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NBC News MEET THE PRESS
Sunday, June 12, 2005
Senator JOE BIDEN, (D-Del.)
Ranking Member, Foreign Relations Committee
Representative CURT WELDON, (R-Pa.)
Vice Chairman, Armed Services Committee
Vice Chairman, Homeland Security Committee
Author, "Countdown to Terror: The Top-Secret Information that Could Prevent the Next Terrorist Attack on America...and How the CIA has Ignored It"
Wall Street Journal
PBS' "Washington Week"
Former Anchor, CNN's "Inside Politics"
Moderator: Tim Russert, NBC News
MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: Casualties continue to mount in Iraq. Tensions build with Iran. With us, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden of Delaware and Republican vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and author of "Countdown to Terror: The Top-Secret Information That Could Prevent the Next Terrorist Attack on America and How the CIA Has Ignored It," Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania. Then George Bush's second term, Hillary Clinton's message to the media, Howard Dean on politics and religion. Insights and analysis from David Broder of The Washington Post, John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal, Gwen Ifill of PBS' "Washington Week" and long-term political reporter and the former anchor of CNN's "Inside Politics," Judy Woodruff.
But first, Congressman Curt Weldon and Senator Joe Biden, just back from Iraq, welcome both.
Senator Biden, let me start with you and show you something that Vice President Cheney said on May 30. "I think the level of activity that we see today in Iraq from a military standpoint, I think will clearly decline. I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."
Do you agree with that?
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN, (D-DL): I do not agree with that, Tim, and I think there's this incredible gap between the reality on the ground and the rhetoric back here and I think it's causing us the loss of support among the American people, and if the administration doesn't straighten it out pretty soon, they're going to find that they're going to have real trouble with, I mean, any consensus among the American people to do what we need to do in Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: Congressman Weldon, let me show you something that you said I saw in The Washington Post that was of interest to me, picking up on Senator Biden's point. "Bush's Optimism On Iraq Debated. This disconnect between Roses Garden optimism and Baghdad pessimism, according to government officials and independent analysts, stems not only from Bush's focus on tentative signs of long-term progress but also from the shrinking range of policy options available to him if he is wrong. ... Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) ...said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others are misleading Americans about the number of functional Iraqi troops and warned the president to pay more attention to shutting off Syrian and Iranian assistant to the insurgency. `We don't want to raise the expectations of the American people prematurely,' he said."
Who's misleading the American people and how?
REP. CURT WELDON, (R-PA): Well, Senator Biden and I and the six-member delegation I took with us to Iraq were concerned because the level of training of the Iraqi troops has been represented to the American people as being much more competent than it is today. Senator Biden and I probed this issue aggressively with our generals and they agree with us that you have to define what the level of training, in fact, is. And if you look at those troops that have a level one capability, which mean they can operate totally on their own without backup of U.S. support, it's not the size the numbers that are being reported back home here in America.
MR. RUSSERT: How many would you say it is?
REP. WELDON: I think it's around three divisions.
MR. RUSSERT: Which is?
REP. WELDON: Was it 80,000, Joe?
SEN. BIDEN: No, it's much less. It's three battalions.
REP. WELDON: Oh, three battalions.
SEN. BIDEN: Three battalions. You're talking about thousands, Tim. Not tens of thousands.
REP. WELDON: And the point was that, you know, we all support the effort there. And Joe has come out and I applaud him for this in opposing any artificial date to remove the troops, but we can't come back to America and have our people being convinced that the Iraqi troops are prepared to take over when they're not. That's only going to cause our people back home to say, "Bring them home now," and really we're not ready to bring them home right now.
MR. RUSSERT: Realistically, Congressman Weldon and Senator Biden, how long in your estimation will it take for the Iraqis to have, say, 150,000 level-one troops so the Americans can come home?
REP. WELDON: I would say a minimum of eight to 10 months, maximum probably two years, and that's assuming everything goes well.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Biden?
SEN. BIDEN: Yeah, I think two years, Tim. You may get to the point where you have a competent number, somewhere 70,000, 80,000 by the end of this year, but to get to the point where you have 150,000 or 163,000 as the vice president is taking about, you're talking two years. There's overwhelming consensus, nothing less than a year, some say as long as three years, and this is talking to the guys standing on the ground who can shoot straight and are getting shot at.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me show you both another article. "Insurgents Flourish in Iraq's Wild West. U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad agree that Al Anbar province -- the vast desert badlands stretching west from the cities of Fallouja and Ramadi to the lawless region abutting the Syrian border --remains the epicenter of the country's deadly insurgency. Yet U.S. troops and military officials in the embattled province said in recent interviews that they have neither enough combat power nor enough Iraqi military support to mount an effective counterinsurgency against an increasingly sophisticated enemy. ...`Basically, we've got all the toys, but not enough boys' . . . said Maj. Mark Lister, a senior Marine air officer in Al Anbar province. ... `[Commanders] can't use the word, but we're withdrawing,' said one U.S. military official in Al Anbar province ... `Slowly, that's what we're doing.' ... Some Pentagon officials and experts in counterinsurgency warfare say the troop shortage has hamstrung the U.S. military's ability to effectively fight Iraqi insurgents. ...[a] counterinsurgency expert at the Pentagon ... said he expected it would take years to finish the job. `If we can win this thing in six years, we're setting new land speed records,' he said."
Senator Biden, do you agree with that?
