updated 8/19/2005 10:15:00 AM ET 2005-08-19T14:15:00

Guest: Benny Elon, Daniel Ayalon, Kenneth Mehlman, Tony Blankley, Steve McMahon, Michael Scheuer

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Today the vice president strongly defends the war in Iraq and calls it a critical front in the war on terror, saying that victory is critical to the future security of the United States.  I‘m Norah O‘Donnell.  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening, I‘m Norah O‘Donnell in tonight for Chris Matthews.  Today, a roadside attack kills four more soldiers in Iraq.  Vice President Cheney offers sympathy to the families of the fallen but urges perseverance.  Later we‘ll debate the politics of the war and the growing anti-war movement.  And late this afternoon, in Crawford, Texas, Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq and who has been protesting the president‘s Iraq policy, made an announcement.

CINDY SHEEHAN, SON DIED IN IRAQ (video clip):  My mom just had a stroke. 

So we‘ll be going back to Los Angeles.  I‘m going to assess the situation.  If I can, I‘ll be back.  If I can‘t, I won‘t be back.  But I will be back as soon as possible.  Until then, we have other Gold Star moms here.  Gold Star family member.  Military families speaking out.  And they‘ll continue the mission while we‘re gone.

O‘DONNELL:  We begin tonight with Ken Mehlman.  He was the White House political director and his 2004 campaign manager.  He is now chairman of the Republican National Committee.  Ken, more deaths in Iraq today and the president‘s poll numbers are slipping.  Is there growing concern now within the Republican Party about the president‘s strategy in Iraq?

KEN MEHLMAN, CHAIRMAN, RNC:  Well, obviously every American is concerned about the war on terror.  The central front of that war on terror is in Iraq.  But I think what Republicans and millions of Democrats and independents understand is that the call that some have had to withdraw the cut and run is exactly the wrong thing we would do.

O‘DONNELL:  Do you acknowledge that there‘s some concern within the Republican Party about the way things are going in Iraq?

MEHLMAN:  Any time you‘re in a tough war, there are obviously concerns about the lives, the safety of our troops, of our men and women that are serving.  I think Republicans and I think again, millions of Democrats and independents agree we must prevail.  The ultimate thing we can do to thank those troops for their sacrifice and their risk is to make sure their mission is accomplished.  To make sure we support their morale and support what they‘re doing over there.  This is central front in the war on terrorism.  And the worst thing we can do would be to cut and run from the terrorists because then we would have to face them at home.

O‘DONNELL:  Congressman John Duncan, who is a Republican from Tennessee, is quoted in today‘ paper as saying there is no enthusiasm for this war.  Grover Norquist, who is a conservative who I know you meet with regularly, said there is great concern that candidates, Republicans up for re-election in 2006, could face a backlash if something is not done in Iraq to change the course.  What will be done politically?  And is there a concern that this could hurt Republicans in the mid-term elections?

MEHLMAN:  Norah, I don‘t view this as a Republican or a Democratic issue.  I view this as an American issue.  We‘ve got to win this battle in the war on terrorism.  The central front which is now occurring in Iraq.  Is it going to be tough?  Absolutely.  Are Americans concerned?  Americans are always concerned when we‘re in a tough war.  And we‘re in a tough war.  This war on terror.  But when you heard this past weekend, my counterpart, Chairman Dean said that women in Iraq were better off when Saddam Hussein was still in power?  When you their angry moveon.org left saying we should cut and run, saying the mission wasn‘t noble, all those things are wrong.

The American people understand this will be a tough battle but they understand what the stakes are.  They understand this is the central front in the war on terror and the most important thing we can do is to defeat the terrorists there and to promote freedom over there because then we‘re going to be safer at home.

O‘DONNELL:  I know, of course, you are the chairman of the Republican Party.  You know President Bush.  I‘ve covered President Bush.  How do you think he looks at some of this criticism out there?  I would think the president would say this is a bunch of ninnies doing a lot of hand wringing.  Do you think that‘s how he sees this criticism?

MEHLMAN:  First of all, Norah, the president recognizes and the president appreciates and he always says this is a free country where folks ought to talk about the issues.  And certainly when you hear folks raise concerns about the war, the president has concerns.  He prays with the families of service men and women who have fallen or have made the sacrifice.  But what the president ultimately remembers, we‘re about to come with a four-year anniversary of September 11.  And what he remembers is that terrible day and we have to do everything we can to make sure that the next 9/11 doesn‘t happen.  And that‘s why it is so important that we prevail in Iraq.

O‘DONNELL:  There‘s now a debate, though, Ken, raging in this country about what is the strategy in Iraq?  What is the way forward?  How do we defeat the insurgents?  And today, there has been a significant change within the Democratic Party.  For the first time, we now have a Democratic Senator, Russ Feingold calling for a timetable.  He says by the end of 2006, all troops should be out of Iraq.

