updated 10/19/2005 10:52:19 AM ET 2005-10-19T14:52:19

Guests: David Gergen, Jim VandeHei, Howard Fineman, Stephen Hayes

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  White House jitters—the special prosecutor in the CIA leak case could act tomorrow or not until next week.  He could indict or not indict. 

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews. 

Franklin Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” 

Tonight in the West Wing of the Bush White House, that‘s not exactly true. 

The fear—and it is real—is that Patrick Fitzgerald and his U.S.  Attorneys Office will identify federal felonies in the conduct of the White House staff, laws that were broken in an effort to punish a critic of the WMD case for the Iraq war. 

The questions are these:  Did the fierce battle of leaks between elements of the Central Intelligence Agency who opposed going to war in Iraq and the hawks in the vice president‘s office escalate to actual law breaking?  Did the vice president in an effort to defend himself from an onslaught of charges by Joseph Wilson urge his staff to silence the former ambassador?  Did Cheney, through anger or loss of temper, create a climate for political hardball and worse?  Did he stoke his staff in the late spring and early summer of 2003 to such a level of ferocity that some of its members crossed the line into illegality?  And will Patrick Fitzgerald determine that in doing so, he crossed that dire line himself? 

Let‘s get the latest now from HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster—

David? 

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Chris, colleagues of prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald say his investigation has reached a critical stage.  Defense attorneys take that to mean that the grand jury could reach a decision at any time. 

Meanwhile, fears are growing among Bush administration supporters that prosecutors may have a star White House witness. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER (voice-over):  As prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald prepares for upcoming grand jury sessions and decisions on whether to seek indictments, defense lawyers say they now believe there is a White House insider or formal official who has been helping the investigation for months. 

This view is based, the lawyers say, on information grand jury witnesses heard about the actions of Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.  Well before reporters Matt Cooper and Judy Miller testified, White House officials leaked information about an administration critic.

The lawyers supporting the White House also point to a sealed legal brief Fitzgerald submitted to the courts more than a year ago that prompted judges to refer to the gravity of the case. 

SOL WISENBERG, FMR. DEP. IND. COUNSEL:  I can assure you there are quite a few things that we think we know that we don‘t know, and that there are a lot of things the grand jury is looking at that we don‘t have the foggiest idea about. 

SHUSTER:  According to several news accounts, the grand jury is looking at the office of Vice President Cheney. 

And while the public attention has been on Cheney‘s chief of staff Scooter Libby, other Cheney staffers are believed to have testified, including Mary Matalin, John Hannah, Cathy Martin and David Wurmser. 

Giving testimony does not mean anybody has done anything wrong. 

The vice president and the CIA clashed over pre-Iraqi war intelligence and it was the vice president‘s request for more information about Saddam Hussein‘s nuclear ambitions...

RICHARD B. CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  One of the questions I asked at that particular time about this, I said, what do we know about this.  They take the question. 

SHUSTER:  ... that led the CIA to send Joe Wilson on a mission to Africa, and that trip was the basis eight months later for Wilson‘s criticisms of Cheney and the administration. 

Prosecutors have pressed administration witnesses on whether there was an orchestrated campaign to undermine Wilson and whether that involved White House meetings of the so-called Iraq Group, which was responsible for selling the administration‘s reasons for war. 

MATT COOPER, “TIME” MAGAZINE:  I testified openly and honestly. 

SHUSTER:  When “Time” magazine reporter Matt Cooper appeared at the grand jury, he testified not only that Karl Rove was his source, but that Rove indicated some of the information about Wilson‘s trip and wife would soon be declassified. 

How did the president‘s top adviser hear that and who did he discuss it with? 

It was an issue for the grand jury, lawyers say, when Rove testified last week. 

WISENBERG:  This prosecutor has kept a very tight lid on the grand jury, as he should.  And so what we know is coming from people who are appearing before the grand jury or their lawyers, and so you definitely get a distorted view. 

SHUSTER:  When a U.S. attorney like Patrick Fitzgerald is ready to indict, the prosecutor will head to the grand jury with the charges, review the evidence with the panel and then explain the relevant laws and statutes. 

After a discussion, the prosecutor will ask the grand jury through a simple vote to indict. 

At the D.C. federal courthouse, if the panel agrees with the prosecutor—and they usually do—the panel will move from the third floor grand jury room to a magistrate‘s courtroom on the first floor.  There, in public, the indictment charges will be read and then filed with the clerk. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  The grand jury is scheduled to meet tomorrow and Friday, as well as next week. 

Lawyers across town are bracing not only for the possibility of indictments, but also for the potential that every grand jury investigation brings, and that is evidence or allegations that catches the public by surprise—Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, David, one thing we don‘t want to do here on HARDBALL is catch the public by surprise, and also be fair at the same time. 

So we are sort of between a very difficult situation, what could be a powerful set of indictments that could go all the way to the top practically.  And also the fact we don‘t actually have it nailed down, because we don‘t know whether the prosecutor has it nailed down, and that isn‘t enough because it‘s so hard to penetrate this leak-proof prosecutor‘s office. 

But let me ask you this:  In all the reporting in the last couple of days and hours, what is the basis for believing that the vice president himself is being looked at as a possible target of these indictments? 