SEN. BIDEN: You've heard me say this every time on your show, Tim. Every single time I've been on your show, I said from the day we went in that we don't have enough forces, and we keep missing opportunities to enhance on that prospect. We still, at this meeting coming in Brussels, should be going to the EU and to NATO and say, "Look, take a piece of the border. Take a piece of the border. We could still come up with 3,000 to 5,000 troops." I know everybody told me that couldn't be done. Everybody's been saying that all along, but it can be done. It could have been done a year ago. It could have been done 15 months ago, but this administration has insisted at going it alone. And you see what's happening. The idea that you're going to have a counterinsurgency capability without dealing with the border, which is something that Curt Weldon's forgotten more about than I know, is absolutely ludicrous.
MR. RUSSERT: Congressman Weldon, there's a report in The Washington Post today that in July of 2002, Tony Blair, the prime minister of Britain, received a memo. This is before the Downing Street memo we talked about a couple weeks ago on the program, which said that little thought had been given to the protracted and costly occupation postwar. Do you think that's fair?
REP. WELDON: Well, I think what's happened, and I happen to think that the troop level right now is adequate. I was taking to the military officers at--that I did and having hearings back home and classified briefings, I agreed with Joe that originally perhaps, as General Shinseki said, we should have had more troops at the beginning. But I think what's caused the increasing problem that we're seeing is the increased activity by Syria and Iran, which, for some reason, our intelligence community does not want to acknowledge or deal with.
In fact, as we talked with the Iraqi officials and we met with the speaker of the parliament, the prime minister, the defense minister, the two generals in charge of the Iraqi military, the chairman of the constitutional writing authority, we heard a common theme, that Syria may have the largest number from outside of Iraqi country, but Iran overwhelmingly has the quality behind the insurgency. And we've got to come to grips with that. And what's startling to me is at one of our briefings at the classified level in Iraq reinforced that when one of our commanding officers looked to Iran on a map and said, "It's a black hole. We just don't have the intelligence that we need about Iran's involvement." That, to me, is absolutely outrageous.
I've been raising this issue for the past two years. Iran is a major player. Ayatollah Khomeini, not the Iranian people, because they're not the problem. Ayatollah Khomeini's the problem. And he has a separate council of nine that's been fomenting unrest in Iraq during this entire time, and that's what's increasing. That's what's increasing dramatically as we attempt to stabilize the country.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you think we're in the last throes of the insurgency?
REP. WELDON: No, I don't. I think Iran is going to continue to escalate their building support so eventually, whatever government there takes hold is going to have to deal with Iran and eventually become a partner of Iran.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me ask you both about a growing problem, and that is, how do we keep the number of troops in Iraq on the ground at that level? "After Lowering Goal, Army Fell Short on May Recruits. Even after reducing its recruiting target for May, the Army missed it by 25 percent. ...The shortfall would have been even bigger had the Army stuck to its original goal for the month. ... Just over 5,000 new recruits entered the boot camps in May. ... Last month, the Army...lowered its long-stated May goal to 6,700, down from 8,050. Compared with the original target, the Army achieved only 62.6 percent of its goal for the month, [a shortfall of 40 percent]."
Congressman Weldon, are we going to have enough Americans joining the volunteer Army to meet our deployment needs in Afghanistan, Iraq and around the world?
REP. WELDON: Well, I can tell you, the morale of the troops in theater was that it always has been extremely positive. And the feeling of the Guard and Reserve leaders back here is that we've been able to meet those goals and targets consistently. The most recent numbers which you just cited are troublesome. And we're looking at that right now and seeing what we can do to put extra incentives in to encourage more people to volunteer.
You know, when you have a total-force concept, and we debated this issue in the '90s as we cut defense spending back dramatically and eliminated many of our units and our forces, we had to understand that as you deploy the troops, then you have to have Guard and Reserve combined in. And that puts an additional strain on those people and their families. So this is not something that we anticipated. But when you saw he level of deployments we had from 1990 to 2000 and now this deployment in Iraq, obviously there's a strain. We've got to come up with some solutions that will allow us to get back to the numbers that the Army and the Marines need. The other services are keeping up. The Air Force actually met its goal over the past several weeks.
MR. RUSSERT: We are considering lowering the standards to some people who don't have a high school education, some people that have a minor criminal violations. Is that the kind of volunteer Army you want?
REP. WELDON: Well, I trust our military leadership that they will, in fact, keep the standards that they've been. We have the most well-educated, well-trained force in the world today. And I trust that they will not lower the standard to the point that it will hurt the morale of those who are serving.
MR. RUSSERT: If we continue to have a 40 percent shortfall for the next year or so...
REP. WELDON: That's unacceptable. That's a problem.
MR. RUSSERT: Would you consider going back to a draft?
REP. WELDON: No. I think we need to find ways to fix the current system and to provide more incentives to keep people volunteering, and I think that's doable.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Biden, how burdensome do you think a 40 percent shortfall will be to current deployments?
SEN. BIDEN: It is significant. But, Tim, you know, there's a--truth will be the best incentive. We should level with the American people about what has to be done in Iraq. They see a gap between not only what they're told and what they see, but they begin to think this can't be done. If the president would just level and tell the American people how hard this is going to be, the tough part's coming, this is what he needs from them, and hence sets benchmarks and comes in accountable to the United States Congress once every six months or six weeks to two months and says, "This is where we are and this is where we need to be." The American people will respond.
The problem they have now is they're beginning to think this is a black hole, they're beginning to think they're not being told the truth. And you saw for the first time, Tim, 52 percent of the American people now think that the war on terror is not being helped by our actions in Iraq. They feel no safer relative to terror because of what we're doing in Iraq. They figured it out. The president better start to just level and tell them what he needs and how much time he needs.
MR. RUSSERT: In order to continue current deployments, might we need to revert to a draft?
