Guests: John McCain, Mario Vasquez, John Jodka, Joseph Casas, John Dickerson, Joe Biden
NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC HOST: Tonight, marines are charged with the murder of an Iraqi civilian. A fierce debate in the Senate over the war in Iraq is reduced to a battle of soundbites. And U.S. senators become sloganeers. Senators John McCain and Joe Biden are in the hot seat.
Let‘s play HARDBALL.
Good evening. I‘m Norah O‘Donnell, in tonight for Chris Matthews.
Welcome to HARDBALL.
As Americans are still recovering from the grim news of the discovery of the two mutilated soldiers, today for the first time, seven marines and one sailor are charged with murder. We‘ll talk to two heavyweight contenders for 2008, Senators John McCain and Joe Biden.
Plus, North Korea is threatening to test a ballistics missile that could hit the United States, and today the U.S. Missile Defense Agency will conduct a scheduled test of an interceptor rocket off the coast of Hawaii. Could this test now stroke current tensions between North Korea and America?
But first, Senator McCain knows from firsthand the knowledge of the hell of war. I spoke with him earlier today.
O‘DONNELL: Senator, let me begin by asking you, we learned that two U.S. soldiers were mutilated, brutally killed, possibly even beheaded. With news like that, how do you keep a country behind this war?
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ® ARIZONA: Well, I think it angers Americans, Norah, that—and it reveals the face of the enemy and the kind of people we‘re dealing with. I think it angers Americans, as well as saddens us deeply. And so, perhaps, in some kind of perverse way, it helps us a little bit, but it sure brings home the face of this war.
I think Americans are really divided in their own opinions. Some of them, many of them want us out of Iraq, but most of them don‘t want us to leave immediately, and I refuse to use cut and run, but they don‘t want us to leave immediately, because they understand what would happen if we left immediately, so you‘ve got kind of a schizophrenic attitude here.
As you know, we‘re debating an amendment today, we‘ll vote on tomorrow, about whether to, quote, “withdraw” or not. One of the amendments is to withdraw immediately with a timetable, a time for leaving. That‘s Senator Kerry‘s amendment.
And the other is by Senator Levin and Senator Reed that says set a withdrawal plan without a specific date. Both, I think, would indicate that we would be—that it would have catastrophic consequences if we employed either one, if we voted for either one of those resolutions.
O‘DONNELL: Let‘s talk about that debate that is raging in the Senate today, a very passionate debate, and Senator Carl Levin, the Democrat of Michigan, saying today that our current approach in Iraq is unsustainable and counterproductive. He said we‘ve got to make clear that our commitment in Iraq is not open-ended. Don‘t you support that, letting the American people know that we‘re not going to be there forever?
MCCAIN: I think we‘ve made that very clear to the American people. And, by the way, I have the greatest respect for Senator Levin and Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island.
I think we‘ve told the American people that, but it‘s how we leave, not when we leave, and we‘re continuing to make progress in the training of the Iraqi military and police. It‘s two steps forward, one step back. It‘s frustrating, but the time for us to leave is when the Iraqis are able to take care of their security requirements.
If we sent the word that we were withdrawing, Norah, I think any military expert would probably agree that the insurgents would just lay back until we left. And that, obviously, would also affect our training and recruiting of Iraqi military and police, if they thought we were leaving, setting an arbitrary timetable for doing so.
O‘DONNELL: You know, Senator, I have to ask you, because as this debate rages, there are a lot of people in your party—in the Republican Party, who have used the word cut and run liberally, accusing Vietnam—former Vietnam veterans Jack Murtha and John Kerry of being cut and run Democrats. Even the president has said that he doesn‘t need people who would wave the white flag of surrender. Why won‘t you also use those words?
MCCAIN: Because I think the American people are better off with a dignified debate. We should passionately debate this war. American lives are at stake, there‘s nothing more important to the American people in this country.
But we‘re not enemies. We are not enemies. The enemies are those people that did such a terrible thing to those two young soldiers the day before yesterday. That‘s the enemy and we should have a respectful debate.
O‘DONNELL: So you think those that are using those terms like cut and run or like Senator Kerry, lie and die, those—they are doing that for political purposes and for November, the election?
MCCAIN: No, I just don‘t think it helps the level of debate. I‘m not sure what it contributes. Everybody‘s free to use whatever language they want to, but I think the American people deserve a debate that‘s based on our beliefs and our convictions and I respect their convictions.
O‘DONNELL: Well, as a leader in the Senate, as a former military man, a former POW, you say cut and run is the wrong way to begin this debate. Have you told the president that? Have you told Karl Rove listen, calling those up here cutters and runners is a bad thing? Have you told them that?