MEHLMAN:  I think that is worst possible approach.  Can you imagine in if in 1943, FDR said we‘re going to end World War II.  We‘re going to remove our troop from Europe and Asia in 1944.  Because that says to the enemy, all you have to do is wait until this period.  That says to the people in Iraq who are fighting, we‘re only with you for a short period.  That says to our allies that you can cut and run, too.  If you believe, Democrats and Republicans agree, this is central front in the war on terror.  If you believe this enemy is an implacable foe that we have to deal with, then the worst thing we can do is give them a timetable for them to know when they can wait us out.  It would be wrong to the Iraqi people.  It would be wrong to the men and women that are sacrificing.  It would be wrong for our allies and it would be wrong because would it tell the enemy exactly the wrong message.

O‘DONNELL:  Let me turn to the president who is on vacation.  He still has three weeks to go in Crawford, Texas.  There‘s a woman there named Cindy Sheehan who says she will not leave until she meets with the president.  This morning, on the DON IMUS SHOW, a Republican, Senator George Allen from Virginia who many think is the golden boy for the Republican Party in the year 2008, he disagreed.  If he were president, he would invite Cindy Sheehan into his home and talk to him.  Are you surprise that had a Republican is splitting with the president on this issue?

MEHLMAN:  Everyone has to decide the right approach.  The president has met with Mrs. Sheehan and he has met with many other, hundreds of families, moms and dads and brothers and sisters and he‘s prayed with them and thanked them for the ultimate sacrifice.  It‘s one of the most important and frankly one of the most difficult things he has to do as president.  Obviously, there are a lot of families, a lot of moms and dads who disagreed with Mrs. Sheehan.  I noticed a number.  There was someone in the “Wall Street Journal.”  There were others on some networks this morning.  What they were saying was remember the morale of our sons and daughters. 

Think about the morale of the people that are over there.

O‘DONNELL:  Do you think Cindy Sheehan hurts the morale of our troops?

MEHLMAN:  I know that moms and dads that I‘ve heard on television have said they think the most important thing is to remember that.  I think Cindy Sheehan is a a grieving mom and I thank her for her unbelievable sacrifice.  There‘s nothing you can have for the sacrifices she made of her son.  And that‘s why it is so important that her son sacrifice was not in vain and that we ultimately prevail.  That we make sure that all the men and women, all the servicemen and folks in all the services who have made that sacrifice, who were risking their lives today, we‘ve got to support them and we have to prevail.  If we gave a timetable, the result would be that they would be less safe and their mission would be less likely to be accomplished.

O‘DONNELL:  What about some of the comments that she has made?  She has called the president the greatest terrorist in the world.

MEHLMAN:  I think that‘s an unfortunate and outrageous comment.  I totally disagree with that.  The president is taking on the terrorists all oh the world.  Think of the moms and dads of the folks that were lost on September 11.  I always think about them, as well as the moms and dads and folks involved in Iraq.  This war on terror is terrible and it will require incredible sacrifice and that‘s something that‘s not easy for us but we have to remember the stakes.  We have to remember the mission.  We‘ve always got to remember that taking on the terrorists there makes sure that you and I and everyone else are safer over here.

O‘DONNELL:  Let‘s now turn to the upcoming fight over the president‘s choice to succeed the Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O‘connor.  The president has chosen John Roberts.

MEHLMAN:  Good choice.

O‘DONNELL:  Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy criticized John Roberts‘ views as deeply tinged with the ideology of the right.  Is this a fair interpretation of Roberts‘ record?

MEHLMAN:  I don‘t think it is at all.  What is so interesting is what else happened yesterday, the American Bar Association, which leading Democrats including Patrick Leahy and Ted Kennedy call the gold standard for whether judges should be approved.  They gave the highest rating possible to Judge Roberts.  And they did it unanimously.  At the same time that happen, though, a bunch of the angry left, hard left group came out and criticized Judge Roberts.  And it was almost like Pavlov‘s dogs.  You saw Ted Kennedy, Patrick Leahy, you saw the leader, Reid, all attacking Judge Roberts.

What‘s so interesting is this:  what they‘re complaining is that as an attorney, Judge Roberts, then attorney Roberts, advised his client, President Reagan on positions that President Reagan shared with other democrats.  People like Joe Biden.  People like Robert Byrd.  People like Joe Lieberman.

So if Judge Roberts, by being an attorney, advised his client on positions that they think are the fringe positions, they‘re calling their own Democrat colleagues fringe.  And I don‘t think that‘s right.  I think that the Democrats need to remember that they represent the American people.  Not the fringe hard left and Move On may not like it but most of their constituents understand this is an impartial affair and a great choice by the president.

O‘DONNELL:  Ken Mehlman.  Well, we are looking to those hearings in September just after Labor Day and we hope to have you back.  Thank you very much.

MEHLMAN:  Thanks.

O‘DONNELL:  And coming up, a dramatic day in Israel‘s Gaza Strip as the disengagement plan is entering its fourth day.  Security forces are battling dozens of protestors who refused to be evacuated.  We‘ll talk to people on both sides of the story in just a momen.  And later, a closer look at the events of 9/11.  The National Geographic Channel goes behind the scenes in a new documentary with footage rarely seen before.

