Dan Bartlett, White House communications director, spoke to “Hardball” guest host Campbell Brown about recent polling numbers, support for the president, prison abuses, and the remarks Vice President Cheney and President Bush made on the relationship of Al Qaeda and Iraq. Read an excerpt of the interview, below:
CAMPELL BROWN, GUEST HOST, “HARDBALL”: The president condemned the beheading of the South Korean who was taken hostage and called it barbaric. You've probably spent as much time with him as anybody in the White House. Were you with him when he found out? And how did he react to the news?
DAN BARTLETT, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: I wasn't with him this particular case, but I was last week when we got the terrible news of Mr. Johnson. So it is something that's very difficult for the commander-in-chief to hear. It's difficult for all of Americans to hear. The type of, horrific barbaric, as the president described it, actions of al Qaeda and their affiliates in Iraq and Saddam loyalists demonstrate the worst aspects of the enemy we face. They can't defeat us militarily. They can't make us run. So they're trying to shake the will of a civilized world.
And what President Bush has made clear and what the civilized world will make clear is that we're going to stand with the Iraqi people. He understands, and I believe the world understands, that the stakes are high in Iraq and that we are not going to allow the enemies of freedom and liberty to defeat us there, where it's so important that we accomplish the goal which is coming up on June 30, and that is the transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people.
BROWN: The ABC/"Washington Post" poll, and it says for the first time, more than half of Americans believe the Iraq war was not worth fighting, 52 percent. How did you lose the support of most of the country, and how do you get it back?
BARTLETT: Well, there's going to be a lot of polls during this time period. It's a very turbulent time period, particularly in Iraq, and I think those snapshots are going to bounce around from time. I do believe, over the course of the conduct and the campaign in Iraq, that it's been pretty sturdy. I think the American people understand that Saddam Hussein posed a threat, that he was a dangerous person that should be removed from power, that having democracy take hold in a part of the Middle East really is important, strategic, long-term aspect of American security and worldwide security.
The turbulence of violence is not only the Iraqi people but military forces there on the ground, including U.S. forces. It's going to be anxious times for the American people because this is very difficult work, and this is a hard thing we're trying to accomplish in Iraq. But it's a necessary thing. The president still feels very confident in the cause, of the justness of it, and the fact that we're going to prevail.
BROWN: The same poll poses a question about who is more honest and trustworthy: Fifty-two percent say Kerry, thirty-nine percent say Bush. Does this administration have a credibility problem right now because of Iraq?
BARTLETT: You're going to see polls that bounce all around. There's a Harris poll, very respected, pollster, who came out and said President Bush is 10 points ahead, is back up to 50 percent approval rating with the American people on his job...
I think very much that the American people understand this president is strong, he tells the people what he believes. He follows his convictions. This is very difficult times we're facing right now. The enemy is very determined to try to shake our will. These are anxious times. The Iraqi people understand the stakes. We understand the stakes. But I believe when these polls come out at certain times when there's news headlines about the difficulties we're facing, you're going to get these different types of spikes in opinion on various issues.
Over the current course, I think it's very important, as we go into this election, this is not in a vacuum. We have a choice, and the choice is between the president's principled leadership in fighting the war on terror and what he believes is the wrong course, and that is Senator Kerry, who has chosen to fight this or what would like to prosecute this for more as a law enforcement action, not a military action. We have a fundamental disagreement about how to prosecute the war on terror. And that's OK. We're going to have that debate. But we believe that the American people is going want to stick with President Bush's clear-eyed vision on how to prosecute this war.
BROWN: Dan, I want to go back to the credibility question, whether or not the Bush administration has a credibility problem, because as articulate as you are, you didn't answer the question at all. Vice President Dick Cheney has said different things about the Al Qaeda and Iraq connection when it comes to 9/11. How do you explain that?
