updated 6/24/2005 10:33:45 AM ET 2005-06-24T14:33:45

Guest: Dan Klaidman, John Dickerson, Ibrahim al-Jaafari

DAVID GREGORY, HOST:  Tonight, an exclusive interview with Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the prime minister of Iraq, with the latest on the war and the political future of his country. 

And Tom Brokaw is here to talk about his return to NBC prime time, an in-depth report on America's war on terror. 

I'm David Gregory, sitting in for Chris Matthews.  Let's play

HARDBALL. 

Good evening again, everybody.

Nearly one year ago, the U.S. handed over power to Iraq's transitional government.  While Iraqis have made some progress, it's been often violent and chaotic in that year.  Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari has been asking world leaders for help rebuilding his country.  Tomorrow, he meets with President Bush at the White House. 

I sat down with the prime minister for an exclusive interview earlier today. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GREGORY:  Mr. Prime Minister, as you know, most Americans don't know you. They don't see you. They haven't heard from you.  What would you like to say to the American public that is, to say the least, pretty unsettled about how things are going in Iraq today?

IBRAHIM AL-JAAFARI, PRIME MINISTER OF IRAQ (through translator):  It is not surprising that the Iraqi people do not know me because what we had before, which was the regime of Saddam Hussein, was a dictatorial regime that tried to annihilate and abolish anything to do with the Iraqi people. 

However, now, with the elimination of Saddam Hussein, people will start to know Iraqis.  They will start to know them as talented politicians, artists.  And really the face of Iraq to come will start to become more and more pronounced and will be known to the world.

GREGORY:  The American people, as I mentioned, are unsettled about how the war is going. 

How do your react when you hear the political debate in this country about Iraq?  More Americans, a majority of Americans, according to a recent poll, disapprove of how the war is going.  More Americans want American troops to return back to the United States and there are more calls for an exit strategy now, even talk by a prominent Democratic senator today of Iraq being a quagmire.  How do you react to that?

AL-JAAFARI (through translator):  There are two conflicts that the Iraqi people went through.  One was against dictatorship and against Saddam Hussein.  And obviously the people of the West and America stood by the Iraqi people and they got rid of Saddam. 

And now the conflict is against the biggest enemy that faces us all, which is the enemy of terrorism.  And this is a war on terrorism and Iraq is leading that war on terrorism.

It is the same type of terrorism that is all over the world, the same type of terrorism that the people suffered from here on the 11th of September, the same type of terrorism that obviously affected Spain as well and all around the world.  It is the same type of terrorism.  We are on the front line of the war against terrorism.

And this terrorism at the moment is beginning to withdraw.  It is beginning to weaken.  It is extremely important that the American people do not stand in the face of this and allow us to win the war against terrorism, which will bring peace to the whole world.

GREGORY:  Did you expect that Iraq would be this dangerous after Saddam Hussein was removed?

AL-JAAFARI (through translator):  In general terms, as far as terrorism is concerned, that represents the evil face against humanity.  This is available everywhere.  This is present everywhere, but it has been concentrated in Iraq.  We expect such evil forces to be present, but we are working hard and we shall defeat them in the future.

GREGORY:  But the real question was, did you envision that Iraq would be as dangerous as it's become when Saddam was removed from power?  Are you not surprised?

AL-JAAFARI (through translator):  You cannot compare the time now compared with the time of Saddam Hussein.  During Saddam Hussein, he killed one million people; 300,000 in a few days he killed during the uprising. 

He used to put people in acid baths and cut people to pieces.  He attacked the poor and started many, many wars.  So, now the situation in Iraq is much, much better than it was in the time of Saddam Hussein.  This is a fact and a reality.

GREGORY:  Vice President Cheney said a few days ago that he thinks the insurgency is in its finally throes.  Do you agree with that?

AL-JAAFARI (through translator):  Indeed, it's true.  We do not call them insurgents.  We call them terrorists, because that's what they do.  They carry out acts of terrorism against innocent people, men, women and children.

And it is true that, with the help of our friends and with the support of our friends and with our securing our borders, we will very soon defeat terrorism.

GREGORY:  Well, here's a different view. 

The top military commander in the Persian Gulf actually disagrees with the vice president, saying that the insurgency is as strong today as it was six months ago, this after successful elections in January, this after a political process that's moving toward a constitution in August.  Why hasn't the insurgency been brought to its heels?

