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Secretary of State Rice plays 'Hardball'

In a conversation with NBC's Mitchell, she discusses spying Iraq and more
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The secret domestic spying program has caused an uproar in Congress, with both Democrats and Republicans now calling for hearings. 

On Monday, 'Hardball' Guest Host Andrea Mitchell, talked with one of President Bush' most trusted advisers, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, about the secret eavesdropping program America's image in the world, and more.

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

ANDREA MITCHELL:  We've heard so much from the president, from you, from others in the administration defending the eavesdropping on Americans.  Why was it necessary to do this without going to the court, when the court is available?  And what we've seen in the past couple of years since 9/11 is that there have been more than 4,900 applications to this court and only four have ever been rejected. 

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE:  Well, first let me just state what it is the president authorized.  He authorized the National Security Agency to collect information in a very limited fashion on the activities of people who have links to Al Qaeda and how those links might be communicated to people who are terrorists and involved in terrorist plotting abroad. 

This is about the geographic territory of the United States and not allowing American territory to be a safe haven for conversations between people with terrorist links here and terrorists abroad. 

It's the kind of gap between our domestic territory and foreign territory that was cited so often in the September 11th commission, where we understood that our intelligence agencies were looking outward, our law enforcement agencies were looking inward, and there was no way to close the gap between them. 

Now, the president used authorities that are granted to him by the Constitution, in Article II, and other statutory authorities.  I think the attorney general spoke to these authorities earlier, and so did the president. 

The need to do this is because of the different nature of these people and their communication.  Without getting into the program, which we still want to protect, this is a-these are agile communicators and we have to be more agile. 

The FISA Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, 1978, under very different circumstances, against more stable targets, longer term monitoring, and it's a difference between the need for monitoring the difference-monitoring and detection. 

MITCHELL:  But you said "limited" just now.  You said it was not very extensive.  But the actual number is 4,713 applications between 2002 and 2004.  That doesn't sound very limited. 

And the judge involved, who was appointed to this post by the late Chief Justice Rehnquist -- no bleeding heart liberal, this person -- she has only denied four requests and modified one.  So what-first of all, that doesn't sound very limited. 

RICE:  But, Andrea, I'm not talking about the number of applications to FISA when I talk about limited.  I'm talking about the nature of this program that the president authorized.  And there, this is a program that is very carefully controlled.  It is reviewed constantly. 

MITCHELL:  But all by in-house lawyers. 

RICE:  Well, it's reviewed by the lawyers at the National Security Agency.  It's reviewed by their inspector general, reviewed by Justice Department lawyers and, by the way, briefed to leadership in the Congress and, in particular, the leadership of the Intelligence Committees. 

MITCHELL:  Of course, those who objected, such as Senator Rockefeller, by reports, couldn't object publicly without breaking a law.  So they couldn't really...

RICE:  Well, this was briefed more than a dozen times, more than a dozen times.  And so I think there is an issue-I'm not going to get into questions of what people are saying about those conversations.  But it was briefed more than a dozen times. 

And the need for this program, I think, is clear.  The president has certain responsibilities as commander-in-chief to protect the country.  He also has certain responsibilities to protect the civil liberties of Americans.  Those are his constitutional duties, and he's performing both.

MITCHELL:  Now, you were National Security Adviser at the time.  What was your lawyer at the National Security Council telling you, in terms of whether or not this was legal? 

RICE:  Well, Andrea, I'm not going to go into internal deliberations.  It was a carefully considered decision.  And the attorney general has spoken to the legal authorities under which this takes place. 

MITCHELL:  How does this affect you as America's chief diplomat?  You had difficulties in Europe defending U.S. position regarding the allegations of secret prisons in Eastern Europe.  How does this affect our reputation overseas? 

RICE:  I think that people understand that America is a country of laws.  It is a country that defends and protects those laws.  This is an issue of the president's constitutional authority as the president of the United States. 

And so it is appropriate that it is something that is spoken to by the attorney general and to a degree that needs to be spoken to by people who are asking questions in Congress. 