SHUSTER:  Well, the reason people are pointing to the vice president, Chris, is because when you talk about this Iraq group, when you talk about the people who were involved in making the case for war, who were out there before the war suggesting that Saddam was looking for nuclear weapons, and then defending the administration‘s justification after the war had started, you‘re talking not only about Scooter Libby, Karl Rove, but also Vice President Cheney and others on the staff. 

So by necessity, the prosecutors who one presumes are looking at everybody who was part of this Iraq group, and simply for their due diligence are going to try to find out, OK, when the decision was made to somehow try to discredit Joe Wilson, what exactly did Scooter Libby tell his boss, the vice president, what did the vice president tell him and then concurrently did anybody take any steps as a result of that, that broke the law? 

Nobody is suggesting that the vice president in trying to defend himself broke the law; what the prosecutors are doing is making sure that they dot every I and cross every T, and that they reconstruct as many of these conversations within the White House as they possibly can. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, David. 

David Shuster.

Let‘s go right now to MSNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent Norah O‘Donnell. 

Norah, it‘s a very tricky time, as I said, because we‘re right between what could be an explosive set of indictments but we don‘t know what they‘ll be or if they‘ll be.  So we‘re trying to prepare the audience that watches this program—I‘m certainly trying to do it—for what might be up and what the indications are is increasingly likely what might be up, which is a set of indictments. 

What‘s the reaction of the White House right now to this impending doom, you might call it? 

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  Well, first, we can report that what we‘re hearing is that it is unlikely at this point that Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald would come down with indictments this week.  So there is a note about timing. 

As far as the White House is concerned, is there increasing nervousness inside the White House?  Of course there is. 

You know, White House staffers are being told to keep their head down, don‘t talk about this with people outside, because of course everyone is looking at the White House to trip up and make mistakes.

We have seen the president‘s press secretary, Scott McClellan, be increasingly combative with the press. 

We have seen Karl Rove, who may or may not be a focus of this investigation, cancel three different fund raisers and events in the past week, having even the vice president‘s wife fill in on one of those and Ken Mehlman, the head of the RNC, fill in for him on other occasions. 

So there is a sense of concern inside the White House and clearly, because Karl Rove is the connective tissue, if you will, Bush‘s brain that holds a lot of the White House together. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, what about Scott McClellan? 

I mean, he comes out and makes statements like—two years ago he made the statement when he was fresh on the job, I believe, There was no White House involvement because I asked everybody in this leak. 

And now he is confronted with report after report that there was clearly involvement; it‘s a question of whether it was criminal or not. 

How can he come out day after day like a figure on a Schwarzworld (ph) clock and just come out and make these chirpings, these announcements that turn out not to be true and then continue to do the job?  Don‘t they just laugh at him down there? 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, he is the president‘s spokesman and he is the president‘s press secretary.  And you having been a press secretary yourself, Chris, you know sometimes what that involves.

And clearly, he was inaccurate two years ago when he said that Karl Rove and Libby had nothing to do with this, and he announced that to reporters. 

He has become increasingly aggressive and combative with reporters. 

You know, I took something very interesting from an interview that White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card did recently with C-SPAN and Brian Lamb.  And while he did not specifically mention the CIA leak investigation, Brian Lamb asked him, What are your pet beefs about people and the way they interact in a place like the White House? 

And Card said, “I encourage candor and forthright responses to questions.  But more important than anything else is honesty and ethics.” 

And also at another point during that interview, he said that the president—if the president is not comfortable with how he is being served by his staffers, he should say good bye to his staffers. 

It‘s just interesting to hear from the White House chief of staff Andrew Card, who clearly has to keep the White House running at a time when it‘s become, in many people‘s minds, the focus of this investigation.

Friends, including Karen Hughes, who‘s been over to White House, say, Listen, this not affecting business as usual at the White House, but some suggest that the White House is under siege.  Some Republican strategists say that, of course, Karl Rove has been distracted and that has hurt on a number of different policy issues. 

MATTHEWS:  Do we know whether the president would take charge if there are indictments, and remove people from office quickly and summarily to gain, to recontrol of the situation at the White House rather than let them leave at their leisure or takes leaves of absences or that sort of thing?  Do we have any indication that Andy Card and the president will bring in new people and he will assert his leadership in the White House and clean the air? 

O‘DONNELL:  I think it‘s a huge question.  The president had originally indicated that he would fire or remove anyone from the White House who would be involved in leaking the name of a covert CIA operative.  He was asked just yesterday, again, that question what he would do with his staffer, and he declined to answer, a sign that he doesn‘t want to talk about this investigation. 

There has been some reporting that Karl Rove or Scooter Libby would step aside if indicted so that they could fight these charges vigorously.  But then Rove‘s lawyer said yesterday that that‘s not true that he would do that.  So it‘s not clear. 

But I think if you talk to any lawyer or anybody involved in Washington politics, if some senior White House staffer were indicted, it would be very difficult for them to stay on the staff.  I would think that the president would try and remove himself from the immediacy of that decision, or that staffer wouldn‘t even make the president make that decision. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much, Norah O‘Donnell, chief Washington correspondent for MSNBC. 

When we return, two former insiders from previous White Houses on what this Bush White House is facing right now tonight.  David Gergen and Pat Buchanan will be here to talk about the White House jitters.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  With the CIA leak probe front and center now in the White House, dealing with the major distraction as they conduct—they deal with major distraction that they conduct the war right now in Iraq, deal with the clean up of Katrina still, and push to have Harriet Miers confirmed at the Supreme Court. 