BARTLETT: What Vice President Cheney's been talking about in this particular case, there has been sketchy reporting. The Czech Republic came forward with reporting they thought to be credible. Our intelligence services have been looking at this, trying to confirm it. There's a question mark over this particular case.
I think what's important is that there are people who were trying to draw conclusions from the 9/11 staff report that, quite frankly, weren't there. What they stated was that there's no collaboration on attacks on America, and in particularly, on 9/11. What we have said all along is that we agree with them but that there was a relationship going back over many years and contacts between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. And Vice President Cheney's been very clear about that.
BROWN: Dan, those two clips I played for you, are contradicting himself. I understand that it's a confusing situation, but at some point, on some issues, when the evidence is there, isn't it incumbent upon the administration to say, “You know what, we were wrong, but we figured it out now?”
BARTLETT: Well, the vice president has, obviously, access to information and briefings that you and I don't, and I think he makes those judgments based on informed opinions. It's not just things that he's saying off the cuff. He has said all along that this was something that couldn't be confirmed, that we are looking at it. He probably doesn't remember the very specific way he formulated that, but what he said just the other day was clear, and that the intelligence services are looking at this. Many people in the Czech government were still confirming this or believed that it happened.
But make no mistake, President Bush has made this clear. He has said it. We do not believe, or we have no evidence to believe that there was any connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. And there are people and there are critics who are trying to claim and put words into our mouth that we didn't say. What President Bush has said is that the relationship, the contacts—this was not just us. This was many other people who've looked at this, as well, that said that they went back over many years. George Tenet testified before the United States Congress to this very point. So I think there was much ado about nothing in that report because what the staff found in the 9/11 report was exactly what the administration has been stating.
BROWN: All right. A key difference is perhaps on semantics. But let me shift gears to the prison abuse issue. Today the administration released a number of documents and memos that try to illuminate the internal discussions and debate you all were having relating to the treatment of prisoners within the guidelines of the Geneva conventions. Explain why you did that.
BARTLETT: Well, there's two different things here. First and foremost, what I think most of the American people understand is that we're fighting an unconventional war. There was a stark reminder today and the other day with these brutal beheadings of innocent civilians. This is an enemy that doesn't follow the rules of law. This is the enemy who doesn't sign treaties. They're not a state. They don't wear uniforms. They sift in and out of civilian populations, and they attack innocent civilians.
This required us, as a country, to fight this war on different terms. We're doing that in Afghanistan and in other parts of the world. It also required us to look at our legal obligation and the legal construct in which we conduct ourselves. While we are fighting this war unconventionally, we are still adhering to the laws and obligations and values that we cherish as a country.
And what we did today is to demonstrate clearly that the abuses in Abu Ghraib do not reflect the values, the laws or the specific direction given by this administration, whether it's the conduct in Iraq, or separately and distinctly, the conduct in how we're treating detainees in Guantanamo Bay. There are two very different issues. They were deliberated thoroughly. We've provided these documents to the American people and to the media so they could see the deliberations that took place. And we're very comfortable and confident in the decisions that were made, and you can tell by the documents we released today that they're made based on sound legal judgment.
BROWN: How do you explain, then, the August 2002 memo that the Justice Department prepared for White House counsel Alberto Gonzales that seems to try to find legal ways to justify interrogation methods that are outside of the Geneva conventions or international law?
BARTLETT: Well, that's not exactly… what they did is give a full legal landscape to what is permissible and what they thought a commander-in-chief could do during times of war. All techniques and methods of interrogation that were approved abide by U.S. law and by our treaty obligations. There was never doubt about that by the Justice Department or by the government in the Department of Defense or any other government agency.
Now, what they did say, they provided additional legal advice about commander-in-chief laws, but President Bush had already made his decision about the policy, and that was that we're going to treat our detainees humanely. And in Iraq specifically, there was never any question that the Geneva convention would apply. And what happened in Abu Ghraib was a complete contradiction to the directive that was given by the United States government, and that's why you're seeing people held accountable.