MCCAIN: It‘s not that, and it‘s not that phrase. It‘s the whole tenor of our disagreement with one another, not only on this issue, but other issues. We need ...
O‘DONNELL: But Senator, you know full well that this started with Karl Rove last week in New Hampshire, kicked this off by calling Democrats the party of cut and run, and then it‘s like every senator up there in your party got the talking point and continued with that line of rhetoric.
MCCAIN: Norah, there has been this heated debate about Iraq for a long time now and a lot of language used on both sides that I just don‘t think helps the American people understand our viewpoints. I think that we lose sight of what we should be doing for the American people.
But there should be passion. And if they want to be passionate that way, that‘s their privilege to do so. I prefer not to do so and I think that‘s my right to do so and I do respect those who disagree.
I think we can win this argument on the grounds of its merits and I believe the American people would not support an immediate withdrawal or a timetable for withdrawal.
O‘DONNELL: Let‘s talk about Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. As you well know, many people think that you could be the Republican nominee in 2008 and that she could be the Democratic nominee in 2008. She was on the Senate floor today also talking about Iraq. Here‘s what she had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: They may not have a war strategy, but they do have an election strategy. This is the road they took America down in 2002. It was a dead end for our country then, and it‘s a dead end now.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: Does it sound like to you that the senator is saying that the war is not winnable?
MCCAIN: I don‘t—it‘s not clear.
O‘DONNELL: You don‘t want to go there?
MCCAIN: It‘s not clear to me what—I think she is supporting this resolution that calls for a, quote, “timetable for withdrawal,” which means that we would be announcing to the world that we are withdrawing.
I think that sends the wrong message to our friends and to our enemies, and so I just disagree with it and, again, I think we need the debate. And do we cross the line from time to time? Yes. Do I regret it? Yes, but I also understand the passion.
O‘DONNELL: If I may, let me take what is I think what the Democrats are trying to articulate and what they tried to articulate on the Senate floor today, is why not set a timeline? In other words, why not say to the Iraqi government, we‘re not going to be here to hold your hand forever?
And we‘ve already lost 2,500 of our good men and women and you‘ve got to get up and going. You‘ve got your unity government now, you‘ve got over 200,000 security forces, trained and ready to go. It‘s time to get it together so that we can go home. Why not send that message?
MCCAIN: That assumes that the Iraqi government is not doing everything that they can in order to take over their own security responsibilities. I disagree with that. I believe that the Iraqi government, at great sacrifice, are training and equipping their people and are governing.
They are a new government, as you know, and I think they‘re doing everything that they can. To assume that they‘re not, and by threatening them with leaving—I don‘t think that‘s productive because I think they‘re doing everything they can.
The other thing is, they are recruiting still, and they are training. If the word gets out that the United States is leaving, then maybe some of these people will be choosing up sides.
O‘DONNELL: But Senator, eventually we will ...
MCCAIN: And that could lead to more sectarian violence.
O‘DONNELL: The problem with that argument, though, Senator, is, eventually we will have to leave, though.
MCCAIN: Sure, as soon as the Iraqis are capable of carrying out their own security responsibilities. And I believe that that will be sooner, rather than later. But I also think this is a classic insurgency and it‘s going to be a long haul.
Look, nobody minds that we have troops in South Korea; that‘s because American soldiers aren‘t dying in South Korea. I believe we‘re making progress in having the Iraqi military take over those responsibilities, Norah.
O‘DONNELL: All right, back with more with Senator John McCain in a moment.
And later, Democratic Senator Joe Biden gives us his take on Iraq and North Korea. You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.
O‘DONNELL: Welcome back to HARDBALL. We‘re back with Senator John McCain.
Senator, let me ask you: the commanding general in Iraq, General George Casey, back in Washington this week, not only briefing at the Pentagon, but I assume some of you senators up there on Capitol Hill. Do you expect that we‘ll have news soon that there will be a drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq?
MCCAIN: I don‘t know, Norah. I don‘t know if that‘s now or six months from now or a year from now. I‘m sure that there will, be at some point, dictated by conditions on the ground.
O‘DONNELL: You‘re on the Armed Services Committee, so I‘m sure you know about what the Pentagon announced yesterday, this plan to rotate some 21,000 troops out of Iraq and back into Iraq. This is a normal troop rotation; the Pentagon says it‘s a one-for-one. But we do know it takes a long time to move some of our forces, and they‘ll be in surrounding countries. That‘s around this summer, later in the fall. Is that, though, a possibility then, that at that time the Pentagon could say, we don‘t need to put those 20,000 in Iraq, and that could mean a significant reduction right before the November election.
