updated 11/2/2005 10:31:04 AM ET 2005-11-02T15:31:04

Guests: Trent Lott, Dick Durbin, Ken Mehlman, Norah O‘Donnell, Andrea Mitchell, Howard Fineman, Charlie Cook, Dana Milbank

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Well, that was the press conference of the Democratic Senate leadership. 

We saw Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader, and Dick Durbin, the number two man, the whip from Illinois, talking about the meeting they had today, the secret meeting they held in the United States Senate. 

It‘s a very rare occasion, but they called for it because they said they had been unable to begin a debate with the help of the majority, the Republican majority, over the WMD case for war, particularly in response to those indictments this past Friday of Scooter Libby, the national security adviser and chief of staff to the vice president.  He was, of course, indicted on the issue of involving his testimony and his statements to investigators with regard to the investigation of whether the White House or anyone in it leaked the identity of Valerie Wilson. 

Let‘s go to Mike Viqueira on Capitol Hill for an understanding of why the Democrats did what they did today, calling for a secret session, and how the Republicans responded—Mike? 

MIKE VIQUEIRA, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Chris, good afternoon. 

Yes, they took a page from the House Democrats‘ playbook and they used the procedures of the Senate to draw attention to a cause that has frustrated them for some time now. 

Remember back in April when the Senate Intelligence Committee completed what they call phase one of their investigation into Iraqi prewar intelligence and found that, yes, of course the intelligence was faulty.  They were supposed to embark on phase two, an investigation into whether that intelligence was misused or misinterpreted in any way. 

The indictment last Friday sort of brought things to a head for Democrats, and at about 2:30 this afternoon Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, took to the floor and invoked what‘s called Rule 21, where he called for a closed or a classified session of the Senate to discuss the issue. 

Well, my understanding of what went on during the course of those two hours that the Senate was closed was that there was no debate back and forth and that the classified portion was never actually evacuated.  In other words, the chamber was never swept by dogs for security or anything of that nature. 

But some discussions went on off the floor in private conversations, the upshot of which is that each side has agreed to appoint three senators, three Democrats, three Republicans, to have a look, an assessment of where the Senate is on this so-called phase two part of the investigation of the Senate Intelligence Committee.  They are to report back to the full Senate in about two weeks on November 14th—Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s the role, first of all, of the Libby, I should say, indictments? 

VIQUEIRA:  Well, I think the Democrats have been frustrated and the Libby indictments brought things to a head.  They want to know what is the implication of this indictment?  The language that said that this Official A, who everybody assumes to be Karl Rove, and Libby himself, misused the intelligence, or the implication was that they misused the intelligence to make the case for war. 

Democrats have been very frustrated that, that portion of the Senate investigation has not gone forward.  They used Senate procedure. 

And you heard Senator Reid say there—well, the question was, “Well, why didn‘t you tell Senator Frist you were going to do this?” 

And he said, “Because Senator Frist would use Senate procedures to quash my motion and we would not be standing here talking about it as we are right now.” 

MATTHEWS:  Well, we‘re certainly talking about it right now.

Thank you very much, NBC‘s Mike Viqueira. 

Ken Mehlman is the chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Ken, one of the reasons the Senate Democrats pushed for that odd secret session today was to try to expose the role of the vice president.  His chief of staff was just indicted on five counts, 30 years in prison, and at the heart of it was his dishonesty, his lying under oath. 

Should we know more about the vice president‘s role? 

KEN MEHLMAN, CHAIRMAN, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE:  Chris, what you saw today was the latest political stunt by the Democrats. 

It‘s unfortunate, but it‘s actually not surprising.  If you think about it, unfortunately too often since the beginning of this war on terror the Democrats‘ first response has been politics. 

Think about it. 

After the 9/11 attacks when it came to a Department of Homeland Security, they delayed for more than 100 days creating that department because they were worrying about the public employee unions. 

Then in ‘04, he was for it before he was against it.

I think one of the reasons the Democrats lost in ‘02, the Senate, and lost the presidential election in ‘04, was because the public saw people who politics was their first answer in this very serious war on terror.

They‘re making the same mistake today. 

MATTHEWS:  One of the things we learned in this long investigation regarding the CIA leak was the way in which the vice president‘s office, Scooter Libby, in particular, was able to use the press. 

He leaked to the “New York Times” the story that there were aluminum tubes; there was, in fact, a case for a nuclear weapons program by Saddam Hussein.

And then the three major figures in the administration, the vice president, secretaries of state and defense, went on Sunday television, all pointed to that story that had been planted there by Scooter Libby. 

Isn‘t it fair for the Democrats, who had to vote in the aftermath of that story in the fall of 2002 to give the president the right to use force, isn‘t it fair now to revisit that now that we know how that story was concocted? 

MEHLMAN:  Chris, I don‘t think it is.

And I don‘t think that‘s what I got out of the indictment. 

Pat Fitzgerald...

MATTHEWS:  You didn‘t learn that?

MEHLMAN:  Pat Fitzgerald at his press conference was very clear.  He said if you‘re for the war or if you‘re against the war, this has nothing to do with that issue. 

MATTHEWS:  No, the indictment.

But the information that came out during the trial—I never knew all that. 

MEHLMAN:  Well, this hasn‘t been a trial.