But in terms of our reputation abroad, I don't think there is any doubt that America is viewed as a country of laws.  When I left Europe, we had any number of foreign ministers saying that they understood better what we were saying.  Perhaps they didn't like every answer, but we're in a different kind of war. 

And people have to understand that the president has a very strong belief in and obligation to protect our civil liberties and our civil rights.  He also has a very strong obligation to protect us as a country.  And unless you can detect terrorist blocs -- you know, intelligence is the long pole in the tent in the fight against terrorism, because once you've allowed somebody to commit the crime, then thousands of people have died. 

This is not traditional law enforcement.  This is not even traditional intelligence.  This is detection of activity in a very rapid way against shadowy networks that cross our domestic and foreign boundaries. 

MITCHELL:  Do you have any concerns, personal concerns, about this becoming a slippery slope?  Once you expand presidential authority, whether it's over domestic eavesdropping or secret prisons, that we're getting into an area that is potentially dangerous for this country, long term? 

RICE:  Well, first of all, I don't want to speak to specific intelligence issues, but I do want to speak to the need to remember that, on September 11th, we were both blind inside the country and we were deaf inside the country.  And that couldn't be allowed to continue. 

If the United States is going to be protected from terrorists who know no boundaries, then it's necessary for the president to use his powers, his authorities under the Constitution and to use them legally.  But I think the American people would expect the president to do everything that he can within the law to protect us. 

The president understands-and I understand-that we are a country of laws.  We are a country that is particularly concerned with our civil liberties.  They're enumerated in ways that they're not for many countries in our Constitution.  They're the core of who we are.  And the president is both going to protect us in-physically, and protect our civil liberties. 

MITCHELL:  There's a new report today of eight prisoners at Guantanamo who say that they were held in a secret prison in Afghanistan and physically abused.  They claimed it was torture.  They said that they were beaten.  They were denied food and water.  And this has been substantiated by a human rights group. 

RICE:  Well, any such claims are always investigated.  And I will say that there are often lots of things are said, lots of things are thrown around.  They're thrown around often without evidence. 

If there is evidence, I would encourage it to-encourages people to get in touch with those who can investigate it.  There also have been repeated visits of international groups to Guantanamo to look at the conditions there.  The fact is that...

MITCHELL:  But this was the-this complaint was that they were held in Afghanistan, where there were no Red Cross...

RICE:  Well, Andrea, let's be realistic here.  We have a choice.  We pick up people on the battlefield clearly engaged in activities against either American forces, or terrorist activities, or with links to terrorist organizations.  We can either hold them or we can let them go. 

Eventually, they will be brought to justice.  But I don't think anybody expects us to simply release terrorists into-people who we've encountered on the battlefield in places like Afghanistan, just release them into the general population.  It makes no sense. 

And, in fact, we have released some people from Guantanamo who we've met again on the battlefield.  We've tried to release as many people as possible.  And when there have been cases where we felt that there was-that no reason to any longer hold people, they've been released.  Sometimes they've been released into the custody of home governments.  Sometimes they've been released more in general. 

But there are dilemmas here.  And these are not easy answers.  And it's facile to say, "Well, you should just let them go."  But this president has a responsibility to protect the American people, to protect our allies.  And I would ask any who are concerned about detention at a place like Guantanamo, whether they would rather have dangerous people released into their midst. 

MITCHELL:  Do you have any regrets, personal regrets, about some of the rhetoric that you and others in the administration used about mushroom clouds and other rather frightening suggestions of weapons of mass destruction now that we know that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? 

RICE:  Well, first of all, weapons of mass destruction are frightening.  And they're frightening particularly in the hands of a tyrant.  And they're frightening when the international community can't get answers from a tyrant like Saddam Hussein. 

MITCHELL:  It was the predicate for war.

RICE:  But it was also the belief of intelligence agencies around the world, the U.N. Security Council that kept asking Saddam Hussein to answer for large stores of unaccounted-for weapons materials. 