MCCAIN: Well, I view it as the planning of a normal rotation of troops in and out of Iraq to maintain present levels, and yet at any time, as they continue to evaluate, I think, then they can determine, based on the state of the Iraqi preparedness and capabilities, as to whether we would draw down troops at that time or not.
O‘DONNELL: Let‘s turn to the issue of North Korea, who appears to be sort of flexing their muscle and indicating that they could in fact launch a test missile that has the capability of hitting the United States. What should we do?
MCCAIN: Well I think we‘re watching and I think we‘re prepared to—having the capability perhaps, if necessary, to intercept it. But that‘s not totally clear whether we have that capability yet. It‘s obvious that we need to put more pressure on the North Koreans and the people that can do that best are the Chinese. The Chinese are the ones that have the leverage over North Korea and it‘s not in China‘s interests to see this continue because it would only lead to a nuclear armed Japan and greater tensions in the region.
O‘DONNELL: As you well know, Kim Jong-il, who is the leader of North Korea, is considered to be a crazy man. Many people questions whether he is sane or not. And yet he is trying to build nuclear warheads. He‘s going to test launch this missile. Do we need to be looking seriously—more seriously about how to deal with North Korea? We‘ve just opened up—we‘re trying to open up talks with Iran. Should we try and open up talks with the other member of the Axis of Evil, North Korea?
MCCAIN: We‘ve had the, quote, “six-party talks.” They want two-party talks and some people talk about four party. It—look, what it‘s all about, Norah, is whether people want to sit down and seriously negotiate. That‘s like the shape of the table in the Paris peace talks during the Vietnam War.
I think that the leader, and I don‘t know if he‘s crazy or not, he‘s smart enough to stay in power and have a large place in the world‘s attention. But I think it‘s very obvious that he would have all the relevance of a very small country with very little GNP, if they didn‘t have this missile and nuclear card, to play all the time. We‘ve got to find incentives...
O‘DONNELL: ... You know, but I must say though, the senator.
MCCAIN: Let me just finish. We‘ve got to find incentives, particularly through the Chinese, to make them stop this.
O‘DONNELL: What about the timing of this? I mean, do you think North Korea is trying to exploit us at a time when we are deeply engaged in Iraq?
MCCAIN: I‘m not sure if that plays into their calculations, but I‘m
sure that this is kind of a periodic activity of theirs, and their threats
and they have launched a missile in the past, as you know. But I‘m not sure about that.
O‘DONNELL: Senator, there is a leaked memo that has been revealed from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, signed by U.S. ambassador Khalilzad, sent to the State Department on June 6th that appears to be wholly at odds with the optimistic account of developments given by Bush about what‘s going on there, saying the situation is deteriorating. Are we getting the straight answer about what‘s on the ground, happening there?
MCCAIN: I think we‘re getting pretty straight answers. I think the president‘s made it very clear that we have very significant challenges and difficulties, which brings us back to this debate about withdrawal of troops. I‘ve always said, it‘s long and it‘s hard and it‘s tough. Lots of mistakes have been made, including not having enough troops here at the time, but I do believe that we‘re showing progress and yes, that memo outlined some problems, but overall I am extremely guardedly optimistic, because I believe we have to win.
O‘DONNELL: All right, Senator John McCain, the maverick McCain. Up in the Senate, I know it‘s been a lot of tough issues you‘re debating up there, Iraq and North Korea and the headlines of certainly what‘s going in Iraq. Thank you very much for your time, we appreciate it.
MCCAIN: Thank you, Norah.
O‘DONNELL: And up next, we will talk with the uncle of one of the two U.S. soldiers who was brutally mutilated and murdered this past week in Iraq. And later, Democratic Senator Joe Biden. You‘re watching HARDBALL, on MSNBC.
O‘DONNELL: Private First Class Kristian Menchaca was a 23 year old from the tiny border town of Brownsville, Texas, who loved family reunions and wanted to work for the border patrol after he was out of the army. That dream came to an end on Monday, when word came out that he and Private First Class Thomas Tucker were found murdered and mutilated in Iraq, after a three day search for the kidnapped soldiers. Christian‘s uncle is Mario Vasquez. His sister was Kristian‘s mother. Thank you for joining us. First, our heartfelt sympathies to you and your family.
MARIO VASQUEZ, UNCLE OF PFC. KRISTIAN MENCHACA: Thank you.
O‘DONNELL: How is your family doing?
VASQUEZ: We‘re very devastated. We are trying to take day by day. We haven‘t received anything like the body or the ashes or anything from him, and we‘re just waiting.
O‘DONNELL: Christian was your nephew. Tell us about him.
VASQUEZ: He was a very noble person, he helped anybody, had a lot of friends, and he was very strong. He loved basketball, and he was a very family-oriented person.