SEN. BIDEN: Remember during the campaign you asked me that question? And I said Kerry isn't making anything up. We're going to have to face that question. I agree with Curt. I think we can avoid it by changing the mix. But the truth of the matter is, it is going to become a subject if in fact 40 percent shortfall in recruitment. It's just a reality.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe the American people have the political will to stay the course in Iraq as it's going now for the next several years?
SEN. BIDEN: No, not as it's going now. But if the president stands up and tells them straight out, "Look, here comes the hard part, folks. We're going to write a constitution. They're going to go out and have a referendum, they're going to have an election. We've got to stay with them. It's going to take at least a year, probably two years to train up their forces. It's going to take great sacrifice. I'm asking you to help me in this effort. It's important for the following reasons." The American people will stick.
MR. RUSSERT: Congressman Weldon, you've had several hearings. Congressman Gene Taylor has been outspoken, you've been outspoken about the armor that's made available to our troops in Iraq. Do you believe that and now we're more than two years into the war, our troops have the armor they need to protect themselves?
REP. WELDON: They do now. And that was the primary focus of my CO-DEL. We spent two days in Balad and Fallujah and Baghdad. We visited the sites where the uparmoring is being done. We looked at the work being done by our Marines and by Army personnel, which is absolutely impressive. They feel very confident. And we talked to soldiers who had just been in attacks, how had been hit by IED devices. They also feel confident. In fact, we've been assured now that any soldier going out is protected in a level one vehicle. So they have maximum protection.
The difficulty is that the insurgency is increasing the lethality of the weapons they're using. They're now using armor piercing projectiles, so it's more difficult for us to protect our troops. But I am convinced now--I would not have said this a year ago--but I'm convinced today that we have a level of protection in terms of our equipment, our technology to deal with IEDs and our UAVs that are monitoring from above to give our troops maximum safety.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you agree with that, Senator Biden?
SEN. BIDEN: I do. But, Tim, there's one thing we're not mentioning here. And that is it's not just about the number of troops, it's about what we're doing on the ground in terms of rebuilding that country. We've got to change on the ground the ability of people not to walk out their front door into three feet of sewage. They've got to be able to change whether they're seven hours or 12 hours of electricity. These are things that relate directly to the dissatisfaction, particularly in the Sunni triangle, the willingness to hide these folks and the willingness to see our folks killed.
And we have been incompetent in the way in which we have been distributing that $18.7 billion. And if you talk to our military guys, a three-star named Webster who heads up the 3rd ID, and his predecessor, the head of the commanding general of the 1st Calvary, they said, "Give us more money to be able to go into these places and put PCV pipe in the back of the house and put the sewage in the Tigris instead of out in the middle of the street so we can begin to change the way people look at the future." That's equally as important. And we are failing miserably on that score.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the issue of Guantanamo. This is Time magazine exclusive "Detainee 063 Inside the Wire at Gitmo." They have, in fact, a log of the interrogation of this detainee. President Bush was asked: "Do you think Guantanamo should be shut down?" He said: "Well, you know, we're exploring all alternatives as to how best to do the main objective, which is to protect America." Last week, Senator Biden said we should consider closing down Gitmo, have a commission look into it. Now, Republican Senator Mel Martinez, of Florida, said we should close it down. What do you think?
REP. WELDON: I think Senator Specter has it right. He's called for additional hearings. I've called for additional hearings in the House. We need to look at this issue thoroughly, both in open and closed session, and then do as the president has said: come to a final determination as to whether or not this facility has, in fact, lost its viability. I can't answer that question today. I do feel that we have to protect America's interests, as the president has said, but I think the Congress has to look at it thoroughly.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Biden?
SEN. BIDEN: Status quo is dangerous, Tim. The first bill I introduced this year in January called for setting up that commission. We're now going to be holding hearings on it. We need a political consensus. We have to show the rest of the world we understand how difficult it is and we're trying to figure out how to deal with it, but we should move expeditiously. We should get that commission set up, get a recommendation in a couple months, and move.
MR. RUSSERT: But, Congressman Weldon, you have a new book, "Countdown to Terror: The Top- Secret Information That Could Prevent the Next Terrorist Attack on America and How the CIA Has Ignored It." You write on page one, "This book is an act of desperation. I bring it before you, the reader, because I could not get our intelligence community to act on it, though my source has proven his credibility, and though the information he provides predicts a major terrorist attack against the United States."
Now, the CIA and former members of it are hopping mad about your allegations. This was from Thursday's New York Times: "Mr. Weldon's allegations have infuriated CIA officials, including a veteran case officer who said he had met with the congressman's source four times in Paris. `He's never given us any information that was the slightest bit credible,' said Bill Murray, the CIA station chief in Paris when he met Mr. Weldon's source, an elderly Iranian who once served in the government of the shah of Iran. `This guy was a waste of my time and resources.'"
REP. WELDON: Well, it's interesting that the CIA is able to spin things that up until now have been classified, but yet when I called the CIA on Thursday and talked to Porter Goss' chief of staff, I asked them to release a classified two-page letter that they sent me on June 15 of 2004. That letter was an official response by the CIA to me of the informant that I had given them. And that letter ended with, "We welcome further information from Ali."
Now, if we follow the words of this former employee, who I assume had the permission of the CIA to speak or he wouldn't have been allowed to speak, then how could he say that my source lied and that it wasn't valid if, in fact, they were welcoming me and asking me to encourage him to provide more information for them? I think the CIA's been caught, and I want the CIA to release that letter. I have the letter. When I called over to the CIA on Thursday, they couldn't find it. I have the letter. I gave them the documentation. Let the American people judge for themselves. Let them see whether or not what the spin master for the CIA is saying is really jiving with the letter they sent me last year about my source.
