Guests: Michael Wolff, Bob Zelnick, Richard Shelby, Bill Nelson, Mark Bowden
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld makes a surprise trip to Baghdad to rally the troops and address the prisoner abuse scandal.
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DONALD RUMSFELD, U. S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I was stunned. It was a body blow. And with six or seven investigations underway, those involved, whoever they are, will be brought to justice.
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MATTHEWS: But the question remains who was in charge of that prison in Iraq? We‘ll talk to two U.S. senators trying to get some answers. And at home, public perception of the scandal hits hard with a new poll finding president bush‘s job approval rating has fallen to 44 percent. The lowest level of his presidency. Let‘s play HARDBALL.
Good evening, I‘m Chris Matthews. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld toured the Baghdad prison where Americans abused Iraqi detainees. The surprise trip to Iraq comes amid a growing uproar, both at home and abroad over the abuse scandal, and in a moment I‘ll ask Senators Bill Nelson and Richard Shelby who should be held accountable for the actions of the Americans who abused Iraqi prisoners. But first, we get the latest on Rumsfeld‘s surprise trip from NBC‘s Carl Rochelle in Baghdad.
CARL ROCHELLE, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Well, Chris, whirlwind is the only way to describe it. The secretary in and out of the country here in a little over seven hours. He met with General Ricardo Sanchez, the head of the military forces here and Ambassador Paul Bremer to discuss the situation. A quick trip out to the now notorious Abu Ghraib prison where those abuses of prisoners took place and he chatted with the troops out there for about 15 minutes, and then on to a town hall meeting where the reception he received was warm, it was friendly. Quite different from anything that he had run into in Washington in the last several days, where not only was he criticized, but there were major calls for his resignation. Here is the way the Dick and Rummy show looked from this perspective.
RUMSFELD: I‘m told that we‘re supposed to stay here and answer some questions. That‘s our favorite thing to do.
GENERAL RICHARD MYERS, CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: And you‘d think we‘d get better at it with all our practice.
RUMSFELD: It‘s generally a lot more fun here than it is back home.
ROCHELLE: Well, it wasn‘t all fun and games. There was a serious nature to this, too. Because he was here to build morale and let the troops know that they were taking measures to ensure that there would be no more abuses like those that had taken place at Abu Ghraib and those who were involved in it would be punished. Here‘s the secretary.
RUMSFELD: It was a body blow. And with six or seven investigations underway and a country that has values and a military justice system that has values, we know that those involved, whoever they are, will be brought to justice.
ROCHELLE: He also answered some questions about those armored Humvees. More on the way, he said, 200 to 225 being turned out a month and on the way to this area here. 138,000 troops in the country now. He said they will be here until 2005, Chris?
MATTHEWS: Thank you, NBC‘s Carl Rochelle in Baghdad. Senator Bill Nelson is a Democrat from Florida and a member of the Armed Services Committee and Senator Richard Shelby is a Republican from Alabama and is former chairman of the Intelligence Committee. Senator Shelby, was this Bob Hope and Bing Crosby going to Baghdad or was this a serious effort to get to the bottom of this thing?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY, ® ALABAMA: I think it was a serious effort. I think it would be depicted as many things, though, Chris. I was with Secretary Rumsfeld and General Myers yesterday at the Defense Appropriations Committee meeting most of the morning. He realizes, he, Secretary Rumsfeld, realizes that we‘ve got a real stain on us right now and we‘ve got some morale problems coming out of this, and we‘ve got to get it out of the way. And I think the sooner the better. And we‘ve got to let this investigation go wherever the facts will lead it. We cannot put up with this. This is not the American way. Actually, it‘s detrimental to our soldiers that serve so honorably and are serving today so honorably overseas and anywhere else in the world.
MATTHEWS: Are you confident we can have a real clearing of the air here, with a really good trial, where there‘s witnesses that come in, up the line, where the defense attorneys can bring the majors in and generals to come in and say what the orders were?
SHELBY: Well, I think that it is probably more—and this is just my judgment at this point—more than two or three people. Somebody created the atmosphere, the environment for this to come about. I mean, this didn‘t just happen overnight by one or two people. I don‘t believe that at all.
MATTHEWS: Do you think the American people can take the truth, if it turns out bad, that there were bad orders coming down?
SHELBY: I think the American people want the truth. We should always bring out the truth like this and go on to the next round. Because we stand for something in America. We have high values. We‘re not for terrorist killings, we‘re not for beheading people and we‘re not for torture.
MATTHEWS: Let me go to Senator Nelson. Senator Nelson, you saw another batch of pictures yesterday. What‘s your assessment as a political figure that these were systematic behavior or unsystematic misbehavior? What was it in the pictures that you could discern?
