

KARPINSKI:  I believe that, as they said, after the Schlesinger commission report was—that this—you know, nobody at the—in Washington, in this—in the Department of Defense would say, Pile a whole bunch of naked prisoners on top of each other.  But there was so much latitude in...

MATTHEWS:  Now, wait a minute, though.  That‘s what I want to get to.  Who did think of doing that to prisoners?  What grossed us out as a country was not somebody punching somebody in the nose or slapping or anything else, or even whipping them.  It‘s this weird kind of sexual humiliation.  Where did the concept of that come from, as far as you know?

KARPINSKI:  As far as I know, the contract interrogators who had success with these type of undertakings at other locations are the one who said, Did you think about this?  Did you try this?  And...

MATTHEWS:  I see.  So it was all suggested by them.

KARPINSKI:  Well, it was suggested by...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So what we saw in the pictures that turned us off as Americans, because we all felt somewhat responsible for this, was, in fact, theory.  This didn‘t come from the kids or the young people involved, these enlisted people.  This was theory dropped down on them from the top.

KARPINSKI:  That‘s correct.

MATTHEWS:  So what should that say about the—here‘s what I don‘t like.  I saw a lawyer for Frederick, Specialist Frederick, who said, I conducted a prudent defense.  Well, I know how to read something.  “Prudent defense” meant, I‘ll take a year rather than risk 5 or 10.  They were—these guys at the bottom were squeezed, told that the big boys are not going to take the heat, you are.  Your choice is one year or five.  And that‘s when I hear a lawyer say—how about a lawyer who says, I‘m going to get my guy off?  That‘s the lawyer I want to hire.  I don‘t want to hear somebody saying, I‘m conducting a prudent defense of you.  In other words, you‘re going to hang.

So what do you think happened to these guys?  Why are the going to lower pleas?  Why are they pleading?

KARPINSKI:  Well, I think, in some cases, they‘ve been—they haven‘t been back in the United States, obviously, or had access to their families.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

KARPINSKI:  And they‘ve been held in Baghdad since January...

MATTHEWS:  OK.

KARPINSKI:  ... away from everything familiar to them, no access to their defense counsels.  It‘s—you know, the price, the bill is going up every single day.  So in some cases, I think their family members...

MATTHEWS:  OK.

KARPINSKI:  ... came into play very strongly.

MATTHEWS:  So the leadership in this crime comes from the top; the punishment goes to the bottom.

KARPINSKI:  That‘s unfair.  That‘s unfair.

MATTHEWS:  And that‘s how you see it.

KARPINSKI:  If you—absolutely.  And if you apply enough pressure to an individual and you tell them what you‘re pressuring them to get, they‘re going to give it to you.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

KARPINSKI:  They are going to take whatever...

MATTHEWS:  Especially when they—they‘re country kids, they‘re regular people who just want to get home to their families and be where they want to live.  And you say you want to spend five years in some prison over here?

KARPINSKI:  Right.  And at one point, there were senior people who were...

MATTHEWS:  OK...

KARPINSKI:  ... intimidating other people.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, General.  Thank you for coming on HARDBALL.  General Janis Karpinski.

When we come back, Senator Lindsey Graham of the Armed Services Committee will be here with another view, with his reaction to the report on the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison.  And later, NBC‘s Lisa Myers, as I said, will join us with an exclusive interview with a former officer in Vietnam who says he was John Kerry‘s superior and says Kerry didn‘t deserve his first Purple Heart.  There‘s an argument (UNINTELLIGIBLE) both ways these days.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Joining us right now in New York

·         that‘s where we are for the convention this week—is South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, who‘s been a friend of this show for I don‘t know how long.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM ®, SOUTH CAROLINA:  I‘m an alumni.

MATTHEWS:  Of course, he‘s a member of the Armed Services Committee, and he‘s also a military lawyer with a lot of experience with the Air Force Reserves.

Let me ask you about this latest report from Pete Williams, Spy for Israel allegedly working in the high levels of the Pentagon.

GRAHAM:  Yes.  It‘s very disturbing.  I mean, sharing policy papers about our strategy against another nation, Iran.  If true, people need to be seriously dealt with, I agree.

MATTHEWS:  There‘s already some questions about the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) with our knowledge of their decoding equipment, our decoding of their operations over there in Iran.

GRAHAM:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  There‘s a lot of loose lips over there, apparently.

