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Biden plays 'Hardball' on Iraq, torture and Alito

Del. Senator tells MSNBC's Matthews he wants withdrawal timetable
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On Tuesday, Senate Democrats pushed for a bill that would have asked the administration for a timetable for the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq. That push was rejected by the Republican-controlled body, but both sides did come together passing a measure that urges the president to to outline his plan for "the successful completion of the mission."

On Hardball Tuesday evening, MSNBC's Chris Matthews welcomed Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) to discuss the fight on the hill over a specific timetable for troop withdrawal. Biden also discussed his opinions on torture and the latest on the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CHRIS MATTHEWS:  I'm with Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.  Senator Biden, why did you push a resolution today in the Senate that would ask for a kind of timetable for our removal of troops ultimately from Iraq? 

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D-DE), RANKING MBR. FOREIGN RELATIONS CMTE.:  Well, what it really did was set a timetable for the president to tell us whether or not the goals he set out are being accomplished.  I don't think anybody should miss the story here.  Seventy-nine Democrats and Republicans voted to tell the president we want him to lay out a clear strategy and a timetable for achieving it. 

And, you know, we don't get to make foreign policy, Chris, in the United States Senate.  We have to react to it.  And what you saw is only Bush could unite these Democrats and Republicans here on a uniform view which Mr. President, get a plan and give us a timetable so we can understand how we measure whether or not you're meeting your plan. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, give me a real world impact of this.  If it gets signed by the president, what will it accomplish? 

BIDEN:  What it will accomplish is the president will have to come up here every quarter, not him personally.  He'll have to send up the secretary of state, secretary of defense, et cetera, say we told you that we have to train a total of 27 Iraqi battalions, that they will operate on their own, and a total of 41 that would operate with U.S. help. 

That will allow us to draw down over the next several months 2,000, 5,000, 9,000 American troops.  you asked us what the strategy was for getting a consensus constitution and getting the Sunnis to buy in.  Well, we've taken up the suggestion of Kissinger or Biden or Schultz and we have brought in the neighboring nations just like we did in Afghanistan. 

They put pressure on the Sunnis and the Shias in order to be able to reach an agreement and we're going to get a political solution here.  I mean, those kinds of things, they're concrete because he doesn't appear to be doing any of these things right now. 

MATTHEWS:  Most Americans, according to the latest CNN/Gallup poll, don't like the way the president is handling the Iraq war.  How will this make them like him, like the way he's handling it?  What will it really change in terms of his conduct of the war? 

BIDEN:  Well ... if he does what 79 (members of the Senate) people asked him to do, it will make it clear for the first time to the American people specifically what he's doing, how he is trying to get the rest of the world, the donor nations to help rebuild, how he's moving away from Halliburton and moving into small board projects to clean up the sewage, how he's going about getting a consensus by bringing in other countries and getting them to buy into the deal.

And it will give them some sense that there's a plan and a possibility that all these young men and women who are dying or being injured are doing it for a good reason, not for something that is without a plan. 

MATTHEWS:  In your floor statement today, Senator, you talked about your goal of making sure that Iraq doesn't become a nest of terrorism, it doesn't become what it wasn't before the war as you put it. 

BIDEN:  That's right.

MATTHEWS:  Isn't it already that, as we saw that woman who went into the hotel in Amman, Jordan to blow up the place and she comes from Fallujah and she's angry about the way our troops retook her town.  Isn't it already becoming a launching pad for terrorism, that country? 

BIDEN:  I think the key is your word becoming, Chris.  You may remember when I got back from Iraq around Memorial Day, you had me on your program.  And you were the only person in the press, I think, that did not completely dismiss my assertion that I was told by the agency on the ground and by flagged officers on the ground that they were beginning to export -- the jihadists were beginning to export terror to the rest of the region and to Europe. 

Everybody thought I was nuts.  Well, they're now seeing that it's exporting.  They're exporting it.  If, in fact, this thing moves in a way that there's no political consensus, no consensus constitution, no change in the way in which we're proceeding to train up the Iraqis and bring down Americans, then you're going to see essentially having moved Afghanistan about 1,200 miles to the west and dropping in the middle of Anbar Province ... You ain't seen nothing yet, as the saying goes. 