SEN. BILL NELSON, (D) FLORIDA: The most revealing, Chris, was the cell block picture that most Americans have seen where the naked prisoners are bound up and the guards are going about their business, and we saw the picture, same one, but uncropped. And you could see a lot more soldiers in the picture, and it was almost business as usual, which certainly suggested to me that they were operating, if not under direct orders, clearly under a wink and a nod, and that‘s where I want it to go up the chain of command. I want those responsible held accountable.
MATTHEWS: What about the pictures—now, I know you can‘t say exactly. But let me let you allude to them. Senator Nelson, there‘s pictures apparently that showed kind of odd situations, like men having some sort of either masturbation going on or male to male, some sort of closeness that would be sexual in nature. We‘ve also heard stories there may have been American male to female sexual relations in the company or in the presence of these detainees. Is that within the ballpark of what you saw, Senator Shelby?
SHELBY: Well, you‘re getting close to a lot of things we saw, a lot of it we saw—well, most of it we saw was despicable, deplorable, and I can tell you a lot of it would probably remind you of some of the worst pornographic scenes you could think of.
MATTHEWS: Do you share Senator Nelson‘s sense that it was part of military business, that there was actually military soldiers present to the occasions where there were people walking around that suggested this was part of the regular events of life on that block?
SHELBY: I hope it was not part of the regular events. That would be up to the investigators to find out, Chris. But it‘s behavior that the American people, all of them, will find deplorable. We‘ve got to get it out of our system. We‘ve got to root it out of the armed services, because it‘s detrimental to our armed forces. It‘s detrimental to what America stands for.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask Senator Nelson about what‘s in and what‘s out in terms of American decency. “War is hell” somebody once said and the fact is we‘re involved in an occupation, which means we are facing a resistance, which means we have to counter an insurgency, which means we have to crack that insurgency, which means you have to get intel from people who don‘t want to give it to us. How do you get it?
NELSON: Well, you get it, and you can certainly use certain methods of interrogation. But they have to be within the bounds of human decency. And they also, when you‘re dealing with representatives of another state, they have to be according to the Geneva Convention.
MATTHEWS: Do you believe those terrorists should be covered by Geneva Convention rules?
NELSON: I‘m sorry, I couldn‘t hear.
MATTHEWS: Should terrorists, people that are not in uniform, people that are not in any military outfit, should they be considered combatants?
NELSON: No. That is an exception. Where you have a state to state, where there is a uniformed military of a state, we‘re bound by the Geneva Convention. On the enemy combatants, they call them, which are not related to a state, such as the terrorists, the bin Ladens, then they‘re dealing with those in a different way. Although I can tell you, I‘ve been twice to Guantanamo and I think they are adhering to the Geneva Convention there.
MATTHEWS: Well, what about the terrorists on the very prison block we‘re talking about at Abu Ghraib? At Abu Ghraib we‘re dealing with terrorists or potential terrorists. What‘s wrong with treating them roughly?
SHELBY: Well, I think there‘s a difference, Chris, a difference between treating someone roughly and interrogating them to the best of your ability. And some of the scenes I saw, I see no redeeming value as far as getting information out of people from the pictures that I saw. And I probably saw 400 frames yesterday. Maybe 500.
MATTHEWS: You know, Senator Nelson, when we first saw those pictures a lot of people thought they were souvenir pictures, people that are hot dogging it and sending pictures back to their relatives, because you can do that electronically now. Do we know whether they were souvenir pictures or they were perhaps they were actually the tools of interrogation, black mail methods to say to the prisoners “If you don‘t talk we‘re going to show those to your relatives?” Do we know what those pictures are yet?
NELSON: It could be both, Chris. But there‘s no excuse for lining up people in a naked position that suggests that you‘re going to sodomize them. And there‘s no excuse for the guy with the rope tied around him with his hands behind him, where they‘re banging his head against a steel bar. That‘s not any kind of behavior within the bounds of human decency that Americans should be engaged in.
MATTHEWS: We understand through the reporting, Senator Shelby, and you were on intelligence. You were chairman of intelligence. The CIA, when it comes to the top level bad guys, like Khalid Mohammed, that there is an extreme standard that applies, where you can do things that are much rougher and crueler than you can do with the lower level people. Are you familiar with that situation?
SHELBY: I‘m familiar with some of it, but I have never witnessed any of the interrogations. I‘ve been told of some of it. And there are different degrees of it. Again, the pictures, from what I saw, 400 or 500 frames, I see no—nothing coming out of that, other than cruelty, injustice and something violating the basic tenets of our values.
MATTHEWS: OK, thank you very much, Senator Nelson and Senator Shelby. Coming up, the dark art of interrogation from men who studied it. Mark Bowden, the author of “Black Hawk Down” on what it takes to get information out of terrorist suspects. You‘re watching HARDBALL, and it is HARDBALL tonight on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. What‘s in and what‘s out when it comes to interrogating prisoners? Is it ever justifiable under international law to use hardball or coercive measures? “Black Hawk Down” author Mark Bowden wrote about the dark art of interrogation for the “Atlantic Monthly” last year. Mark, thank you for joining us. When you saw those pictures of what was going on in that cell block over in Iraq, did that look like it was within the range of the kinds of things that we have to do to get stuff out of people?