GRAHAM:  Well, and that‘s very dangerous.  People suffer when that happens.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the case we just talked about with General Karpinski.  It‘s been on your mind, I know, because...

GRAHAM:  It sure has.

MATTHEWS:  ... you‘re pro-military.  You like the military.  You‘re from a state that provides a lot of military personnel over the years, South Carolina.  What‘s your sense, when you look at the various parties?  Who‘s primarily responsible?

GRAHAM:  Well, I like it, and that‘s why I‘m driven to make sure that this stain on the honor of the military is addressed.  I think there‘s several levels of responsibility.  One, I think our civilian leadership put our troops in a bad spot.  We didn‘t have enough people over there.  I‘ve been saying that a year-and-a-half.  You had one guard for every 75 prisoners.  The Army manual says one for five or six.  It‘s a tough spot for these people to be in.

But let me tell you about some of the people involved.  They were not directed by the higher-ups to do bad things.  They chose to do bad things.  It was a tough environment, but they‘re having orgies in cellblocks among themselves.  Some of the humiliation you see in those photos is just personally bad behavior.

But some of the photos, I think, suggest more.  The use of the dogs—to me, that‘s a very key event.  Miller comes from Guantanamo Bay, talks about dogs, Pappas, the colonel for—the military intelligence colonel, says, After that, we started using the dogs.  They had a contest to take adolescent Iraqis into a room and use the dogs, and they would bet on how quickly they would make them urinate.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

GRAHAM:  That‘s just disgusting behavior.  But those dogs, in my opinion, were used in an illegal manner.  And the question is, Did he misunderstand what Miller said, or was it an orchestrated effort to interject a terror technique into interrogations?

MATTHEWS:  Well, could it be that you, like—you get a car as part of your job, but then you misuse the car at night?  Could it that be simple?  They were taught techniques for sexual humiliation.  They were given dog collars, hoods, given dogs.  And when it came time and nobody was looking, they said, Well, let‘s have a little more fun with this job?

GRAHAM:  Well, let me tell you, people are supposed to look.  You just had the general on.  The military justice system will deal with everybody in responsibility, but from October to January, that jail was unbelievably poorly maintained and disciplined.  What went on at night was way out of bounds.  And the first thing do you as a commander, 101, when you become a commander, or you‘re a lawyer advising a new commander, show up when they least expect it.  What went on in that jail from 2:00 to whenever is no excuse.  There‘s a lot of command responsibility here.  If this is just privates and lieutenants, we‘ve missed the boat.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the pictures we saw.  We saw some which were simply gross, the ones you describe.  But we also saw pictures, clearly, that looked like people on duty.  We saw MI, military intelligence people.

GRAHAM:  Sure, 43 of them now.

MATTHEWS:  Well, it seems to me it wasn‘t just “Animal House,” as Jim Schlesinger called it, in the middle of the night.

GRAHAM:  Exactly.

MATTHEWS:  It was daytime work.

GRAHAM:  Exactly.

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of those pictures?

GRAHAM:  Well, No. 1, the environment there of getting intelligence—we complained about, We don‘t have enough people here.  If you really want to get good intelligence, looks like you would focus on it.  You got one guard for 75 prisoners.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

GRAHAM:  You had untrained, ill-equipped translators.  So what you see is military intelligence officers around the abuse.  So when these young people say, The military intelligence people knew about it, the evidence is very clearly there.  They did know about it.

I don‘t think it comes from a memo from the Pentagon.  But some of this happened in Afghanistan.  You asked a good question.  Where the hell did those hoods come from?  How did that get into that prison?  Did they misunderstand how to use the dogs?  And the only reason this is important is because we are the good guys.  And the president said the Geneva convention would apply in that prison.  And we have adhered to the Geneva convention for 50 years for one primary reason.  If our people fall into enemy hands, we want to keep the moral high ground.

What went on in that prison is not only un-American, it was criminal. 

And the people involved who actually did it are responsible.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

GRAHAM:  But in the military, Chris, you have a duty as a commander to make sure that criminal misconduct does not go on for two months.

MATTHEWS:  Is Don Rumsfeld immune from resignation or from being fired?

GRAHAM:  I don‘t think...

MATTHEWS:  It seems like, in every report—I mean, the Jim

Schlesinger report, he particularly said, Don‘t fire Rumsfeld.  Well, that

seem to be an odd—that‘s the president‘s decision.  Why is Jim

Schlesinger saying, Protect—it seems like no matter what goes wrong in

terms of bad intel, in terms of not knowing we‘re going to face a serious

resistance over there, which the president, as you know, admitted yesterday

·         everything goes wrong, and Rummy comes up as smiling.

