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On the campaign trail with John McCain

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on the destruction of the CIA tapes and the race for 2008.
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On Wednesday’s “Hardball,” Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain talked to Chris Matthews about the destruction of the CIA tapes and the race for 2008.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, 'HARDBALL:'  Senator, thank you.  Are you concerned about the burning of these torture tapes?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Yes.   Yes, I am, and you hear that there were judges that said that that should not take place.  I'm told that there were people in the White House who that shouldn't take place.  And even if it was cleared with everybody, it still contributes enormously to the cynicism and skepticism in the world about what America does to people who are in our custody.  And so I think it was very wrong.  Whether it was illegal or not, we're obviously going through the process of the judges.  I understand there was a story today that the judge has ordered the administration people to come before his court tomorrow.

MATTHEWS:  Are you concerned that the administration people at the highest level like Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general and Harriet Miers, the White House counsel and Addington with the vice president, and somebody from the National Security Agency, all were involved in a meeting where this was discussed before the tapes were destroyed?

MCCAIN:  I think, if there was a meeting, and I don't doubt the media reports, but  if there was a meeting, it should be fully explained, if that issue was discussed.  You can't have something like that happen which would give the appearance that the CIA is a rogue agency.

MATTHEWS:  When the president's counsel is in a meeting like that and the president's attorney general, the man he appointed and the chief of staff of the vice president are in the meeting, are you worried the principals themselves, the president and the vice president weren't giving the go ahead to the destruction of this evidence?  Does that worry you as a possibility?

MCCAIN:  I think most subordinates don't act on a major thing like that without their boss's say so.  But I'm confident that now, we will have a pretty complete investigation, either through the attorney general and/or through the courts.

MATTHEWS:  You think we should find out whether the president was involved in the go-ahead to destroy these tapes?

MCCAIN:  Sure.  I think we should take the investigation wherever it leads.  But I would be surprised, very much surprised if the president were involved in that decision, just because I don't think he would do such a thing.

MATTHEWS:  It's hard to keep up with the way people look at things like torture.  You had firsthand experience.  Are you surprised that you're sort of the only one, the only voice in your party that's expressed really passionate concern about the misuse of the United States' authority when we have someone in our custody?

MCCAIN:  Well, it concerns me when people think that somehow that it is effective and it gives reliable and unreliable information.  But the thing that concerns me most of all is the moral standing of the United States in the world.  By the way, I'm not the only Republican.  Colin Powell has weighed in heavily on this…

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  Another soldier.

MCCAIN:  Yeah.  It's interesting.  Those who have served in uniform are uniformly against such a thing, and those who haven't seem to think that it's effective.  It's not effective, it's not reliable.  We tried Japanese for war crimes, after World War II, who water boarded American prisoners of war.  Now, how do you then justify, if we tried Japanese for committing war crimes, how can we justify doing that same thing? 

So, there's many arguments I can have, whether it be the moral high ground, whether it be effective or not, and whether we think that this, well, let me put it this way, I believe we're going to win this war against radical Islamic extremists in the ideological battleground.

MATTHEWS:  We'll be the good guys.

MCCAIN:  We'll have the moral high ground.  You lose the moral high ground when you do something like this.  Let me relate one incidence I had recently.  I was in Iraq, I met with a former high-ranking member of al Qaeda. 

I asked him, what was the reasons for their success?  He said, one was the lawlessness and total chaos after our initial victory, because we didn't have control of the country, and two, Abu Ghraib.  Abu Ghraib, he said, was his greatest recruiting tool.  I rest my case.

MATTHEWS:  You have some hostages to destiny yourself.  You've got service people in your family.

MCCAIN:  Yes.  And also my constiuents and what Colin Powell and a lot of the military worry about of course, as you well know, is that if we do this to people, then what's going to happen in future wars?  Not against al Qaeda, but were at war against another nation, and they decide that they're going to torture people because  our men and women in the military because we did.  And let me just add one point. 

Why do you think it is the British didn't torture German pilots during the Battle of Britain, where the survival of the British Empire, the island, was at stake and they captured German pilots?  I'll tell you, the main reason is, because they knew that British pilots were going to be in the hands of the Germans.