And what about President Bush‘s approval rating, the lowest of his presidency now at 39 percent, according to the latest Gallup poll?  It‘s lower than even—it‘s as low as the one we had on last week from the NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll.

Let‘s go now to two insiders who are used to this kind of situation.  Pat Buchanan, of course, work for Nixon.  David Gergen worked for Nixon, but David Gergen also worked for three other presidents.  Pat also worked for how many others?

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Two others.

MATTHEWS:  Two others, so these guys are the pros on the beat here.  David Gergen, it‘s a leak story and the question is, was the vice president involved?  That seems to be the frenzy down here in all the reporter.

Tom DeFrank, one hell of a reporter at “The New York Daily News” is talking about it today in some detail that somebody is talking in the White House, somebody has turned against the administration and is testifying apparently against them and the vice president himself is now being looked at. 

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE ADVISER:  Brings back a lot of memories.  We have been down this road many times before.  But I have to say in this case, Pat and I have both known Dick Cheney for a long time.  I‘ve known him for 30 years.  It‘s unimaginable to me that Dick Cheney would be involved personally in violations of the law. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, what do you mean by that exactly? 

GERGEN:  Well, I just don‘t think he—I think, you know, Dick Cheney plays hardball.  There‘s no question about that.  He‘s very conservative and he has extraordinarily powerful views on the war in Iraq.  He thought there was evidence and I‘m sure he wanted to squelch any dissent from Joe Wilson.  I‘m sure that he agreed with the efforts to try to point out that Joe Wilson was not exactly on the team, so to speak. 

But even having said all that, Chris, I think that Dick Cheney—the Dick Cheney I have known for 30 years has always stopped well short of the line of illegal or immoral activities.  That‘s just not part of who he is. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I guess they are talking about—and this is what is very ticklish here, for people who have worked in politics that have been involved with hardball politics, is that the charge here seems to be kind of a grand conspiracy charge that would incriminate the vice president for being in a room and, say, blowing off some steam and saying one of those things like, will somebody please deal with this jerk who keeps talking about me being involved with knowing there was no deal with Niger and Iraq on weapons of mass destruction? 

Would someone—you guys, Scooter, you know, will you please take care of this guy?  If that could be criminal behavior, I guess a lot of politicians would be in trouble. 

GERGEN:  I think half of Washington would be in jail.  You know, that‘s not a criminal offense.  You know, it‘s conceivable.  Worst case scenario would be that the vice president would be named as an unindicted co-conspirator.  But I don‘t think we see any evidence of that. 

You know, had we had an aggressive vice president?  Was he pushing the hell out of the CIA?  Absolutely.  But, again, I don‘t see any evidence so far.  Let‘s wait and see.  We have to be patient here.  I don‘t see any evidence so far that Dick Cheney has come close to breaking any law. 

MATTHEWS:  But I would like to put a counterproposal here.  Suppose the vice president heard, and everybody in Washington knew it, that Joe Wilson—although the mission itself to Niger may have been triggered by his inquiry, the vice president‘s inquiry, the trip was basically put together by Mrs. Wilson and her husband was the—she suggested him as the guy to be the mission. 

The vice president gets wind of this like everybody else in the city, and says what?  I‘m getting blamed for some mission to Africa that‘s basically a boondoggle that somebody cooked up for their husband.  Would you please get the story out that his wife sent him on this trip?  Is that illegal? 

BUCHANAN:  No, here‘s the thing.  Chris, as David said, look, impeaching witnesses is what is done in politics.  It‘s what is done on HARDBALL.  It‘s what done in a courtroom.  There‘s nothing wrong with it.  You make your case, you impeach the other case.  I can see the vice president saying, look, this clown is out there saying I sent him to Niger. 

I had nothing to do with it.  Clear it up.  But I cannot—I agree with David.  I cannot see a man who is as smart and savvy and, frankly, someone who does not get involved in detail of this kind of working with the press like Dick Cheney really doing something illegal or criminal.  I just can‘t see it. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, no.  Well, let‘s stipulate as they say in the courts, that he never knowingly broke the law.  That is a damn reasonable assumption.  But suppose—and this is what it‘s all about, this flurry of press coverage.  Suppose he said to his chief of staff, Scooter, this guy‘s wife sent him on the trip.  How come I‘m not reading that in the newspapers?  How come I‘m getting—would you make sure that gets in the newspapers? 

BUCHANAN:  Well, look.  Look, if Cheney said—they said, look, his wife is an analyst over at the CIA and she‘s the one that‘s saying the CIA did this and he says look, get out the truth that we didn‘t do it.  Those jerks at the CIA sent a Clintonite on this trip and gave him the ability to hurt the president.  There‘s nothing wrong with that.

MATTHEWS:  And by the way, he testified in believing bad motives, David, because for weeks, as we all remember—I remember vividly that fight that was going on in the summer, right after we went into Iraq and we couldn‘t find WMD.  There was a ferocious fight battle in the media here in Washington, especially in the Washington Post with the CIA elements in the belly of the beast and the CIA constantly leaking negative information about the vice president‘s office and his involvement in sending us into a war without evidence.