MATTHEWS:  Did you know all this? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... the indictment, the investigation. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Look, you can argue over the words, but one of the stories that struck me was the way in which we all learned about the WMD.  We learned it through the “New York Times,” and we find out now that it was the vice president‘s office that had fed the story to the “Times.”

Don‘t you think we ought to know how these things are done? 

MEHLMAN:  Look, I think the last administration, the French, the U.N., our intelligence, the CIA, you name it, all believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. 

MATTHEWS:  Nuclear. 

MEHLMAN:  They all believed that he had all kinds of programs. 

And the fact is that because of that and because of a lot of other reasons, we removed Saddam Hussein from power.

Even if it turns out he didn‘t have the stuff, it was the right thing to do because would we be safer if we had waited until he had refilled his canisters?  Would we be safer today?  I don‘t think we would. 

One of the things that every report that‘s investigated this has found is, they found that, in fact, Saddam Hussein was more dangerous than we thought, he was more effective in evading the sanctions than people thought. 

So I think we made the right decision. 

I think this is an attempt by the Democrats to have political football. 

As I said, they made a mistake when they did it before and they should stop doing it now. 

The American people want their leaders to respond to this war on terror with seriousness, not political stunts.

MATTHEWS:  Sure.

The “USA Today”/Gallup Poll just came out yesterday and said that Vice President Cheney—they‘re asked—the people were asked by the pollsters, Did Vice President Cheney—was he aware of Scooter Libby‘s actions in the leak matter?  And 55 percent say he was, only 29 percent say he wasn‘t. 

Doesn‘t he want to clear the air and show that he was not involved in this sort of underworld effort to sell the war and to bring down Joe Wilson? 

MEHLMAN:  Look, the fact is that I think the White House has responded to this investigation in a very admirable way. 

Scott McClellan, the vice president, Karl Rove and others, you know what they‘ve done?  They‘ve cooperated and they‘ve kept their mouths shut, unlike previous administrations. 

We‘re not going—people aren‘t going after the prosecutor, people aren‘t out there spinning their story.  What they‘re doing is they‘re complying, they‘re following the rules. 

Let‘s let this go forward.  That‘s the right approach and that‘s why what the Democrats are doing today is so outrageous. 

MATTHEWS:  Should the American people wait until there is an actual trial, if there is one, of Scooter Libby, and that could be a year from now before they know more about what happened? 

MEHLMAN:  I think the American people know a fair amount.

But I think that there‘s a reason that trials are conducted the way they are—with evidence, with proven innocent, with all of that stuff.  And the reason is because in an American system, it‘s not about what the polls show, it‘s about a system that gets to the facts and a system that presumes people being innocent until proven guilty. 

Let‘s let this investigation conclude.  Let‘s let this trial go forward, and then we can make sure we have all the facts. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about the political implications, because there are those in addition to the legal matters which you‘ve talked about. 

Let‘s take a look right now at what your predecessor said, Ed Gillespie said, when I asked him about this—the gravity of this charge that someone had released the names of an undercover agent. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Don‘t you think it‘s more serious than Watergate if you think about it?

ED GILLESPIE, FORMER RNC CHAIRMAN:  I think if the allegation is true, to reveal the identity of an undercover CIA operative is abhorrent and it should be a crime, and it is a crime.

MATTHEWS:  It‘d be worse than Watergate, wouldn‘t it?

GILLESPIE:  You know, I just—yes, I suppose in terms of the real-world implications of it.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

GILLESPIE:  It‘s not just politics. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  If you read the indictment put out by Mr. Fitzgerald, who we all respect, it has Scooter Libby leaking the information about Valerie Wilson to both Matt Cooper of TIME and to Judy Miller of The New York Times.

We‘ve got Karl Rove leaking it to Matt Cooper of TIME and also Bob Novak, the syndicated columnist.

So, the fact of leaking her role in the trip, the fact that she works at the CIA, while not at the heart of the indictment, is all now public record. 

Doesn‘t that raise this to the level that Ed Gillespie said it was? 

MEHLMAN:  I don‘t think it does.  First of all, I don‘t remember reading Karl Rove‘s name in the indictment.  But, the fact is—

MATTHEWS:  Just so we put this on the record. He‘s not official A?

MEHLMAN:  Well, I don‘t know who official A is, you don‘t know who official A is.

MATTHEWS:  OK, I just want to get that from you officially, now that he‘s not official A.

MEHLMAN:  I don‘t know.  I don‘t know the answer to that question. My point is, I think what you‘re doing is you‘re reading more into the indictment than Mr. Fitzgerald did.

He made that very clear at his press conference.  He said, if you think this is about the war in Iraq, for or against it, you‘re wrong. 

MATTHEWS:  But the questions—we learned a lot in this case.

Did you learn anything in this whole month of investigation?  Didn‘t you learn how stories were leaked?  Didn‘t you learn who was involved in leaking them? 

The questions of criminality of those are for Mr. Fitzgerald.  For the American public, they have to judge whether they think the national trust has been honored here by public officials. 

Remember when President Bush ran for president?  He said the standard shouldn‘t be just legality, it should be what the American people deserve. 

Isn‘t that a reasonable debate to have?

MEHLMAN:  I think it‘s a reasonable debate.  The question is, is it appropriate, what we‘re seeing today, which is a stunt to shut down the United States Senate and ignore the public.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think there ought to be a debate about the WMD case for war at any time?  Apparently the Intelligence Committee, which is a bipartisan committee, has made such a promise. 