AL-JAAFARI (through translator):  I certainly, again, would not call this an insurgency.  I would call it a group of terrorists who are out to kill as many people as possible.  That is easy to do.  Anyone can come in and blow himself up and choose the softest targets possible and carry out acts of terror.

And all of them come from outside Iraq and they admit this freely on TV when they are interrogated.

Insurgents only refers to people who have a social base and have support.  They carry out an either armed uprising or a peaceful uprising like Gandhi, but these are no such thing.  They are terrorists.

GREGORY:  But the issue is their strength.  Call them terrorists.  Call them insurgents.  A top American military official says they're just as strong now as they were six months ago.  Why?

AL-JAAFARI (through translator):  The reason why there are still terrorists operating in Iraq is because Iraq is going through exceptional circumstances. 

The security forces are in the process of being formed still.  The border have not yet been maintained and therefore there are real challenges in Iraq.  However, you cannot say that they have any support from the people.  The real support is what happened during the elections, when 8.5 million people voted in a national election.

GREGORY:  You're going to meet with President Bush tomorrow at the White House.  What will you ask him for?

AL-JAAFARI (through translator):  First of all, I would like to say that, as a result of the increasing security operation, the terrorist element has greatly reduced and Iraq is much more secure and safe now. 

As far as my meeting with President Bush, from a position of mutual self-respect, I will ask President Bush to help us in our plight, to help the Iraqi people.  And anything that benefits the Iraqi people, I will ask of him.

GREGORY:  I know you have limited time.  One final question.  When you wake up in the morning, what do you worry about most?

AL-JAAFARI (through translator):  I wake up in the morning and one thing that I worry about is maybe I may not have done my best for my people.  I try always to do my very, very best.  And if I have not strived the hardest, this is what worries me.  But I always try to strive my hardest.

GREGORY:  Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for your time.  Pleasure.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREGORY:  In a moment, NBC's Tom Brokaw joins us to preview his in-depth report on whether America is winning the war on terrorism. 

You're watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Coming up, NBC's Tom Brokaw on the hunt for Osama bin Laden and whether America is indeed winning the war on terrorism—when HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

I'm David Gregory, in for Chris Matthews tonight.  Six months after leaving the anchor chair at “NBC Nightly News,” Tom Brokaw traveled to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and France to get a pulse on how the U.S. is doing in the war on terror. 

In an exclusive interview with CIA Director Porter Goss, he asked if Osama bin Laden was being protected by the Pakistani military. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) 

TOM BROKAW, NBC ANCHOR:  It is widely believed that Osama bin Laden and the other senior members of al Qaeda are in the so-called tribal regions and that they're protected in part by the sympathetic attitudes of some of the Pakistani army units that are there. 

PORTER GOSS, CIA DIRECTOR:  I would suggest that that is pretty much sanctuary area for the terrorists.  And I'm not sure it is an area that is fully under control of the Pakistani military. 

BROKAW:  Should the Pakistanis allow American units, including some of your own, to come in from Afghanistan into those areas? 

GOSS:  That would be obviously a Pakistan sovereign issue.  And that would be better put to President Musharraf. 

(END VIDEO CLIP) 

GREGORY:  Tom Brokaw's in-depth report, called “The Long War,” will air tomorrow night at 8:00 p.m. on NBC. 

And Tom is here with me now. 

Hi, Tom.  Good to see you. 

BROKAW:  David, good to see you. 

GREGORY:  Let me ask you, when you set out on this, was there a big question in your mind that you wanted to answer? 

BROKAW:  No.  I think what I really wanted to do was to try to give a status report on the war on terror. 

I've been concerned that, in this country, in too many areas, it has gone off the radar screen, except for those families who have men and women in uniform and first-responders and law enforcement officers.  I hear any number of people say to me, well, we haven't been hit since 9/11, so things must be OK.  That's not the case at all. 

What I've found is that the war is very active, not just in Iraq, but on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.  In fact, while we were there, the Taliban began to pour across that border.  As you know, it's been a very active environment in the past several weeks.  In Saudi Arabia, they've been hit in the capital six times in the last two years. 

And the Saudis finally admit that they're no longer in denial, that they really are the womb of terrorism; 40 percent of the suicide bombers, it's now estimated in Iraq, come from Saudi Arabia. 

(CROSSTALK)

BROKAW:  In France, they believe strongly that there's a band of terror around the world.  And that's what they think at the CIA.

GREGORY:  You also made a point in going to France, which is interesting.  We don't think of France ago being very helpful in the war on terror.  But you found the opposite. 