MARK BOWDEN, AUTHOR: No, it didn‘t resemble any kind of interrogation method that I‘m aware of. I guess in the explanations I‘ve heard since, you know, maybe you could stretch a point. But it‘s doubtful to me that most of those pictures depict any kind of interrogation.
MATTHEWS: Have you ever heard of the use of taking pictures of people in embarrassing positions, sexual positions, or whatever to use as blackmail and to break a prisoner?
BOWDEN: No, I never have.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about this whole stripping of people, putting them in sexually humiliating situations just to break them psychologically, without the pictures. Have you ever heard of that?
BOWDEN: That‘s possible. I think that a skillful interrogator will assess the person he‘s trying to get information from and will use whatever kinds of methods he thinks would be most appropriate, and humiliation is certainly a potential tool.
MATTHEWS: Well, what about that picture we‘ve all gotten too used to, which is a picture of a bunch of Arab guys bundled together like a bundle of sticks or firewood, naked? What‘s that about? Does that look like some sort of humiliating tactic that‘s in the standard books?
BOWDEN: That one picture does look to me more like any of the others, like it‘s some kind of systematic operation. And if it is, it suggests that there is coercive interrogation going on at a scale that‘s really against our own rules, against any kind of international agreement, and I think improper and immoral.
MATTHEWS: How do you do the coercive versus torture issue? Can you coerce and not torture? And where‘s the line-Is there any even notion of what that line is?
BOWDEN: No. I think it‘s a matter of judgment, Chris. Clearly there‘s no way to draw a simple line defining torture light or coercion from torture. Because any method, even sleep deprivation, can be used to such an extent that it really becomes torture. So, you know, I think that the real question to ask is if you get to the point where you‘re justified in coercing information from somebody, the real question to ask is what works.
MATTHEWS: Well, let me ask you about what works. I think water boarding might work for me. Where you dunk the guy under the water for so many times and in for such long durations that he thinks he‘s drowning. Would you consider that coercion or torture?
BOWDEN: I think you‘ve crossed over into torture there, in my judgment. One definition you could place on torture would be that it does some sort of physical damage. And so by that definition, you know, the water torture or water coercion can be done in such a way that it doesn‘t permanently damage someone. But it‘s terrifying. It‘s a perfect example of how you can‘t clearly draw a line between coercion and torture.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the nature of the enemy we‘re facing. We‘re facing a religiously and culturally committed people who are fighting not just for their part of the world, but for their whole way of looking at the world. When you have to face that kind of an enemy, a hostile, menacing, strong-minded enemy, a committed enemy, don‘t you raise the ladder there? Don‘t you have to go up further in terms of torture, and isn‘t that the type of danger that it would brutalizes us?
BOWDEN: There‘s always that danger that it would brutalize us, yes, and the first point is that it‘s actually a very rare person who is a candidate, I think, for any kind of coercive interrogation. Most people, first of all, most people in those Iraqi prisons are probably fairly low level. In fact, from most accounts I‘ve read, a lot of them don‘t even belong there. The sorting out process for most of those people should, I would think, narrow it down to a very, very small number who would possess information that we would regard as vital, important enough to save American lives, to save Iraqi lives, that would justify the use of any kind of coercive tactics.
MATTHEWS: In other words, we jack it up in terms of how important they are.
BOWDEN: I think that‘s right. I think that you‘re in very morally repugnant terrain, certainly, any time that you‘re trying to force information out of an uncooperative witness. So I think that you would only use tactics like those with someone who has information that you feel would be critically important and very valuable. And I think very few people fall into that category.
MATTHEWS: We know that the Secretary of Defense as of the news reports of the last week said that he didn‘t think you should interrogate a guy for more than 24 hours at a time. Does that seem tough or lenient? Or you can never put a prisoner totally in the dark forever, for a long period of time. Where would you put that line, those two lines?
BOWDEN: I think you need to—I wouldn‘t draw any lines, as I‘ve said.
I don‘t believe it‘s possible to draw lines. It depends on the individual. It depends upon the situation. But certainly limiting it to 24 hours would so limit any potential for being successful that you might as well just ban it all together.
MATTHEWS: OK, thank you very much, Mark Bowden, author of “Black Hawk Down.” He had just written this piece, in fact he wrote it last year, about use of torture and coercion and getting the truth out of people. Up next, a look back at the history of court martials one week before legal proceedings begin against the soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners. You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Next Wednesday, the U.S. military will hold the first court-martial in the Iraqi prison abuse scandal. And as HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster reports, court-martials have been front and center throughout American military history.
DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: (voice-over) In Baghdad the U.S. military is now outlining the ground rules for media coverage of next week‘s prisoner abuse-related court-martial.