I don‘t know if that‘s true, but the Democrats are contending that the promise was made to have a full-fledged debate on whether we into the war with accurate information or not.  Is that something the public ought to have, or is it too late for that?

MEHLMAN:  I think that the public having these kinds of discussions is fine. We had a debate before, we‘ve had a debate now, we had a debate in 1998, there was a debate at the United Nations, the French and other intelligence services all had debate. Do you know what they all said?  They all said he had WMD.

MATTHEWS:  But he didn‘t. 

MEHLMAN:  But, you know what? Would we be safer if we waited? 

MATTHEWS:  I know everybody agreed on that, but they‘re all wrong. 

It matters whether they all agreed, it matters whether they‘re all right or not. 

MEHLMAN:  But this isn‘t about political gotcha.  This is about the big question. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s about whether there was an honest case and an informed case for the war in Iraq. 

MEHLMAN:  There was an honest case and there was an informed case. 

MATTHEWS:  Was it informed?

MEHLMAN:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  Well if it was informed, how come there‘s no WMD there?

MEHLMAN:  Well, would we be safer? 

MATTHEWS:  Why do you change the subject? 

MEHLMAN:  WMD wasn‘t the only reason.  The fact is, would we be safer if we waited until he had it? 

In a world where 19 people can kill 3,000 Americans in 20 minutes with nothing but box cutters, does it make sense to allow a guy who‘s involved in terrorism, who invades his neighbors, who supports terrorists?  Is it smart to wait until he refills his canisters with WMD?

MATTHEWS:  Fair enough question.  That wasn‘t the accusation made before the White House.

MEHLMAN:  There might be a mushroom cloud as the warning shuck (ph).

Let me ask you about something you will like to talk about.  Yesterday, the Democratic party responded within minutes, or not the party I should say. 

Democrats responded within minutes to the nomination of Sam Alito by issuing a report that said that one of the things he has done wrong in his career was, he wasn‘t tough enough on the mob back in 1988 in a case involving a mob family in New Jersey. 

Do you think that‘s playing a little ethnic politics?  How would you size that up?  That they donned that as their No. 1 concern.

Here‘s what they said, some strong stuff. 

MEHLMAN:  I was pretty surprised to see that as the first thing they put out.  rMD+IN_rMDNM_I‘m not sure what the motivation was.  One thing I know, they don‘t want to talk about Sam Alito‘s credentials. They don‘t want to talk about all the good things they said about him. 

In 1990, he was unanimously approved.  His philosophy hasn‘t changed since 1990.  You know what‘s changed?  The Democrat party has changed.  The Democrat party that Tip O‘Neill was involved in and other folks were involved in, that‘s not the folks that are leading anymore. 

MATTHEWS:  How has it changed?

MEHLMAN:  I think it‘s changed because it‘s become a lot more radical.  It‘s a lot more responsive to the angriest left-wing folks, the move-on crowd and the others. I think that it‘s hard to imagine—remember, Justice Scalia was unanimously approved. 

MATTHEWS:  Would we be better off if you just told these pressure groups, the conservative pressure groups and the liberal pressure groups to stay out of Washington while you debate this thing?

I‘m going to ask you a question.  Would you be better off?  If you just told the Tony Perkinses and the Ralph Neases, the People for the American Way and the conservative groups to just leave town and let the senators who represent the people vote. 

I want to ask you that question bluntly. Would we be better off if we had them out of town? 

MEHLMAN:  I don‘t think we would.

MATTHEWS:  Why?

MEHLMAN:  Because I think that they represent millions of Americans on both sides. 

MATTHEWS:  So it‘s OK to have the left-wing and right-wing pressure groups battling it out.

MEHLMAN:  It‘s OK to have people...

MATTHEWS:  And using the Senate as their surrogates? 

MEHLMAN:  This is too important of an issue for people not to discuss and debate.

MATTHEWS:  So we‘re better off having these pressure groups involved in this fight? 

MEHLMAN:  We‘re better off with having the American people sometimes by their own voice, sometimes by the voice of others.

MATTHEWS:  So you can‘t really criticize the lefty pressure groups when you say we‘re better off having all the pressure groups fighting.

MEHLMAN:  I think it‘s fine to have people involved. 

What I think we can do is we can discern whether what they‘re saying makes sense or not, on both sides.

MATTHEWS:  So, it‘s OK for senators to be accosted by these left-wing and right-wing groups, these pro-choice and pro-life groups, right before they vote.

Told if you vote against our issue on this, if you try to have an open mind and vote independently on this, you‘re finished in the next election.  That‘s OK with you? 

MEHLMAN:  I think it‘s OK for anybody to say whatever they want to a senator.  The senator has to make a judgment and the voters have to answer that.

MATTHEWS:  I think that I was hearing you come out against these pressure groups.

MEHLMAN:  Well, I think these pressure groups—as I said, the public has to consider what they‘re saying in context.  But, do I think they shouldn‘t be in Washington? They don‘t have a right to free speech?  Absolutely not. 

MATTHEWS:  So, you like the way it‘s done right now? 

MEHLMAN:  Well, I think it‘s unfortunate that you have some of the folks doing what they‘re doing.  But, I think the result is what you‘re seeing from the Democrats.  You‘re seeing the twisting of a Ted Kennedy.  You‘re seeing a Harry Reid.

