Video: Hail to the Chief

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updated 11/3/2005 9:37:29 AM ET 2005-11-03T14:37:29

If you believe in the adage, 'It takes one to know one,' then, perhaps, the only person to offer true analysis of the Bush administration is a former president.

America's 39th president, Jimmy Carter, has been an outspoken critic of the Bush Administrations policies, particularly the war in Iraq and interrogation tactics.  After serving from 1977 to 1981, he has worked tirelessly around the world on issues such as international conflict resolution, poverty, health care and social justice, earning him a Nobel Peace Prize in the year 2002.  His latest book is entitled, "Our Endangered Values:  America's Moral Crisis." 

President Jimmy Carter sat down with Chris Matthews to discuss his views on the recent revelation about the existence of CIA "secret prisons" and related interrogation tactics.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HARDBALL HOST: "Our Endangered Values" — are they endangered to some extent because of this new story we read in the paper, that the United States, the CIA has been setting up these prison camps unknown to the world, around the world, to keep the terrorists hostage? 

JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yes.  That's one of the many values that this administration has changed dramatically and profoundly compared to all previous presidents who's ever served, including Ronald Reagan and including George Bush Sr.
and including Gerald Ford and all the way back to Dwight Eisenhower. 

I never even considered the fact that our country would be debating whether or not we could continue to torture prisoners around the world in secret prisons.  This is something that's inconceivable.

But I notice that the administration now is pushing hard to get Congress not to approve the John McCain proposal, supported by 90 out of 100 senators, that we not resort to torture.  This administration is insisting that we resort to torture, which I think is a profound change in
our basic moral values, just one of many. 

MATTHEWS: Isn't that Dick Cheney, the vice president's position?  He basically taken the ramrod position in defending it? 

CARTER: Well, he has.  I think that's an open fact that everybody knows.  He been to
senators and they have made it public that he has urged them to permit the CIA to continue torturing prisoners. 

MATTHEWS: Why are you opposed to torturing prisoners? 

CARTER: Well, first of all, it's against a basic human rights commitment that was made 50 years ago when the United Nations were first formed, and every country has agreed to abide by this restraint, including every president who served for the last 50 years. 

It also besmirches America position as the so-called former champion of human rights.  There's not a single major human rights organization in the world that's not now condemning America as one of the foremost violators of basic human rights.

And it's not only just overseas in prisons for torture, but we have also done the same thing at home in doing away with civil liberties and incarcerating about 1,200 people after 9/11 who were not ever accused of a crime, who couldn't have access to a lawyer, who couldn't see their own family.  They were finally — some of them secretly released. 

But these kind of secret things that have been, I guess, excluded from the knowledge of even the overwhelming members of the Congress has now been revealed, and I think it brings about a lot of knowledge about what this administration has done that we didn't know before. 

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the case of the guy who was picked up right before 9/11 up in Minnesota, asking to take flying lessons in the most sophisticated commercial aircraft -- not how to take off, not how to land, but how to fly the plane.  Had we had him in custody, or you had, had him in custody as president and commander-in-chief, wouldn't you have liked to interrogate him pretty harshly to find out what was coming?  Wouldn't it be justified — if he knew the story and what was coming to those people in the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon, wouldn't we be better off torturing this guy to find out what was coming? 

CARTER: No. 

MATTHEWS: Why? 

CARTER: Well, I think as Senator John McCain has explained very well, in the first place, when you torture somebody — and I think I would be the same way — you would probably confess to your interrogators` allegations just so they would quit torturing you. 

MATTHEWS: Sure. 

CARTER: So, therefore, in any trial court in the civilized world, testimony given by a person being tortured is prohibited as testimony, because they know that it's under duress and you say something just so they quit beating you over the head, or whatever, twisting your arm. 

Also, it brings about discredit for the reputation of America as a country that believes in justice and fairness and abides by international structures that have been put forward. 

I have a personal feeling about this because my favorite uncle was captured by the Japanese less than a month after Pearl Harbor, Tom Gordy.  He was in the Navy, on Guam, and he was tortured for four years and finally released at the end of the war.

It was only at the end of the Second World War that people assembled in Geneva and confirmed in writing with the whole world agreeing, we agree not to torture prisoners who are taken in wartime. 

So this not only protects enemy prisoners who we have captured, but it also sets down a marker that if you capture one of our prisoners, you don't torture them. 

