Sen. Biden challenges administration policies

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Senator Joe Biden, the outspoken Democratic Senator from Delaware, joined Chris Matthews to discuss the Bush Administration's controversial policies on both 'warrantless' wiretapping and exactly who can declassify information.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, 'HARDBALL':  The cartoon notion of the war in Iraq, in terms of its politics so far have been the mainstream supports the war, patriotically, the president leads the fight.  He‘s the commander-in-chief and his policies are accepted by the majority of the people. 

And people over to the left, that‘s the term used, like Michael Moore are Cindy Sheehan, are the odd ducks.  But in reality, when you look at the latest Gallup poll, Senator, it just came out, 55 percent of the country think the war in Iraq is a mistake.  They‘re the majority.

How is it that the media portrays and the country has this notion that if you‘re against the war you‘re some sort of odd duck, when in fact the absolutely majority of the people don‘t like this war, they don‘t think we should have gotten into it, and the president still enjoys the notion that he leads the American mainstream, when in fact he doesn‘t?

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), DELAWARE:  Well I think it‘s because of the bully pulpit the administration has.  I mean, they promote that every, single day.  But people turn on their televisions, Chris.  They turn on their televisions and they see what‘s happening in Iraq. 

The American people are not stupid.  And the one thing they understand, they understand how incredibly mismanaged and bungled this war has been by the civilians in this administration.  And—I mean, you can‘t paper over that, any more than you can paper over Katrina.

MATTHEWS: OK, let‘s talk about—I want to get to the NSA story.  First of all, what do you think should be done here?  People have heard this story that the president has gotten around the law and simply said “I‘m going to intercept messages, data transfers involving Americans.  I‘m going to do it because I‘m commander-in-chief.”  What do you think needs to be done there?

BIDEN:  Chris, I‘m going to be presumptuous here.  Think—go back to your old neighborhood or go back to my neighborhood in Claymont.  You‘ve got to just say it straight. 

Hey look folks, we want everybody to be spied on who‘s a terrorist.  We want to know what they‘re saying, who they‘re talking to.  But guess what folks, we don‘t have any idea who these guys are spying on.  All we‘re doing is taking their word.  So why don‘t we go to the secret committee of senators that are sworn under oath in both political parties. 

They can‘t reveal what they‘re told, and tell them what exactly is being done.  And if you need more authority to spy on the bad guys, we‘ll give it to you.  And if you‘re doing more than spying on the bad guys, we‘re going to stop you.  But right now, after 52 months of this program we‘re being asked to say trust me. With all due respect, I don‘t.

MATTHEWS:  But doesn‘t the law already, Senator, require that the administration notify all members of the intelligence committees?

BIDEN:  The answer is in my view, yes it does.  But what I‘m trying to do to put pressure quite frankly on the intelligence committee and have this oversight responsibility responsibly exercised, it‘s kind of cut through the legalities of it.  Just go to the common sense of it.  Can anyone imagine that the founders sat around one day and said once we‘re at war, the Congress and the courts don‘t matter anymore, and the president can do whatever he wants, for as long as he wants, without telling anybody what he‘s doing.

MATTHEWS:  Does the guy at the Claymont fire house care about this?  Are you hearing from regular people, Senator, they care about being spied on?

BIDEN:  No.  What they do care about is they want to know whether or not—they don‘t trust the judgment of this outfit.  They don‘t trust their judgment.  So they want to know something‘s actually being done.  So the kind of questions I get asked, Chris—I wasn‘t literally at the fire hall.  But at the fire hall is the following.  “Hey, Joe, how many terrorists have they listened in on?  Who many have they gotten?  Who have they arrested?  What impact has it had?  What‘s going on?  Is it working?”  And the truth of the matter is we have no idea.

MATTHEWS:   You know, Brit Hume with the vice president got into some interesting territory beyond the shooting incident.  He asked him if the vice president, you sir, have the right to declassify information, materials from the federal government, and he said yes, I‘ve been—an executive order gives me the right to declassify.  Is that your understanding, Senator, that the vice president of the United States has that authority? 

BIDEN:  Yes.  Five days after we invaded Iraq, the executive order was changed to include the vice president being able to declassify.  My lawyers on the Judiciary Committee tell me that that is probably—that is constitutionally and appropriately written and that he does have the right to declassify. 