I‘m Norah O‘Donnell and you‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  I‘m Norah O‘Donnell in for Chris Matthews.  Incredible pictures coming out of the Gaza Strip today as President Bush praises Israel‘s pullout as a bold move that would strengthen ties between and u.s.  Israel.  Hundreds of Israeli security fought to seize control of the roof of one of the settlement synagogue.  Troops moved to oust protestors, some of them immigrants from the U.S. who live in the area.

But after a long stressful day, soldiers and settlers prayed together for the future of the state of Israel as Jews around the country continued to debate the disengagement plan to evacuate all Israeli settlements from Gaza after 38 years of occupation.  Joining me now is Daniel Ayalon.  He is the Israeli ambassador to the United States.

Ambassador.  Thank you for joining us.  They were chanting today, Jews don‘t expel Jews.  What was it like watching those pictures?

DANIEL AYALON, ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.:  Oh, Norah, this was gut wrenching.  This was very emotional.  It was a very painful day for Israel.  It is an historic day.  Dramatic.  But also traumatic.  And I think that for Israelis, it was very painful.  But mainly for the settlers themselves.  And you could really see tears on both sides.  The evacuees and the evacuators.  But basically, I think there was a great job done by the military.

O‘DONNELL:  There was great resistance today.  But little violence for the 8,500 who are being moved out of their home.  There were assigned some 50,000 Israeli troops to help keep this peaceful, if you will, is Prime Minister Sharon pleased with how it is going?

AYALON:  Well, it is going relatively smoothly.  And peacefully.  And we are very grateful for that.  And Israel is a vibrant democracy.  We understand demonstrations.  We understand dissent.  We understand very vivid debates and arguments.

O‘DONNELL:  But tearing these people from their homes, this has been occupied land for 38 years.  Is this going to make Israel safer?

AYALON:  Well, absolutely.  First of all, there‘s no, it was untenable, the situation.  You have there 8,000 Jews surrounded by 1.1 million Palestinians who are hostile.  So there is no future for Jewish presence there.  It‘s not that we should not be there but I‘m not going into an ideological debate.  Pragmatically, there was no future there.  And we took the decision to do it.  And I think we will benefit from it.

O‘DONNELL:  But some argue that by pulling out of Gaza, and leaving that land to the Palestinians, that you allow Hamas to have a haven.  To operate freely.  To grow and to strengthen.  Is that one of the concerns?

AYALON:  It is.  But we have to emphasize, this was a decision that was independently taken by the sovereign Israeli government.  Nobody pushed us.  Nobody drove us for this decision.  We did it because we understand that it will be better for Israel and it can be better for the Palestinians and for the region.  If indeed they rise up to the challenge.  This is a challenge for the Palestinian Authority.  Not to make it a safe haven for terror.  And if they take this responsibility, then we can be off to a good start, fulfilling the vision of President Bush and implementing the road map to peace.

O‘DONNELL:  Is everything on track that they expected?  They‘ll get everybody out by sundown on Friday, which is the goal?

AYALON:  This is the goal.  I‘m not sure it will be achieved.  This is the goal.  We had three days.  We have probably 10 more days before we will see the last civilian in Gaza.

O‘DONNELL:  And historically speaking, this is huge.  And it also says a lot about the future of Israel in terms of future withdrawals.  If this goes off with few hitches, what does this mean for other places where Israel will withdraw?

AYALON:  Well, I think it is premature to talk about the future.  Because after we have done this excruciatingly painful step, we would like to see what the Palestinians do.  And if they respond in kind, and it is very—it is spelled out.  What they need to do.  It is not just a demand by us.

O‘DONNELL:  What do they need to do?

AYALON:  It is prescribed in the road map to peace.  They committed.  And they have their obligations.  They have to stop the terror.  They have to fight terrorism on a sustainable way.  They have to dismantle infrastructure of terrorism.  And collect the illegal arms, outlaw, stop the financing of terrorism, and really put the authority back into the Palestinian Authority.

O‘DONNELL:  I watched people today sobbing.  Sobbing crying.  Being torn from their home.  Young people sobbing, crying, being pulled from their homes.  This is Jews pulling out Jews.  For Palestinians, what can be said that this is going to make not only Israel safer, but will it make the world safer?  And why should Americans think this will lead perhaps someday to a lasting peace?

AYALON:  Well, I would say that I think it is appropriate to thank the president and the Secretary Rice.  The entire American administration and Congress which overwhelmingly also supported this and the American people.  I can tell you, without the merry support, it wouldn‘t have come into a reality.  And when the prime minister came here laugh year to present the disengagement plan to the president, the Americans were very quick to understand the historic potential, the historic opportunity and they‘ve supported it.  They also promoted it and mobilized international support for it.

And I think that the significance is that now, the Palestinians will have no excuse.  No pretext not to act against terror.

O‘DONNELL:  They can live to the road map of peace.

AYALON:  Gaza is a showcase, right.