GRAHAM:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  He‘s a very likable guy...

GRAHAM:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  ... a charmer like there‘s never been maybe.  But he seems like he‘s immune.

GRAHAM:  Well, I don‘t think anybody should be immune from criticism, and he was criticized.  I think the proper criticism for Secretary Rumsfeld is that the post-collapse of Saddam Hussein was poorly planned.  Now, you‘re not going to fire somebody...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

GRAHAM:  ... for what happened in a jail 5,000 miles away.  But here‘s where we need to look hard...

MATTHEWS:  Troops.  Troop levels.

GRAHAM:  Right.  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  He kept saying to win lean and mean.

GRAHAM:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  And it didn‘t work.

GRAHAM:  But lean and mean won the war, but you need a different occupation model.  And when you got so many prisoners on your hands, it wasn‘t working (UNINTELLIGIBLE)  This is the best example I could give about how the occupation was poorly organized.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

GRAHAM:  Untrained people, not enough of them with the skill sets to do their job, and you‘ve got chaos.  But somebody in the Pentagon or the Justice Department tried to cut corners with the Geneva convention, set in motion very questionable practices, and they need to be held accountable.

MATTHEWS:  More coming.  Thank you very much, Senator Lindsey Graham. 

See you next week at the convention.

GRAHAM:  I‘ll be here.

MATTHEWS:  You have a big role to play.

Up next: Anti-Bush groups aren‘t planning to stop their attack ads during the Republican convention.  We‘ll take a look at their plans when HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  The Republican convention doesn‘t mean any break in the campaign ad war.  HARDBALL election correspondent David Shuster has the latest—David.

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL ELECTION CORRESPONDENT:  Chris, the independent Democratic group Moveon PAC announced today it is unleashing a $3 million ad campaign in the battleground states to coincide with the Republican convention.  Unlike some of the previous ads by this group, these are not factual in nature.  They‘re simply the opinions of Republicans who voted for George W. Bush four years ago but who now say they‘re going to vote for John Kerry.  One ad features a former U.S.  Marine.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  ... weapons of mass destruction.  It was just a lie.  And that wasn‘t—that wasn‘t a proper use of American troops.  That wasn‘t a proper use of my life and my friends‘ lives or the Marines who I‘ve seen die around me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  The problem for John Kerry, of course, is that it was just two weeks ago when Kerry said that knowing what he knows now, he would still vote to give President Bush the authority to take U.S. troops into Iraq.

Still, the Moveon efforts underscore the math that both campaigns are facing.  And remember, Chris, that Al Gore beat George W. Bush by half a million votes, and pollsters say that while it is not that difficult to find Bush voters from four years ago who now say they‘re going to vote for John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, the same pollsters, including Republican pollsters, say it‘s very difficult to find Al Gore voters from four years ago who are now going to cross over to the Republicans and vote for George W. Bush.

And it‘s one of the reasons why the Bush campaign is focused so intensely on recruiting new voters but also making sure that conservatives who stayed home four years ago will participate this time around.

Finally, we will soon reach the phase in this campaign where both campaigns are relying on federal funds, and so we‘ve got some final numbers on the individual contributions they both collected to date.  The Bush campaign received nearly $240 million in individual contributions.  The Kerry campaign received about $211 million.  The Bush donors, as you might expect, tended to be wealthier.  Donors who gave the maximum $2,000 accounted for 53 percent of the Bush warchest.  For Kerry, these top donors were 34 percent of his total.

And when it comes to how various business sectors went, the president brought in 10 times as much money as Kerry from executives who work in agribusiness, energy and transportation sectors.  Lawyers and lobbyists largely backed Kerry, giving him 75 percent more than they contributed to President Bush—Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David Shuster.

Up next, NBC‘s Lisa Myers will be here with an exclusive interview with a Vietnam vet who says he served with Kerry and doesn‘t think Kerry deserves his first Purple Heart.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  This half-hour on HARDBALL, the debate over John Kerry‘s war record.  NBC‘s Lisa Myers has an exclusive interview with Kerry‘s superior, who says Kerry didn‘t deserve his first Purple Heart. 

But, first, let‘s check in with the MSNBC News Desk. 