MATTHEWS:  The president said that it's better to fight them over there than fight them here at home but that presumes a certain definite number of terrorists in the world, like they were an ethnic group, just a certain number, 10,000, 50,000.  But there's just the number of people, you have to fight them somewhere, but aren't they being created every day? 

BIDEN:  They are. 

MATTHEWS:  In Iraq? 

BIDEN:  They are.  That's the point of why we need the president to shift his focus.  Start to listen to folks within his administration like the ambassador there, like more and more some folks at the State Department, like Powell was arguing and others, and saying, Mr. President, all of the king's horses and all of the king's men are not going to save Iraq if it devolves into a full-blown civil war resulting in a regional war. 

You need a political solution, Mr. President.  Why don't you do what you did in Afghanistan?  In Afghanistan, you brought in the regional powers, including Pakistan and Iran.  You brought in Russia.  You set up a conference.  You got the parties to agree. 

We end up with a guy named Karzai who was a consensus person, not because everybody loved him but because they all thought in varying interests, that their interests would best be preserved by having Karzai.  It's in the interest of the Sunnis, and the interest of the Shia.  The majority of them know it, if there's a consensus constitution. 

But we are unwilling to reach out and ask the rest of the region and also the major powers to invest in using their influence with the Kurds, the Shia, to give some for the Sunnis and using influence that the 60 million Arab Sunnis have on the Sunnis to make concessions as well.  We're doing this alone.  ... We continue to act like Iraq is some prize we won and we want to keep. 

MATTHEWS:  You've seen the polls over the years.  They seem to go in one direction and continue to go in that direction once it's set.  The numbers of Americans who support this war and the president's war handling is gradually declining every couple of months.  You can project that forward.  How long do you think the American people will, even at minimum, support a continuation of the combat in Iraq? 

BIDEN:  Probably the next year and it will continue to decline but it will depend significantly upon whether or not they think there's a plan.  You and I also had this discussion, if you don't mind my saying it.  It's not so much the tragedy of the loss of life which is horrible and every American mourns and the terrible wounds and the 17,000 are wounded that is causing the American people to leave this.

What's caused them to leave it is it seems to have no end in sight.  There seems to be no plan, and as long as the president continues to say stay the course and not one day longer, the American people, like the rest -- like 79 members of the Senate up here scratch their head and say, 'Mr. President, what are you going to do?'

'What are you going to do differently?  Give us any reason to believe things will change.'

MATTHEWS:  Do you have a sense-I mean, it's a sad, tragic fact, but the state of Delaware is the receiving point for the people to come home who have been killed in action in Iraq or anywhere overseas.  They come through Delaware.

And the president and his people and the Defense Department made sure we don't have a lot of photography of that.  And I guess I can understand that, in terms of sensitivities to the family who have lost someone, who gave their life to the country. 

I can understand that to some extent.  But it also has a public relations aspect, doesn't it? 

BIDEN:  Sure it does.

MATTHEWS:  That they don't want the American people to see vividly every night on television, for example, or in the newspapers, the real cost of the war. 

BIDEN:  Chris, I had families ask me to be there in Dover with them.  They called me because, I guess because, not through a war, but I've lost a wife, I've lost a child like thousands of people across the country have. 

And they've asked me, two families asked me, would I come and greet the body, meet the coffin, show respect with them.  Do you know what?  the Defense Department initially said no. 

I'm on the Dover Air Force base all the time.  I went to the commander of the base and said the family has called.  They've called you.  They want me to be there.  I'll be there with the chaplain.  There's no press, no anybody.  And they said, well, we can't do that, Senator. 

Then they had to call through to the Pentagon for me, a 33-year United States Senator, my own base in my own state, with my own constituency.  Mother and father and son asking me to greet the body of their slain son. And they tried to stop me from doing that. 

Biden on torture:
MATTHEWS: ... Senator, let me ask you your personal view about this issue of torture of prisoners and why do you think we have to have these sort of hidden prison areas over in Eastern Europe.  Out of sight, out of mind, what is that about? 