MATTHEWS:  Are Republicans better off, is the country better off for having Sam Alito as the nominee, rather than Harriet Miers?

Objectively, has this turned out well?

MEHLMAN:  I think Sam Alito is a good choice. 

MATTHEWS:  Better than Harriet Miers? 

MEHLMAN:  I think Harriet Miers was a very good choice.  I‘m not going to go there to compare the two,  I think they‘re both good choices.

MATTHEWS:  Because that‘s what I want you to do.

MEHLMAN: Of course you do, that‘s why you get paid the big bucks.

MATTHEWS:  But why don‘t you say what you believe?  That‘s all I‘m asking, because you know he‘s a better nominee.

MEHLMAN:  I have worked with her for a long time.

MATTHEWS:  Does he have a better chance of getting confirmed than she did? How about that one?

MEHLMAN:  I think he has an excellent chance. 

MATTHEWS:  Does he have a better chance than she would have had?

MEHLMAN:  Anybody that‘s been confirmed before has a good chance of being confirmed again. He was confirmed before, so the answer‘s yes.

MATTHEWS:  Unanimously.

MEHLMAN:  Twice.

MATTHEWS:  Ted Kennedy?  Last time.

Ken Mehlman, you‘re a gentleman. Thank you, it‘s great having you on.

You‘re a good sparring partner, even though sometimes you‘re wrong. 

Coming up, Senator Trent Lott, the former majority leader of the Republicans, on the Senate‘s closed sessions today and the increasing hostility between Republicans and Democrats about whether we‘ll get a real debate on the war or not. 

Plus, the latest on the CIA leak investigation with Vice President Cheney‘s former chief of staff set to be arraigned Thursday. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BILL FRIST ® MAJORITY LEADER:  Once again, it shows the emptiness of the other side of the aisle.  This is an affront to me, personally.  It‘s an affront to our leadership.  It‘s an affront to the United States of America, and it is wrong.  It‘s very important for the American people to hear it directly as it‘s unfolding. 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, is the former majority leader. 

Senator Lott, what do you think?  Are we getting back to a real debate over the WMD and how we got into this war?  Because Scooter Libby, the guy who was pushing the case effectively through the “New York Times”—in fact, he was the one, we learned, who planted the big story about nuclear aluminum tubes and all that, got it into the press, into the American bloodstream.  Now he‘s been indicted for perjury.  Is this not a cause to reexamine the case for war? 

SEN. TRENT LOTT ® MISSISSIPPI:  Quite frankly, when I learned that Senator Reid, without any kind of notice to Senator Frist, had moved for a secret session, I thought it might have something to do with the CIA leak investigation.  But when I got in the room, I found out it didn‘t have anything to do with that at all.  It was about phase two of the pre-war intelligence investigation that the Intelligence Committee has been and is still working on. 

Let me remind you, the Intelligence Committee did a very aggressive investigation, concluded that our intelligence was not reliable—in fact, was wrong in many instances—issued a stinging report which led to a reform of the overall Intelligence Committee (SIC).  This action today—you know, Chris, with your background on Congress, you know that there are certain things you don‘t do to each other.  Leaders, number one, don‘t surprise each other. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

LOTT:  You know, these closed, secret sessions are not, you know, done very much, but they are always done with notification.  They are agreed to, they‘re worked out.  We did it when we were getting ready to go to the impeachment trial.  We did it on Chemical Weapons Treaty, back a few years ago.  But for Senator Reid to go to the floor and move—as he can do, under the rules—that we go to secret session—if he gets one second, you have to have it, you have to do that—that‘s not the way to do business. 

Now, the Intelligence Committee has more work to do in this area, and we should do it.  Now let me just say, most of the work the Intelligence Committee does is not in public, because people‘s names, their covers, intelligence information could be disclosed.  But we do have more work to do here and we should do it. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think a lot of the Democratic senators were trying to reposition themselves because they voted to give the president authorization to use force three years ago? 

LOTT:  Oh, I think that‘s part of it perhaps.  They‘re a little uncomfortable with that.  They might say, well we based it on faulty information or faulty intelligence.  Hey, so did I. 

Now, the problem was, our intelligence community was not doing the right job.  Our human intelligence almost was nonexistent.  No, I think what happened here was that they kind of wanted to get the attention back away from Judge Alito being nominated to the court.  They wanted to try to do something to further arouse the discussion with regard to the Iraq war.  I think that that‘s a legitimate thing to try to do.  I just don‘t think this is the way to do it.  It‘s the kind of stunt that creates bad faith between the parties in the Senate, and it‘s already kind of, you know, testy right now. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, don‘t the minority always get forced into a situation of being somewhat ungentlemanly, like special orders that run through the night?  You remember your old House days. 

LOTT:  Oh, yeah. 

MATTHEWS:  Or the fact that Tom Daschle found himself debating Bill Frist in his own home state of South Dakota?  You know, the old gentlemanly rules you referring to of the days I worked up there, well, you didn‘t go into the other guy‘s state to try to knock him off.  Well, excuse me, but Senator Frist did that.  It‘s a tougher racket up there than it used to be. 

