MSNBC: Tim, what was this past week’s U.S. Senate overnight Iraq debate really all about?
Russert: The Democrats getting the Republicans on the record for a vote against the withdrawal of U.S. troops before their August recess. Several Republican senators have broken with the president, urging a new policy – a change in course – and the Democrats are saying, “OK, then vote for withdrawal.” And they’re not there yet.
MSNBC: So, they really didn’t expect to reach 60 votes, right?
Russert: No, but there is now a majority in favor of the withdrawal of American troops.
There’re two clocks here. We talk about the Baghdad clock and the Washington clock. But there’re also two Washington clocks – the Congressional clock and the White House clock.
The president’s not running for reelection. He wants to continue the war and then pass it off to the next president.
Congress, the entire House and third of the Senate, has to run in November of 2008. They need to be able to go back to their constituents saying, “We understand you don’t like this war and we’re taking steps to change course.”
MSNBC: So, the Democrats do think that, despite the slim majority they have right now and despite a Republican president, they think they can get to that 60 vote threshold – at least in the Senate, if not in the House?
Russert: They do. They think that the people are way ahead of the Congress on this issue and by the time the members come back after going to the barbecues and the parades during August and they hear the report from General Petraeus from Baghdad – which will say “we’re making some progress, but we need more time”, patience will have worn very, very thin.
MSNBC: What stands out to you from the National Intelligence Estimate released earlier this week?
Russert: The very strong conclusion is al-Qaida is alive and well and that we’re going to be on heightened alert for the next three years. We’re actually going to have Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence on this Sunday. This is his first television interview. He’s the man who oversaw the compilation of that report.
What happened? We had been to believe al-Qaida had been decentralized or at least their capacity had been degraded considerably. Now they seem to be back in robust form, almost to pre-September 11th levels. What happened and what is our real threat?
I think it will be an extraordinary opportunity to talk with this man as to what is the real terrorist threat and how do we deal with it.
MSNBC: Has al-Qaida gotten stronger because of us being in Iraq, or would al-Qaida be stronger if America were not there?
Russert: That’s the debate. And Richard Clarke, the former head of counterterrorism during the Clinton administration has just written an opinion piece saying we took our eye off the ball – off the pursuit of Osama bin Laden and moved troops and money and resources into Iraq.
What was the al-Qaida presence in Iraq before the invasion of American troops? That is a very important question for policymakers.
Also, Osama bin Laden – this is now July of 2007. They hit us on September 11 of 2001. Why is he still on the lam? Where do we think he is and what efforts are being made to apprehend him?
There are some very serious questions that have to be asked and, hopefully, Admiral McConnell will answer them.
We’re also going to talk to Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., on Sunday. He’s been very outspoken about his opposition to the war in Iraq and has expressed his concerns about electronic eavesdropping by our intelligence agencies.
Then, in our roundtable, we have Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, David Brooks of the New York Times and Stephen Hayes – who’s book is coming out this Sunday. It’s called, "Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President."
So we’ll have a very solid hour as we try to make sense of this world – All Sunday, on .