O‘DONNELL: How did you receive the news that they had believed that they had found him murdered in Iraq?
VASQUEZ: I was shocked. I was shocked because I was watching a different channel, where a lady from the Pentagon was saying that they didn‘t know anything about it, and that they didn‘t know anything about the bodies or anything, and then the other channel, they were saying they had found him and that was really shocking to me.
O‘DONNELL: And you at that point, your family had not heard from the U.S. military?
VASQUEZ: We heard from TV. We haven‘t heard from the military, nothing. And no news from them at all.
O‘DONNELL: Mario, this is a horrible story, and I hope you know that Americans are thinking of you and your family at this time. And also because your nephew was killed in such a brutal way. What is your reaction to learning that news?
VASQUEZ: I think we shouldn‘t stand for it. I think we shouldn‘t allow this to happen. I think we should have them more protected. They‘re trying to give us peace here in America, and they‘re fighting a war that should give us peace here in America, an we‘re having them killed in another country. But I think that‘s not, we shouldn‘t take it that lightly.
O‘DONNELL: In other words, we need to take the fight tougher to the enemy?
VASQUEZ: Yes. I think we need to either reinforce our soldiers in Iraq, and have more soldiers protecting our soldiers, not leaving them like five or six at a checkpoint, where you could have more.
O‘DONNELL: I must tell you, Mario, that is what you hear a lot from soldiers that I‘ve talked to and their families. You know, there‘s this debate raging in this country about the troops coming home, but a lot people who have family members over there say we need more troops to make sure we keep the guys safe. I assume that‘s what your family believes.
VASQUEZ: Yes, we believe very strongly that, if we‘re going to our soldiers over there, we should have more soldiers protecting our soldiers of our own country.
O‘DONNELL: Tell me, I know that your nephew had returned home for leave for a short period of time a while ago and he had been in Iraq. How is he doing. How was his mood? Was he affected?
VASQUEZ: He was a little bit different since when I saw him leave, because I saw him at the end of April, and I took him to lunch and he was a total different person. I could see a man out of my nephew. It was totally different.
O‘DONNELL: How was he different?
VASQUEZ: He was more strong, he was ready to fight for our country, he was ready to do a little piece, he was ready to give a little piece of himself to have peace for us here in our country.
O‘DONNELL: And now how is your family dealing with the news that he has paid the ultimate sacrifice?
VASQUEZ: It‘s very hurting. I cannot get the last words that he told me when we finished lunch, that he said don‘t worry uncle Mario, when I come back, I‘m going to come back a hero but I didn‘t expect for him to come back in a pine box. He is a hero to me even when he was over there.
O‘DONNELL: Well I think the American people agree that your nephew is a hero an we are all thinking of you and thinking of your family and we appreciate you coming on to talk about him and to honor him by what a great man he was. So thank you very much.
VASQUEZ: Thank you.
O‘DONNELL: Mario Vasquez. Up next, is the world becoming more dangerous by the day. Is America‘s ability to handle Iran and North Korea hurt by the problems in Iraq. We‘re going to hear from Delaware Senator Joe Biden. He‘ll be here. And tomorrow House Majority Leader John Boehner will be here as well. You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
O‘DONNELL: Welcome back to HARDBALL. I‘m Norah O‘Donnell in for Chris Matthews.
Today, the Marine Corps charged seven marines and one sailor with murder in the death of an Iraqi civilian. We‘ll talk with the father of one of the accused in a moment.
But first, the Senate argued passionately today over plans to move U.S. troops out of Iraq. Is Iraq on the brink of a civil war and is the presence of U.S. troops making that more or less likely to happen?
Earlier I spoke with Delaware Senator Joe Biden, who‘s the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
O‘DONNELL: Senator, thank you for joining us.
SEN. JOE BIDEN (D) DELAWARE: Happy to be with you.
O‘DONNELL: Are you embarrassed that your party is so divided on this issue of the war in Iraq and how to move forward?
BIDEN: No, I‘m not embarrassed by my party, I‘m embarrassed by the policies of this administration, that they have squandered every opportunity since we went into Iraq to get it right.
And although there is division—and I‘d rather there be no division
I don‘t think we should set a firm timetable to leave. I think we should set a plan to allow us to leave. I am more embarrassed by the continued incompetence of the civilians in this administration to get it right.
O‘DONNELL: But given that, Senator Kerry‘s amendment that would essentially call for an arbitrary timeline for troop withdrawal ...
BIDEN: I disagree with that.
O‘DONNELL: Do you think that that—yes, and do you think that that
having a debate on that is in some ways distracting from the real issue and, in fact, setting the Democrats up for the Republicans to make this argument that you guys are divided?