LOTT:  It is, and I think that‘s unfortunate.  I don‘t know how much further we have to go down into that valley.  We need to find a way to pull back and reinstate some of the old traditions and relationships.  When you really get nasty with each other and totally in a partisan mode—and look, I‘ve been partisan with the best of them.  I was in the minority in the House.  I was a part of the, you know, those long after-hour debates when I was the minority leader in the Senate.  I used the rules, but you can use the rules, but you play within certain guidelines. 

MATTHEWS:  On that, I have to ask you the toughest question. 

LOTT:  All right. 

MATTHEWS:  Is Karl Rove, the president‘s top political kick, who was pretty rough when he got rid of John McCain down in South Carolina, and pretty rough when they helped get rid of John Kerry—all hardball, not illegal—is he good for American politics?  Should he stay at the White House? 

LOTT:  Well, the question is—that you asked, is he good for American politics?  Look, he has been very successful, very effective in the political arena.  The question is, should he be the deputy chief of staff for policy under the current circumstances?  I don‘t know all that‘s going on, so I can‘t make that final conclusion.  But, you know, how many times has the top political person become also the top policy adviser?  Maybe you can make that transition, but it‘s a real challenge, and I think they have to—I do think they need to look at bringing in some more people, you know, old gray beards that have been around this town for a while, help them out a little bit at the White House. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think it‘s a little unseemly to have Svengali on the federal payroll? 

LOTT:  I don‘t know about on the federal payroll—

MATTHEWS:  It sounds like that‘s what you‘re saying.  I‘m trying to reconsider what you‘re saying, get you to say it more clearly.  Do you think he should go? 

LOTT:  Well, I didn‘t say that.  I mean, I said, you know, is he in the right position?  I mean, a lot of the political advisers—in fact, most presidents in recent years have a political adviser in the White House.  The question is, should they be, you know, making policy decisions.  That‘s the question you‘ve got to evaluate. 

MATTHEWS:  He is.  Anyway, thank you very much.  Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi. 

LOTT:  Okay.

MATTHEWS:  When we return, the second-highest Democrat in the Senate on why his party forced a closed session today.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)(

MATTHEWS:  Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois is the second-ranking Democrat in the U.S. Senate. 

Senator Durbin, narrate this for us, this rhubarb between the Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans.  Why did you need a special session today?

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D) ILLINOIS:  Because we‘ve been trying for over a year and a half to get Senator Roberts and the Senate Intelligence Committee to complete the investigation of a very, very important issue, and that was whether any member of the administration misused intelligence to mislead the American people into believing an invasion of Iraq was necessary. 

Now, on July 11 of 2004 on “Meet the Press,” Senator Roberts said the investigation is underway and it will be done very soon.  We‘ve been waiting a year and a half.  We did this today to make sure that we‘re going to have this investigation completed, that the American people will get this important information.

MATTHEWS:  What did you learn in the indictment of Scooter Libby, the National Security adviser to the vice president, last Friday?

DURBIN:  When did I learn of it?

MATTHEWS:  What did you learn of it?

DURBIN:  Well, I can say that there was clearly an effort within the White House to silence and discredit critics of this administration, specifically Ambassador Joe Wilson. 

The lengths they went to, who was involved, still remains to be seen.  But certainly the charges against Mr. Libby are very serious, and as I understand it, he is the highest ranking official in the White House to be indicted in over 100 years. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of the fact that he was charged with lying on many occasions, and he‘s the guy who made the case to the press that there were WMD of the nuclear type? 

He was the one that sold this case to the “New York Times” on background on September 8th of 2002, right before you senators voted. 

DURBIN:  Well, that‘s an important issue. 

And that‘s one that this investigation, which we‘re calling for, will be looking into—whether anyone from the highest levels of the White House through the staff misrepresented the situation in Iraq to mislead senators and congressmen and the American people into believing that an invasion was inevitable. 

MATTHEWS:  Does it bother you that the vice president was accused in the “National Journal” this week by a Mary Wass (ph) column, that the “National Journal” accused the vice president of holding back information subpoenaed by that committee, the Senate committee; that he never provided the information about the efforts by Mr. Libby himself to build up the case for war in a way that even Colin Powell would not use? 

DURBIN:  Well, let me tell you, it troubles me but it doesn‘t surprise me. 

Remember, this same vice president went all the way to the Supreme Court to protect the names of the special interest groups that he sat down with to write the energy bill that was considered by Congress. 

It‘s been a very secretive administration. 

Fortunately, because of Patrick Fitzgerald‘s efforts and now because of our efforts on the floor, there‘s going to be a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into whether there was a misuse of intelligence. 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s the purpose of a debate or an investigation or any kind of hearing on the Hill if the major Democrats in the country, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, John Kerry, continue to say that even if they did know, even if they were wrong about WMD, even if they knew everything they know today, they still would have given the president the authority to go to war? 

DURBIN:  I‘ll let them speak for themselves.

But I can tell you the American people, and certainly the ones I represent in Illinois, want to know the truth.  They want to know if any member of this administration distorted intelligence information, misled the American people. 

This is as fundamental as it gets in a democracy—whether or not the governed make an informed consent on important decisions like going to war, and we have to get to the bottom of this. 

MATTHEWS:  The latest poll out yesterday by Gallup said that most Americans, 56 percent believe the vice president knew exactly what his chief of staff was up to. 

Do you agree with that? 