MR. RUSSERT: You talk about--and here we get to The New York Times on Thursday: "Mr. Weldon's strongest argument is Ali's report from May 17, 2003, that Iran planned to hijack an airplane in Canada and strike a nuclear reactor in the United States whose name began `Sea.' Mr. Weldon said the plant was later identified as Seabrook Station in New Hampshire. He contended that the August 2003 arrest of 19 Muslim men in Toronto on vague suspicions of terrorism proved the prediction was correct. The congressman said the arrests might have prevented the deaths of `hundreds of thousands' of Americans. But Canadian officials later dropped all security-related charges against the men, leaving only routine immigration charges. And Alan Griffith, a spokesman for the Seabrook nuclear plant, said the alleged plot `was never deemed a credible threat' by federal officials."
REP. WELDON: Well, that, again, differs with the meeting I had on January 26 in my office with two members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the governor's representative for security, the intelligence officer for New Hampshire. They, in fact, told me that the first day that they were informed of the credible threat to Seabrook was on November the 24th. That was the exact day that my informant told me that the reactor was going to be hit.
You know, Tim, this gets down to whether or not we're going to allow the CIA to be totally trusted. There are good agents in the CIA, doing great work. My book's dedicated to them. But they failed in 1992 when the highest-ranking-ever KGB defector, Vasily Mitrokhin, wanted to defect to the U.S. The CIA said, "We don't need him." His information, which was picked up by the British--he became a person who lived in Britain till his death last year--was a treasure trove of information about the Soviet KGB.
The CIA doesn't have a good record. They failed to predict 9/11. They failed to understand North Korea had a three-stage missile before it was launched in 1998. They were wrong on the National Intelligence Estimate, 95, 19, about the threat of long-range missile attack against us. And they've ignored Able Danger, the Special Forces command's secret project against al-Qaeda that ran in '99 and 2000, which CIA officials I've talked to said they weren't even aware of.
There are a lot of things that need to be looked at. That's the role of the Congress, and I'm going to play that role, because in the end my job--I have to sit in the living room with those young people's families who come home in body bags. I am never going to give that responsibility up to some pencil pusher. I'm going to push the process until we in the Congress get the legitimate answers that the people want us to get.
MR. RUSSERT: One of the legitimate issues raised about Iraq, however, was: Was the information given to us about weapons of mass destruction credible and accurate? The American Prospect, a liberal magazine, has been reading your book and analyzing it and talking to people. "The Prospect has learned that the true identity of `Ali' is Fereidoun Mahdavi, formerly the shah's minister of commerce and, more importantly, the close friend and business partner of Ghorbanifar, legendary arms dealer, infamous intelligence fabricator, and central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal that almost brought down the Reagan administration. It was `Gorba,' as he was known back then to Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, the rouge National Security Council officer, who lured the Reagan administration into secretly selling U.S. missiles to the Islamic regime in exchange for the release of Western hostages. ... `Mahdavi says that he has this network in Iran that he gets information from,' says Akbar Etemad [a former minister in the shah's government.] `Each time, he says his information will come true in two months' time. But all that information is fake. Ghorbanifar and Mahdavi work very closely together. Ghorbanifar is unreliable. In that sense, he might be dangerous. The CIA shares that harsh assessment of Ghorbanifar. If the intelligence had any clue to Mahdavi's association with Ghorbanifar, it is scarcely surprising that its officials rebuffed Weldon's overtures on behalf of `Ali.' Many years ago, the CIA issued an unusual `burn notice' on Ghorbanifar, instructing its personnel not to deal with him and warning that he was known to spread false information to advance his own interests."
REP. WELDON: Well, the CIA created Ghorbanifar, so they don't have to come to me about that. They have to look internally. The CIA created Chalabi. Those are creations of the CIA. I'm not asking them to create anyone. My source is Ali, and it's more the process that we need to have to be able to have the CIA come back and tell us, "Give us the backup of your information. If Ali's lying, show me where he's lying." That's not what their memo last June said to me.
And so all I want to do is make sure that we're properly testing the agency, because I lost some good friends on 9/11. One of the pilots in one of those planes, wife and two kids still live in my district five miles from me. She teaches school. Her two kids, we built a playground in his honor. I have a very good friend, Ray Downing, who was the fire chief of all rescue on 9/11. He was killed. I'm not going to take a back seat. We're going to prevent the next terrorist attack only by aggressively challenging our intelligence community. Porter Goss is doing that. Porter Goss needs support. We need to change the way we do red teaming, group think, as Jim Woolsey has said and he endorsed my book, so did Jack Caravelli, a 20-year veteran of the CIA. They understand. If it makes some people feel some heartburn, so be it. That's my job.
MR. RUSSERT: One more point on the book. "`Many information that I have given to Weldon is coming from Ghorbanifar,' said [Fereidoun] Mahdavi, who was reached in Paris by telephone on June 6. `Because Ghorbanifar used me, in fact, to pass that stuff because I know he has problems in Washington.' ... `Someone is using me for their purpose,' he raged. `How is it possible that something like that book comes out and the people who publish it don't inform me?'"
REP. WELDON: Well, Ali knew what was happening. I'm not even confirming who Ali was, but Ali knew what we were doing clearly. What his association with Ghorbanifar, I have no idea, but I can tell you every Iranian in exile in Paris knows Ghorbanifar. Ghorbanifar has been at this since the CIA first graded him. The CIA is clearly embarrassed over Ghorbanifar. They told me that and clearly they think he's a liar and he may be, but I'm not asking the way of that information.