BRIG GEN MARK KIMMIT, DEP DIR FOR COALITION OPERATIONS: It is a practice of the U.S. military that in open hearing we allow family and observers and we allow print reporters. It has not been our practice in the past to allow cameras inside.
SHUSTER: Court martial proceedings date back to the Revolutionary War. One of the first involved, a general who disobeyed orders from his commanding officer, George Washington. During the Civil War a military panel investigated the assassination of President Lincoln. Eight suspects were convicted. Four of them received the death penalty and were hanged in public. But the most famous court-martial in American history came during Vietnam. In 1968, Lieutenant William Cally led his Charlie Company, 11th Brigade, into the village of My Lai.
GENERAL WILLIAM PEERS, U.S. ARMY: Our inquiry clearly established that a tragedy of major proportions occurred there on that date.
SHUSTER: The tragedy was actually a massacre of 300 Vietnamese civilians. An army sergeant was there and took pictures of the gruesome rampage.
RONALD HAEBERLE, FMR U.S. ARMY SERGEANT: They were about ready to shoot these people, and I said hold it and the GIs moved back and I shot this picture of them, and the mother trying to protect the daughter. The GIs kicked her, pushed her around, pushed her down on the ground, more or less trying to beat her up. And finally, that‘s the final shot right there just before these people were shot. I just turned and started to walk away, and out of the corner of my eye I saw these bodies dropping over.
SHUSTER: For his part, Calley allegedly rounded up a group of visitors, ordered them into a ditch and mowed them down with the fury of machine-gun fire.
SEN EDWARD KENNEDY, (D) MA: My Lai and the Calley trial are about the latest episodes in the fundamental immorality of the war.
SHUSTER: Calley was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. But he was released three years later following several appeals. President Nixon called My Lai an isolated act and said the service of most soldiers in Vietnam was honorable.
RICHARD NIXON, U.S. PRESIDENT: The atrocity charges in individual cases should not and cannot be allowed to reflect on their courage and their self-sacrifice.
SHUSTER: In the prisoner abuse scandal, the strategy of President Bush has been similar.
BUSH: But the actions of a few do not reflect on the fantastic character of the over 200,000 men and women who have served our nation.
SHUSTER: The abuse of Iraqi prisoners doesn‘t even begin to compare to the massacre of Vietnamese civilians. But like My Lai, the scandal at Abu Ghraib could undermine public support for the overall U.S. mission. The latest Gallup poll shows the President‘s approval rating on Iraq has dropped to 41 percent, the lowest since the war began.
SHUSTER: And it‘s another reason the Bush administration wants to make a big show of the justice that will be handed out during the military trials. The court-martials begin next week. I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.
MATTHEWS: Thank you, David Shuster. Up next, are the media being fair in their coverage of the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal? We‘ll take a look with “Vanity Fair‘s” Michael Wolff and former Pentagon correspondent Bob Zelnick. And later, new polls out show President Bush‘s job approval ratings dropping. We‘ll talk about it with Pat Buchanan. You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: This half-hour on HARDBALL, is the media‘s coverage of the Iraqi prison abuse scandal fair? Michael Wolff and Bob Zelnick will be here to fight that one out. Plus, new polls have President Bush‘s job approval rating at 44 percent, the lowest in his presidency.
But, first, the latest headlines right now.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
Coverage of the Iraqi prisoner abuse story has been nonstop for several days, so much so that the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, says he has stopped reading the newspapers to keep from going crazy.
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DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I have stopped reading newspapers.
RUMSFELD: You‘ve got to keep your sanity somehow.
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MATTHEWS: Michael Wolff writes for “Vanity Fair” magazine. And Bob Zelnick was a Pentagon correspondent for ABC News and is now acting chairman of the journalism department at Boston University.
Let me start with you, Bob Zelnick.
You used to cover the Pentagon. Your sense of the coverage, what‘s been in its effect in the field, what‘s been in its effect inside the Pentagon and in the field?
BOB ZELNICK, FORMER ABC NEWS PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: I think the coverage by and large has been fair. This is a very important story. I‘m moved by the fact that according to General Taguba, this was a systemic problem. It reflected on training. It reflected on discipline. It reflected on leadership.
And it also reflected on the fact that the Pentagon planners did not really envision having to take care of 20,000, 25,000 Iraqi detainees. It was another example of their planning on the basis of best-case assumptions and getting caught flat-footed when those assumptions didn‘t pan out. So it‘s an important story. I think it does have an effect on morale.
But I think, as a free society, we have to swallow that in order to get the truth out.
MATTHEWS: Let me go to Michael Wolff.
In fact, I think Bob makes a point there we ought to talk about, which is, does this story that disgusts everybody and horrifies a lot of people, these pictures, do they in fact point to a failure of the top level of the administration, not the bad apples at the bottom, but maybe the bad apples at the top, to foresee that we were going to have a dirty, if not—we were going to have a pretty rough occupation that would mean we‘re going to face resistance, we‘re going to deal with counterinsurgency requirements, which often get ugly?