BIDEN:  We don't.  We shouldn't.  It's counter productive.  John McCain is correct.  Lindsey Graham is correct.  I think I'm correct. 

I mean, look.  This traces all the way back to the way in which Abu Ghraib started to turn things badly for us.  Real badly. 

What are we doing?  What in God's name can we profit from having these detention centers-and I'm saying this.  I have not gotten the briefing, so I can say this.  If, in fact, they're really using old Soviet gulags in some of these countries, what is going on here? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it doesn't look good.  Let me ask you.  If we pick up a guy in combat who's fighting us in a uniform, fighting basically the same kind of war we're fighting with him, and we pick him up as a POW, that's Geneva Convention. 

Suppose we pick up a kingpin of al-Qaida and we know that this guy's involved in the backroom of planning, blowing up our people.  And we know he knows stuff.  How should we treat him? 

BIDEN:  We should treat him in essentially the same way, only with much more consistent interrogation if we know who he is.

But we should not deny we have him.  We should not hide him away.  We should not engage in torture.  We should be as straight forward and as tough as is allowed under the law.  And we should allow that person to be able to make a claim which is not legitimate, that they're not entitled to be held. 

They are entitled to be held.  But what we do now is we make it all seem so secretive and we engage in such chicanery that the worst is thought of by the American people as well as the rest of the world. 

MATTHEWS:  So you would treat a terrorist prisoner or suspect the same way you would a uniformed soldier?  The reason I ask that is, would you like keep the lights on all night for three or four weeks, deprive him of sleep? 

They've done things, like in the paper today, I read where a guy had a groin injury and they denied him medication so it hurt for awhile, then said you'll get your medicine when you start talking.  And that apparently worked.  Is that the kind of thing we should avoid doing, you say?

BIDEN:  I think we should abide by international standards that relate to what constitutes torture.  I am not an expert in this area, but what I am certain of is, that you look and listen to guys like McCain, who were tortured. 

You look and listen to the experts in the military who have studied this and they tell you that you do not gain anything this way.  You don't get the information you want and all you do is further inflame the very stereotypical, negative images of American that are producing a lot of these whackos. 

Biden on Alito:
MATTHEWS:  ...I agree with a lot of that, who doesn't?  Let me ask you this question about Judge Alito. 

What do you make of that quote in the paper today?  I think it was a little bit chopped up, but they said he doesn't believe in the constitutional right to abortion. 

If you read the full statement, he said he was proud to have served in an administration that argued that point.  Is there a distinction there between saying you worked for an institution, the government or whatever, a Republican administration that believed that and believing it yourself? 

BIDEN:  I think so and there's a distinction between believing it yourself and ruling that the constitution does not allow it.  You know, there are a number of people on the court, past and present and hopefully in the future, who may have personal views that they acknowledge are inconsistent with the Constitution or the reverse. 

And so that to me is not the determination on what he's going to do on this issue.  What I want to know from him is how, in fact, does he go about determining whether or not there's a fundamental right in the Constitution? 

What methods of interpretation does he use?  Tell me, Judge, how you arrive at whether or not there is a right to privacy, a right to die, things well beyond abortion. 

MATTHEWS:  But you were tough when Judge Roberts, would you actually vote for Alito having voted against Roberts? 

BIDEN:  Well, it depends on what he says.  If he doesn't answer the questions like Roberts doesn't, no, I won't vote for Judge Alito.  If he answers the questions and basically says to me, look, Senator, I am conservative.  The people you've spoken to and the other witness here will tell you I don't come with the brief, I do it case by case.  Let me tell you how I go about these decisions, et cetera.  I could see how I could vote for him.  But, I, right now, based on what I know.  Obviously, he has the burden to prove, as all these judges do, that he in fact warrants being on the court.

Because, you know, look Chris, this is the one Democratic moment, my constituents and the rest of America, has to know what this guy thinks in a lifetime of independence.  They have an obligation to give us a much clearer insight into how they approach these major issues than anybody's done, than Roberts did in the past. 

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