The vice president goes and plays defense.  And now there is a case being made that that defense itself was indeed criminal.

GERGEN:  Well, I think we all know that, long before we had a war in Iraq, we had a war between Cheney‘s office and the CIA because they were just on different sides and the vice president was seeing—you know, he saw evidence, as he interpreted it. 

He thought the CIA wasn‘t doing its job—the DIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, was bringing tougher information. 

And he was pushing the agency really hard.  And there was a lot of resentment among analysts at the agency. 

BUCHANAN:  There‘s two stories here, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think Judy Miller was writing stories on the front page of the New York Times on Sunday which then, of course, became the platform of discussion on the Sunday talk shows, saying there were weapons of mass destruction. 

So, it wasn‘t just one side that was leaking it. 

BUCHANAN:  Chris, you are right on it right there.  The success here 

and Mr. Gergen and Buchanan were never able to achieve it—the folks in Cheney‘s office and the White House turned the New York Times, the newspaper of record in this country into a propaganda organ for the war party. 

Secondly, why did Wilson go to Niger? 

Somebody forged some documents which were given then to the president.  And he was saying nuclear weapons, nukes in Iraq.  Somebody forged them to get this country into a war. 

Who forged those documents? 

MATTHEWS:  But weren‘t those documents disseminated out of Italy? 

BUCHANAN:  They were, yes, but who forged them, Chris? 

Somebody made those up.  Some intelligence service or some brilliant individual...

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  They were too badly forged for Mossad to have done it, you know.  They do better work than that. 

But why has the FBI been unable to tell us who provided this information that was designed to bring the United States into the Middle East and war in Iraq? 

MATTHEWS:  You‘re suggesting motive here.  What‘s the motive? 

BUCHANAN:  The motive is to get the United States into a war.

MATTHEWS:  Who had that motive? 

BUCHANAN:  There are a number of people:  the Iranians did.  The Israelis did.  The neocons did.  Certain agencies in D.C. did. 

Others say they were do badly drafted, the French may have done it so that they would explode in the Americans‘ face. 

MATTHEWS:  Why didn‘t the CIA spot the phoniness of these documents? 

BUCHANAN:  Some of them did.

MATTHEWS:  Why did they have to send somebody down to Niger to disprove them? 

BUCHANAN:  Well, I mean, you double check something like that.  But early on, understand, the State Department said:  These things don‘t look good to us. 

MATTHEWS:  But, David, there is no clarity in this argument.  The murkiness is here for this reason.  I watched this; we all watched this. 

So, the vice president raised an inquiry about some weapons perhaps bought or weapons material—yellow cake, uranium from Niger—Saddam Hussein.  Now, there‘s a good case he‘s building nuclear weapons. 

It turns out we don‘t know for sure that the vice president knew about the trip taken down to ascertain if that was true or not.  We really don‘t know.

We know that it was triggered by that inquiry by the vice president.  But we don‘t know the vice president knew that he had triggered it.  This is how weird it is.

Why doesn‘t the CIA call up the vice president and say, we‘re sending somebody down to check out your inquiry? 

And then, we don‘t even know that the CIA ever reported back to the vice president about this, about what they discovered.  So, it‘s so murky, David. 

GERGEN:  It‘s extraordinarily murky. 

But we all know from talking to friends at the CIA.  They felt like they were getting beat with a stick—you know, the analysts over there— trying to come up with evidence to support the case, you know, to kite the evidence, in effect. 

And that‘s why there was so much resentment and that‘s why there was this big struggle. 

But I do think, to go back to the basic question we are facing tonight, and that is:  What does the White House have to fear here? 

Of course, the immediate question is:  Is there somebody going to get indicted, a Karl Rove or a Scooter Libby or somebody else?

But the larger fear, I think, has to be that somehow Fitzgerald will make a case that there was in effect a criminal conspiracy to mislead the country in the lead-up to the war.  That, to me...

MATTHEWS:  Well, you know, every newspaper—

BUCHANAN:  I agree with you, but that‘s not a crime. 

MATTHEWS:  If he does prosecute, that will be the story around the world.  It will be a WMD story.  It will be a causus belli story. 

It won‘t just be a criminal case.  You‘re right, David.  Every newspaper in the world will report on this if there are indictments as questioning the president‘s veracity. 

BUCHANAN:  It is not a crime to make that case as long as you don‘t commit perjury or obstruction of justice. 

GERGEN:  Well, it is a question, Pat—I guess the question, to my way of thinking, is:  Fitzgerald—there‘s something strange about this case that none of us understands yet. 

And that is:  all this redacted material and the statements that have been made by Fitzgerald and then reporting to the court and that sort of thing.

There is something mysterious about this case that we‘re not going to understand until it‘s actually... 

MATTHEWS:  And that could be tomorrow morning.

We will be right back. 

David Gergen, I‘m sorry.

David Gergen, Pat Buchanan will be joining us back in a minute. 

You‘re watching “Hardball” on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to “Hardball”.  We‘re back with two former White House insiders, former presidential adviser, David Gergen—he worked for four presidents of both parties—and MSNBC‘s Pat Buchanan, who only worked for presidents of his former political party, the Republicans. 

Pat, are you a Republican now, or what?  Where do you stand?

BUCHANAN:  I‘m an independent conservative who votes Republican in Virginia. 