O‘DONNELL:  This was a very historic day.  Historic week in Israel.  We‘ll continue to watch it.  Thank you very much.  Ambassador Daniel Ayalon.  We‘ll be back in a minute and their response from the Gaza settlers.  Israeli member of parliament, Benny Elon, who lives in the Gaza Strip, will be with us.  This is             HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We just heard from the Israeli ambassador to the U.S.  Now I‘m joined by Benny Elon, who opposed the Gaza pullout.  Benny, thank you very much for joining us.  Let me ask you today what happened in the Gaza.  Watching those pictures.  The crying, the soldiers pulling people from their homes.  What did you think of what went on today?

BENNY ELON, ISRAELI MK:  I think that it has to be clear to our enemies that it is not so easy to uproot Jew from his territory, from his land.  I am afraid that the enemy will sit on his chair.  When he will see the TV, his reaction will be, you see the Jews in they are wandering Jews.  Like in the exile for 2,000 years.  It is easy for them to go to move, to be in New York, to be in Washington, to be in Jerusalem.  They don‘t stick to the ground like us, the Arabs.

This is the danger .

O‘DONNELL:  You oppose the Gaza pullout and yet the majority of Israelis have supported this plan.  Why are you against it?

ELONN:  It is not a majority of the Israelis.  If it was so, why Prime Minister Sharon was afraid of referendum?  Why he was afraid of elections in spite of the fact that the elections is going to take place in three or four months?  We opposed it because of two reasons.  First of all, we believe that this is the biblical heartland.  And we are not strangers here.  Secondly .

O‘DONNELL:  But do you acknowledge that in order for Israel to be safe, in order for there to be peace, that Israel must make concessions under the road map?  In order to then demand that the Palestinians also make concessions to crack down on terrorists?  Mustn‘t their be giving on both sides?

ELON:  Norah, what you said makes sense.  If were you my prime minister, it was easier.  What he did, that didn‘t make sense.  Because he did a unilateral thing.  It is not a road map.  It is not bilateral.  There is no exchange for this thing.  He didn‘t sign a treaty with Egypt like Menachem Begin did.  He didn‘t sign a treaty even with a bunch of gangsters of the PLO.  No one!  It is a unilateral thing with no meaning and no exchange.

And we don‘t expect them to do nothing.  The opposite is right.  It is a withdrawal under fire like a dog with the tail between the legs.  And the Arabs, it just whets their appetite—the Muslims fundamentalists—whet their appetite, do you know that the last five years, more than 6,000 custom workers were on those people that did not escape.  Now what the Muslims will say?

O‘DONNELL:  Benny, do you think there is a real concern that now that Israel has pulled, will finish pulling out of Gaza perhaps by the end of the week, that the Palestinians there with control of that territory, that Hamas will then have a haven?  That in fact this could, would be more dangerous for Israel, for the larger Middle East?

ELON:  No, Norah.  We have the experience of the Oslo Accords.  It started with high expectations and concluded with deep disappointment and in this case, I can guarantee and promise you as a member in the Israeli Knesset and as a citizen.  I can guaranteed we have established, Prime Minister established a jihadist, Islamic, Hamas state on the Mediterranean coast.

O‘DONNELL:  You‘re saying now that Gaza will become a Hamas state?  That essentially, you are sanctifying that the Israeli government that Sharon is sanctifying at this identifying terrorism by creating this haven for Hamas?

ELON:  Exactly like this.  With President Bush chasing after terrorists in Iraq and in the whole world, the Israeli, Jewish prime minister establishing independent, fundamental Palestinian state in the biblical heartland and the danger is not only to Israel.  Everyone will see how difficult it is going to be to all of us.  And he did a tragic mistake that we did not succeed to prevent.

O‘DONNELL:  Benny, I understand that you live in the Gaza.  Where will you live now that you have been kicked out by people of your own faith?

ELON:  Everyone will find a solution, you know, that is not a solution.  The Mediterranean issue of those that invested all of their energy and created three generations and succeed to take dust and to make it a paradise, to be number one exports in Israel.  To export agriculture, tomato cherries, flowers.  All of these.  It is not the personal, individual problem.  It is .

O‘DONNELL:  Benny .

ELON:  It is the Jewish Zionist dream to be normal, and to be stuck on the ground and not to be again a wandering Jew.

O‘DONNELL:  It is a historic day in Gaza and certainly in Israel this week.  Thank you, Benny Elon.  When HARDBALL returns, a debate on the war in Iraq and the anti-war protests in the U.S.  We‘ll talk to Tony Blankley and Democratic strategist Steve McMahon.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  I‘m Norah O‘Donnell filling in for Chris Matthews.  In a speech today to a veterans group in Missouri, Vice President Dick Cheney spoke of the role Iraq plays in the war on terror. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Iraq is a critical front in the war on terror.  And victory there is critical to the future security of the U.S. and other free nations.  We know this and the terrorists know it as well. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  With the unpredictable violence in Iraq and the declining poll numbers, is the president now losing support in his own party?  Steve McMahon is a Democratic political consultant and a longtime adviser to DNC Chairman Howard Dean.  And we begin with Tony Blankley, The Washington Times editorial page director. 