Is that what this has exposed?
MICHAEL WOLFF, “VANITY FAIR”: Well, I think the answer in this instance is kind of a “duh.”
It certainly does. What it says is that the guys who are running this war in no uncertain terms lack a degree of competence. This is, among other things—and let‘s forget the moral lapses. Let‘s forget the grotesqueness. Let‘s forget the pure shock of this. This is about just incredible bumbling. I mean, they obviously went into this whole enterprise absolutely unprepared.
MATTHEWS: But what about that great line in “A Few Good Men,” where Jack Nicholson‘s character, the old, real military lifer, says, you can‘t stand the truth?
Can, Bob, the American people, do they have the stomach for an occupation, which is what we‘re in right now, which requires all this counterinsurgency and it requires all this cracking of undergrounds and requires tough interrogations?
ZELNICK: I think we do have the stomach for an occupation. I think we do have the stomach for a plan to try to democratize that part of the world, at least Iraq. I think we do have a plan—we do have a tolerance for an antiterrorism campaign.
But that doesn‘t mean that anything goes. It doesn‘t mean that planning failures are excused. I doesn‘t mean that conduct or authority and leadership are allowed to run amuck the way they were in this particular instance?
MATTHEWS: Do you think the media coverage has run amuck? Do you think—and you said it‘s OK so far. Especially in cable television, there‘s a sense of 24/7 coverage, so if you sat there all day long and watched MSNBC from the time you got up to the time you went to bed, you would see a lot of the pictures. But if you take a normal level of human consumption of the news, an hour or two at the most, do you think it‘s overplayed, it runs the risk of being overplayed?
ZELNICK: I think there is a risk. I don‘t think we are approaching the limits of that situation at this point in time.
I would, for example, be wary about publishing lots of additional pictures, should they fall into the hands of the media, as they undoubtedly will at one time or another. I think the purpose of information has been served and I don‘t think you want to wallow in every last visual of every last atrocity that was committed over there.
MATTHEWS: Michael, do you agree?
MATTHEWS: Michael Wolff, do you agree that we hold off on the dirty pictures?
WOLFF: I disagree entirely with this.
No. 1, I don‘t think we have the stomach for an occupation. There‘s
nothing to suggest that we have the stomach for it. And certainly if the
occupation means these kinds of pictures, we‘re not going to last another
10 minutes there. But the other thing is
MATTHEWS: Do we kill the pictures or kill the occupation?
WOLFF: Well, we‘re going to kill the occupation, because the pictures are the reality. We cannot kill the pictures. The pictures exist. They will continue to exist.
And it‘s not only the media here. It‘s the media around the world. The pictures are—and, now, this is—let‘s not—I want to cast this, really emphasize this. The pictures are as real now as the war itself. They are part of the field of battle.
ZELNICK: And it‘s our job, it‘s our job as journalists to put it into perspective. There are plenty of good pictures that have been shown from Iraq.
WOLFF: I think I disagree.
It‘s not our job to put it in perspective. As a matter of fact, that would be wrong. This is—these pictures exist. They are reality. And we can‘t spin them.
ZELNICK: This is a story. That‘s right. And it‘s a legitimate story
to cover. But so is a story of extending electricity. So is the story of
reopening schools. So is the story of
WOLFF: No, no, actually, that‘s.
MATTHEWS: Michael, why is it not true that somebody like Chris Wallace on a Sunday morning does a lot of this constructive journalism, or positive journalism, that Bob describes. Why is it not responsible to do that?
WOLFF: It‘s going to be wiped away. Even if there is something that‘s constructive there, that will be obviated by these pictures.
MATTHEWS: I see.
WOLFF: You won‘t be able to do that. This undermines everything.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, Bob. You‘re a tough guy, Bob. And you know how networks work, because you worked so long with them and you‘ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. Do you think there‘s any network of the major four of five networks that wouldn‘t run these pictures if they got them from this latest batch?
ZELNICK: The answer is no. But that doesn‘t stop an old professor like me from criticizing them if they wallow in it.
MATTHEWS: But the question is, if these are qualitatively different from the first batch of pictures, if these show homosexual sex acts, homosexual—sex by the people guarding the prisoners, all kinds of graphic ways to humiliate them on a different level than we‘ve seen already, you say hold the pictures?
ZELNICK: No. I think if there is a new level of wrongdoing, that perhaps some selective showing of the pictures is warranted.
Look, I‘m not trying to dodge this story.
WOLFF: We‘re going to see these pictures around the world.
ZELNICK: I‘m not trying to dodge this story. I think it‘s an important story. I think the press is responsible in covering it, and covering it in-depth and covering it with considerable attention.
WOLFF: It certainly seems like you‘re trying to compartmentalize the story.
ZELNICK: But we do have to provide overall editorial perspective on what the mission is in Iraq.