BROKAW:  Yes.  And I knew that actually before the war on terror began.  I had talked with George Tenet when he was the director of the CIA and any other number of senior intelligence officials.  And they would always say, we get so much more help from the French than from almost any other European partner that we have.  They have a big investment in that part of the world. 

And the French that we talked to have, I think it is fair to say, very heightened concerns about what is going on.  And they've got 25 percent of their population now is—is Muslim.  They worry about it coming there next.  It did happen in Spain.  And they're tracking these cells around the world. 

GREGORY:  Let me ask you about Osama bin Laden.

Porter Goss, the CIA director, said recently on Capitol Hill that we have a pretty good idea almost exactly where Osama bin Laden is.  That raises questions about why we can't seem to get him.  And you've gotten at that in the past with Pakistani leader Musharraf.  What do we really know? 

BROKAW:  Well, I think everyone has a pretty good idea of where he is in those tribal regions.  The delicate part for Musharraf is on several different fronts. 

He doesn't want the Americans coming in and operating there, because he feels strongly that this is a sovereign nation and that the Pakistani army must be responsible for its own security and for policing that area.  Moreover, he really worries that, if the United States were to come in there and get Osama bin Laden, probably in a very bloody shoot-out, that it would send his country up. 

That's also a concern of this country.  They can't afford to lose Musharraf; 160 million Pakistanis, most of them Muslims, obviously, and a lot of them living in very difficult circumstances.  And for a lot of them, Osama bin Laden remains a kind of poster boy, somebody that they admire because of the way that he goes against the West. 

GREGORY:  You actually asked Musharraf an interesting question about this, asking him if capturing or killing bin Laden would cause great turmoil in his country.  Let's listen to that. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BROKAW:  Is there a danger for you personally and for your government that, if Pakistani troops take down Osama bin Laden in what would probably an difficult struggle, it would cause an uprising in some of the cities in your country and in the refugee camps? 

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, PAKISTANI PRESIDENT:  Well, there would be effects.  But we shouldn't be so naive as to capture him and then go around telling everyone and going around with him everywhere.  I mean, there's a method of dealing with the situation. 

BROKAW:  But it would be delicate, wouldn't it? 

MUSHARRAF:  It will be certainly delicate, not only here, but even in the Islamic world.

(END VIDEO CLIP) 

GREGORY:  Tom...

BROKAW:  That's the essence of the problem, David. 

GREGORY:  Right.  Well, expand on that, how delicate it is for him. 

BROKAW:  Well, it's delicate for him and especially delicate for the United States, because here's a man who assumed power through a military coup and then he became an ally of the United States.  You'll remember those famous phone calls from Colin Powell and others.  Richard Armitage, George Tenet, they had a good relationship with him. 

He joined forces with the United States to go against the Taliban and particularly against al Qaeda.  But he does not have a broad base of popular support there.  He's suspect on the left and the right.  And if it begins to come apart in Pakistan and then you have a radical Islamic government of some kind—it is a nuclear power.  We know that now.  It becomes new sanctuary for the terrorist movement. 

GREGORY:  If Osama bin Laden is—if this is the best scenario—that he's contained in that area that you described, does that lessen his ability to perform any kind of command-and-control function of al Qaeda? 

BROKAW:  I think most people believe at senior intelligence and military levels that he has been contained, that his command-and-control has been broken down.  There's been a serious interdiction in his financial pipeline. 

He remains, as I said earlier, a poster boy for that part of the world.  But what has happened as a result of the neutralization of Osama bin Laden is that the terrorist movement now has spread out into smaller groups that act more randomly and are harder to track, quite honestly.  They don't have electronic communications.  They operate at will.  And a lot of them are even more reckless than al Qaeda was. 

So, it presents to the intelligence people and to the counterterrorism people a whole different set of problems of a higher magnitude. 

GREGORY:  We're going to have more with Tom Brokaw when we come back from the break.  We're going to talk about Iraq and his ongoing look at the long war, the war on terror in this country. 

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  And we're back with NBC's Tom Brokaw, who has an in-depth report on the war on terror called “The Long War,” which will air tomorrow at 8:00 p.m. here on NBC. 

Tom, let me ask you about Iraq.  I had a chance to interview Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the prime minister of Iraq, who said, in a way, really parroting what we've heard from the administration, that his country has become a central front in the war on terror and that the insurgency, which he just calls a terrorist movement, is really being driven by the outside, that most of them are foreign fighters. 