Thank you, gentlemen, for joining us tonight. 

Tony, let me ask you that.  Is there concern growing in the Republican Party about the president‘s strategy in Iraq? 

TONY BLANKLEY, EDITORIAL PAGE DIRECTOR, THE WASHINGTON TIMES:  I think the president clearly is dealing—the Republican Party is dealing with a situation where the war is not going as well as the public or the president expected.  That will be a challenge for them going through the next couple of elections.  On the other hand, the Democrats have a problem, which is they have no credibility on the issue of national security. 

So if the world remains a dangerous place in 2006 and 2008, can you beat something with nothing?  And given the status of the Democratic Party and the left wing activists who are pulling them toward sort of irresponsible positions, they have a challenge.  But there‘s no doubt that the war isn‘t as popular as it was two years ago. 

O‘DONNELL:  Steve, you‘re a Democrat, why should anybody be surprised that Republicans, too, are concerned about what‘s going on in Iraq and that it‘s deadly for our American forces there? 

STEVE MCMAHON, TOP DEAN ADVISOR:  Well, it does seem to be crumbling all around the president.  But, you know, the president has a whole host of problems.  Iraq is only the beginning really.  He has got the problem of the economy at home.  He has got the problem that he didn‘t tell the truth about weapons of mass destruction, about why we were there. 

And then I think he has got a growing credibility problem all across the board.  I mean, the majority of the Americans in a poll just last week said that they‘re not sure the president is honest.  Well, when you get to that point, you‘re the president of the United States, that‘s a really big problem, that‘s one that is very, very difficult to overcome. 

O‘DONNELL:  What, however, is the alternative though to what we are doing in Iraq? 

BLANKLEY:  Well, yes, first, let me just say, I think that‘s more his wish list than it is reality.  The president‘s poll numbers, his job approval rating have ranged between about 44 and 49 for a couple years now.  It was in fact 49 percent on election night when he won 51.5 percent.  So I don‘t think the president‘s numbers are slipping, they‘re bouncing up and down with the news cycle, but they‘re not slipping particularly overall—the overall job approval. 

So I think that when he characterizes it as all of these terrible new problems, I don‘t think they‘re terrible new problems. 

MCMAHON:  But, Tony, you have to admit that every single key internal for this president is slipping.  On honesty, for a majority of Americans, to say that you‘re not honest?  I mean, you‘re the president of the United States and they don‘t think you‘re honest? 

BLANKLEY:  You can go through internals as much as you want.  But you know that the question of job approval is the conclusion of everything.  And that number has been bouncing along... 

MCMAHON:  Between 44 over.

O‘DONNELL:  Where ever the president‘s.

(CROSSTALK)

MCMAHON:  . 53 negative.

BLANKLEY:  Yes, it has been bouncing around like that in the same place.

O‘DONNELL:  . approval ratings at this point, they have lowered to some degree or bounced up and down.  But nevertheless, the American public to some degree is focused on what should be the strategy in Iraq?  Let me ask you because today, for the first time, we have a leading Democratic senator, Russ Feingold, came out and said there must be a timetable for withdrawal of American troops and it should be the end of 2006.  Is this going to become, Steve, the refrain of the Democratic Party, that they want a timetable for withdrawal? 

MCMAHON:  This was the shot heard ‘round Democratic presidential primary circles, in Iowa and New Hampshire, Russ Feingold setting a deadline.  I mean, you know, this is going to be interesting because the majority of people who are seeking the Democratic nomination, or at least who we assume are seeking the Democratic nomination.

O‘DONNELL:  Will try and run to the right of the president.

MCMAHON:  . supported the president‘s war and are now saying in many instances we need to do more, we need to send more troops and we need to get the job done.  Russ Feingold opposed the war and now says we need to bring the troops home.  There is a growing body of evidence that a majority of Democrats certainly and perhaps a majority of Americans, or an emerging silent majority if you look at what‘s going on in Texas, think maybe that‘s just right. 

O‘DONNELL:  Speaking of Texas, though, do you think, Tony, we‘ll see Senator Feingold go down and embrace Cindy Sheehan outside the president‘s ranch in Crawford, Texas? 

BLANKLEY:  I have no idea what he‘s going to do.  Look, I mean, she‘s a Gold Star Mother.  She‘s entitled to do whatever she wants in expression of her grief.  That‘s not the issue down there.  The issue there is the media coverage of it—or excessive coverage.  They haven‘t gone out and found all the mothers who support the war.  But that‘s—this is a question of media abuse, it‘s not a question of a Gold Star Mother‘s behavior. 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, let me ask you because the president has said—met with her once before, we should be clear about that, in 2004.  But he‘s not going to meet with her again even though he‘s going to be down there for three more weeks and Cindy Sheehan says she is going to stay there for three more weeks.  Well, today, Senator George Allen, Republican from Virginia, who many people think is the golden boy for the Republican Party in 2008, said if he were president he would invite Cindy Sheehan into his home and he would talk with her, and now that‘s what the president should do.