MATTHEWS:  Pretty soon.

MCCAIN:  OK?  And so anyway, it's just baffles me.  It baffles me that people could say that the United States of America would get the reputation in the world for doing such things.

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of Governor Romney being somewhat different in his view than you have?

MCCAIN:  I had a fairly spirited discussion with him at a debate and I just said, I don't think you understand the issue, if you would condone such behavior.

MATTHEWS:  This race up here in New Hampshire, you look out the window, the snow, by the way, doesn't go away until May here.  Let me ask you about - you've been going through the snows of New Hampshire and the latest polling we've got out tonight has you in the top two and I think it's fair to say without pushing it, you two seem to be out there alone now.  You and Governor Romney from the nearby State of Massachusetts.  Do you have to beat him here in his own bailiwick to call it a victory for you that night on the 8th?

MCCAIN:  You know, Chris, I have to, quote, win.  But whether I win or not is up to you and others.  In other words, the expectation level, how you do when compared to what is expected...

MATTHEWS:  How about getting the most votes.  Is that a win?

MCCAIN:  I think that's a win.

MATTHEWS:  But Clinton last time won by - he lost by eight points to Tsongas, the former governor - former senator from Massachusetts and he called himself the Comeback Kid.  Can you pull a Clinton?  Are you as quick as Clinton to claim victory here?

MCCAIN:  I'm not sure you can get away with it ...


MCCAIN:  Twice, I'm not sure.  In other words, somebody said, How can you win in Iowa, you know?  And it is exceeding expectations, is obviously a very big part of this thing.  You and I have known too many times where someone who was expected to win big and  didn't win very big, and all of a sudden they were losers.


MCCAIN:  So it's expectations level.

MATTHEWS:  I remember Muskie was supposed to win up here by a certain amount and one of his staffers said, If we don't get 50 percent, I'll cut my throat, well, he should have.

Anyway, let me ask you about authenticity.  Without, again, biasing anything, it seems like your comeback in the polls is real and Obama's thrust in the polls are being driven by a sense that you two are who you look like?

MCCAIN:  Yes, and maybe a reexamination, in my case, of the candidates.  I think that the endorsements don't lead someone to say they're going to vote for you, but I think they say, have another look at this individual. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think Mr. Lieberman, your colleague in the Senate from Connecticut, a hawkish Democrat, do you think he helps you up here with the independents?

MCCAIN:  Enormously.  But I also think the fundamental here is that such a large percentage are still undecided.  As you well know, from many years back, New Hampshire citizens are undecided a lot.  But there is more undecided, I think, then there has been in any time in the past because there is no establishment candidate.

There is no Ronald Reagan, Bush I, Bob Dole, Bush II.  There is no establishment candidate here and so I think we're going - and 42 percent of the voters now are independent registered, so how that independent goes and who they - which side they decide to vote on, it's going to be a fascinating - we're going to be in for a fascinating evening.

MATTHEWS:  Are you concerned about this election getting so focused on religion?  I never saw so many religious messages come on TV.  I was up this morning, Mr. Huckabee, Governor Huckabee with a very religious appeal.  Rudy Giuliani was more of a lighthearted, secular religious ad.  Your ad didn't do that.  Is this now a battle of who's more Christian?

MCCAIN:  No, but I think that it seems to be a lot of emphasis on that.  But I think Governor Huckabee's popularity has a lot to do with his performance in the debates and his likeability in which he comes across as a very kind of decent person who has a good sense of humor.  That line he had about Jesus had a good enough sense not to run for public office.  The thing I was glad  about this debate is that we had not talked more about health care, we had not talked about education, the war, Iran ...

MATTHEWS:  Let's do that right now.  We have a few minutes.  I was impressed by Joe Lieberman, a good friend of yours endorsing you in the way that he did and I said, well, looking for news, which is my job, I said what's the difference between him and the president you have now, President George W. Bush?  And will he be better than Bush?  And he said, yeah, he'll be better than Bush.  He said he'll be better and I said why?  He said because he will be more open. 