MATTHEWS:  But under the Constitution, the vice president of the United States, as I often like to remind people, has only two duties and authorities.  One is to preside over your body, the Senate, as a legislative officer, and the other is to replace the president in grave circumstances.  Since when does the vice president have executive authority of any kind?  I mean, is this a new Constitutional development here? 

BIDEN:  Well, it is in one sense that up to now, there‘s been an executive order going back to the Clinton administration saying departments‘ heads have the right to declassify information that was otherwise classified.  So that would include the national security adviser, the head of the CIA, et cetera.  

It was amended and based on what my lawyers tell me, it probably is appropriate that he could declassify.  The real question is, what did he declassify?  Did he selectively declassify things in order to create an impression about the war, about the rationale that, in fact, was inaccurate? 

So what I want to know from the vice president, is not did you have the authority, Mr. Vice President, did you, in fact, authorize Libby to declassify and did you specifically tell him what he could declassify, or did you try to say to him use your judgment, which would not—which would not—be lawful? 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s what I was going to ask.  In other words, you believe—and you are saying so—that there‘s a distinction between saying I have the authority from the president under an executive order to declassify formally a set of documents.  I don‘t have the authority simply to pass out documents, and by the fact of passing them out, declassify them. 

BIDEN:  That‘s correct.  That‘s my understanding of the law.  And it seems only rational that would be the case.  You cannot, it seems to me, based on—and we‘re literally briefing this right now. 

You cannot give the vice president the authority to declassify specific information and then turn around and say he can just give carte blanche to an assistant of his to declassify whatever he wants.  But the thing that bothers me the most about—I‘m sorry.

MATTHEWS:  If this goes to court, Senator, and this becomes an issue, we have got Scooter Libby who‘s going to court facing 30 years imprisonment because of felony charges, if he gets convicted.  His defense will be, according to what‘s leaked out of this case, my superiors authorized me to pass out classified materials. 

Well, by my count, he‘s got one definite superior, the vice president of the United States.  And you‘re saying if the vice president says to Scooter, Scooter, put out whatever would make the case that I was right about nuclear weapons and the al Qaeda and whatever else—whatever helps our case and blows away Joe Wilson, you‘re saying that‘s not legal? 

BIDEN:  I don‘t think that‘s legal.  If he said you can declassify this piece of information here that says the following, Scooter Libby, I believe, under the law would be able to declassify that, because he had gotten permission to do so. 

And it‘s not only—by the way, we asked Secretary Rice, who was before my committee, our committee, the Foreign Relations Committee, the day before yesterday or yesterday, and said are you—were you in the chain of command, Scooter Libby‘s superior?  Could you have authorized Scooter Libby to declassify, and did you do that?  She said I refuse—I will not answer that, because it‘s a case in controversy now and I will not get involved in it. 

But this—look.  You know, I‘ve had this discussion on your program before.  I believe, still believe, that from the get-go this administration has cherry-picked intelligence information to justify and build a rationale to go to war when they did, when the facts didn‘t warrant it at that moment, to create a threat, an imminency, that did not exist.

And now it seems to me that Scooter Libby‘s admitting that, you know, the vice president said declassify selective information.  I would like to know what did he say could be declassified. 

MATTHEWS:  The vice president said there was a nuclear threat from Iraq, that threatened us.  He said there was a connection with 9/11.  He said that we would be greeted as liberators.  When are you in the Senate going to hold this man to account for what he says? 

BIDEN:  Well, I‘ve held him to account every day, including in the Oval Office, with the president of the United States, with him sitting there, when the president asked me why I was, quote, “trying to call for Rumsfeld‘s resignation.”  This was a year and a half ago.

And I said, Mr. President, I think he does not serve us well, and in all due respect, vice president, were you not a constitutional officer, I would call for your resignation.  The president asked me, in effect, why and I said name me one piece of significant advice you‘ve gotten about Iraq that has turned out to be correct.  They‘ve been flat wrong on every major piece of advice they‘ve given the president. 

MATTHEWS:  And you‘ve been right most of the time.  Senator, it‘s great to have you on, and by the way, for people that want to get a really profile about Senator Biden—I mean, seriously, it‘s a great article so far, everything I‘ve read.  It‘s in “Gentlemen‘s Quarterly,” an unusual venue for the senator from Delaware, but I think it‘s a nice way to see a nice, colorful piece about a great guy.  Thank you, Senator.  Thanks for coming on.

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