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Another Vietnam swift boat veteran has come out this week, adding his voice to a growing debate over what actually happened, or exactly happened at least the night Kerry earned one of his Purple Hearts.  This time, one of Kerry‘s superiors is contradicting Kerry‘s story. 

NBC News senior investigative reporter Lisa Myers joins us right now for an exclusive report—Lisa.

LISA MYERS, NBC CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT:  Hi, Chris. 

After a month of charges and countercharges, the bulk of the overall evidence clearly favors Kerry.  In fact, critics have be produced any documentary proof so far to back up their main charges.  But lingering questions remain about Kerry‘s first Purple Heart.  And now an admiral who claims to have been with Kerry on the night in question is challenging him, adding to the tangle of conflicting memories. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MYERS (voice-over):  December 2, 1968, one of Kerry‘s first river missions in Vietnam, a night operation in a small skimmer.  This is how Kerry describes what happened that night, for which he was awarded his first Purple Heart. 

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  The medical records show that I had shrapnel removed from my arm.  We were in combat.  We were in a very, very, probably one of the most frightening, if you ask anybody who was with me, the two guys that were with me, it was probably the most frightening night that they had that they were in Vietnam. 

MYERS:  Now Retired Admiral William Schachte claims that he was Kerry‘s superior that night and that Kerry‘s account is not true. 

WILLIAM SCHACHTE, VIETNAM VETERAN:  I was in command of those missions and I was in the boat that night. 

MYERS:  In an exclusive interview with NBC News, Schachte says he and Kerry and an enlisted man were in the boat that night when he thought he saw movement on the shore and opened fire. 

SCHACHTE:  My gun jammed after the first burst.  And, as I was trying to clear my weapon, John‘s gun apparently jammed, too.  I heard the old familiar thunk, pow.  And I looked and John had fired M-79 grenade launcher.  And there was silence.  And that‘s when I realized that he had nicked himself. 

MYERS:  Schachte claims Kerry accidentally hurt himself when he fired the grenade launcher too close to the boat and shrapnel came back and hit his arm. 

(on camera):  You have absolutely no doubt that he injured himself accidentally?

SCHACHTE:  There was no other fire.  There were no muzzle flashes. 

There was nothing coming at us from the beach. 

MYERS:  And there was no enemy fire involved?

SCHACHTE:  None. 

MYERS:  Period? 

SCHACHTE:  Yes. 

MYERS:  You‘re absolutely certain?

SCHACHTE:  Yes. 

MYERS:  Thirty-six years later?

SCHACHTE:  Hey, listen, when somebody is shooting at you, you know it. 

MYERS:  But you are in a sense saying Senator Kerry is lying and did not deserve his first Purple Heart. 

SCHACHTE:  I‘m saying that he did not deserve the first Purple Heart from what I saw.  You can characterize it any way you want. 

MYERS:  But when interviewed briefly last year, Schachte did not make such a charge.  And he has no documents to back up his claim to have been with Kerry that night. 

(voice-over):  The skipper of another boat that night, Mike Voss, tells NBC News, “I‘m pretty certain Schachte was there in the skimmer.”  But Voss won‘t take sides on what actually happened, saying: “I don‘t know what went on the in the skimmer.  I‘m trying to stay neutral.”

Two other officers, both Kerry critics, support Schachte‘s account, saying he gave the same account immediately after the mission.  But not everyone involved shares Schachte‘s memory of what happened. 

BILL ZALADONIS, VIETNAM VETERAN:  Well, he claims that, but he‘s wrong. 

MYERS:  Bill Zaladonis and another enlisted man are equally adamant that Kerry is telling the truth.  They say they were in that boat with Kerry that night.  And Schachte was not. 

ZALADONIS:  I don‘t remember every incident or everything that happened, but do I remember who was on the boat and I remember it very plainly, very plainly. 

MYERS:  Zaladonis says he‘s not sure exactly how Kerry was wounded or if there was enemy fire, but remembers Kerry opening fire on Vietnamese on the shore. 

ZALADONIS:  From what I remember, he was firing an M-16 and it either jammed or he ran out of ammo and he bent over to pick up another one and then he got hurt as he was bent over, as far as I can remember. 

MYERS:  Still, key questions remain about Kerry‘s account.  If there was combat, why no after-action report, as exists for other Purple Hearts?   Schachte says it‘s because he didn‘t file such a report because there was no enemy action. 

SCHACHTE:  The division commander said fine.  Understand.  No after— action report required. 