The information I gave the CIA has been proven to be true. We gave them a series of actions in every case. When they say he was getting it from open sources, we did a search through the Congressional Research Service of all those allegations and predictions. In every case, I gave the information to the CIA before any media worldwide reported it. I think that's worthy of further investigation.
MR. RUSSERT: The CIA says that Ali asked for $150,000 which they refused to give him.
REP. WELDON: Well, I wouldn't give him any money. That's not the goal. The goal is to research and see whether or not--the CIA has wasted more than $150,000 on routine payments they make on a regular basis around the world. What I want is the system tested. They could have come back to me and they could have said, "This is the reason why we think the information you've been given is invalid." They haven't done that. The only letter I got a year ago, two pages, which the CIA is refusing to release and I asked for it for this show and they refused to release it, says that the CIA still wants information from Ali. Now, why would they want information from someone who they say is fabricator? It doesn't make sense to me.
MR. RUSSERT: Will Ali share in the profits of this book?
REP. WELDON: The profits? There will be no profits to the book, but Ali will--I will take care of whatever needs he has including his family in Iran that I've told him I would assist in getting them out.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Biden, do you think the policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran?
SEN. BIDEN: No, I think that's a hope. I'd love to see the regime change, but I think the policy should be: How do we prevent them from getting nuclear weapons? How do we prevent them from moving forward in missile technology and how do we prevent them from becoming the kind of irritant and trouble in Iran--I mean, excuse me, in Iraq. That should be the policy. And it seems to me in order to do that, you have to deal with them. It's going to be a tough, tough, tough negotiation, but we have to get in the game. We have to actually engage them.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you think our policy should be regime change?
REP. WELDON: No. I call specifically for no war against Iran. The problem is not the Iranian people. It's not even the Iranian government. It Ayatollah Khomeini, his radical religious extremism. He set up a council of nine. They're the problem.
The strategy we need is one to have Iran come back to its senses. And what I've put forth to the Bush administration is a four-part strategy to have Vladimir Putin play a more aggressive role. Russia has the closest relationship with Iran, and that's where our efforts should be, to get Russia to play that role. Right now we don't have that kind of relationship with Russia, and that's where we should focus our efforts and that then can benefit us whether it's dealing with the Bushar nuclear power plan or Iran's involvement to Ayatollah Khomeini and extremist.
Watch the vote carefully in this upcoming election in Iraq. The last time around we had an election, only 9 percent of the people voted. The people of Iran, they're good people. They're decent people. They're not the ones causing this problem. It's Ayatollah Khomeini and we have to understand that and we ought to be having a strategy that deals with that problems effectively and substantively.
MR. RUSSERT: Ali said that Osama bin Laden is in Iraq--in Iran, excuse me.
REP. WELDON: He's been in Iran, and now we have military generals telling us that. Interestingly enough, the CIA totally refuted that when I first went to them. And by the way, the person who gave me this entire lead was a former Democrat member of Congress.
MR. RUSSERT: Can you believe that Osama bin Laden is in Iran today?
REP. WELDON: Today, I don't know. I gave the CIA hits over the past five months that he was there twice, and I also told them two years ago he was in a small town in a southern part of Iran called Ladiz, 10 kilometers inside the border with Pakistan in Baluchistan. I'd say he's been in and out repeatedly.
MR. RUSSERT: Congressman Curt Weldon, Senator Joe Biden, thank you very much for updating us on a very difficult issue.
SEN. BIDEN: Thank you very much, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Coming up next, our political roundtable. David Broder of The Washington Post, John Harwood of the The Wall Street Journal, Gwen Ifill of PBS and Judy Woodruff on Howard Dean, Hillary Clinton and the president's second term. They're all coming up right here on MEET THE PRESS.
MR. RUSSERT: Our political roundtable, Broder, Harwood, Ifill and Woodruff back after this brief station break.
MR. RUSSERT: And we are back. Welcome all. Interesting week in national politics. Hillary Clinton Monday in New York at a fund-raiser had this to say: "There has never been an administration, I don't believe, in our history more intent upon consolidating and abusing power to further their own agenda. I know it's frustrating for many of you. It's frustrating for me. Why can't the Democrats do more to stop them? ... I can tell you this: It's very hard to stop people who have no shame about what they're doing. It is very hard to tell people they are making decisions that will undermine our checks and balances and constitutional system of government who don't care. It is very hard to stop people who have never been acquainted with the truth."
David Broder, is Hillary Clinton drawing the line here?
MR. DAVID BRODER: She's drawing the line, but she could usefully spend some time in the history books if she thinks that this is unique to see an administration trying to consolidate power to move its agenda. That is standard procedure. Where she is right, I think, is that it is difficult for the Democrats these days to find a platform and a set of statements and messages that give them any real leverage against the Republicans.
MR. RUSSERT: Judy Woodruff, it seems that Democrats do believe, however, that the issue of abuse of power, the fact that Republicans control the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives, is an issue that's resonating with the American people.
MS. JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, they're throwing a little red meat to their base, and that's what Hillary Clinton is doing. But this is what Democrats, this is what Republicans do, when you're out of power, you complain about the other guys. You complain that the press is not fair, that they're not covering the bad things that the other guys are doing. I think what Hillary Clinton is doing is she's positioning herself to run strong in New York in 2006 to get re-elected to the Senate and then consolidating all that so that she can run for president. I don't think there's any doubt in my mind she's going to run, barring some unforeseen development. She is very popular in New York. You know this as well as anybody upstate. She's consolidated her support up there. She's raising more money. Somebody said to me she's going to be a political ATM machine.
MR. RUSSERT: Her gaol is to raise $60 million for the Senate race, spend $20 in New York and have $40 million left to convert to a presidential account.