MATTHEWS:  Well said, for your purposes.  You‘re a classic, anyway, an independent conservative Virginian.

Let me ask you this.  The president than any of these staffers.  We‘ve all learned that, even when we‘ve been staffers. 

Does he have to take the axe and react quickly if there are indictments? 

BUCHANAN:  If there‘s indictments, anybody that‘s indicted should hand his resignation into the president immediately.  And If he doesn‘t, I think the president should ask for their resignation. 

And, of course, with due respect—I don‘t know what‘s going to happen, but if it‘s Rove, Rove‘s under him.  With Libby, I think he would hand in his resignation to...

MATTHEWS:  Wait a minute.  Everybody who works in the White House works for the president.  The vice president has no executive authority.

BUCHANAN:  Yes, but he‘s on the vice president‘s staff.  You‘re going to hand in that...

MATTHEWS:  That‘s a formality.

BUCHANAN:  The point is, he attends the 8:00 a.m.  I think both of them would have to resign. 

But the interesting question is:  suppose, as David said, which is a  possibility if we are talking conspiracy—if the vice president is somehow named an unindicted co-conspirator. 

MATTHEWS:  But there‘s no reason to name a vice president as unindicted because he is indictable.  So, why would they make him unindicted? 

BUCHANAN:  They just might name him.  I don‘t know.  But what would you do if the vice president of the United States were indicted in this, Chris? 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s where—David, let me just ask you your opinion.

Do you think it‘s right for a special counsel, special prosecutor, to issue statements that somebody is guilty but not back them up with indictments? 

Do you think that is proper use of the American judicial system, saying he is a bad guy, but I don‘t have the guts to indict him.  I don‘t have the stuff to indict him.  I think either indict or shut up.  That‘s my view, just my view. 

GERGEN:  Well, that‘s pretty clear-cut.  I tend to agree with you. 

But, Pat, wasn‘t Nixon an unindicted co-conspirator.

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  I know Agnew said—remember, “I will not resign if indicted, I will not resign if indicted,” and of course he did resign. 

But you‘re right—they took him over and they were going to indict him; he pled guilty in a federal court. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... a vice president.

BUCHANAN:  Yes, exactly.  Cheney does not have to resign. 

(CROSSTALK)

GERGEN:  I want to go back—I don‘t think we‘re anywhere close to this territory in this case. 

What I think is the worst-case scenario is whether people under the vice president may be pulled into some sort of conspiracy charge. 

I see no evidence here that Dick Cheney has got anything...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... once said, we‘ll have to wait and see on that one, David Gergen. 

Thank you, David Gergen.

I do think something hot is coming. 

Pat Buchanan, sir, thank you. 

Up next, inside the grand jury—will Patrick Fitzgerald issue indictments?  And if so, when might they come?  It could be any day now.

Andrea Mitchell might know something and also the “Washington Post,”‘s Jim VandeHei.  He‘s one of the hot guys covering this story.  He‘s been fighting with the White House press guy on this one.

We‘re going to talk more about the leak investigation and what could be coming to this administration very soon. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

The “Washington Post” reports today that Patrick Fitzgerald‘s investigation zeroed in on the vice president‘s office, and several of his former aides have been interviewed about the alleged campaign to discredit Joseph Wilson. 

The author of that piece, Jim VandeHei, is with us tonight.

And Andrea Mitchell is chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News. 

Thank you. 

Jim, thank you for joining us.

JIM VANDEHEI, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Good to be here.

MATTHEWS:  This is getting very heated, I wonder if it‘s getting illuminated. 

Do we know more right now than we knew a week ago about where Patrick Fitzgerald is headed? 

VANDEHEI:  I fee like the more I know, the less I actually know in this case. 

I mean, what we know are little fragments of information, little pieces of evidence based on those that are testifying or those that are lawyers in this case. 

What we don‘t know is that full portrait, and only Fitzgerald knows and only he knows what direction he is going in. 

Remember, a lot of this was focused on Vice President Cheney‘s office.  Very few people have been able to get behind that curtain and figure out what actually has gone on there, especially when it involves weapons of mass destruction. 

So who knows who he talked to or what he has found in this investigation. 

MATTHEWS:  Is the focus of the investigation now whether Cheney got so wound up himself that he wound up Scooter Libby and Libby did things that could now be called criminal? 

VANDEHEI:  There is no doubt that the vice president got wound up.  He was always intimately involved in making the case for war and then defending the administration against criticism that they had trumped evidence—hyped evidence to justify the war.  And that‘s part of his job, is to go out there and make sure and investigate these claims. 

So his initial inquiry about this transaction or alleged transaction in Niger actually inadvertently set off the Wilson trip to begin with.  And our reporting...

MATTHEWS:  Why did they make a point of denying that all those months?  Why did the Cheney folk make such an effort to deny that there was any connection between Cheney‘s inquiry and the trip to Africa? 

VANDEHEI:  Because they didn‘t—they did not actually ask the CIA to send Wilson...

(CROSSTALK)

VANDEHEI:  ... they made that inquiry and unbeknownst to the vice president, the CIA went and dispatched Wilson.  So it‘s conceivable they didn‘t know about it.  I don‘t think they knew about it until well after. 