MYERS:  But Kerry blames the lack of a report on Navy record-keeping. 

Another question, why was this Purple Heart awarded three months later?  Grant Hibbard, then Kerry‘s commanding officer and now a Kerry critic, says he initially rejected recommending Kerry for a Purple Heart. 

A Kerry spokesman tells NBC, he does not recall that.  But in April, Kerry told “USA Today,” he did recall someone raising a question about the award and suggests he may have asked for the award after learning Purple Hearts were automatic and not at the commander‘s discretion.  But  Schachte‘s timing and motives also can be questioned. 

MYERS (on camera):  It‘s been 35 years.  Why speak out now in the heat of a presidential campaign? 

SCHACHTE:  Well, the timing is something that‘s driven by the publication of “Tour of Duty.” 

MYERS (voice-over):  Schachte‘s says he was shocked when he read an excerpt of the authorized biography, including Kerry‘s version of his first Purple Heart.  But the Kerry campaign charges this is all about politics, noting Schachte has endorsed and twice contributed to President Bush. 

Senior Kerry adviser Michael Meehan. 

MICHAEL MEEHAN, SENIOR ADVISER, JOHN KERRY CAMPAIGN:  Mr. Schachte has now come forward after years of remaining silent with no evidence, no documents, no proof that he was there, just a claim that he was there, just a new allegation in the middle of a presidential campaign. 

SCHACHTE:  It is difficult to get beyond those accusations that we‘re somehow puppets for this campaign.  That really strikes at the heart of your own personal honor. 

MYERS (on camera):  So you‘re not doing this to help President Bush? 

SCHACHTE:  For lord‘s sake, no.  Would I invite what‘s going to happen?  I mean, no, absolutely not. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MYERS:  Now, while challenging Kerry‘s truthfulness, Schachte acknowledges that Kerry showed courage in Vietnam, noting that it took courage just to volunteer for that mission that night, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s get to a couple points, Lisa.  To win a Purple Heart, I understand you simply have to be wounded and quote—according to how I‘m looking at the document, in action against an enemy of the United States.  Now, it doesn‘t say you have to be shot by the enemy.  It can be flying shrapnel.  Why does this guy, Schachte, a rear admiral, ultimately, why is he discrediting this award? 

MYERS:  He is saying that there was no enemy action that night. 

MATTHEWS:  Then why were they firing? 

MYERS:  They were firing because he said he thought he saw something on the shore, but when they stopped firing, there was silence.  There was never any return fire.  There was never any muzzle flash. 

MATTHEWS:  Maybe they hit them. 

MYERS:  There was never any noise around them. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, maybe they actually hit the guy.  Wouldn‘t that be one way to silence the enemy?  How does he know, this guy Schachte, that there wasn‘t an enemy out there when we have—because, look, I‘m looking at this report from Patrick Ryan—Patrick Runyon, rather—in “The New York Times” there a week ago.  This guy said it was the scariest night of his life, that night that he got that Purple Heart.

You got guys saying it was the scariest night of their life.  Kerry says that.  Runyon says that.  This other fellow also makes the point that they were getting shot at.  This guy says, I wasn‘t being shot at, but he also admits that he was shooting at something.  Who was he shooting at? 

MYERS:  He doesn‘t know.  He said he thought he saw a movement, but

there was never any return fire.  There was never any engagement.  He

assumed that, what he had seen was not an enemy, but that he just

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Does that disqualify—under the rules of issuing Purple Hearts, the fact that you did not see the eyes of the enemy, even though you think you saw them and you shot at them and you got hurt doing it, does that disqualify a person for a Purple Heart? 

MYERS:  That is the opinion of Schachte, who was Kerry‘s—everyone acknowledges was Kerry‘s superior that night. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Right. 

MYERS:  It also was the opinion of Kerry‘s commander, Grant Hibbard, who claims that did not put Schachte in—I mean, put Kerry in for a Purple Heart because Schachte came back, told him about what happened that night.  They all agreed, apparently, that there would be no after-action report, according to both of them.

Because there was no enemy action and that because there was no enemy action, and that Kerry allegedly got nicked by a grenade that came back at him, a little piece of shrapnel, they decided that that was not worthy of a Purple Heart.  Now technically, Kerry found out later that at least you do not have to have your immediate commander‘s OK to get a Purple Heart, that if you‘re injured, you know, you qualify. 