MS. WOODRUFF: And she's already doing it. She's already--you already hear other--the supporters of other potential Democratic candidates saying, "Hillary Clinton is cleaning up. She is locking up some of the big contributors in the party." I think she's going to raise at least twice as much as John Kerry did in '04. And when she's in that sort of position, it changes the landscape.
MR. RUSSERT: Gwen Ifill, she--Senator Clinton talks about why can't the Democrats do more to stop them? And I think back to the debate about Terri Schiavo and the feeding tube, when not one Democratic senator, including Hillary Clinton, stood up and said, "This happens a thousand day--times a day in hospitals all acrossed America," or "Congress shouldn't be doing this."
MS. GWEN IFILL: Including Hillary Clinton. That's an important point. What we have today, or what you saw this week, was the old vast right-wing conspiracy Hillary Clinton back. But imagine for a moment if the other senior senator--the other Democratic senator from New York had exactly the same things, would we even be talking about it? No, because we're not paying attention to the fact that Hillary Clinton is running in 2006. Everyone is looking to her for the future. It's the same with anybody else who's positioning themselves. But I just--I think that if you start to catalog Hillary Clinton's positions between now and 2008, we're going to have a lot of conversations like this because there are a lot of places for her to go.
MR. RUSSERT: Here's one thing she did say about the press corps, John Harwood: "Abetting the Republicans, [Senator Clinton] said in some of her sharpest language, is a Washington press corps that has become a pale imitation of the Watergate-era reporters who are being celebrated this month" among "the identification of the anonymous Washington Post source, Deep Throat. `The press is missing in action, with all due respect. Where are the investigative reporters today? Why aren't they asking the hard questions? It's shocking when you see how easily they fold in the media today. They don't stand their ground. If they're criticized by the White House, they just fall apart. I mean, come on, toughen up, guys, it's only our Constitution and country at stake. Let's get some spine.'"
MR. JOHN HARWOOD: I'm sure glad she added "with all due respect" to that statement. Look, people in politics, when their point of view is not prevailing, tend to get frustrated with the messenger. I don't think anybody can say that throughout the 2004 campaign that the faults of the Bush administration were not front and center in that campaign, even the issue that we've been talking about recently, the Downing Street memo, the whole issue about whether intelligence was fixed to support the Iraq War. That was substantially what the 2004 campaign was about: Did we rush to war? That was part of John Kerry's argument. So the flaws of the administration, its penchant for trying to consolidate power, its penchant for secrecy in some ways is something that's been out in front of the American people, but Democrats have been on the short side.
They lost the 2004 election because of the national security issue. But here's the promise in what we've seen in David Broder's Washington Post-ABC poll, some other developments lately: Some of the air is coming out of the tire on this administration on Iraq. People are getting anxious. They don't know what the future is going to hold. They don't know how positive events really are. Dick Cheney says the insurgency is in its last throes. The American people are coming to question that right now.
MR. RUSSERT: David Broder, the press corps--was it more tenacious during Watergate, more tenacious against Bill Clinton, or is it people seeing things through their ideological prism--that when you're going after Clinton it's good, going against Bush bad, and vice versa?
MR. BRODER: The shortsightedness of Mrs. Clinton's complaint is illustrated by this morning's Washington Post. The front-page story on another memo, this one to Tony Blair's government, about the lack of planning in our government for the postwar period in Iraq. Who does she think is doing this work if not investigative reporters? Give us a break.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to Howard Dean. Quite a week for the doctor, head of the national Democratic Party. On Thursday he met with Harry Reid, the leader of the Democrats in the Senate, and other leaders. This comes on the heels of some comments he made. Here was--on Monday: "You know the Republicans are not very friendly to different kinds of people. They're a pretty monolithic party. Pretty much, they all behave the same, and they all look the same. ...It's pretty much a white Christian party."
On Wednesday Dr. Dean went on the "Today" show and offered this.
DR. HOWARD DEAN: I think it is true that the Republicans are, in fact, a largely white Christian party. There's nothing the matter with that. I'm a white Christian myself. But they don't include other folks, and this is a very diverse country. In fact, they've gone out of their way to use other kinds of people as scapegoats in order to win elections.
MR. RUSSERT: Gwen Ifill?
MS. IFILL: You know, there's theme that's emerging here. Remember back when Bob Dole asked where was the outrage, and he was upset because, of course, nobody was outraged against Bill Clinton? It turns out the theme with Hillary Clinton is she wants to know where the outrage is now. And the same--now, we've found where the outrage is. It's in Howard Dean. And the problem with that, the flip side of that, is a lot of Democrats are not that upset with Howard Dean. Howard Dean gets out here and he says these inflammatory things, and he doesn't apologize. He doesn't back down a little bit. But the truth is, the people who are the most unhappy with him are Washington Democrats who did--who would never have seen him as Democratic Party chairman anyway. And folks out in the hinterlands or folks who are getting their strokes in the South, they're not as unhappy with Howard Dean. So you don't see anybody starting any movement to get him out of office.
MR. HARWOOD: And they're getting more money than you'd think. You know, Republicans raised twice as much money as the Democratic Party did in the first three months of the year, but they raised three times as much two years ago when Terry McAuliffe, who we all recognize as a master fund-raiser, was the chairman of the party. So Howard Dean is having some success. Certainly, these incendiary comments are thing that other Democratic politicians want to distance themselves from, but at the end of the day, what Howard Dean says doesn't matter all that much. I think if he keeps his promise not to run for president in 2008, Democrats will be very happy.
MS. IFILL: Except that Terry McAuliffe was also a master verbal bomb thrower...
MR. HARWOOD: He's not...