What is your read on that and your reporting tell you on it? 

BROKAW:  My read is that the insurgency has become basic training for the jihad.  It has become a magnet.  A lot of people join jihad so that they can go to Iraq, because the Americans are very conspicuous targets there. 

They learn something while they're there.  I had a talk with Fran Townsend who, as you know, is the adviser on homeland security and counterterrorism.  She said, look, what's going on in Iraq is no different than what was going on earlier in Afghanistan, dismissing the idea that they were learning new tactics. 

But they do become battle-hardened.  And one of the concern that the Saudis have is that so many young Saudis are going into Iraq and becoming hardened combat veterans and that they'll come back into Saudi Arabia at some point and that will only increase their problem.  So, it is, if you will, the nexus of the problem in many ways, that this is a training ground.  It a place where people can go and then go home from there with new skills. 

GREGORY:  Is the problem the administration has fundamentally that it is controlled by people who believe that it is the demonstration of American power that is the ultimate way to defeat this problem of terrorism over the long haul and is ignoring the other end of this, which is what we're doing to propel the jihadist movement? 

BROKAW:  Well, I think that they've caught up to that.  And I've talked to very senior administration officials over the course of the last year or so.  And they know that the big missing piece for them is public diplomacy, that they're well behind the curve on that hearts-and-minds question. 

And Karen Hughes, as you know, is coming back into that job.  But she is, by her own admission, starting way back behind the start line and the finish line is some distance off at this point.  So, I don't think that they think it is just a matter of American military power.  But it is how you get the right mix. 

Take Afghanistan.  There is constant trumpeting, as well there should be, about the success of the elections last fall.  But if you go to Afghanistan, really, Hamid Karzai is the president of Kabul.  He can't afford to travel out of there.  It's not that he doesn't have courage.  The American don't want him to because they're afraid that they're going to lose him. 

I was in the rural areas with a special forces camp that had been there for seven months.  These are the best warriors that we have.  They're in firefights one day, building schools and then clinics the next.  And after seven months, their security perimeter was only three miles across.  And this is the best effort that we're making in that part of the world. 

We have a long way to go. 

And one man from a very—another very senior member of the American intelligence community said the trouble with the Afghanis is that they have reversible turbans.  They'll go with whoever has got the guns.  And who can blame them after all they've been through? 

GREGORY:  Tom Brokaw is with us.  The special is called “The Long War,” looking at America's long war on terror, which airs 8:00 p.m.  tomorrow night. 

We're going to come back with Tom in just a minute, talk more about Iraq, about politics, and about life after “NBC Nightly News.”

You're watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  I'm David Gregory, in for Chris Matthews tonight.

And we're back with NBC's Tom Brokaw, who has in-depth report called “The Long War,” which will air tomorrow at 8:00 p.m.

Tom, I know you're also going to be interviewing Bob Woodward soon for a special that I think airs July 6 at 10:00 p.m. on Deep Throat, which has of course been a huge topic.  Confidential sources are a real important topic right now in Washington, with the Supreme Court deciding whether or not to take a petition by Matt Cooper of “TIME” magazine and Judy Miller of “The New York Times” over this Valerie Plame incident and the leak from the White House. 

How important is this fight now? 

BROKAW:  I think it's always been critically important.  But I think it is also important for journalists to guard that right very carefully and make sure that, when they use anonymous sources, they do with great integrity and they're constantly educating the public about why they're important. 

And if you read, go back and read, as I have again, “All the President's Men,” and then I've been able to take a look at Bob's latest manuscript on this relationship with the secret man, as he is called, Mark Felt, that was a case in which they nurtured that secret source very carefully.  They handled him.  They didn't just take whatever he told them and stick it on the front page of the newspaper.  It had to go through several filters, not only at “The Washington Post,” but then double-checked with other people that were involved in the story. 

GREGORY:  But this is tough for reporters.  I mean, do you think, in this case, there should have been more pushback against those who were leaking the information to say, hey, wait a minute, we can sort of tell why you're putting this out there and there's actually a potential crime involved here?

BROKAW:  Yes, I do. 

And I strongly—when I was in Washington, there was a man by the name of John Osborne.  He was a wonderful old reporter that was well known in this country.  He wrote a commentary called “TRB” for “The New Republic.”  And he had been a “LIFE” magazine reporter, a garrulous man.  And he said, we ought to condition anonymous sources by saying, a middle-level bureaucrat who did not get promoted the last time around and has a grievance against his boss told me today. 

