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Murtha on Iraq: 'Staying the course is not a plan'

Congressman says secret wiretaps violate Constitution

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Iraq
Ahmed Chalabi
George W. Bush

(CNN) -- Senate leaders reached agreement Wednesday night to extend provisions of the Patriot Act for six months. Final passage of the bill has been stalled, at least in part, by Democratic and Republican senators' questions about President Bush's authorizations of secret eavesdropping on Americans as part of the war on terror.

The war in Iraq, meanwhile, reached a milestone last week, with voter turnout reported at 70 percent for parliamentary elections. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer spoke to Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania about both news events.

BLITZER: I want to talk about Iraq, but first I want to talk about the domestic spying, the decision by the president right after 9/11 to authorize the secret wiretaps, including of American citizens, without formal court orders. Now you've had a few days to think about this. You're very close to the military and national security issues. What goes through your mind?

MURTHA: I can't believe that they would do something like this, after the president said just a year ago, there's always a court order before we spy on Americans. And then they try to deflect the opinion, "Well, Clinton did it." It's not a matter of whether Clinton did it or not -- and I don't think he did. It's the point that it shouldn't be done under our Constitution. They're violating the Constitution and the laws. All they had to do is come to Congress. They asked for, I think, 15,000 of those and they got refused four or five times, so it's absolutely arrogance of power.

BLITZER: What the administration and their supporters in the House and the Senate argue is that the world changed after 9/11. Henry Hyde, a Republican congressman, the chairman of the International Relations Committee, right after that House floor vote, September 14, 2001, right after 9/11, he said that that resolution that had passed -- almost everyone supported it, including yourself -- he said this: "The whole point of the joint resolution we are considering this evening is to clear away legal underbrush that might otherwise interfere with the ability of our president to respond to the treacherous attack." Does that make sense to you, that given the nature of what happened on 9/11, the president needed this extraordinary authority?

MURTHA: Wolf, he didn't need any additional authority at all. All he had to do was ask for the court opinion afterwards, so there was no reason in the world for him to do this. They expedite these things. Within 72 hours, he could go to the court after they get the wiretap and get permission. He was only refused five times out of, like, 18,000, so this is absolutely absurd.

BLITZER: So are you going to do anything about it?

MURTHA: Yeah, well, we're on the committee that funds NSA [the National Security Agency], and we're certainly going to look into it. This is something that has to be stopped. We cannot have American presidents spying on American citizens. Under the Constitution, it's illegal. And we're looking at exactly what happened, how many times it happened, and why it happened.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Iraq, the elections: 11 million or so Iraqis showed up the other day, they voted, it was relatively peaceful, relatively quiet. The administration is clearly delighted by what has happened; are you?

MURTHA: Well, when you say the administration is delighted, you know, [controversial former exile leader Ahmed] Chalabi has surfaced again. They had him at the White House, they had him with the vice president, they had him with the secretary of state, and he got less than five-tenths of one percent -- he got less than half a percent of the vote. And Allawi, who was their shining star, he turns up getting 8 percent of the vote. Forty-four percent of the vote -- now, these are early returns, but 44 percent went to the clerics. We're going to have a cleric government.

I cannot believe that these folks at the White House didn't understand, if they support somebody, the Iraqis aren't going to support them. The Iraqis don't like us. They're proud people, they don't want to be dictated by the United States, and yet our folks don't understand that.

Remember, I told you a year ago that two years ago I went to Iraq and I asked Ambassador Bremer, "Who's [the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-]Sistani?" -- actually, one of my guys asked him that, and he turned to his aide and they said it's a minor cleric. Two weeks later the guy had 100,000 people on the street. They don't understand what is going on over there. It's frustrating to realize how bad our intelligence are, or how they're mishandling this situation.

BLITZER: Well, if these clerics, as you call them, the Shiites who are religious and support the Sistanis of this world, if this is what they want in a democratically held election, who are we to tell them, you know what, you can't have them?

MURTHA: What I'm saying is, anybody the United States supports, the Iraqis don't support. I don't know how it's going to work out. What I'm saying is, it's time for us to redeploy. I got a letter from a young soldier that said, "We have no mission, we don't understand what's going on in Iraq. We're targets."

I got a letter from a person that's been over two-and-a-half years, working for AID [the Agency for International Development], and he said it's the most mishandled operation he's ever seen. The White House is a disaster in this operation. ... Terrorism is more than it would have been if they had handled it right.

So all of these things are coming into place now. And this is a real problem for the United States. In a short time we're going to lose as many in Iraq as we lost in 9/11. If you count the wounded, if you count the people who were hurt and not returned to duty, which are about 7,500, we have far exceeded the number of people killed in 9/11. And they're actually diverting attention away from terrorism because of this insurgency that's going on, and only the Iraqi people can handle it.

BLITZER: I've heard it said, Congressman, that the big winner in the Iraqi elections may turn out to be Iran.

MURTHA: Well, I used to believe that, but I'm beginning to come to the conclusion that Iran is not going to have near the influence they hope they will. They fought Iran for eight years, so I'm convinced the Iraqi people, if we redeploy as I've suggested, will take care of the terrorists, which are less than 7 percent of the foreign fighters -- or, the insurgency, and less than 3 percent of the insurgency are al Qaeda -- and they'll throw them out. And I don't think they'll pay as close attention to Iran as I used to think.

BLITZER: Well, that's encouraging. Here's the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll: We asked this mid-December -- Does Bush have a plan that will achieve victory for the United States in Iraq? Earlier in December, 38 percent said yes; now the number has gone up slightly to 42 percent. So some of these more recent polls show the American public in the aftermath of all of these presidential speeches giving the president a little bit of an uptick in these polls.

MURTHA: Wolf, it's even worse that the troops don't know what the plan is. Here's an experienced soldier, according to the letter that I received, that says, "We don't know what our mission is. We go out every day and we're targets of the Iraqis and we're not accomplishing anything." And this soldier goes on to say, that the sooner we're out of there, the better off we're going to be. They do not understand the Bush plan.

I don't know of anybody that can tell me what the Bush plan is. Staying the course is not a plan. I believe if we redeployed, the Iraqis will have to settle this themselves. War is a very difficult thing; war is a nasty business. And anybody that's been to war knows it's tough. Killing sears the soul, and nobody likes to be involved in that. But the Iraqis have to settle this themselves. This is a civil war now, and we can't settle it. It shows by the election. If we're for somebody, they're for somebody else. So they've got to settle this themselves.

The quicker we redeploy, the better off this country will be, the more stable the Middle East will be. And in the end, the United States will benefit from that.

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