So someone in the Navy afterwards cleared Kerry for this award.  What‘s interesting, though, is that Kerry has said contradictory things about whether he was aware that Grant Hibbard did not think he should get the award and also has been hazy on exactly how it came to pass that he got it three months later. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, this is the most highly disputed Purple Heart in history.  Anyway, thank you for that report, Lisa Myers.

MYERS:  Absolutely. 

MATTHEWS:  More information from her tonight.

To read Lisa‘s entire interviews with William Schachte and Bill Zaladonis, go to HARDBALL.MSNBC.com. 

When we come back, more on this story with “U.S. News & World Report”‘s Roger Simon and MSNBC‘s Ron Reagan. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, the ongoing skirmish over John Kerry‘s war record, plus a preview of the Republican National Convention here in New York.

HARDBALL returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Roger Simon is the chief political correspondent for “U.S. News & World Report” and national syndicated columnist, and Ron Reagan is an MSNBC political analyst.  He‘s in another room very close by here in New York City.  We‘re all in 30 Rock, home of “Saturday Night Live.”

Look, this isn‘t “Saturday Night Live.”  What it is, is a pretty confusing campaign.  Until a week ago, or two weeks ago, the question was, do you want a change or don‘t you want a change? 

ROGER SIMON, POLITICAL EDITOR, “U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT”:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  Now it is, how did Kerry get that first Purple Heart? 

SIMON:  Yes.  Well, we‘re in danger of becoming 1988 again, when the election was essentially about nothing of importance to the American people.  It was about Willie Horton and trips to flag factories and whether you believed the Pledge of Allegiance should be mandatory in the schools. 

And when it was all over, people said, what was that about?  And you‘re right.  We‘re creeping into this period of the election when we‘re talking about events that happened 35 years ago which seem to have no relevance to anybody‘s life today, when we have real problems in this country and you have two men with real differences. 

MATTHEWS:  And, as Lisa Myers reported, and I think that‘s a right-down-the-middle report, obviously, she said, no one has really challenged the heart of the matter, which is Kerry won a Bronze.  He won a Silver.  He has got a bunch of Purple Hearts.  If he got two or he got three, I don‘t think it‘s probably determining how anybody votes.  And the other guy running, the incumbent, has got none of this to brag about.  So why are we arguing? 

Well, we‘re doing it because it is news, I guess. 

Ron Reagan, your thoughts.  Why have we focused away from the issues that most people say they are going to vote on, the economy, the war in Iraq, health care issues that you‘ve raised?

RON REAGAN, NBC CONTRIBUTOR:  Well, we‘ve seen this sort of thing before coming from the Republican side in particular.  They want to distract us from issues like the economy and the war in Iraq, which isn‘t doing so well right now. 

And so let‘s be plain about this.  This group of men, they call themselves the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth—excuse me—by the evidence seem to be a pack of liars.  And I think us, we in the media, generally ought to be unafraid to say so. 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s driving them?  What‘s their motivation? 

REAGAN:  They seem to be less concerned really, ultimately, with Kerry‘s service in Vietnam than what he said about Vietnam after he got back. 

Some of these people have been after John Kerry for a long, long time.  They resent the fact that he came back and dissed some people in the war, talked about atrocities.  You remember My Lai and things like that.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

REAGAN:  So that‘s what has got them all geeked up about this stuff. 

And now they‘re going on the air with lies. 

MATTHEWS:  I agree with that. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  It really is a triangulation.  It is not all partisan here.  These are fellows that served, that came home, had very bad experiences coming home.  My brother and his wife have talked about it with me.  This is pretty American, this problem about war. 

SIMON:  Yes.  I mean, we are conflicted, everybody, whether they went or not, are still conflicted over this war.  And that‘s why bringing it up is not serving much of a positive purpose.

MATTHEWS:  Have you noticed, nobody really likes this? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I mean, some of these guys are so angry, they‘re angry at the world.  But most people who served didn‘t brag about it.

SIMON:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  No matter how courageous they were.  They don‘t like that the fact that Kerry bragged about it, I‘m learning. 

SIMON:  Right. 

And even those who came back and supported the war don‘t say, well, yes, we fought at this time right way.  We did it the right way.  We did the right things.  They say, no, we did it all wrong and we shouldn‘t have been and we shouldn‘t have gone.  But we did go and we did fight.  There‘s a cruel irony to all this, a very cruel irony to all this.