MS. IFILL: ...but the difference was he was not a politician.
MS. WOODRUFF: Well, and the other point is that the Republicans, I think, learned some time ago that if you've got real incendiary red meat, you throw it and you use it below the radar screen. They're very good at sending this kind of really tough talk out in direct mail. Local media--they've learned how to do that very, very effectively. Howard Dean is still above the radar screen. When he uses some of these--makes some of these inflammatory comments, it gets picked up everywhere. Everybody reacts.
MR. BRODER: And it's a diversion.
MS. WOODRUFF: He's got to tailor what he's saying.
MR. BRODER: And it's a diversion from what the Democrats desperately need to be doing. No single American is ever going to vote Democratic in this country because of something that Howard Dean said. If they can get back talking about the economy, about Iraq, then they have some things that are important to people. And by focusing so much on himself, Howard Dean, as a spokesman for the party, has really done a disservice to the party.
MS. IFILL: On the other hand...
MR. RUSSERT: There...
MS. IFILL: ...just on the other hand...
MR. RUSSERT: Sure.
MS. IFILL: ...at the Democratic Party meeting yesterday, he actually began to outline what began to sound like a reasonable worldview for Democrats, which is, "Let's redefine what moral values are beyond gay abortion--gay marriage and abortion." And finally, someone in the Democratic Party started to articulate it. What he keeps saying is, "The Republicans are using me as a diversion." Well, if you know they're going to do that, then why give them the brick back to hit you over the head with? I'm a preacher's kid, as you know, Tim, and we were always told, you know: "Act right all the time, because someone's always watching." And that's what he's got to do.
MR. HARWOOD: And look, Gwen, at all the raw materials the Democrats have to work with, not just the continuing insurgency in Iraq, but look at what's happening to major American companies. General Motors laying off 25,000 people this week. United Airlines can't pay its pension costs, fobbing those off onto the government. People are beginning to worry, and the Social Security debate's playing into that.
MS. WOODRUFF: Tim, I think some of this is Howard Dean comes from a small state of Vermont. We forget that because he ran for president and got all that national publicity. When you're in a small state--and God bless Vermont--you don't get the kind of exacting press coverage, the spotlight that you get in Washington, where everybody's hanging on every word, as Gwen just said, and I think he's still learning that. I think he's still figuring that out.
MR. RUSSERT: And yet someone like Harold Ford, congressman from Tennessee, wants to run for the Senate, told "Imus in the Morning," "I won't have him down so many times in Tennessee on the campaign trail with me. He has made some comments as of late that really speak to a lack of understanding I think, of the country, a lack of understanding of faith and values. I'm a Democrat and I'm a God-fearing one. I grew up in church. Christianity is not reserved for white males. I think perhaps Governor Dean sometimes gets a little excited at the mouth, and says things that are simply not true. It may reach a point where if he can't find a way to kind of control some of his comments, and temper his comments, it may get to the point where the party may need to look elsewhere for leadership ..."
MS. IFILL: All due respect to Tennessee, but Harold Ford is one of those Washington Democrats who has something to gain by trying to broaden themselves out. If Howard Dean is going to have any success in this party, it's not going to be among them.
MR. RUSSERT: David.
MR. BRODER: Gwen's right.
MR. RUSSERT: We'll take a break and come back and talk about George W. Bush's second term and the very latest public opinion about his performance right after this.
MR. RUSSERT: And we are back.
Let's look at the latest polls on George W. Bush's second term. Approve, 43 percent. Disapprove, 55 percent. On the economy, approve 40 percent. Disapprove, 58 percent. On Social Security, approve, 34 percent. Disapprove, 62 percent. On Iraq, approve, 41 percent. Disapprove, 58 percent. And this one, handling the war on terror, which always had been George Bush's strongest issue, approve, 50 percent. Disapprove, 49 percent. David Broder, what do you make of all this?
MR. BRODER: Bad time for the president. And I think if it were Bill Clinton still in office, we know that there'd be meetings in the Oval Office to say, "What are we going to do differently?" This president tends to go straight ahead, and he can do that, I suppose, on Iraq, because there are very few options for him. But he really needs to think about the domestic side. Health care is a huge problem that he is not addressing at all. The economy--despite the numbers, statistics, jobs are a real concern to people. He needs to start focusing on these domestic issues.
MR. RUSSERT: Gwen?
MS. IFILL: He's turning into Tony Blair, his big buddy who was with him this week. Tony Blair--good thing there are not parliamentary elections in this country. Tony Blair barely escaped this year, and now George W. Bush, if elections were to be held today, would be in a serious challenge as well. But what is curious to me is what he does about it. David wrote in his column this morning that if it were the Clinton people, they'd be sitting around and figuring out how to pull themselves out. Instead the president is continuing to go around the country and peddling Social Security, which the needle is not moving on. He started talking a little bit this week about the Patriot Act because I think he thought bringing the subject back to terrorism would help, but, of course, we just saw even that's not helping. So he's got a lot of things working against him which aren't necessarily under his control, and I'm not sure he's familiar with that.
MR. RUSSERT: Judy?
MS. WOODRUFF: But this is a president who is supremely confident from everything we are given to believe about his leadership, about his policies. As Gwen and David have said, he's sticking to Social Security, he's sticking to the tax cuts. He hasn't backed down on a single thing. Yes, there was a mild compromise federal judges, but this is a president who believes if he hangs in there long enough and toughs it out that he's going to prevail, that courting the base, the Republican conservative base, is going to stand him in good stead. I think that there are enough Republicans now that are worried about where this administration is headed, who are worried about their own prospects in '06 and '08, that the White House must be hearing this from them. We know there's some small evidence of that, but, you know, how much longer can they do, as David just said, sit there and--essentially with blinders on?