BIDEN: Well, yes, it does. It does, but you can‘t blame John. I mean, John is frustrated as can be. A lot of people are, and John has, I guess, reached the conclusion that they‘re never going to get it right, so we might as well set a timetable and get out. I‘m not there, but it is—it does give the Republicans an opportunity not to speak to where they are.
You know, when people ask me about us divided, I say, yes, but the Republicans are totally united, united in a policy thus far that‘s been a failed policy. We‘ve got to be—there‘s got to be a change in policy, Norah, like there was a change in policy on Iran. There‘s got to be the same thing happening on Iraq. I see no indication the president is prepared to do that.
O‘DONNELL: If you feel so strongly, and you say other Democrats in your party feel so strongly there has got to be a change in strategy, then what is it about the Democratic Party? What‘s wrong with the Democratic Party that they can‘t put that forward and lay out something cohesive, unified, in order to stand up against what you say is the Republicans‘ failed policy.
BIDEN: Well, I have done that, as you know. It got a lot of wide publicity. I called for a specific, detailed plan as to how to proceed in Iraq. And there is—there‘s a lot of Democrats who support it, some who don‘t. Look, there is some division in our party. I‘m not trying to hide the division.
There still exists division within the Republican Party and in this administration on how to proceed in Iraq. There are those like our ambassador who thinks we should push forward and get an amendment to the constitution giving the Sunnis a piece of the action in order to be able to get any shot for peace. There‘s others, like apparently Rumsfeld and Cheney, who think that‘s too divisive now.
I mean, so there‘s a lot of division on Iraq, but the division all sort of flows from the absolute botching of the way in which we‘ve conducted ourselves in Iraq. And so, for me, I have laid out a detailed plan that has gotten wide publicity and is—quite frankly, it‘s the only plan out there.
People say well, why did you put out a plan? People will just shoot at it. I think I have an obligation to lay out what I think has to be done. You‘ve got to purge the existing Iraqi army and police of the ...
O‘DONNELL: Well then, with all due respect, Senator, why aren‘t you offering an amendment on that plan, and why isn‘t your party backing you? Instead, we‘ve got, on the Senate floor, Republicans accusing Democrats of being cut and run Democrats. You have Democratic Senator John Kerry accusing Republicans of wanting to lie and die. Isn‘t this more important than a bunch of slinging slogans on this issue?
BIDEN: It is, absolutely. That‘s why the amendment that I helped draft, the so-called Levin-Reed Amendment, does contain that. It says three things that no one‘s focusing on.
At the front end, it says, look, you‘ve got to purge the Iraqi military of the sectarian thugs. You‘ve got to make sure that the Sunnis get a piece of the oil revenues so they combine, and you‘ve got to have an international conference to keep the neighbors out of Iraq.
Everyone agrees those three things have to be done. If you do those three things, you‘re going to be able to withdraw troops from Iraq by the end of the next year. If you don‘t, you‘re going to probably have to withdraw them because there‘s a full-blown civil war.
O‘DONNELL: You know, I‘ve got to ask you this, because one of the criticisms of the media has been that we sometimes don‘t spend enough time talking to the soldiers and troops on the ground. I know you‘ve been to Iraq several times.
One of their major concerns is that the Iraqi government is now going to grant amnesty to a lot of these bad guys who our soldiers and troops for the past three years have been rolling up and putting in these prisons, and Maliki and his government says they‘re going to set them free, even if they killed U.S. soldiers. Isn‘t that the wrong policy? I know the Senate has moved forward on that, but are you ...
BIDEN: It‘s flat out...
O‘DONNELL: ...assured they‘re not going to let these guys go?
BIDEN: No, I‘m not assured of that at all. And look, I‘ve been to Iraq six times; I‘m going back within the next couple weeks. Every soldier I talk to on the ground, every woman and man on the ground, they get this, unlike our secretary of defense and our vice president. They understand that the real problem is the sectarian violence, that there‘s a simmering civil war. Talk to these people. They understand.
I wrote a report over a year-and-a-half ago saying that the police force was riddled with death squads; it was a sectarian—bunch of sectarian thugs. I got that from our military guys on the ground. I came back and told it to the civilians at the White House and the State Department and the Defense Department, they said, no, no, no, that‘s not true. Does anybody doubt that now?
Listen to the military on the ground, the fighting women and men. They get it and they understand full well that you got to change the dynamic politically on the ground or you could have 500,000 troops there and you‘re not going to leave Iraq more secure than in fact when we found it.
O‘DONNELL: Let me ask you—the White House says progress is being made in Iraq, and yet the horrible, horrible news on the front pages of our American newspapers today about our two U.S. soldiers who were—Marines who were—an Army private first class—who were beheaded—sick, savage.
BIDEN: Look ...