DURBIN:  Well, I can tell you, if you rely on the indictment that was handed down against Mr. Libby, you‘ll know that on June 12, 2003, it was Vice President Cheney who informed Mr. Libby of this Valerie Plame status, that in fact she was a CIA operative. 

For reasons I can‘t explain, Libby went on to contact four or five different people and talk about this subject, and then when he got before the FBI and grand jury said he‘d never heard of it until he called Tim Russert in July. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

DURBIN:  I can‘t understand that. 

MATTHEWS:  Why don‘t you get the vice president up to the Hill—he‘s the president of the Senate—and ask him a few questions? 

DURBIN:  Well, I don‘t know that we have the power to do that, but certainly it would be an intriguing and very interesting interrogation. 

MATTHEWS:  That would be one special session of the United States Senate. 

Anyway, thank you very much, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, number two Democrat on the Hill. 

Coming up, inside the White House as the CIA leak investigation continues.

Plus, much more of the Democrats forcing a closed session at the Senate today.  It‘s been called a stunt.  Let‘s see if it accomplishes anything. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Andrea Mitchell is NBC‘s chief foreign affairs correspondent.  Howard Fineman is MSNBC contributor, of course, and he‘s also “Newsweek”‘s chief political correspondent.  And Charlie Cook knows everything about politics, he‘s founder and publisher of the “Cook Political Report.” 

We begin, however, with a serious substance. 

We‘ll get to the politics with Charlie. 

Andrea Mitchell, what did the Democratic minority accomplish by stopping the Senate today and holding a closed session? 

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT:  They basically forced Pat Roberts‘ hand. 

The chairman of the Intelligence Committee had been basically sitting on the long-promised second phase of the Senate Intelligence Committee‘s report on exactly what went wrong with the prewar intelligence. 

They had done the first phase, which was blaming the CIA, blaming all of the intelligence professionals.  That came out in July of ‘04.

But they had yet to do what was not desired by the Republicans before the re-election campaign, of course, what did the White House know and when did they know it?  What did Dick Cheney know and when did he know it?  All of that, the political hot potato. 

MATTHEWS:  You mean the stuff I like? 

(LAUGHTER)

MITCHELL:  The stuff you like, exactly.

They deliberately held it back because they didn‘t want you to have the satisfaction before the election campaign, Chris. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I care about the information. 

Let me ask you this. 

The first phase of the Intelligence Committee which was completed was the admission, which took no geniuses, that something went wrong; there wasn‘t the WMD there that got us there, right? 

(CROSSTALK)

MITCHELL:  Right. 

And it was unanimous. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... who did wrong, right, not just what was wrong, but who did wrong?  Is that a way of slicing it? 

MITCHELL:  No. 

The better way to slice it, Chris, if you will, is that the unanimous report from Democrats and Republicans on this committee tagged the intelligence professionals, but they didn‘t look at the executive branch.  They didn‘t look at the White House. 

MATTHEWS:  Scooter Libby. 

MITCHELL:  Well, all of the White House—exactly.  And possibly also some of the people working for the Pentagon, working for Don Rumsfeld. 

So now even though Pat Roberts claims that he tasked the staff to start turning to this a couple of days ago perhaps, perhaps hearing some rumblings and further complaints from Rockefeller, his Democratic counterpart.

But what Rockefeller and the Democrats have managed to do is not only get this huge political effect, you know, a really big bounce out of it, focus conveniently on the Libby embarrassment, if you will, and the continuing investigation...

MATTHEWS:  I think it‘s called an indictment.

(LAUGHTER)

MITCHELL:  Well, the indictment, yes.  But you know what I‘m saying. 

The fact that the White House is under investigation and that the Rove part of this is not yet closed down.  But, they‘ve also managed to force Pat Roberts to re-open this and they‘re going to have both sides looking at it. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s look at this hard, with a hard-nosed look, and I‘ll bring everybody else in on this. 

The news that‘s come out of this indictment, the five-count indictment of Scooter Libby, was a lot of paper, 22 pages, and a lot of information there about who talked to who at the press.

And, that‘s now on the record pretty much.  But also, we learned during the course of this, especially in the closing weeks, the way in which Scooter Libby, the chief of staff to the vice president, as national security advised him.

Put out information to the press very effectively right before the U.S. Senate voted to go to war, to allow the president to take us to war three years ago. 

Is there a legitimate case to be made by the minority Democrats that, hey, back when we voted to give the president the authority to go to war, we thought that certain things were true?

In other words, that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear potential, he was working on a nuclear weapons program.  Subsequently, we found out he did not, and more recently we‘ve discovered that the person who put out that story was a man who‘s now charged with lying under oath. 

MITCHELL:  I think that‘s disingenuous, because they are members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, they are members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

Aside from Joe Biden and Dick Lugar, how many of them really looked intensively at it?  I think that they didn‘t want to look under that rock because they didn‘t want to vote against a war at a time when we had been hit by 9/11. 

MATTHEWS:  A tougher assessment than my own.  Thank you Andrea, I think you‘re right.

Let me go to Howard on that.  That was a tough assessment, that they really didn‘t the whole truth they say they‘re wanting now. 

HOWARD FINEMAN, NEWSWEEK:  I think Andrea is absolutely right.  And what the Democrats are trying to do now, understandably...

MATTHEWS:  Is pretend?