I do think that we can condition a lot more than we do these anonymous sources, describing where they are in the bureaucracy, high, low, or middle, or someone who has a distinctly point of view than his or her boss, so that the public has a better sense than just, sources tell us. 

GREGORY:  You are going to interview Bob Woodward.  You covered Watergate, of course.  What do you want to know about Deep Throat, Mark Felt that you don't know?

BROKAW:  Well, I think I want to know the same thing that Bob does, which is the motivation.  And he works his way toward it.  I've arrived at my own conclusions, having read all this stuff.  And I'll share that with you on July 6. 

I also want to know from Bob about how he saw the relationship, how he saw it in the beginning, in the middle, and then at the end.  They had a real falling-out, you know, Bob Woodward and Mark Felt did.  And it was kind of stitched back together just a few years ago.  But what happened?  What prompted that falling-out? 

And then I think it will be a great trip for those of us who were Watergate junkies.  I was White House correspondent.  I lived through so much of that.  It was a very tense time in America.  The stakes were huge.  And thank God we didn't have all that we have now, where you had to run off the White House lawn and be on MSNBC or on HARDBALL or be on the radio the next morning or have somebody shooting at you from the left and from the right are constantly, so that you could go off and do your work. 

GREGORY:  Tom, let me ask you about the White House of today and the Bush administration, a second term that is hitting a lot of bumps in the road.  And Iraq is prime among them. 

The president is going to be giving a major address next week, as you know.  How big are his problems on Iraq and how big are his problems generally in the second term? 

BROKAW:  Well, I think that they appear to be fairly substantial.  You can see that in the reaction of the Republican Party, when you have prominent conservative Republicans talking about, you've got to let us know, Mr. President, when the troops are going to start to come home. 

You can see it when you can put together the compromise they did on getting around the filibuster.  And that didn't come out of the Republican Party leadership ranks.  The polls are very tough on president on Iraq.  And I think some of that has to do with accountability.  I think it has to do with the fact that no one has owned up to no weapons of mass destruction, no relationship with terrorists.

No one at a senior level took responsibility for Abu Ghraib.  And there's been no acknowledgment that this has turned out to be tougher than we thought that it was going to be.  Now, having said all of that, the Democratic side of the ledger doesn't have much of an agenda to put forward either.  There's kind of a carping quality going on from the Democrats and the leadership in the House and the Senate, but not much of a proactive agenda that they're sticking forward. 

GREGORY:  Tom, final question is a little bit more personal.  How is life? 

BROKAW:  It's pretty good.  I'm—I'm out there on the improv circuit and I've got this great imitation of David Gregory I'm doing. 

(LAUGHTER)

BROKAW:  I'm working on the eyebrows a lot and the shock of prematurely gray hair and the little “Howdy Doody” grin.  I think, when I get it down, I will probably—you know, it will work out OK for me. 

(LAUGHTER)

GREGORY:  Tom, keep at it. 

(LAUGHTER)

GREGORY:  Tom Brokaw.  Tom's report, “The Long War,” will be broadcast tomorrow at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time on NBC. 

I don't know what to say. 

When we come back, Karl Rove says liberals wanted to show understanding for the 9/11 attackers.  And Democrats are fighting mad about it.  We're going to be talking politics with NBC's Norah O'Donnell, Slate.com's John Dickerson and “Newsweek”'s Dan Klaidman.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Coming up, Karl Rove attacks the political left over 9/11 and the left strikes back.  Plus, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says he won't set a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

HARDBALL returns after this.               

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

It's been a pretty wild day in Washington.  White House adviser Karl Rove created a firestorm with remarks he made Wednesday night at a Republican fund-raiser in New York City.  This is what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KARL ROVE, SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT BUSH:  Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war.  Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding to our attackers. 

In the wake of 9/11, conservatives believed it was time to unleash the might and power of the United States military against the Taliban. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Today on Capitol Hill, Democrats immediately pounced. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK:  There's a certain line that you should not cross.  And last night, Karl Rove crossed that line.  He didn't just put his toe over the line.  He jumped way over it. 

SEN. FRANK LAUTENBERG (D), NEW JERSEY:  It is outrageous that he would suggest that those of us who disagree with him politically want to aid the terrorists.  