O‘DONNELL: And also we learned today that the Marine Corps is bringing murder charges against seven Marines and a sailor for the death of an Iraqi civilian in April. How do we keep the country behind this war, with news like that?
BIDEN: You can‘t unless you change the conditions on the ground.
Norah, every smart political person like yourself and reporters have been asking the questions about a divided party and all the rest. I asked the following rhetorical question: No matter what‘s said here today, no matter what Karl Rove does in his game plan, no matter how many times the president tries to make this political by talking about white flags, the bottom line will be the election is on November the 7th. On November the 6th, if the conditions on the ground are like they are now, the American public will speak with their ballot.
O‘DONNELL: Let me turn now to the issue of North Korea. You are, of course, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The American people have heard that North Korea may likely test a missile that could reach the United States.
We‘ve learned today at NBC News that they are going to launch a missile from our defense system, possibly today, from Hawaii that some believe could be viewed as provocative to North Korea. Do you think it could be viewed as provocative?
BIDEN: I don‘t think it‘s provocative. I think North Korea is on its own course here. Look, two years ago, Senator Lugar, a conservative Republican, and I both called for direct talks with North Korea. Why should we be afraid to talk to them?
This is all—I mean, this has been so badly handled from the very beginning. And now we‘re at a point, at least, where North Korea is allowing the rest of the world to unite here.
We should use this provocative action on the part of North Korea to lay out clearly a joint plan with the Japanese and with the South Koreans to put international pressure on them to add more sticks to this negotiation process. And we should not be afraid to talk directly with the North Koreans.
O‘DONNELL: All right. Democratic Senator Joe Biden, from Capitol Hill. Thank you for joining us.
BIDEN: Thanks a lot.
O‘DONNELL: And before we go to break, let‘s go live to the Senate floor for the debate over U.S. troops in Iraq.
SEN. ROBERT BYRD (D), WEST VIRGINIA: Thirty-five minutes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would be more than happy to accommodate my distinguished friend and leader, and I simply say that order at this point, unless we amend the order, I do not see that opportunity. But I will be glad to put in a quorum in hopes that we can resolve not only the time allocation on this side, but how we could accommodate our distinguished colleague from West Virginia.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: May I suggest that the two senators who need 10 minutes each be recognized now and that we try to negotiate these various time needs during their presentation.
O‘DONNELL: Hot, hot debate on the Senate floor. And coming up, the Marine Corps will charge seven Marines and a Navy corpsman with murder and other charges in the Hamdaniya accident. We‘ll talk with the father of one of those Marines and his attorney.
You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
O‘DONNELL: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Seven marines and one Navy
corpsman currently being held at Camp Pendleton in California were charged
today in the alleged killing of an unarmed civilian man in Hamandiya, Iraq
last April. Here are the charges that were announced just a short time ago
by Colonel Stewart Navarre of the Marine Corps.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
COL. STEWART NAVARRE, MARINE CORPS: Seven marines and one Navy corpsman have been charged with offenses including kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy, in connection with the deaths of an Iraqi civilian in Hamandiya, Iraq. It is important to note that the charges and specifications are accusations against the individual and the accused is presumed innocent.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: One of those charged is Marine private first class John Jodka III. His father, John Jodka and his attorney Joseph Casas are with us from San Diego this evening.
John, let me begin with you. Your son claims that he is innocent.
What does he say actually happened in Iraq?
JOHN JODKA, FATHER OF ACCUSED MARINE: Actually, the specifics, he has not discussed with me. But his certainty about his role, his mission, and his training convinced me that he is innocent. I am as sure as I breathe that my son is innocent, and he is sure that he will be vindicated.
O‘DONNELL: Why then do you think he is being charged today if he is innocent? Is he being treated unfairly?
JODKA: Well, I believe that this is an outgrowth of a political swirl that started with the Haditha incident. Because of Haditha and the criticism levied against the Marine Corps by others, especially in the political realm, I believe the Marine Corps leadership has now chosen this case to prove that it can police its own. It just so happened that it was my son‘s unit that was so targeted.
O‘DONNELL: So what you‘re saying is because you think that the Pentagon and the military has been criticized for being slow to react to the Haditha incident, that your son is suffering for what happened—or is being alleged happened to this 52-year-old man in a wheelchair who is alleged to have been shot and killed in Hamandiya?
JODKA: Absolutely. And I would take exception to anyone who said that this was a 52-year-old man in a wheelchair. I don‘t believe that I‘ve heard that anywhere. But regardless of that, yes, I believe that my son is being targeted as a political outgrowth.
O‘DONNELL: And does your son say that or is that your own belief?