And then once Wilson came back and they heard that he was stirring, talking to officials and talking to reporters about what he had allegedly found when he was in Niger, that‘s when the vice president‘s office re-engaged; that‘s when they started talking to the CIA again and trying to find out everything they could about that mission and then everything they could about Wilson himself. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, is it possible that Wilson was told that the inquiry was triggered by an inquiry by the vice president?  In other words, his trip to Africa was triggered by an inquiry by the vice president?  Was he ever told that? 

And we know now that that‘s the case, but was Wilson informed of that

but the vice president wasn‘t informed.  It‘s so wacky. 

VANDEHEI:  It is wacky.

It‘s really hard to tell, because Wilson, too—I mean, there has been questions about his credibility and his version of events, and there‘s been a lot raised about it. 

And if you look at the Senate intelligence report, it tells a much different tale than Wilson does in his book about the trip, what he found and the nature of the evidence that he accumulated. 

That‘s sort of a side note.

I still think we need to sort of step back and think what we do know is that the vice president‘s office was so intimately involved, at least in the side parts of this saga.  I mean, at every step it was the vice president‘s office dealing in weapons of mass destruction, defending weapons of mass destruction, asking the CIA about what actually happened on the Wilson trip. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You‘re in a competitive newspaper situation.  But pushing it to the “New York Times” and getting it in the “New York Times” that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, right? 

VANDEHEI:  Right. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I mean, that was a critical part of a lot of people who supported this war—regular people, journalists, et cetera, said, I don‘t like the idea of going to war, but if they‘ve got nuclear weapons, I guess we have to. 

And that was a successful trump card and it was a deal maker for a lot of people who supported the war, middle of the road people. 

Let me go to Andrea Mitchell and this odd communication from Scooter Libby, the chief of staff to the vice president, to a journalist who was covering him and covering him quite a bit during the months before the war and subsequent to our invasion of Iraq.

What do you make of the lingo used by—the code or whatever it is—used by Scooter Libby in his communication through his attorney to Judy Miller of the “New York Times,” this stuff about the aspens changing and growing in clusters and interconnected roots and all this stuff? 

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT:  I know he‘s a creative writer; I don‘t get it. 

I don‘t understand it.  I don‘t know if it were a code or if this is just a communication with someone who we considered a friend.  Certainly it  was a source and a government official/reporter relationship, but they clearly knew each other and had talked a lot about weapons of mass destruction and other stories.  I just don‘t understand it.

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of his statement through his attorney to her that if she is going to get out of jail, a little bit of guidance is in order; that if she is going to talk with his say so about breaking their confidentiality, he will release her but he expects that she‘ll say the same thing that the other people have said, as the attorney put it, that Scooter Libby never identified Valerie Plame by name and never mentioned that she was an undercover operative?

MITCHELL:  I‘m sure there can be a benign interpretation to that, but as her attorney, Bob Bennett, said to you, I believe, he wishes that that had not been said, that had not been written or suggested, because it could be interpreted as trying to influence a witness. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go back to Jim VandeHei about the vice president himself.  The reporting of the White House over the last five years, what is the working relationship between Cheney and his chief of staff?  What is their reputation with regard to press relations? 

VANDEHEI:  This is one of the most secretive vice presidents probably in the history, or at least in the modern history, of the presidency.  Libby, obviously, has a lot of contacts in town.  He has been around town and knows a lot of people, has been intimately involved in the weapons of mass destruction issue. 

But they sort of operate—they don‘t operate in the same orbit as, say—that we do as far as White House reporters and dealing with Bush and his group.  They are more focused on foreign policy.  Remember, I mean, this is the most powerful vice president in the history of the United States.  He is so intimately involved in everything that this president does and he‘s so central ... 

MATTHEWS:  Does Scooter Libby have pet reporters that he uses to push the WMD case for war, et cetera? 

VANDEHEI:  I think everybody.  I mean, everybody in this town has pet reporters, there‘s no doubt about it, people that feel comfortable with people, they have a relationship with, both personal and professional. 

MATTHEWS:  Does the vice president have a background? 

VANDEHEI:  Certainly. 

MATTHEWS:  Has he ever backgrounded you? 

VANDEHEI:  I have talked to a lot of people in this administration, on different aspects.  I don‘t—you know, if I have a background conversation it‘s on background with somebody.

MATTHEWS:  I‘m just trying to get this generically.  Is there—let me ask you this more carefully to both of you.  Does the vice president have a reputation for backgrounding certain reporters he likes to use?  Andrea. 

MITCHELL:  I don‘t know that to be the case, but what I think people need to focus on, is the overall background of what was going on back then.  This was a fight—an internal fight—between the CIA and Dick Cheney.  And you can‘t overstate the case of how brutal that fight over who had the right interpretation over Saddam‘s weapons was. 

And in that context, when Joe Wilson went on television with us and in interviews and said he had been dispatched by the vice president, you could understand why Dick Cheney and his people probably said no, we didn‘t send him.  We had nothing to do with that, because, you know,  whether Wilson was told or was simply inflating his own importance, he led people to believe, he said publicly, that he had been dispatched by the vice president. 

And that was clearly not the case by every bit of reporting that I have been able to do.  The vice president did not know that Joe Wilson had been sent.  And so when Wilson said that, that is what set into motion all of these other events because that‘s when the vice president and his staff, presumably, tried to put out the word.  Joe Wilson was not our envoy. 