Bush does have a bit of stubbornness  and then you'd be open.  So there I come to you with the endorsement from your friend Joe Lieberman and I ask you is that a correct endorsement?  In other words, are you going to be more open on issues?  Or let me ask you more positively.  Are you a guy who can see the other side?

MCCAIN:  Yeah.  And I can reach across the aisle.  I proved that on many occasions but the number one of course is to win the struggle against radical Islamic extremism but we've got to restore trust and confidence in government and you've got to do that by frequent press conferences, by going on television even if C-SPAN and of course HARDBALL carries it.  You've got to increase the level of communications because there's such skepticism out there.

MATTHEWS:  If you win, we'll cover your press conferences.

MCCAIN:  Thank you, sir.  You may regret it.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about those.  If you're open minded through negotiation, is there anyway to unite this country around very difficult foreign policy questions?  Let me start with one.  Iran.  Is the way to build a 70 something percent majority in this country, where most people substantially agree with the policy?  Is that possible?

MCCAIN:  Yeah.  Because I think that progress in Iraq affects Iran, Syria and the entire region.  Yeah.  I do.  But I think it's got to be explained to people.  There has got to be a - I got to explain to people I don't want to sit down across the table from the president of Iran as long as he sponsors terrorist organizations. 

As long as he is dedicated to the extinction of the State of Israel.  But if he wants to communicate there is plenty of ways to communicate without me enhancing his prestige sitting across the table from him.  Those kinds of things have to be explained to the American people and you travel around, you know as well as I, the level of skepticism about government is higher than I've seen - I don't know if it's higher than you've seen.  You go back to Tip O'Neil.

MATTHEWS:  Well, I'm looking at issues like WMD and the particular question of nuclear weapons and we weren't able to find anyway.  Maybe they were there somewhere in Iraq but we haven't found them yet.  There is the National Intelligence Estimate - the National Intelligence Estimate says we don't have an immediate clear and present danger from Iran right now but I'll tell you one thing about something I do cover and that's politics and up here and across the country, for the first time, Iraq is receding as a current campaign issue.  It is going down from 46 to 36 percent.  As the number one mentioned issue.  What does that tell you about your prospects?

MCCAIN:  (Inaudible) dramatically and I want to emphasize al Qaeda is not defeated.  They're on the run but they're not defeated and there are still enormous challenges in Iraq.  There has been a lot of good news.  Suicide bombers are the hardest thing to counter in warfare.  But can I go to Iran for a second?  I think that NIE may have misled us to some degree because I think that the weaponizing of nuclear weapons is the easiest part and if they continue the enrichment process then I think we've still got a major challenge on our hands.

MATTHEWS:  But if they're going to build a weapon, why wouldn't they be building a weapon?

MCCAIN:  I think because you can wait until you have sufficient enriched material and then move forward with the weaponization as well.  If they had taken the Russian deal or had halted their enrichment of uranium I would feel a lot of better. 

Switching back to Iraq again, I'm glad it is fading from the front pages because that's the only sure sign of success.  And I hope people know as it has receded as an issue, and I say with great selfishness, that people will recognize, that I'm the one that opposed Rumsfeld and supported this strategy which I think would help than make a judgment, would help them make a decision about my judgment.

MATTHEWS:  Will troops in Iraq be an issue in the next presidential election?  Will we still have so many troops in Iraq, I really need to know this from you, will it still be such a crying issue at home, we have so many troops in Iraq that it's going to be an issue that hounds us in the next presidential election.

MCCAIN:  I believe that if we proceed on this path and don't withdraw too quickly, that the key to is that casualties will be way down.  It's not American presence, it's American casualties.  We've still got American troops in Bosnia.  We've got them in South Korea.  We've got them in Japan.  Americans will willingly accept the deployment of troops but they want the casualties down and if we can continue this way under this great guy Petraeus, he should have been "Time" magazine's man of the year.

MATTHEWS:  Will you, to use your phrase, and I know you would never do this, will you - I know you would never do this - will you win in New Hampshire?

MCCAIN:  Thank you, Chris, Thank you.

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