JODKA: That‘s my own belief. My son believes similarly, but he believes also that the system will prove him innocent and vindicate him and that his brothers and sisters in the corps support him, and are backing him.
O‘DONNELL: John, I can only imagine what it‘s been like certainly having your son over there in Iraq and certainly worried and concerned about his safety and to make sure that he returns home alive and in good shape. How has this rocked your family finding out that he‘s now charged with murder?
JODKA: Well, it‘s certainly almost a different form of combat, so it‘s almost a continuation. Certainly the whole family is worried when John and his unit went over to Iraq, but we knew he was confident in his mission and his training, and so we were buoyed by that and by his calls home.
When he was returned to Camp Pendleton and placed in the brig, we were both outraged and disturbed that a person, a man who has fought for his country on the front lines, as the tip of the spear would be treated this way without even being charged and we pressed upon everyone that he should be presumed innocent while this was being investigated, and a fair and full investigation needed to occur.
O‘DONNELL: John, let me bring in your son‘s attorney, Joseph, who was there with you. Let me ask you, how was he specifically treated at Camp Pendleton? He was placed in solitary confinement, right?
JOSEPH CASAS, ATTORNEY FOR ACCUSED MARINE: He was placed in maximum confinement, which included being restrained to shackles and handcuffs any time he had to exit his cell.
O‘DONNELL: Why? What was the explanation for that?
CASAS: The only explanation that we can have for that is that the Marine Corps rushed to judgment on this. They were provided a set of facts by NCIS, which by the way we‘re going to have under a magnifying glass when the time comes.
And so they rushed to judgment, they locked these guys up in maximum confinement, regardless of whether they were brig protocols or commanding general protocols, I don‘t care. They were placed in maximum confinement, and it is relieving to see that they were reduced in confinement on the 15th, last week.
O‘DONNELL: Your client, marine private first class John Jodka III, who is being accused of murder, has he spoken with you, has he told you at all that this is an instance where they had trouble on the ground distinguishing friend from foe? Because the enemy doesn‘t wear uniforms out there, the insurgents, and many times, it‘s a moving target.
CASAS: Well, without getting into the specific details of what he has told me, I can tell you that he believed that on that particular night, he was acting within the rules of engagement, within the orders that were given to him from his chain of command and he believed that he is acting within those orders and that nothing wrong occurred on that night, and he cannot be dissuaded from that position.
O‘DONNELL: Joseph, can you help people understand this case, because all we know is what we have read and military officials are saying, looking at whether these marines fatally shot a 52-year-old disabled Iraqi man in the face, and then planted a rifle and a shovel next to his body to make it appear he was an insurgent placing a roadside bomb. Are the contours of that exactly what happened, is that right, Joseph?
CASAS: Well the facts of the case are going to be played out in the courtroom. The prosecution is going to have their spin on the facts that were provided to them by NCIS and we‘re going to have our evidence presented in the trial, in the court-martial, and I think that that‘s what‘s really going to determine the truth. But I can tell you that what has been placed out there is the truth by the media, by NCIS, by the government, is not what happened on that night.
And we will find out whether or not, indeed this individual, as you say, disabled, because I don‘t have that information, so I can‘t wait to get my hands on all the evidence out there.
O‘DONNELL: All right. Well we will continue to watch and follow this case and we thank you very much both for your time. John Jodka and Joseph Casas.
Coming up, a cable from the U.S. embassy in Iraq, signed by the U.S. ambassador and leaked to the “Washington Post,” shows that life in Iraq is far more difficult than the Bush administration would like us to believe. You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.
O‘DONNELL: Welcome back to HARDBALL. How will the Senate‘s debate over U.S. troop presence in Iraq influence Americans, who are increasingly opposed to the war? John Dickerson is the chief political correspondent for “Slate.com.” John, thank you for joining us. We learned about this leaked state department memo from the ambassador in Iraq, essentially pointing a very grim picture of what has been going in Iraq, more than probably we‘ve heard from this administration. How serious is this?
JOHN DICKERSON, “SLATE.COM”: Well, it‘s a bad political problem for the administration, because the president spent last week talking about how things are improving. We have a new political situation there, and he talked about slow progress. But this memo shows us just how slow the progress is. And then what‘s interesting is also, it‘s actually backsliding a little bit.
In this memo it talks about how things are worse than they were when
Saddam was in power. So, it‘s a horribly bad political message when a lot
of the message coming out of the White House last week was we are making
progress in Iraq
O‘DONNELL: And the idea is that what we hear on camera from the ambassador is very different from the reports that they may be sending back to the state department.