MATTHEWS:  So, was this a case, Jim, of the vice president using the “New York Times” or attempting to use the “New York Times” to fight a fire with some people who were sending stuff to your paper making the case that there was real skepticism about the WMD case for war, and there was the vice president‘s office trying to feed the “New York Times” again and again and again with info that would back the case for war? 

VANDEHEI:  Well, it‘s certainly their job that they feel like this was the justification for going to war.  They believed in the intelligence.  They disagreed with the CIA.  They are out there making their case, there‘s no doubt about it.  I mean, as far as the case is concerned, now, is any of it illegal? 

Almost every single thing that we have come across, every shred of evidence, I can give you an innocuous explanation.  I can give you a criminal explanation and we don‘t know where Fitzgerald is going with this.  I do know that a lot of people in the case feel like in the next week, we are going to know.

And the fact that he is going to make the announcement in Washington suggests to a lot of people that we will probably see some sort of indictments but it‘s possible he folds up tent and says, hey, I didn‘t find anything.  I did a thorough investigation and see you. 

MATTHEWS:  And no vicious report attacking the vice president‘s office or anyone else.

VANDEHEI:  He doesn‘t have to.

MITCHELL:  He doesn‘t have to.

VANDEHEI:  He could send one over to Justice and it ends up secret.  We never know what happened, and this all remains one of the great Washington mysteries.

MATTHEWS:  You saw—go ahead.

MITCHELL:  And except that this really is a crisis for journalism.  Maybe it‘s inside baseball, but journalism has been laid bare and what people have seen is not very pleasant.  And the situation at the “New York Times,” all of the controversy over Judith Miller—there is going to be testimony tomorrow.  She is supposed to testify about whether or not there should be a shield for journalists.  These are not good times for journalists.

MATTHEWS:  Well, all we need are tougher editors.  Thank you very much Andrea Mitchell, and thank you Jim VandeHei. 

When we return, will there be indictments in the CIA leak case?  We are going to keep asking that question until we find out.  And, of course, we‘re going to have one our experts on “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman.  “Newsweek” has been all over this story, and “The Weekly Standard‘s” Stephen Hayes.  Stephen Hayes wrote a long, I think in many ways brilliant piece about this whole story.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Patrick Fitzgerald‘s investigation into who leaked the name of an undercover CIA operative to the press is winding down, and the big questions remains.  Will there be an indictment of somebody in the president‘s inner circle? 

“Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman and “The Weekly Standard‘s” Stephen Hayes have been following this investigation from the beginning.  Welcome to you both.  Howard, “Newsweek” has been on this baby from the beginning.  You and Mike and the rest of you have been right on top of this thing.  Are we getting close to some big noise on this? 

HOWARD FINEMAN, “NEWSWEEK”:  Well, I think we are and I think what the special prosecutor evidently is trying to decide is whether to go with a big theory of the case or stick to the smaller one.  Does he go for some big conspiracy charge?  That‘s what people are talking about around town.

Also, does he have somebody who has been cooperating for a long time under the surface, who has been guiding him, as may well be the case?  But does he go for the big one, the big conspiracy and say that this whole sales effort on the war had a criminal effort to it or does he stick more specifically to one or two people who may have leaked some classified information.  I think that‘s the decision he‘s trying to make, and he wants to go the grand jury now because you want to leave time.  The grand jury isn‘t over until the 28th

MATTHEWS:  In all decency, can he launch or indict on a grand conspiracy like they all got together in the vice president‘s office with Scooter, the chief of staff of the vice president, Karl Rove and a lot of other guys and they all sat together and they said let‘s nail this guy.  We don‘t like him, Joe Wilson.  Let‘s out his wife, prove that he was just on a junket, blah, blah, blah”—turns out to be criminal—without including the vice president? 

If it‘s a grand conspiracy hatched in the vice president‘s office, how does he even logically exclude the top guy? 

FINEMAN:  Well, he probably can‘t, which is why he is being very, very

careful here; in addition to which, you get a lot of great headlines if you

as a prosecutor—if you allege some huge conspiracy, a conspiracy so vast, but you don‘t get any convictions. 

And my sense of this guy is he is meticulous and he is careful.  Now, he is going to do due diligence on everything but not necessarily indict on everything.  That‘s my sense. 

I must say also, we are at the point of maximum bloviational (ph) freedom here...

MATTHEWS:  I agree, I agree.

FINEMAN:  Every story seems plausible, because if it‘s a conspiracy anybody could be involved. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... it‘s a set of infractions like the testimony of one or two of these players doesn‘t correspond to the previous testimony or testimony by somebody else—he can go for the charges of perjury, obstruction, whatever.  The president would still be able then to step back and say, “Look, I‘m sorry about these guys.  They should have been more honest in their testimony.  It really doesn‘t have much to do with my policy.”  The vice president can say the same thing.

There is a real difference among the kinds of results that could come out here. 

HAYES:  Well, I think you‘re right. 

And to go back to your previous question to Howard, you know, ultimately for him to bring indictments on this grand conspiracy in the way that you constructed it, that actually has to have happened. 

It‘s entirely unclear at this point that any of that ever took place, that there was any such meeting, that any of these people went to it.  And I think one could argue—and again, I agree with Howard and I don‘t think it can be said enough...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  What about Scooter‘s own testimony that he went to the vice president for advice on how to deal with the press inquiries?  He talked about the vice president playing a role and guiding him on how to behave here under his own testimony. 