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), NEW YORK:  The only way we'll know for sure as to what his real intention was last night in New York City is whether or not he retracts these comments and apologizes for them. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Joining me now is MSNBC's chief Washington correspondent, Norah O'Donnell.  We're also joined by John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for online magazine “Slate,” and Dan Klaidman, Washington bureau chief for “Newsweek” magazine. 

Welcome to all of you. 

John, let me start with you. 

This was a speech that was delivered at a New York fund-raiser.  Who was Karl Rove talking about?  Which liberals was he talking about? 

JOHN DICKERSON, SLATE.COM:  Well, what he was doing, it's a time-honored tradition.  He was taking the farthest left liberal.  He's talking about Michael Moore or supporters of MoveOn.org.  And he was taking the behavior of a few people and trying to paint the entire Democratic Party under this sort of grotesque mask. 

What he is trying to do also is remind everybody about the president's response to 9/11, something for which the president got high marks, at a time when the president's approval ratings on his handling of the Iraq war in are in trouble? 

GREGORY:  Norah, why now?  I mean, that's the question.  I should point out, too, that the White House is not retracting any of this.  The RNC is not retracting any of this.  Scott McClellan at the White House said today that Karl Rove was just telling it like it is.  Why now?  What is this about?

NORAH O'DONNELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, I think there's two things.

I think, one, as John points out, this is a time when the White House wants to remind Americans and talk about 9/11 at a time when the president's policies about Iraq are under fire and to remind people about the president's response on 9/11. 

And, two, I think if you read Karl Rove's entire speech that he gave last night at this New York fund-raiser, he was also once again referencing the remarks made last week by Democratic senator Dick Durbin, the No. 2 in the Senate, who compared American interrogators at Guantanamo Bay to Nazis and Pol Pot and Stalin, and suggesting that's the way Democrats do business. 

Bottom line, though, I'm sure as you guys know, too, is, this rhetoric is unbelievable in the last two weeks.  It's been going on in the House, too, between these two sides.  I don't know how that politically in the end benefits the president or either party. 

GREGORY:  But, Dan, one of the things that's happening is that both sides are trying to sharpen this divide between them right now.  And a lot of this comes back to the war in Iraq.  But this was larger than that.  This was really the campaign theme of, who is tougher, you or me? 

DAN KLAIDMAN, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, “NEWSWEEK”:  You know what you've got here, David.

You have got—in the comments from Dick Durbin and then now the comments from Karl Rove, you've got sort of polar ends of the culture wars when it comes to the military and national security issues.  You've got Durbin on the one hand who said our soldiers, compared our soldiers to Nazis, and then Karl Rove, who is saying that Democrats, liberals, are not tough.  They're not strong. 

National security has become a wedge issue for the Republicans in a way that race was in the 1980s.  And this is something—you know, John is right.  Karl Rove is going back to the bank with this one. 

GREGORY:  But why? 

It comes back to the question, John, of why now?  We heard Senator James Inhofe in the hearings on Iraq, which we'll talk about little bit more about in a couple of minutes, talk about the cut-and-run caucus is back when it comes to Iraq.  Does the White House feel like it has to start creating that bright red line again? 

DICKERSON:  Oh, sure. 

And, also, the campaign is a permanent one.  And we saw the president give some of his most political remarks a few weeks ago about the obstructionist Democrats.  We're beginning for 2006 here. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

DICKERSON:  This is about what's going on with the president right now, but also politically what is at stake. 

GREGORY:  But are these remarks wrong?  I mean, are they just wrong on their face? 

DICKERSON:  You know, these are—they're caricatures.  What Karl Rove is trying to do is create the sort of Republican fantasy of a liberal, a kind of a stereotype liberal who they can launch a political war against. 

And they need an enemy, someone that they can demonize as they go forward, and particularly at a time when the president is having problems in terms of his poll numbers and the economy and the other issues. 

KLAIDMAN:  But you make the right point by raising this question, which is, let's stop asking for apologies from everyone.  There needs to be a full and frank conversation about the reaction to 9/11 and the ongoing war against terror. 

And what has happened now is, we've gotten into this cycle of apologies, in which nobody is talking about the central issues at stake.  They're talking about who went over what line and who should apologize for what and who should ask for whose head on what platter. 

GREGORY:  But, Norah, it is remarkable, isn't it, that we have gotten to a place in the past few weeks at such a critical time in the war in Iraq and in public opinion where you've got some pretty sharp statements being made and apologies being delivered, although not in this case.  But the politics in this town have gotten even rougher than usual. 