ZELNICK: And not say that because I have a picture here of soldiers committing wrongdoing that that‘s the story and we don‘t have to cover anything else about what‘s going on over there. I think that‘s ridiculous.
MATTHEWS: Was “The Dallas Morning News” right, Michael? And Michael first.
Was “The Dallas Morning News” wrong in showing the picture of Nick Berg‘s head, basically, behind that black box? In other words, they showed the picture with the black—we‘re looking at it now. They blacked out his head, actually. But they show the guy, the terrorist waving it there in the air, basically. Is that legitimate journalism or is that too close?
WOLFF: You know, I have a great problem with all of this of us trying to qualify the reality. Yes, of course it‘s legitimate journalism. This happened. It has meaning. It will affect how things go forward.
MATTHEWS: Do you think “Vanity Fair” would show the actual decapitated head of Nicholas Berg?
WOLFF: You know, that‘s a low blow, Chris.
MATTHEWS: No, I‘m asking.
MATTHEWS: It‘s not a low blow, because you were saying—you were basically saying it‘s not the job of journalists to edit reality, as you put it. So I‘m asking you the graphic question. We‘re talking—I don‘t mean to take a low blow. I thought it‘s where we were at in this discussion, which is, what is the low blow?
And I think that we would probably would—the magazine probably would do that if the story were such, if we were writing that kind of story and it was about that, yes. I mean, I certainly think that we should do it.
MATTHEWS: Let‘s come back and talk about the problem we have here, which is, the world is involved in terrorism. All of us agree on that.
And one of the tools, in fact, the true heart of terrorism is to scare the hell out of people by making them think they‘re the next ones to get beheaded. And that‘s what‘s going on with these pictures. And that‘s what‘s going on, on the other side of this world.
We‘ll be back with Michael Wolff and Bob Zelnick.
You‘re watching HARDBALL. And it is on HARDBALL.
MATTHEWS: We‘re coming back with more on the media coverage of the prisoner abuse scandal. And later, President Bush‘s job approval rating hits a new low. Pat Buchanan will be here.
HARDBALL back in a minute.
MATTHEWS: We‘re back with Michael Wolff and Bob Zelnick.
I want to talk to you about the reality of the way play the media. The secretary of defense, a very likable guy, by the way, I spent a lot of time with him last week, he‘s over there in Baghdad.
But wasn‘t that basically, Bob, a P.R. stunt? Basically it was meant to get on national television. It was meant to be played by the press. It is sort of like—it wasn‘t exactly a victory lap, but it had a lot of almost—those two guys together at the podium, he and General Myers, it was like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, road to Baghdad. Are we supposed to play that up as a happy-go-lucky event when in fact he‘s in the middle of a major scandal?
ZELNICK: I saw the video of the secretary in Iraq. It didn‘t strike me as a happy-go-lucky event.
MATTHEWS: Oh, those yuck-yucks at that podium, though, Bob. They were yucking it up with the troops. He was towel-snapping. They were kidding about the media coverage. It was brilliant P.R.
ZELNICK: I think it‘s important for the secretary of defense to try to keep morale as high as possible under the circumstances. I‘m not a defender of Donald Rumsfeld. I think that the planning for this war was gravely flawed, the execution was gravely flawed. But I think so long as he remains in that chair, he has to do what he thinks is necessary.
MATTHEWS: Was he spending a lot of U.S. dollars in gasoline, airplane gasoline, to save his job?
WOLFF: Even more to the point, what he was trying to do was overshadow the story that is threatening to take his job. I mean, that‘s clearly what happened. This week, they sat down. They said, we‘re in trouble. What do we do? How do we preempt this story?
WOLFF: Somebody said, go to Baghdad.
ZELNICK: The story cannot be preempted. What they‘re trying to do is lend some alternative events to the scene.
WOLFF: That‘s not what they‘re doing. I disagree completely. That‘s
either naive or
MATTHEWS: OK, let me start with Michael here. I‘ve got to ask some technical questions, news judgment questions.
“60 Minutes”—“60 Minutes II” held the photos that we talked about the last week or so for two weeks before putting them on the air, obviously, out of discretion. They had them. They didn‘t put them on right away, out of perhaps deference to General Myers‘ request. Was that a good news judgment, Michael?
WOLFF: It was not only a good news judgment. We know now that it wasn‘t a good news judgment. But no doubt everybody over there is kicking themselves. They got behind on the story, as a matter of fact, as this story was breaking across the globe everywhere but here. So I would think that they are rightly feeling a little sheepish.
MATTHEWS: What do you think, Bob? You‘ve been there. Was this the right call?
ZELNICK: No, it wasn‘t. I think the request was frivolous and I don‘t think that it should be honored under the circumstance. It was too big a story, too important an event.
MATTHEWS: Would there ever come a time—you‘re teaching up at B.U. Is there any time when you would advise students who become news managers to say, you know, this is going to cause a cycle of violence? If we show beheadings or we show certain kinds of violence, it‘s going to encourage it as a means of terrorism?