MATTHEWS: The reason I bring this up is because Professor Alan Dershowitz up at Harvard has said that when there are extreme cases, when there's about to be something coming down, a major terrorist attack, we've got to take extreme measures to stop it from happening, including this kind of thing. 

You can foresee a problem as commander-in-chief where you really just have to say, "Damn it, I don't like doing this, it's awful, it's un-American, but we got to stop this from coming, we got to find out what's coming up here"? 

CARTER: No, I don't agree that that's a good premise because, as I said before — I don't mean to repeat myself — under torture, you will confess to almost anything that your torturers want you to say.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about this.  There's a great quote in your book, and I don't know if it's true or not.   

Your new book, "Our Endangered Values":  "This sharp and growing difference over the issue of whether international disputes can be better resolved by diplomacy or by military action is now the most accurate predictor of party affiliation — more important than gay marriage, homosexuality or abortion."

In other words, you can tell if a person is a Democrat or a Republican, where they tend to think, let's go in, let's use force, or Democrats, let's try diplomacy. 

CARTER: That's exactly right.  And that's confirmed by all the major public opinion polls, which I studied for a couple of months before I wrote that paragraph. 

That's absolutely right.  And it's an honest different of opinion. 

Most of these departures from basic moral values are held by very deeply committed people who believe they are absolutely right.

A lot of people believe in the Republican Party that if you have a strong military, the best way to meet America needs or to implement our influence around the world is to take military action. 

Most Democrats believe that it's better to use military action only if our security is directly threatened, but to use negotiation, mediation and forming alliances as a best approach.

That difference is the major single difference that distinguishes Democrats from Republicans. 

MATTHEWS: If the current crowd running the country now, President Bush and Vice President Cheney and all the ideologues they have working with them were in power during the Cuban missile crisis, what do you think they would have done based upon what you just said? 

CARTER: I think they would probably have gone to war.  And I think...

MATTHEWS: Instead of handling it diplomatically the way Kennedy did.

CARTER: I think John Kennedy did it perfectly well, by being diplomatic about it.  But one of the...

MATTHEWS: You think they would have just invaded Cuba? 

CARTER: That's just conjecture. 

MATTHEWS: Well, you just said That's the way they go about things. 

CARTER: But I am talking about the modern-day Republicans.  You have to remember too that this is something that has been mirrored in public statements by the president. 

We have known for 200 — well, at least for 100 years, I wouldn't say all the way back to the Indian times — that the United States government had the policy under Democratic and Republican presidents, we will go to war as approved by the international agreements if our own security is directly threatened.  That particular premise concerning peace has been abandoned. 

MATTHEWS: Sure. 

CARTER: We now have preemptive war, which means we will go to war, we will bomb people, we will send missiles in to attack people, we invade countries if we disagree with their leader and think he ought to be removed or if we think that someday in the future they might pose a military threat to us. 

That's a complete and unprecedented and dramatic change in basic values of America. 

MATTHEWS: Do you think if we had 50 hostages taken in Iran today, what do you think this administration would do?  Use diplomatic means — it was kind of embarrassing, to put it lightly, for a year for you. 

CARTER: It was. 

MATTHEWS: You may have lost the presidency over this.  Most people
think you did. 

CARTER: But every hostage came home. 

MATTHEWS: This administration — right.  Would this administration have put up with that, or would they have gone into Iran?

CARTER: That's just conjecture.  I think they would probably have gone in, because That's now a new policy — let's take military action in effect first, not wait until our security is threatened. 

MATTHEWS: What about the exception of genocide?  Shouldn't we invade if we see situations like Rwanda or even in Kosovo, where you have situations where one ethnic group is destroying another group, killing them all?  Shouldn't there be exceptions to this non-intervention policy? 

CARTER: Well, I think that may be true.

But there again, there is a reticence here in international circles that I think is very wise, and that is that you go before the United Nations Security Council — and the United Nations is condemned by a lot of the people who disagree with my book — and you put this forward and say, look, there is likely to be genocide in this country.  Let's marshal an international attempt to correct it. 

That's what George Bush did when Iraq went into Kuwait.  He didn't go in unilaterally.  He got the whole world to help. 

MATTHEWS: Do you think President Bush, Sr., the first President Bush was pretty good at diplomatic efforts? 

CARTER: Absolutely.

I think he was one of the best presidents I have ever known in international affairs. 

Watch 'Hardball' each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 

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