FINEMAN:  Well, they‘re trying to climb down off a war that many of them, perhaps out of political fear, as Andrea is saying.

There was political fear that made them not want to have the hearings, to dig their heels in.  By the way, a lot of the media is at fault here, too. 

Let‘s face it.  We were still in the aftermath of 9/11, politically difficult vote in the spring of 2003. 

MATTHEWS:  It was like post-Pearl Harbor. 

FINEMAN:  This is not to excuse the White House in any way.  It‘s not. 

But, the Democrats now have the guts that they didn‘t have back then. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s get a street corner.

On the stump, are the Democrats still fearful?  I noticed that Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, John Kerry, who knows the most having gone through a presidential campaign, are still fearful it seems to me, or careful not to say they would change their votes even now.

CHARLIE COOK, NATIONAL JOURNAL:  Well, who wants to look like—what do you say? I was brainwashed like Romney back in 1968? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it‘s called an indictment for perjury.  You‘ve got something to hang your hat on at least. 

COOK:  The watchdogs were asleep.  They didn‘t want to check to see who was coming in the front door, who was coming in the window.  Absolutely.  And now they‘ve got to figure out, OK, we were either stupid or we were misled.

And they‘re starting to kind of move over towards the misled, but a lot of them aren‘t making that transition as quickly as others. 

MATTHEWS:  So why do they want this special session today?  This secret cave, we‘re going into the cave of dark. We‘re going to have flashlights in there.  What‘s all this spookiness about? 

FINEMAN:  I think there‘s a little narrower reason for that, in part.  Just because they don‘t want the president to change the topic.  Avian flu, tax reform, Sam Alito.  All the sundry items they threw out yesterday, Harry Reid said, uh-huh, baby, we‘re going back to the war. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘re staying in the butcher shop, we‘re not going to CBS.

We‘re going to stay on the topic we like the most. 

Andrea, back to you. 

MITCHELL:  And to the Libby indictment.  I think both Charlie and Howard are absolutely correct, and also, you know, Howard is correct that the media were basically asleep at the switch. 

We tried to look at it, but we weren‘t interactive.  We weren‘t on the ground.  We didn‘t have sources about WMD, our own sources.  And so we relied on the same bad intelligence officials that the White House claims they were relying on. 

Look, there‘s a lot of blame to go around. But, the bottom line is Howard and Charlie are right.  They were changing the subject.  No, you were right. 

MATTHEWS:  Andrea, don‘t put me in on that. 

(CROSSTALK)

Howard Fineman and Charlie Cook, they‘re all brilliant.  They were tougher than I was. 

Harder HARDBALL from Andrea than from me. She understood the Democrats are using crocodile tears here. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell, Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman and Charlie Cook of “The Cook Report.”

Andrea, you back again.  The thing that seems to be as a battle for topic, because in politics, you want the topic, and the topic wins for you. 

You want that topic.  The arguments are irrelevant, is what you‘re talking about, right? 

MITCHELL:  It‘s arguing for the playing field, for the field advantage.

And, in that, what you want to be talking about if you‘re a Democrat is Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney, WMD not found.   What the Republicans clearly want to be talking about is a new Supreme Court nominee and avian flu. 

MATTHEWS:  So the Democrats, Howard, want to sit around and smoke cigarettes and talk about how great the sex was.  But they want this thing to last and last and last, right? 

FINEMAN:  Look, yes, yes, yes.

MATTHEWS:  I think that‘s fair. 

FINEMAN:  Yes, it is fair.  It‘s the first time since the Grant administration that a high-ranking White House official has been indicted. 

That‘s a big deal.  It‘s right in Dick Cheney‘s shop, which is a big deal.  It turns out if you read the indictment, Dick Cheney‘s office was a hive of spin before, during and after the war.

Lies were told, fair enough, and the Democrats really were torn about the war to begin with.  This is a way for them to try to gain unity as a party, which is an important prelude to their taking whatever case they are going to make to the whole country.

MATTHEWS:  So, every time that Dick Cheney shows up with a headline for the next two weeks, they win.  Every time it‘s avian flu or one of the others sundry items, the president wins.

FINEMAN: Or even Sam Alito because that unifies the Republicans.

MATTHEWS:  Are the Democrats smart to know, Charlie, that shifting from Cheney to Alito, even though they‘re going to bash Alito, is not smart politics?

COOK:  Well, I think obviously, they guy is incredibly qualified, and how do you prove that he is going to overturn Roe v. Wade?

And so while the president is up to his rear end in alligators, 70 percent of his problem is Iraq and to the extent that the Democrats can attack on Iraq...

MATTHEWS:  Do they know that?

COOK:  ... without going on to the...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Do they have guys like you telling them that the war is the biggest weakness of this administration and Alito is not? 

(CROSSTALK)

COOK:  If I can figure it out, they should be able to. 

But the thing is, without addressing the merits of the war, it‘s, you know, they lied, they misrepresented... 

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN:  They know it. 

They‘re talking about avian flu, taxes and judges. 

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN:  They‘re not talking about the war. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... Italian-American guy is too weak on the mob.  Give me a break.  They‘re weak as they come.

Anyway, thank you, Andrea Mitchell.  Thank you, Howard Fineman.  Thank you, Charlie Cook. 

I know, Andrea, you like that reference I made there. 

When we return, will civility return to Capitol Hill? 