ZELNICK: I think there are certain types of things that might provoke violence, that might put specific Americans at risk. And I would be amenable to listening to the government‘s argument in those cases. But I would hesitate to prescribe a general rule for students or working journalists.
ZELNICK: And I think we ought to err on the side of publishing what
we know, because
MATTHEWS: Here‘s a question for you, Michael, last big question. We live in the Internet age. These pictures of this guy‘s beheading are all over. People who have the interest in going to see it, and I don‘t—if somebody wants to see it, fine with me.
But the fact is that you can apparently access now these pictures around the world of this horror. Aren‘t we almost in a postjournalistic world where we don‘t need anybody to gate-keep this stuff; this hell is unleashed?
WOLFF: Well, yes.
And, as a matter of fact, that‘s why I think that this whole controversy about what the press should have shown or should not have shown is, at best, irrelevant. This is—all of this stuff exists, all of it exists for anyone. It is out there. We, in the press, are just—you know, just playing catchup.
MATTHEWS: Yes, I think you‘re right.
Well, let me ask you, Bob Zelnick, what are people learning about journalism in your classes these days? Is this kind of thing we‘re arguing about right now, is this the stuff of journalism classes now, what we did with this stuff, or is just, how do we cover it better?
ZELNICK: I think it‘s mainly how we cover it better, learning more substance.
I taught a course this past semester in covering international terrorism. And it was almost like a political science course. There was so much to learn about different terrorist organizations, their roots, different responses, different things the West does that might aid and abet the terrorists in their recruitment. I think it‘s a complex issue and in my judgment there‘s no substitute for knowledge on the part of journalists and then go out and work the story.
MATTHEWS: And, Michael, how do you write a piece with a lead time for a place like “Vanity Fair” with everything shaking, rattling and rolling so much?
WOLFF: Well, I called up Graydon Carter last night and I said, I have this column in the can for two weeks. I said, forget it. We‘ve got to do it now and I can have it for you in 24 hours.
MATTHEWS: Well, thanks a lot, guys. Thanks for sharing, Michael Wolff at “Vanity Fair” and Bob Zelnick at B.U.
Up next, new poll numbers show President Bush‘s job approval—well, it‘s not surprising—at the lowest level of his presidency. Pat Buchanan will join us.
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MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
The prisoner abuse scandal seems to be fueling Americans‘ concerns over the war in Iraq. No surprise there. A new CBS poll found that President Bush‘s approval rating it the lowest of his presidency, now at 44 percent. Remember, no president in modern political history has been reelected with approval ratings under 50 percent going into the election.
Joining me right now is a student of the presidential prospects—I should say a student of the actual process itself, in fact a member of the process a couple of times around, MSNBC contributor Patrick Buchanan.
PAT BUCHANAN, NBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Hey, Chris.
MATTHEWS: Pat, these numbers that show the president down, are they cyclical or are they trends?
BUCHANAN: No, I think the president has got a grave problem in Iraq.
He bet his presidency on the war in Iraq. He won a magnificent victory in the first stage. The second stage is going badly. I think American support for the war is falling. If the bottom drops out of this and this war is really in chaos by the fall, John Kerry will have a golden opportunity, an open door to basically sell himself to the American people, which he hasn‘t done yet.
MATTHEWS: Is he smart or lucky not to be on the stage yet? He‘s not on the national stage yet.
BUCHANAN: His primary run was the luckiest thing I‘ve ever seen, with those two fellows dropping in Iowa. But he‘s making a mistake today, I think. He should not be in there yelling for Rumsfeld‘s resignation. He should pull back from this and let this horrible mess unfold and stay away from it and stay above it and stay statesmanlike. He‘s made a mistake interfering in that. And I think he ought to back away from it. And I think he‘d be a lot better off.
MATTHEWS: Does he run the risk of Rumsfeld forced out and, therefore, the it looks like the president has met his standards and you both agree?
BUCHANAN: Let me tell you, they‘re making a mistake now on this Rumsfeld thing. Rumsfeld looks like a fatalist to me.
And I think what Rumsfeld is saying to himself, if I hurt the president and I‘m hurting my cause, I will stand down. And if he does that, he will soar in public estimation.
MATTHEWS: Who will?
BUCHANAN: Rumsfeld will.
MATTHEWS: He will, yes.
BUCHANAN: And Kerry will have made a bad mistake. He ought to stay out of that.
He‘s got the Nixon problem from ‘68. You remember the war, the Tet Offensive. Things are going badly? LBJ is going to drop out. What does Nixon say he‘s going to do in Vietnam? And he went off, well, we have got a plan and we‘ve got ideas, new diplomatic, political ideas. He‘s got the Nixon problem, Kerry does. And...
MATTHEWS: The problem? Define that. Is it that he‘s talking too much?
BUCHANAN: No, the problem is, he doesn‘t want to take a tough stand.