BLANKLEY:  I thought that was interesting.  I heard that as well.  The reason why I think it‘s interesting is I assume that he is thinking about his potential primary voters.  And there must be some grumbling down there generally for him to feel he could go out and make a statement like that, although he is very respectful of the president.  I always pay attention to politicians and what their antenna are telling them.  And I assume that is telling—his antenna, at least, that this is at least a safe and maybe a useful statement to make.  So I though that was actually pretty interesting. 

O‘DONNELL:  On the flip side, Steve, let me ask you, though, is Cindy Sheehan in some ways problematic for the Democratic Party, because she becomes this symbol for opposing the president but she essentially espouses a cut and run foreign policy, let‘s just take all our troops out of there whether we finish the job or not?  That‘s not where the Democratic Party wants to be, does it, or defined as?

MCMAHON:  Well, I‘m not sure that‘s quite fair to Ms. Sheehan because I‘m not sure that that is her position.  Her position is, my son died and I would like to know why.  I would like to know what purpose is being served.  I would like to know how many more people are going to die and I would like to know the exit strategy is. 

Frankly, the question she‘s asking are the same questions that most Americans.

O‘DONNELL:  Steve, her position is, she said that the president is a terrorist and she said that she is not going to pay taxes and that she wants all troops out of Iraq. 

MCMAHON:  Well, that certainly doesn‘t help.  But I wasn‘t aware that she had said she wanted all troops out of Iraq.  Maybe that‘s something she said this week.  The point is, the questions that she is asking are questions that any thinking American is asking.  What‘s the strategy for victory?  How are we going to win the peace?  What is the exit strategy?  And when are our troops coming home? 

BLANKLEY:  Look, look, the woman who matters in all of this isn‘t Ms.  Sheehan, it‘s Mrs. Clinton.  She is likely to be getting the nomination for president of the United States of the Democratic Party.  Her position is almost identical to President Bush‘s position.  She has warned about no timetable for an exit strategy. 

Now as the left wing of the Democratic Party, and maybe the middle of the Democratic Party, I give you that, the Democrats may be moving more and more to a straight out anti-war, get-the-heck-out-of-Iraq policy, and the candidate who is almost certain to get the nomination, unless she falls on her face in 2006, which she is not going to do, is there with Bush.  So what does that do to the Democratic Party energy to elect a candidate who is identical to the president and opposed to her base? 

O‘DONNELL:  Very interesting.  Well, both of our guests are staying with us.  And don‘t forget, Hardblogger, HARDBALL‘s blog site is the online place for politics, you can check out the hottest political stories, just go to our Web site, hardball.msnbc.com.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  And we‘re back with Tony Blankley of The Washington Times, and Democratic strategist Steve McMahon.  There is a controversy brewing over comments made by the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean, who you advised.  Surprise, surprise, something he said has set off alarm bells.  Let me show you what he said just this past weekend on CBS. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD DEAN, CHAIRMAN, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE:  It looks like women will be worse off in Iraq than they were when Saddam Hussein was president of Iraq.  That‘s a pretty sad commentary on this administration‘s ability to do anything right.  It turns out that this constitution really does take away the rights that women have enjoyed in Iraq before.  Then I can‘t imagine why we‘re there. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Steve, today, Bob Novak said that Democrats are worried about Dean‘s comments, making the point that how could anybody think that life under Saddam Hussein was better than it is now, is that what Dean is saying? 

MCMAHON:  Well, first of all, I think it would be interesting that any Democrat would turn to Bob Novak to critique the performance of Howard Dean.  And for Bob Novak to be reporting what Democrats are thinking I think is interesting at best. 

O‘DONNELL:  This is because Bob Novak wrote a column today essentially saying that.

MCMAHON:  That Democrats—yes.  I mean, he basically said what you‘ve characterized.  But I just wonder how Bob Novak became such an expert on the Democrat Party.  What Governor Dean said on that show has been reported in major newspapers.  On the 8th of August, The New York Times reported that women are going to actually lose rights under the constitution that is being crafted today in Iraq.  The Houston Chronicle.

O‘DONNELL:  Tony, is that true? 

MCMAHON:  . reported the same thing on the 11th of August.  Governor Dean said that.  But of course Bob Novak didn‘t include that in his column. 

O‘DONNELL:  I talked to the chairman of the Republican National Committee earlier on this show and he pounced on Dean.  His counterpart saying, this is outrageous for him to claim that life was better under Saddam Hussein.  But, Tony, is it fair to say that this constitution that has been delayed in Iraq, that they are trying to enshrine Islamic law that will not give women equal rights? 

BLANKLEY:  Well, we haven‘t seen it the constitution because it hasn‘t been drafted yet.  So we don‘t know.  My guess is that it will be somewhere between the Israeli constitution, which represents a Jewish state in a largely democratic state, and the Iranian law, which is a straight-out theocracy.  I think it will be towards the Israeli side but it won‘t be as close to it. 

O‘DONNELL:  Whatever, but... 