NBC‘s Norah O‘Donnell and the “Washington Post”‘s Dana Milbank will be here.

And a reminder, the political debate is ongoing on Hardblogger, our political blog Web site.  And now you can download podcasts of HARDBALL.  Just go to our Web site hardball.MSNBC.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back.

Joining us now is MSNBC chief Washington correspondent Norah O‘Donnell and Dana Milbank of the “Washington Post.”

Norah, you‘ve been covering this rhubarb up on the Hill.  Tell us the latest.

NORAH O‘DONNELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, an extraordinary night on Capitol Hill tonight as Republicans accuse the Democrats of hijacking the Senate.  The Democrats said they had no choice in order to do this.

Bottom line, the Democrats get what they want, which is two weeks from now a report on how the administration used intelligence in the lead up to the war. 

Perhaps the most extraordinary exchange was between the Democratic and Republican leader of the Senate, who were supposed to be the guys trying to work together, but today, over this issue, they made clear there is now no love lost between the two. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

U.S. SENATOR BILL FRIST (R-TN), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER:  This is the ultimate.  Since I‘ve been majority leader, I‘ll have to say, not with the previous Democratic leader or the current Democratic leader, have ever I been slapped in the face with such an affront to the leadership of this grand institution. 

U.S. SENATOR HARRY REID (D-NV), SENATE MINORITY LEADER:  It‘s a slap in the face to the American people that this has been—this investigation has been stymied, stopped, obstructions thrown up every step of the way.  That‘s the real slap in the face. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  And now, of course, the administration will be forced to defend this report which is expected to come in two weeks, which will center on phase two of the investigation, Chris, which deals with the, quote, “shaping or exaggerating of intelligence by policymakers,” the possible in the lead up to the war—Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Dana, let‘s go to the question there.  Let‘s go to the—for the first go round, let‘s take a look at what the Democrats seem to want to happen besides grabbing the stage today, hijacking it if you will.  They seem to want to get a focus back on the WMD case for war. 

DANA MILBANK, “WASHINGTON POST”:  Yes, and they did a marvelous job of it. 

The Republicans are howling about a stunt and of course, it was a stunt to shut the Senate down in this fashion.  But they did succeed in changing. 

In fact, when they speak—when they don‘t have their names attached, the Democrats are saying, look, Alito had his day yesterday, now we want to change it back to what we want to talk about. 

So they weren‘t really even hiding the fact that this was all done to turn the subject to a more favorable discussion for them. 

And look at this—this is now what you‘re discussing on your show. 

I had to chuck my Alito story and do this for tomorrow. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you know, we live in the age of stunts, Norah. 

You could argue that the political conventions themselves in New York and Boston had no other purpose than to be a stunt, to make people focus on at least one political party‘s message for that week. 

To that extent, did it succeed today? 

O‘DONNELL:  The Democrats probably did succeed. 

The Republicans had what they called the week from hell last week, of course, with the news that the vice president‘s chief of staff had been indicted, Karl Rove escaped narrowly. 

But they wanted to turn the corner this week.  The president was trying to move on. 

Big day on Monday—he succeeded on that with this controversial choice to the Supreme Court. 

Today he had a big speech on avian flu which will likely still lead many of the nightly broadcasts at the different networks.

But the Republicans have been stymied now.  The Democrats have put a great deal of focus back on the Iraq war and the intelligence and the shaping or selling of the Iraq war, which does tie in with Libby, who is expected to appear back at court on Thursday to be arraigned. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think, Norah, just looking at the backdrop, when you pick up the paper in the morning, the big story really is still the casualty levels in Iraq? 

Is that what the Democrats are focusing and perhaps exploiting here, the fact that the numbers are horrendous this month, something like the fourth worst month since the war started, tremendous numbers of weekend casualties, deaths, KIAs; what they‘re really hitting here is the growing sensitivity about the war itself? 

O‘DONNELL:  That may be the case.

And certainly Americans, regular Americans are probably most concerned about that fact, the toll that it‘s taking on our men and women, not only those who have died, but those who are wounded and what it means in their small towns and in their neighborhoods across this country. 

I think what you see the politicians doing is battling on a larger political front about the Iraq war.  The politician has yet to come forward with the game plan about how to get out of Iraq and an exit strategy.  That may be what we see these Democrats, who are angling to 2008, move forward and try and do. 

But what we saw today was pure politics. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Dana Milbank and this story. 

Where do you think it leads now as you try to plot your future columns on this and sidebars?  Is this leading toward a real bit of news now about how the WMD case was made? 

I know one of the most interesting things to me was how Scooter Libby fed his stories to your rival newspaper, the “Times,” in a way that coincided with the Sunday morning talk show so there would be a great little thing for him to talk about or the other leaders of the administration to talk about on Sunday morning with the moderators. 

MILBANK:  Well, today‘s stunt is over, but it does have the potential to reverberate because now we‘re going to have these senators from both parties report back mid-November.  That starts the public discussion again about the phase two of this investigation into the use of the intelligence. 

Then we have the prospect of an actual investigation, public hearings, reports coming out next year in the middle of the 2006 elections.

MATTHEWS:  OK.

I‘d like a debate right now.

Anyway, thank you, Norah O‘Donnell.  Thank you, Dana Milbank of the “Washington Post.”

Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and then again at 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Former President Jimmy Carter will be with us tomorrow.

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