DICKERSON: Sure, that‘s exactly right. And again, it‘s this
juxtaposition between what we hear from the administration and then what we
see on TV. And the administration has said, you know, the journalists are
overplaying it. They are showing that things are worse. They are not
talking about the progress. Things are better than people are saying, but
here we have a candid assessment from someone inside the administration
that things are bad for embassy employees, so it‘s very much off the
message of what the White House is selling
O‘DONNELL: Let‘s turn to what has is one of the political headlines today. The president, of course, has arrived in Budapest today. He is meeting with EU leaders and back home here, there is a debate raging in the Senate about the way forward in Iraq. The Democrats, some argue, are divided on this, and quite frankly, a lot of them appear to be very embarrassed by the fact that John Kerry brought has forth this amendment that essentially calls for a timetable that none of them want to vote for, very few of them want to vote for.
DICKERSON: There is some consternation in the Democratic ranks, but
if the Democrats were 100 percent united in their voice, unless they were
absolutely standing behind the Republican platform, the Republicans are
going to claim Democrats are for cut and run. So, yes it‘s confusing. Yes
it feeds the stereotype that Democrats don‘t have a kind of point position,
but the debate has gotten so much in to these kind of charge and counter
charge, that even if Democrats were unified, they would still be the party
of cut and run as far as the Republicans were concerned
O‘DONNELL: But, given that, it still plays into their hands, if you will. And what about the argument that this is giving the Republicans an opening and Karl Rove, to sort of put this giant bumper sticker on the Democratic party, something to really stick to the ribs, cut and run, just like flip flop in 2004. Something that Karl Rove, we all know is very adept at doing.
DICKERSON: Sure, I just think that bumper sticker was printed months ago, and that regardless of what the Democrats say, that bumper sticker has been printed and readying to go. So there is confusion in the Democratic ranks to be sure, but the message out of the Republicans is still going to be the same.
O‘DONNELL: So why wasn‘t John Kerry able to convince more of his Democratic colleagues to vote for it and on the same token, why wasn‘t the Democrats in the Senate able to convince John Kerry, please don‘t offer this amendment?
DICKERSON: Well, it‘s hard to convince senators to stay in line, and it‘s particularly hard to get Democratic senators to stay in line, but also, some moderates are genuinely worried, and they‘re also worried about being painted as the party of cut and run. So they see this is a powerful argument. But you know, also we should be sure to remember that in the polls the Americans support the notion of a timetable. The problem for Democrats is how to get out from under the cut and run charge and get to the sort of more centrist Democratic position, which is we should put a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
O‘DONNELL: So, how do they do that?
DICKERSON: Well, it‘s tough. They don‘t have a single spokesman who can command the spotlight, and the other side does. It has the president and then it has Karl Rove, who‘s working behind the scene, so it‘s tough for the Democrats to get a unified message.
O‘DONNELL: The interesting argument that Senator Clinton made today on the Senate floor, and she supports what‘s called the Reid-Levin amendment, which is a phased redeployment, no open-ended commitment, but not a specific timetable that Senator Kerry is calling for, and she said the Republicans don‘t have a strategy for victory, what they have is an election strategy for November.
DICKERSON: Sure, it‘s a good sound byte and everybody has their sound bytes, and sort of the victory of the sound byte. I wonder whether it‘s going to change anybody‘s mind. The country is set and they think they know what they‘re going to think. I think the only thing that‘s going to change pubic opinion here is when the troops start coming home. But if you look at where the positions are here, everybody discussing about timetables and so forth, but the Republicans essentially know troops are going to start coming home by the end of this year.
General Casey said three quarters of, by the end of the summer the Iraqis will be in the lead in three quarters of the operations. By the end of the year, they will be in the lead in all operations. That means troops are coming home, and they may not want to talk about the timetable, but the best way to prepare to announce that troops are coming home is to say we‘re going to bring them home when the generals want, not by artificial timetables.
O‘DONNELL: A lot made the argument that Karl Rove is brilliant by saying that Iraq is our vulnerable issue, but we are going to take it head on and make a clear line. But what about the argument that that may be whatever, but, their fate sometimes rises and falls, the president‘s popularity ratings, on what happens on the ground in Iraq and they can‘t control that.
DICKERSON: Sure, can‘t control that. Although, Karl Rove is smart. They can‘t run away from a war, and what he also knows, though, is that they do control when troops come home, and so when troops are announced that they are coming home, the question will then be are those troops ready, and Republicans will say the commanders have told us. And that will be the question that we will all have to debate, is whether when we are told the troops are coming home, whether we believe the rational for that troop withdrawal.
O‘DONNELL: Alright, well thank you very much. Very interesting. We will keep watching as more votes are expected in the senate, John Dickerson.
And play HARDBALL with us again Thursday night when our guests include House Republican leader John Boehner. Right now it is time for “THE ABRAMS REPORT.”
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