He doesn‘t want to take a stand like, say, Nader has taken a stand.
BUCHANAN: Out in six months. We tried. It didn‘t work. A defined stand. Nixon simply said, new diplomatic methods, use the tools this way, use force this way and then we can get the job done. It was nebulous, but it got him through.
But he can‘t cut and run politically. He can‘t say we got to get out of Iraq because he‘s voted to let the president go into Iraq.
BUCHANAN: He‘s not only voted that way. He‘s also said, we‘re going to stay with it.
Also, take look at his ad, Chris. Have you seen his ads? Born on the military base, tough prosecutor.
MATTHEWS: The Westerner, born in the West.
BUCHANAN: Volunteered for Vietnam, fought to balance the budget.
BUCHANAN: He‘s reaching into the conservative center of American politics.
MATTHEWS: He‘s also portraying his parents, his father as a public servant, not some rich guy.
MATTHEWS: He‘s taking himself away from the golden spoon or whatever, the silver spoon.
BUCHANAN: You‘re right. The six houses, that isn‘t it. And the $5,000 bicycle. This is a kid on a military base.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the presidency.
BUCHANAN: Probably didn‘t even have a Schwinn.
MATTHEWS: If you look back—and you‘ve studied this.
MATTHEWS: You got back to the presidency. Presidents who hold the office lose it. They don‘t get beat. And they generally fail, like a baseball pitcher. Sometime in the fifth or sixth inning, he gets yanked. He wanted to run the full game. He wanted two terms. He gets yanked in the fifth inning because he‘s failed. All the numbers show this.
MATTHEWS: We just said on the show here a minute ago that approval ratings go below 50 percent, you‘re out of there. Do you still believe that?
BUCHANAN: I do. I believe that before any candidate can have a chance—Mondale didn‘t have a chance. McGovern didn‘t have a chance because the country was fine with Nixon and Agnew. It was fine with Ronald Reagan.
Kerry now has his chance, because the country is finally saying, look, this thing appears to be a mess. We may need new leadership. And then it‘s going to turn to Kerry and say, what does this guy have to offer? And at that point Kerry has to close the sale, the way Reagan did not do until that final week in the debate, where people said, you know, that‘s guy‘s all right. Let‘s go with him.
MATTHEWS: Isn‘t that great? When do you as a student think that it‘s time for Kerry to make his kick, to go forward to close the deal? In August? At the convention?
BUCHANAN: His ads are good. I would say after—I would wait until after August, quite frankly. August is going to be a down month. I would do it in the fall, quite frankly. I think that‘s when he makes his case, to be honest.
MATTHEWS: You know who failed to make their case in 2000 I think is George W. Bush. He did win the election because of the courts and because of the closeness of the election and because of Florida.
But, in that last week, he coasted. He should have come out to people and said, I‘m going to give you economic growth with a clean, responsible White House who‘s going to honor the office. He never said that.
MATTHEWS: For some reason, they told him he was eight points ahead and he never closed the deal.
MATTHEWS: He should have won by a couple million votes.
BUCHANAN: Exactly. And his momentum dropped when they found out the guy nearly had sort of a drunk driving charge up in Kennebunkport. He had not closed the sale at all and so he started slipping. I think Rove and those people were scared to death election night because he was slipping away.
MATTHEWS: They should, because they booted an eight-point led, probably, and they didn‘t tell the guy to close the deal.
Now, you think this election is still winnable by Kerry? Kerry can win?
BUCHANAN: Oh, I think Kerry can now. I think Kerry has as a rough time, but Bush has got such problems now. Iraq is such a problem.
Bush has one thing going for him; 60 percent of the country thinks the economy is in bad shape. It ain‘t. It‘s getting better. But you got a lag time there. So, as things get better, if they continue to in the economy, that will strengthen Bush. And that will leave—the last card for Kerry is Iraq.
MATTHEWS: You know what I hear? I hear moderate Republicans, people who are not ideological Republicans, far-right Republicans, are concerned that they think war is very much suffering on our country, it‘s hurting our country. And they wonder why we‘re doing it. Republicans want taxes cut. They want life a little better for them, less government. They‘re wondering, why is the government taking us into this war? I hear that from moderate Republicans.
BUCHANAN: You‘re getting it from moderates and conservatives. A lot of them are saying it was a mistake now. They didn‘t think it through. Frankly, I know a lot of conservatives. And these are intellectual writer types and they aren‘t going to vote for George Bush.
MATTHEWS: Because he took us into the war?
BUCHANAN: Took us into the war, won‘t deal with the immigration problem.
MATTHEWS: Are you going to vote for him?
BUCHANAN: I would not be voting—I‘ve never voted for other than myself or a Republican, Chris.
MATTHEWS: OK, well, that leaves open a lot of possibilities.
MATTHEWS: Anyway, thank you, Pat Buchanan.
Join us again tomorrow night at 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.
Right now, it‘s time for “COUNTDOWN” with Keith.
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