BLANKLEY:  But let me make a broader point because it is this kind of a statement by Dean which is why Nancy Pelosi and Senator Reid and most of the Washington Democrats oppose Howard Dean and ran other candidates against him for the nomination.  They did not want their party to be taken over.

MCMAHON:  Another expert on Democratic politics.

BLANKLEY:  They did not want to have their party taken over by.

MCMAHON:  Tony.

BLANKLEY:  I‘m sorry.

MCMAHON:  . he was elected unanimously by the DNC.  He was elected unanimously.

BLANKLEY:  Did Nancy Pelosi oppose him?

MCMAHON:  He was—no. 

BLANKLEY:  Of course she opposed him.

MCMAHON:  Everybody dropped out because they couldn‘t beat him. 

BLANKLEY:  Oh, at the end.  I‘m saying at the beginning of the race, they had Tim Roemer and other people they were putting up, and Marty Frost.

MCMAHON:  Nobody could beat him.

BLANKLEY:  . your friend, were up there as nominees.  And then Howard Dean was beating them out in the provinces.  And so they finally had to capitulate.  Now they have got a guy who is making the kind of statements that Biden is saying he is not a spokesman for the party.  He is just going to be running mechanics.  But he is a spokesman, and that‘s the problem. 

MCMAHON:  This is what Republicans do, they mischaracterize what people say.  What Howard Dean said is if women end up with fewer rights than they had under Saddam Hussein, then what the hell were we doing there?  That‘s what he said.  And by the way, first we were there for weapons of mass destruction, that turned out not to be true. 

Although now the terrorists apparently have their own little factory there that they‘ve put in since we‘ve been there.  And then we‘re freeing the Iraqi people, and now 50 percent of the women, as reported by The Houston Chronicle and The New York Times, are going to have fewer rights than they did under Saddam Hussein.  Go to Iraq and tell those women that they‘re better off. 

O‘DONNELL:  Tony, why doesn‘t this signal some sort of problem?  And I mean, generally speaking about Iraq, we saw—we have seen senior administration officials say that they are lowering expectations for what can be achieved in Iraq.  They won‘t be a full-blown democracy.  That the oil will not pay for the war or—and the economy will not recover to the way it was predicted. 

BLANKLEY:  Well, first of all, the president hasn‘t said that, it‘s the people on background have said that.  And The New York Times has written a story very weak on substance that carries that theme. 

I‘m just going to go back to the last point.  Because this—Howard Dean continually makes statements that require his spokesmen and the party spokesmen to explain and backpedal and defend and point in other directions.  That‘s exactly what you don‘t want out of a party chairman.  And that‘s what they‘re getting out of Howard Dean.  That‘s why Nancy Pelosi opposed him. 

So they‘re going to have him blowing off these statements regularly.  I think he is a wonderful guy.  I debated him twice during the election season.  He is fun to debate with.  But I think he‘s terrible to be a spokesman for a party.

MCMAHON:  It is better to have people who don‘t tell the truth, which is what this White House does repeatedly and systematically and expects everybody just to go along, because after all, they said it. 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, there is a raging debate certainly within the Democratic Party, whether Hillary Clinton or Howard Dean, about how and if to move forward in Iraq now that Senator Russ Feingold has said he wants a timetable.  There is certainly going to be more debate within the Democratic Party.  And today we‘ve learned there are lots of Republicans who are concerned too about the way the president is moving forward.  So I‘m sure this will be a debate in the fall.  Thank you both for joining us, Tony Blankley and Steve McMahon.  

Up next, a new National Geographic Channel Documentary about the events leading to 9/11 and the horror and heroism witnessed on that day.  It is airing coming Sunday, one featured in the documentary is former CIA terrorism analyst Michael Scheuer, we‘ll talk to him in a moment. 

This is HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back.  We‘re coming up on the four-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  And there is new information that they could have been prevented.  An upcoming four-hour miniseries on the National Geographic Channel takes an in-depth look.  And in this excerpt, we hear the voice of lead hijacker Mohammed Atta talking to passengers aboard American Airlines Flight 11. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MOHAMMED ATTA, 9/11 HIJACKER:  Nobody move.  Everything will be OK. 

If you try to make any move, you‘ll endanger yourself and the airplane. 

Just stay quiet. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  That is very spooky.  Michael Scheuer left the CIA in 2004 after 22 years with the agency.  He was the CIA‘s man in charge of tracking Osama bin Laden and what he was up to.  And he warned the CIA director that our country faced an imminent threat from Osama bin Laden. 

Michael, what can you tell us about these newly declassified memos from July and August of 1996, that the Clinton State Department knew that Osama bin Laden had the wherewithal to attack the United States? 

MICHAEL SCHEUER, FORMER CIA TERRORISM ANALYST:  Well, it was very much common knowledge across the intelligence community that if—once Osama bin Laden moved from Sudan to Afghanistan, that he would be much freer to operate.  There was no government in Afghanistan, it was a free range sort of territory. 

From the CIA‘s perspective, it was the best possible place for him to go because we could operate there more freely.  And we thought for sure we would be able to provide the government with chances to capture or kill him.  As it turned. 