HAYES:  I would say that that‘s his reported testimony. 

I think there is a lot we don‘t know.  I think a lot of the stuff that we‘re seeing reported may or may not be accurate.  It‘s a presumption that if leaked by lawyers... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll be back with Howard and Stephen. 

And a reminder, the political debate is ongoing on Hardblogger, our political blog Web site.

And you can download podcasts of HARDBALL.  Just go to our Web site hardball.msnbc.com. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with “Newsweek”‘s Howard Fineman and “The Weekly Standard”‘s Stephen Hayes.

Stephen, you wrote a wonderfully long piece about this, so I‘m going to ask you to be long headed and I‘ll give you two seconds to relax while he does that. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  No, no, no.

A lot of people are not political junkies and they‘re not following this case every day and (inaudible) what are they talking about? 

So if you had to write the deep—as Oliver Stone unfortunately used the phrase, deep history of this, what is this fight really about? 

Like, Watergate was really about Vietnam and the fight over national security and the fight over the left and the right. 

Is this really a rehashing of whether we should have gone to war?  Is that what this big fight is between, the CIA elements who say we shouldn‘t have had and the neoconservatives who say we got to keep fighting like this, we got to be forward leaning, we got to keep getting the bad guys?  Is that what this fight is about? 

HAYES:  Yes, I think it is, although I would append your initial description by saying neoconservatives and a lot of other people, including Democrats on the Hill, et cetera. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.

HAYES:  Yes, I think at bottom, that‘s what this is about.

And it‘s one of the reasons that people believed Joe Wilson or were so eager to tell his story, to retell his story when he first told it in May of 2003... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Why were people receptive to that? 

HAYES:  Because basically we went into Iraq.  People were expecting to find these stockpiles; we didn‘t find the stockpiles.  And people then started to say, well, gosh, were we misled?  Was this a mistake? 

I mean, there were plenty of other possibilities there, but of those two alternatives, which one is most plausible. 

MATTHEWS:  And the interesting—is it may have been a battle in the “New York Times” between the op-ed page editors, who may—one of them, Gail Collins (ph), who was opposed to the war, and puts this big piece up there of Joe Wilson, this huge big thing in a box, as opposed to the Judy Miller reporting, which says we have to go to war, they‘re coming to get us with nuclear, right? 

HAYES:  But the problem I think is...

(CROSSTALK)

HAYES:  ... is that we now know that most everything that Wilson said initially is wrong and demonstrably been shown to be wrong.  I mean, the Senate Intelligence Committee report, which came out in July of 2004, was a bipartisan report put together by a bipartisan staff. 

Every senator on the committee signed off on it and it said basically not only was Wilson not being truthful about the fact that his wife suggested him to go—he said that she had nothing to do with it—not only was he not being truthful that he knew the vice president had received his report...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And we still have no evidence he did—let‘s put it clear. 

We have no evidence the vice president was ever briefed on that trip. 

HAYES:  But most importantly, Wilson came back and said that he had debunked these forgeries when he took his trip in February 2002.  That was impossible.  The forgeries were not in the hands of the U.S. government until October of 2002. 

MATTHEWS:  But we still don‘t know whether he came back and debunked the argument of a WMD deal with Africa by Saddam Hussein.  We don‘t know clearly what he said in the circle ...

FINEMAN:  He didn‘t bunk it. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HAYES:  We do know that the CIA thought—no, what we do know, Chris, is that the CIA thought, the CIA analysts, unbalanced thought that his report of a meeting between the Iraqis and the prime minister of Niger—

Mayaki (ph), I believe is his name—actually lent credibility to the existing ...

MATTHEWS:  Because commercial relationships—when you only have one thing to sell, uranium, a commercial relationship looks like it has to do with uranium.

FINEMAN:  At this point, Joe Wilson is almost beside the point, because Joe Wilson is just one little sentence in a huge, long novel of war between these two factions that Steve is describing.  That was played out in the war, and it‘s going to be played out again, I think, in the courts as what happens to so many politic issues in our country. 

Fist we argue about them in politics and in an election, whether it‘s Watergate or Monicagate or the 2000 election.  Then we go over it one more time ...

MATTHEWS:  In court.

FINEMAN:  ... in court.  And this seems to be headed right in that direction and it‘s going to be up to a special prosecutor to untangle the threads that the Democrats didn‘t do and that the media didn‘t do. 

MATTHEWS:  And by the way, in the particulars, you‘re a great reporter and you‘re probably right in every regard.  But if there‘s an indictment of Scooter Libby, or particularly of Karl Rove, Joseph Wilson will be doing, you know, pinwheels in front of the West Wing.  It‘ll be like spiking the ball at a Pittsburgh Steelers game. 

FINEMAN:  But my point is, is if what he actually did or said in Africa isn‘t going to matter, ironically.

HAYES:  Well, I agree with that to a point.  I don‘t agree with that entirely because what Wilson said started it all of.

MATTHEWS:  We‘ve got to go.  You‘re great.  Thank you Stephen Hayes, Howard Fineman.  Join us again tomorrow at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern.  Right now it‘s time for “THE ABRAMS REPORT” with Dan.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

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