O'DONNELL:  It has.  It has, and at a time we know that there's just a couple weeks left for Congress to get important work done on energy and other bills.

You know, part of the reason that the president's poll numbers are slumping, as is Congress, is not because of—it's partly about Iraq, but it is also because American people are saying, you're not dealing with the issues that we want to you deal with.  We have high gas prices.  We feel those things.  People are losing jobs, etcetera. 

And yet they're still playing like they're in the sandbox up on Capitol Hill on all these different issues.  I was particularly struck, I guess by, in asking the same question, I think, David, you keep asking, is, “why would Rove do this?  Why is he doing this?” is that there seems to be a need to focus on something other than Iraq at this time, or other—on those hard issues that they can't seem to get anything done because there's no ability to reach compromise. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

But I think that, Dan, there's an important point right now in Iraq, where people are starting to say to themselves, why shouldn't our troops come home?  This is not going well.  The insurgency is not diminishing at all.  So, we have this fundamental question, I'm sure, in the president's mind, as, I have to get people back to thinking we have got to stick to this here.  We just—we have to stay tough. 

KLAIDMAN:  Well, that's exactly right. 

I think there may be a concern at the White House that there is a kind of tipping point here in a political sense, not a military sense, because that's sort of unknowable.  I mean, in the middle of the Vietnam War, we didn't know what was going to happen.  And we don't know right now. 

But, in a political sense, if they begin to see, particularly as Republicans begin to talk about exit strategies, that maybe we have got to cut it off.  The other possibility is, they believe it.  I think, to some extent, you know, Karl Rove and George Bush do believe that the Republicans are the daddy party and the Democrats are the mommy party.  And that's just -- but, you know...

GREGORY:  But is there a danger, John, in trivializing, for instance, Guantanamo Bay, the treatment of detainees?  When you send Dick Cheney out, the vice president, to say, let's remember they're all bad people, and when you send such a lightning rod like Karl Rove out to say that the left wanted to subject the 9/11 terrorists to therapy, doesn't that sort of caricature what are important debates in the country? 

DICKERSON:  Well, sure.  Rove has—there's a challenge when you go out and you strike these big blows. 

And that is that you get—that it ends up backfiring.  But I think what the White House wants to do is, again—and Scott McClellan in his briefing today at the White House used the word philosophy more than a dozen times. 

GREGORY: Right. 

DICKERSON:  They want to take this aperture and blow it way back out.  Stop talking about the bombings that are happening on the ground.  Let's talk about the big philosophy and who is better to handle that. 

GREGORY:  And make this...

O'DONNELL:  Yes. 

GREGORY:  The same thing, Norah, next year in the congressional race that the president had in '04, which is you're up against a monolith, a party, that's not really willing to stick it out when it gets tough. 

O'DONNELL:  Exactly. 

The president and Republicans do well when they draw this bright line.  There are 60 percent of Republicans who think that some of our troops should start coming home from Iraq.  There's a new poll out that shows a third of the women that supported Republicans in the last campaign want troops to come home.

GREGORY: Right. 

O'DONNELL:  Do not support the president's policies on Iraq.  That's all a concern for the midterm elections. 

GREGORY:  All right.  We're going to come back.  We're going to talk more about the war in Iraq, public sentiment and those really combative hearings today on the Hill with Norah O'Donnell, John Dickerson and Dan Klaidman in a moment.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  And we're back with MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell “Newsweek”'s Dan Klaidman and “Slate”'s John Dickerson. 

On Capitol Hill today, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and top military commanders were grilled by senators about the war in Iraq.  Rumsfeld responded to congressional calls for setting a deadline to bring home U.S. troops. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUMSFELD:  Finally, the question is asked, when can the coalition leave and should Congress establish a deadline to withdraw?  Some in Congress have suggested that deadlines be set.  That would be a mistake, as Senator Levin has said.  That would throw a lifeline to terrorists who in recent months have suffered significant losses and casualties. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  General John Abizaid at another point—he is the head of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf—said that he was reluctant to agree with Vice President Cheney's recent assertion that the insurgency in Iraq is—quote—“in its last throes.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID, CMDR., U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND:  In terms of comparison from six months ago, in terms of foreign fighters, I believe there are more foreign fighters coming in to Iraq than there were six months ago.  In terms of the overall strength of the insurgency, I would say it's about the same as it was. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  So, you wouldn't agree with the statement that it is in its last throes?