O‘DONNELL:  But many people have made the impression that something in the Bush administration was done wrong.  But there‘s evidence that the Clinton administration knew full well that bin Laden had the wherewithal and was planning to attack the United States.  Who is to blame and did the president, Clinton, get this information? 

SCHEUER:  Certainly the president got the information.  And most certainly his closest adviser, Sandy Berger and Mr. Clarke—Richard Clarke, had the information from 1996 forward that bin Laden intended to attack the United States.  There‘s no question of that.  And in terms of which administration had more chances, Mr. Clinton‘s administration had far more chances to kill Osama bin Laden than Mr. Bush has until this day. 

O‘DONNELL:  That‘s very interesting.  I don‘t think that many Americans know that or think that everything that they‘ve heard—you‘ve spent your life tracking Osama bin Laden.  From what we know now and what you know, how many missed opportunities were there to prevent the 9/11 attacks? 

SCHEUER:  Well, we had—the question of whether or not we could have prevented the attacks is one you could debate forever.  But we had at least eight to 10 chances to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in 1998 and 1999.  And the government on all occasions decided that the information was not good enough to act. 

O‘DONNELL:  What—who then is to blame?  I think the American people want to know, then, who then is to blame for this? 

SCHEUER:  It can only be the policy-makers and the elected officials.  The CIA provides the intelligence, the actual decision to act using military force or using.

O‘DONNELL:  So what you‘re saying is that when you ran the bin Laden desk, you knew where bin Laden was.  You knew that bin Laden was trying to attack the United States.  You knew that bin Laden had the wherewithal and that the policy-makers in the Clinton administration and then the Bush administration did not heed your warnings? 

SCHEUER:  Not my warnings.  I hate to make myself the center of anything, ma‘am.  But the intelligence community as a whole had warned the administration repeatedly.  And I think there‘s no lack of record of that.  It just—the 9/11 Commission failed to find anyone responsible for anything.  The CIA can‘t order an attack.  Only the National Security Council and the president can order an attack. 

O‘DONNELL:  Let me ask you what you know about what we‘ve read recently about a secret military operation known as Able Danger.  There are people involved in that that say that the United States knew about Mohammed Atta a year before the 9/11 attacks.  Is that true?  And was there a massive failure by our government? 

SCHEUER:  I don‘t know firsthand information about Able Danger, ma‘am, but from what I‘ve read in the media, that the lawyers prevented them from passing the information to the FBI, that certainly rings true.  The U.S.  intelligence community is palsied by lawyers. 

When we were going to capture Osama bin Laden, for example, the lawyers were more concerned with bin Laden‘s safety and his comfort than they were with the officers charged with capturing him.  We had to build an ergonomically designed chair to put him in, special comfort in terms of how he was shackled into the chair.  They even worried about what kind of tape to gag him with so it wouldn‘t irritate his beard.  The lawyers are the bane of the intelligence community. 

O‘DONNELL:  Let me ask you, because you spent 22 years tracking Osama bin Laden, he is still at large, we are fighting an insurgency in Iraq where there are allies of Osama bin Laden, what threat do you think bin Laden poses to the United States now? 

SCHEUER:  Well, at first—I only tracked him for the last 10 years, ma‘am.  I tracked him for as long as the U.S. government has been tracking him.  He‘s an existential threat, as they say, to the United States.  He can detonate probably a weapon of mass destruction inside of the United States, be it a suitcase nuclear weapon or a chemical or  biological weapon.  And we‘ve done really very little to stop him from proceeding along that course. 

O‘DONNELL:  Do you think that he is in Afghanistan? 

SCHEUER:  I think he is along the border.  I think the general judgment that he is on the Pak-Afghan border hiding or at least living is very accurate.  He is very comfortable there.  He is protected by the tribes that live on the border.  And the one thing we would hate to say but it is perfectly true is that he is the most important leader and hero in the Muslim world today.  There are very few Muslims who would ever think of turning him over to the Americans. 

O‘DONNELL:  And, finally, the president has made the case that winning the war in Iraq is central to winning the war on terror and making sure that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda cannot take—harm the United States.  Is that true, if we win there, will that help? 

SCHEUER:  No, ma‘am.  The war in Iraq has broken the back of our counterterrorism effort.  I‘m not an expert on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, but the invasion of Iraq has made sure this war will last decades ahead and it has transferred bin Laden and al Qaeda from being man and an organization into being a philosophy and a movement.  We‘ve really made sure that the war against us is going to be a long and very bloody one.  Iraq was an absolutely disastrous decision. 

O‘DONNELL:  All right.  Well, thank you, Michael Scheuer. “Inside 9/11” airs Sunday, August 21st, and Monday, August 22nd at 9:00 p.m.  Eastern time on the National Geographic Channel.  Join us again tomorrow night at 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.

Right now it‘s time for “COUNTDOWN WITH KEITH OLBERMANN” and the latest on the dramatic sentencing of the BTK killer—Keith.

END

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