The reason Kerry‘s Purple Hearts are being attacked is because, if you‘ve got three, you got to go home.  So he got to go home after four and a half months.  Well, there‘s an easier way to get home from Vietnam than getting three Purple Hearts.  And it‘s called not going in the first place. 

It‘s the option the president of the United States took.  It‘s the option

the vice president took.  It‘s the option Bill Clinton took and hundreds

and thousands of other men of Kerry‘s

(CROSSTALK) 

MATTHEWS:  Let me give you some facts that I got from the new NBC poll just in from the field.  And I wonder why they‘re not playing in this campaign.  I wonder why Kerry is not using them; 73 percent of the American people, three-quarters, believe the United States should operate in the world as part of a team.  We should try to have other countries on our side.  We shouldn‘t do this go-it-alone thing. 

Why do they still like this president if they believe that?  This president is a go-it-alone kind of guy.  Why do they like President Bush and like this policy of building alliances? 

SIMON:  Because a vote for the presidency is built of many, many things.  And what pollsters tend to do is chop all those things up and you get 17 different poll results. 

People decide basically whether they like, believe and trust the guy or not.  And right now, George Bush is doing pretty well in those.  And John Kerry, after three weeks of swift boat attacks, is really taking it on the chin.  He has not closed the deal yet with a lot of people. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to an issue, Ron, you‘ve talked about.  And it‘s not health care, because that‘s not a primary issue with most people, because they‘re not sick right now, of course.

But let me ask you this; 60 to 30, according to the new poll we just got, show that people don‘t think that the current recovery, such as it is, and they believe there‘s a recovery going on, has helped middle-class and working-class people, which is about 80 percent of the country.  Why isn‘t that turning people against president? 

REAGAN:  Well, that‘s a good question.  Again, I don‘t think that John Kerry has really closed the sale yet. 

And the fact that he hasn‘t closed the sale has left the door open for things like the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, why can‘t he talk?  You know, Ron, a politician is somebody who can talk to the American people.  Why can‘t John Kerry talk to us? 

REAGAN:  That‘s a very good question.  He should have come out much sooner with the swift boat nonsense and shot it down.  He didn‘t.  Now he is and it is beginning to blow up in the Bush people‘s faces. 

I don‘t know.  I think he made the same mistake on the war.  I think he should have admitted his mistake early on, giving the president the ability to go into Iraq.  But he didn‘t. 

MATTHEWS:  You know what he can‘t do?  He can‘t talk to the camera and say, Mr. American people out there, let me tell you something.  I earned those medals.  He doesn‘t talk to the camera.  He doesn‘t talk to the people.  He gives these kind of odd parables.  I don‘t know what they are.

Anyway, thank you, Ron Reagan.  See you later.

Roger Simon, you‘re the great reporter.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, we‘ll preview more of the Republican Convention with Ken Duberstein, a real insider in the Republican Party.

And don‘t forget, you can keep up with the presidential race on HardBlogger, our election blog Web site.  Just go to HARDBALL.MSNBC.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Ken Duberstein served as chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan. 

He‘s one of your all-time big-time Republican mockers in Washington. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  You run the show. 

KEN DUBERSTEIN, REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT:  Big time.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Big time.

Let me ask you, Kenny boy, Duber dog, you‘re going—the Republicans

·         this would be like the Democrats going to Alabama to have their convention.  You‘re going right into the blue states.  Why? 

DUBERSTEIN:  It‘s terrific.  It shows that we‘re open.  It‘s a big-tent Republican Party. 

MATTHEWS:  But you don‘t have a prayer of carrying the Big Apple.

(CROSSTALK)

DUBERSTEIN:  And if you can make it in New York, you can make it every place. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  What percentage of the vote do you get up here? 

DUBERSTEIN:  And you know something?  It doesn‘t make any difference. 

The answer is, Madison Square Garden is going to be alive.  It is intimate.  It‘s a laboratory for the Republicans.  It shows the big tent.  Let me tell you...

MATTHEWS:  What do you think the New York people are a species?  You can experiment with them? 

(CROSSTALK)

DUBERSTEIN:  ... people vote.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Now, that‘s what I want to know. 

DUBERSTEIN:  OK.

MATTHEWS:  Why is it important to have a Big Apple-Madison Square Garden backdrop to a party which is largely middle Western now in its power and Southern? 

DUBERSTEIN:  Because it celebrates also George W. Bush and his leadership and it invokes obviously 9/11. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you a question.  OK, I told you this before we went on, because I‘m going to do it right here, because you‘re our friend.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  A couple months ago, maybe a year ago, like I always like to give people advice on both sides.  And I said this to some people who worked at the White House, because I know that Bush wasn‘t that popular up North. 