ABIZAID:  I don't know that I would make any comment about that, other than to say there's a lot of work to be done against the insurgency. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  John Dickerson, the general didn't want to disagree with the vice president, but this was pretty significant.  Don't you think? 

DICKERSON:  It was significant. 

And even though they'll be splitting hairs at the White House about whether he was or wasn't disagreeing with the vice president, here's the problem.  The Bush team has always benefited from low expectations. 

And the vice president veered away from that.  And it is extraordinary to think about where the vice president has come from.  They used to put the vice president out to calm the nation.  And today, I was talking to senior Republicans on the Hill.  And they said, just keep him away from the camera, because what Cheney has done is essentially said, things are going to get better.  When they don't, it increases the White House's political problem. 

GREGORY:  Go ahead, Dan.

KLAIDMAN:  They haven't benefited from low expectations when it comes to the war, because, remember, it was Cheney who said that American soldiers were going to be greeted as liberators.  It was the president who said mission accomplished.  It was Don Rumsfeld who called the insurgents dead-enders, said they wasn't insurgents, that there wasn't an insurgency. 

So, the problem here is and what was sort of hovering over this entire hearing was the sort of growing credibility gap, to use a phrase from another era.  And that's the problem. 

GREGORY:  Well, and, Norah, talk more about that, because this was—didn't necessarily see it in these clips.  But this was a pretty fiery hearing today.  Describe—you were watching it all day.  Describe some of the highlights. 

O'DONNELL:  Well, important to point out, that's exactly why these hearings were held, is because there is a disagreement about the facts.  The vice president is publicly saying the insurgency is in its last throes.  Abizaid is saying, well, actually, we have more foreign fighters in the last six months. 

These hearings were not held because Democrats asked for them.  It is because Republicans asked for them.  The chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Senator Warner, spoke with the president, was at the White House earlier this week, when the president hosted them over for lunch, said that the president needs to be clear about what our he strategy is there in Iraq. 

A couple of other key moments.  Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from North Carolina said, I have a very patriotic state.  But he said, in my state, they are losing support for this war.  People don't believe in it as much.  And Rumsfeld responded to that by saying, well, that's because people are being pushed in their opinions. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Let me just interject for a second.

John Dickerson, the president is giving a big speech next week in which he is going to address a lot of the public's concerns about Iraq.  There's a lot of big moments for this president when it comes to Iraq.  But I was struck, this week, the president felt necessary to come out and tell the American people that he thinks about Iraq every day.  I mean, this is a bad sign. 

DICKERSON:  It is a bad sign.  And it shows the balance, because he has to on the one hand say, things are getting better, but also not look too Pollyannish. 

GREGORY: Right. 

DICKERSON:  And that is what that—he was—and that is the balance they're going to try for this big speech.

But they've given a lot of big speeches on Iraq and they've tried to do this. 

GREGORY: Right. 

DICKERSON:  When they get in trouble, they reset the table and remind everybody about the war on terror.  But the question is whether the president can give a speech to change the dynamic or whether things have to happen on the ground to do that. 

GREGORY:  Dan, just make the connection here between Karl Rove's pretty acerbic rhetoric and the theme of this hearing, which is, we're either going to stick it out or it is time to get out of Iraq.  What's the danger line, the danger sign for them? 

KLAIDMAN:  Well, I mean, it is what we talked about before. 

It is that I think the White House is beginning to see that they may be losing some sort among Republicans.  They want to make sure that the people who have traditionally supported them here have the staying power, have the stamina to go forward at a time when the public at large is beginning to have some doubts.  And I think that is the connection. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Go ahead, Norah, quickly.

O'DONNELL:  The call has been to level with the American people.  Senator McCain asked General Casey today how many Iraqi troops are trained and ready to go.  Casey refused to answer in a public hearing, saying, that's classified. 

GREGORY: Right. 

O'DONNELL:  That means Americans are not leaving Iraq any time soon. 

GREGORY:  All right, we have got to leave it there. 

My thanks to Norah O'Donnell, Dan Klaidman and John Dickerson. 

I'll be back again tomorrow night at 7:00 p.m. Eastern for more

HARDBALL. 

And next Tuesday, join Chris for a special edition of HARDBALL.  He'll be at the Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, for the HARDBALL Church Tour, an in-depth look at religion in America. 

Right now, it's time for “COUNTDOWN WITH KEITH OLBERMANN.”

Good night, everyone.

END

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