And so, Andrea, the fact of the matter is that what you say-what you know today can affect what you do tomorrow.  It can't affect what you do yesterday. 

RICE:  And what we know today is simply the case that perhaps he did not have the stocks of weapons of mass destruction that we thought he had.  But was he a threat?  Absolutely, he was a threat. 

This was someone who had used weapons of mass destruction in the past.  This was someone who was filling his own country with mass graves with his own people.  This was someone who was flying, shooting at our aircraft, trying to fly no-fly zones to keep his forces under control, someone paying suicide bombers who committed atrocities against Israel. 

This was a threatening presence in the most volatile region in the world.  And after 17 resolutions and time and time again, it was time to take care of him. 

MITCHELL:  Your predecessor, Colin Powell, said that his presentation to the U.N., he now feels, is a blot on his record of public service and also that he felt that, in retrospect, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld were going to the president behind his back.  Do you feel that there was a...

RICE:  I don't-I actually don't know. 

MITCHELL:  ... deliberate attempt to mislead?

RICE:  I don't know to what Secretary Powell is referring.  Colin and I are very good friends.  And I think he was a terrific secretary of state.  I think he had an excellent relationship with the president.  I think he had access to the president whenever he wanted access to the president.  And on all decisions of any import, the president heard the views of everybody who had a view. 

MITCHELL:  Carl Levin said-the member of the Armed Services Committee said to Tim Russert that if the Sunnis and the Shiites cannot work out their problems, we need to pressure them, that the U.S. now needs to really put pressure on the Iraqis to get this political process, now that they've successfully had this extraordinary election. 

How much pressure should the U.S. put on the Iraqis to come together and fix their constitution and make the other tough political decisions they need to make? 

RICE:  Well, of course, it has to be an Iraqi process.  And I think there's a presumption in the question that we somehow more want a working Iraq, an effective government, than the Iraqis do.  I think they actually want an effective government. 

I think they understand that they need to overcome their sectarian differences.  I hear one voice talking about civil war.  That's Zarqawi.  I hear most Iraqis talking about trying to form a unified Iraq on the basis of democratic principles where all of their interests can be represented. 

Our ambassador, Zal Khalilzad, has excellent relations with the Iraqis.  He's been very engaged.  He was very engaged at the time of the writing of the constitution.  He'll be very engaged now in helping them. 

But it is also an Iraqi process.  And that's the whole point of democracy, is that people have to come to terms.  I think they will. 

MITCHELL:  How big a threat is Iran, especially with the new Iranian president saying that Israel should be wiped off the map and that there was no Holocaust, denying the Holocaust? 

RICE:  I don't think there is any doubt that this Iranian president has sharpened the contradictions greatly.  He's made it very clear that whatever was once a face of Iran that perhaps looked more diplomatic perhaps is not what the Iranian regime is really all about.  These are outrageous statements, and they're dangerous statements.  They're dangerous...

MITCHELL:  Will they help you persuade the Europeans to side with us against Iran? 

RICE:  I think people-I think people are clearly starting to see that it is outrageous for the president of Iran to say these things with one breath and, on the other breath, to say that the world can trust Iran with technologies that will lead to a nuclear weapon. 

And the Iranians, of course, there's a nuclear issue.  We're working with the E.U.-3.  But there's also Iranian support for terrorism in the Palestinian territories with Hezbollah.  There is the decision or the ability of an unaccounted few-unaccountable few inside Iran to repress and frustrate the desires of its own people.

The Middle East that Iran wants and apparently is prepared to work for is fundamentally different than the Middle East that is emerging and certainly one that is at odds with American interests. 

MITCHELL:  Now, I know you have repeatedly denied any interest in national office and running for national office.  You've said you wanted to at best be NFL commissioner after you resume your academic career.  You accurately predicted Redskins over Dallas.  Do you want to predict Redskins over the Giants next week? 

RICE:  I'll see how it's going closer to the time.  I'll get back to you. 


MITCHELL:  OK.  Thank you very much, Madam Secretary. 

RICE:  Thank you, Andrea.

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