MR. HARWOOD: And, Tim, remember we may be about to walk into a much bigger fight than we've had all this year so far on a Supreme Court nomination. There are many people expect that Chief Justice Rehnquist may, when the term ends, step down, and that is likely to dominate the summer in a way that will prevent action moving forward on some of those domestic issues that David was talking about.
MR. RUSSERT: Wouldn't the White House welcome a fight like that?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, they might welcome a fight like that in terms of sort of pleasing the conservative base and having it out on values over judicial nominees, but that doesn't deal with the bread- and-butter concerns people have about their economic future, about their retirement security. All these are very difficult. Now, the administration and Republicans in both chambers are hoping that they can get action quickly on energy, something--some forward progress at a time when gas prices are high, something on the highway bill which is tantamount to a jobs bill. The president has a veto threat on that, but even Republicans don't take too seriously the idea that he'd veto over a few billion dollars, which is some extra project in various states.
MS. IFILL: But what happens if he has to veto stem cell research, something which is considered to be very popular among the American public at large, which could also offset--once again puts him on the wrong side of popularity, at least? That is another distraction...
MR. HARWOOD: You bet.
MS. IFILL: ...and--by your definition.
MR. RUSSERT: And there's 50 Republican House members who are now opposing the president on stem cell.
MR. BRODER: The key people to watch in the next two months are the congressional Republicans. They're the ones whose necks are on the line next year. They are the ones who really have to judge now how safe is it to go down the line with this president. They're about to reach a decision as to whether to try to do something on Social Security or not. That will give us a real clue as to what the next stage is for the president.
MS. IFILL: David is right.
MR. HARWOOD: And watch, also, the issue of immigration. I was talking to a strategist for House Republicans the other day who said one of the issues that we get healthy on is immigration. And what House Republicans think about when they talk about immigration is cracking down on people coming across the border. The president has different ideas on that. So does John McCain and Ted Kennedy in a bill that would have a guest worker provision that would legalize some people now here illegally. That's not what the conservative base wants. And so you could have Republicans moving away from the president's position as a way to shore up their own.
MR. RUSSERT: Judy?
MS. WOODRUFF: Tim, I think what the White House has to be concerned about is a point I think it was Senator Biden made in your earlier part of the program, that Iraq for so long has been a big piece of what is supporting this administration, that the idea that fighting the war in Iraq is holding off terrorism, is the bulwark, if you will, against the terrorists who would attack the united states. When you have that view on the part of the American people crumbling and you have people thinking, "Well, it's not making us any safer in the United States to be fighting the war in Iraq," to me that removes a huge chunk of the underpinning of the political strength of this administration.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me show you one last poll number. And this is approval of U.S. Congress: approve, 31; disapprove 64.
David, is it enough for the Democrats to say, "Let's just hold on and hope that they want to throw the bums out," or do the Democrats have to come forward and say, "Mr. President, you have your Social Security plan. Here's ours. Mr. President, you have your vision of Iraq, here's ours"?
MR. BRODER: The Democrats need to be able to say something positive to the American people, which they have largely failed to do so far. And this takes us back to Howard Dean because by focusing so much on his own comments rather than looking for a way to give the party a policy voice, he's really done them a disservice.
MR. HARWOOD: And, Tim, here's the challenge for Democrats and the ace in the hole for the president, which is that he's likely, even in the difficult circumstances he's in, to hold the Congress after the '06 elections. I was talking to a strategist for House Democrats yesterday, said with all these bad poll numbers out there, Congress is in the dumps, the president's down a little bit, if the election were this Tuesday, would you win control of the House? And the answer was, "No, we wouldn't." There's only about 35, 40 seats in play. Democrats need to broaden that playing field. They may need a lot worse things to happen than have happened so far.
MS. IFILL: Another issue is keep an eye on is trade. CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which is in trouble because Republicans, as David pointed out, are getting ready to desert along with Democrats who were united against it because it would cause union concerns, among other reasons. And so if the president loses that, it's been years, decades since a president has lost a major trade initiative. And that would be bad headlines, as well.
MR. RUSSERT: You interviewed Prime Minister Blair this week. Did you sense, detect any softening in terms of his position on Iraq?
MS. IFILL: I think there was no softening, but he also got nothing for it on this trip. The finance ministers from the European Union, the major G8 finance ministers agreed to give some more money, debt relief for Africa, which is great. But that's not what Tony Blair came here asking for. He came here asking for doubling the aid for Africa, he came here asking for some sort of conciliatory statement on climate change. He got none of that. And when he was asked about it, about whether he thought he was getting payback, he said, "Oh, I was never asking for payback. I did this because it was the right thing." So they're still in lockstep, but he still isn't getting what he needs politically.
MS. WOODRUFF: Some are saying Tony Blair is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Atlantic alliance, can't get any respect. He's done so much for George W. Bush, and what has he gotten in return?
MR. RUSSERT: But it looks like he is the driving force for the debt relief for Africa and some of the poorer nations, which would be, obviously, a real asset for him.
MS. WOODRUFF: It would be a real asset. But now you've got the argument going among some people, British experts, that it's going to take Tony Blair moving out of office, Gordon Brown coming in, putting even more pressure on George Bush. This administration needs to think twice about its Africa position.
MR. RUSSERT: Judy Woodruff, John Harwood, David Broder, Gwen Ifill, thanks very much.
We'll be right back.
MR. RUSSERT: That's all for today. We'll be back next week. Our guest will be Senator John McCain--an exclusive interview with John McCain right here next Sunday because if it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.
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