DUBERSTEIN:  And people take it or not.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, they did.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I said, why don‘t you tell the president, hey, come up to New York; bring Laura up for the weekend, see a couple plays, dance some nice—eat in some restaurants and act like a regular American couple with a few bucks in their pocket?  Everybody is going to love you up here, because Connecticut, New Jersey, Philly, they‘re all going to think that‘s cool. 

And they said, if we try to suggest that to the president, President Bush, he would look us in the face and say, OK, what committee cooked that idea up? 

DUBERSTEIN:  Yes, but the answer is...

MATTHEWS:  But why is that?  Why doesn‘t he like it up here? 

DUBERSTEIN:  But the answer is, he would love to go to a country western show.  He would like to go to that kind of music. 

MATTHEWS:  Why should he get people to vote for him in a city he doesn‘t even like to visit? 

DUBERSTEIN:  Guest what?  He ain‘t saying he didn‘t want to visit.  He just doesn‘t want to live here. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  He doesn‘t

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... either.

DUBERSTEIN:  And for those of us who grew up here, it is a nice place to visit as well. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.

Let me give you a serious thought.  This is obviously—you can say it or not.  I‘ll say it.  It is commemorative of his greatest moment as president, when he stood on the rubble pile with the firefighter.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I‘ll say it.  September 14.  It was a magic moment.  It was like a king being born.  And...

DUBERSTEIN:  It was a Reagan moment. 

MATTHEWS:  It was a Reagan moment. 

And coming back to, I think, in some sense to mark that, is there a danger that you‘ll stir up some of the real far left in the streets? 

DUBERSTEIN:  You know, I saw some of the far left marching across the Brooklyn Bridge today. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

DUBERSTEIN:  And what was interesting to me is a whole bunch of them had J.K. on their T-shirts. 

MATTHEWS:  No?

DUBERSTEIN:  The idea that they had John Kerry on their T-shirts, tell me about the far left.  And that‘s the danger that the protesters run.

MATTHEWS:  Weren‘t you giving those T-shirts out over on the Brooklyn side? 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Here are free John Kerry T-shirts. 

DUBERSTEIN:  And they were right across the Brooklyn Bridge.  There we go.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You‘re serious.  They were identifying with the other party. 

DUBERSTEIN:  They said J.K.  There were a bunch with T-shirts that said J.K.  And I‘m saying to myself, make my day. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s not good. 

So is this one of the goals here of the geniuses in the White House like Karl Rove is to stir up a little trouble up here, be seen as the party of the middle of the country, the heartland, up against the lefties? 

DUBERSTEIN:  No, I don‘t think so at all.  So I think the protesters

may take it to such an extreme that there will be a real negative bounce

against the

(CROSSTALK)  

MATTHEWS:  Oh, I agree.  The Democrats will get blamed.  There‘s no doubt about it. 

DUBERSTEIN:  Absolutely.  But I was shocked to see the J.K. T-shirts. 

MATTHEWS:  You know what?  I love it up here.  I love the city.  It is going to be fun.  I‘m not—I‘m proud to say it.  You‘re from up here originally, right?

DUBERSTEIN:  Well, you want to have a hot pastrami sandwich, we‘ll do it. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  On rye.

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you, Ken Duberstein.

HARDBALL‘s special coverage of the Republican Convention gets started this Sunday, just two days hence.  At 6:00 Eastern, we‘ll be live from New York‘s Harold‘s Square.

George M. Cohan, right?

DUBERSTEIN:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  Say hello to all the fellows at 42nd Street.  We‘re going to home—by the way, at the home of the Macy‘s Day Parade at 34th at Broad.  Remember “The Miracle on 34th Street”?  That‘s where we‘re going to be for the second miracle.

Here‘s a preview right now of some of the guests who will be joining us at the MSNBC headquarters right on Broadway. 

(MUSIC)

MATTHEWS:  Who says I don‘t like schmaltz? 

Once again, HARDBALL‘s convention coverage begins Sunday, this Sunday, at 6:00 p.m. Eastern, and then Sunday night at 9:00 Eastern, a special report on the unique relationship between President Bush and his father.  Join Brian Williams for “George Bush: The Father‘s Footsteps,” an hour-long special this Sunday night here on MSNBC. 

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

END   

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