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CNN CROSSFIRE

Should Heads Roll Over State of the Union Controversy?

Aired July 14, 2003 - 16:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left, James Carville and Paul Begala; on the right, Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson.

In the CROSSFIRE: Is taking responsibility for the uranium line enough?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm not interested in talking about intelligence unless it's cleared by the CIA.

ANNOUNCER: Then, should heads roll for the mistake in the State of the Union?

SEN. BOB GRAHAM (D-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The problem is not George Tenet. The problem is George W. Bush.

ANNOUNCER: Plus, a former president fires back at one of our hosts -- today on CROSSFIRE.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: Live from the George Washington University: Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson.

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: Hello, everybody. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

In the Oval Office today, President Bush once again said the buck stops with the CIA for the mistake in his State of the Union speech. But he went on to tell reporters he had -- quote -- "darn good intelligence -- unquote -- on Iraq. But the question more Americans are asking is, does the president have darn good credibility?

Before we get to that, though, you can believe me when I tell you we'll begin tonight's show with a darn good political briefing, our CROSSFIRE "Political Alert."

As a candidate, George W. Bush said he knew where the buck stops.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: Leaders must be responsible. And in our great democracy, the top responsibility rests with the president of the United States. I'm prepared to assume this awesome responsibility.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BEGALA: But, as president, Mr. Bush has sounded less like Harry Truman and more like Flip Wilson. You remember, the devil made me do it? The trouble is, "The New York Times" reports that CIA Director George Tenet had personally urged the White House not to make the false claim about Iraq's nuclear program months before Mr. Bush's State of the Union address.

You know, a public defender I knew once told me that most of his client's defense was the SODDI defense. SODDI defense, I asked? Oh, yes, some other dude did it. Welcome, my friends,to the SODDI presidency. Some other dude did it.

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Look, it was -- ultimately, it was President Bush's responsibility to say the right things in the State of the Union. He didn't. He's going to take the lumps for it. But if the question is -- and it is -- how did this happen, the answer really clearly is, the CIA screwed up.

The CIA told President Clinton that the Iraqi government had a nuclear program. It told President Bush the same thing. Both repeated it. And it turns out, on this one specific point, the CIA was wrong. Bush shouldn't have repeated it. But, ultimately, the CIA messed up. And so did Bush.

BEGALA: No. No. Bush should take personal responsibility for it, because it's only one of a whole lot of whoppers of mass dimensions that we got from George W., George "Whopper" Bush.

CARLSON: OK.

Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman and Dennis Kucinich have become -- quote -- "persona non grata" among black voters. They're racists, basically. That's the verdict from the NAACP. Kweisi Mfume, the organization's president, blasted the three Democrats in a speech today. Their crime: supporting the poll tax, agitating for the repeal of the Voting Rights Act? You'd think so. But no: failing to give free speeches at an NAACP lunch this afternoon. That was their crime.

The senators couldn't come because, unlike many other candidates, he takes his day job seriously and didn't want to miss time in Congress. But that's not good enough, said Mfume. If you don't address our group for free, you're unacceptable to all black people. It's that simple.

Actually, it's racial bullying of the nastiest, most vulgar kind. The NAACP has engaged in it for years, almost always to the detriment of Republicans. Now that it's aimed at Democrats, maybe they'll be courageous enough to object to it. And they should. But don't hold your breath, because they're too afraid.

BEGALA: They did nothing of the sort. Where do you get this from? Why do you hate the NAACP? They're a wonderful, honorable organization.

CARLSON: Because, if you disagree with them, they imply that you're racist. And that's outrageous. (CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Mfume didn't imply that any Democrat or a Republican was a racist.

CARLSON: Yes, he did.

BEGALA: He said, it's a dumb political move not to go there. And I think it is. By the way, George W. Bush stiffed them as well.

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: Paul, that's not what he said. He said they're persona non grata.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Look, when people don't come on CROSSFIRE, I attack them. It doesn't make me a racist or them a racist.

CARLSON: Paul, he compared -- yesterday, he compared his enemies to members of the KKK. That's not acceptable rhetoric. That's outrageous. And he should not say that.

BEGALA: He didn't say that about any of these candidates for president.

Well, the Bush administration has announced that it has launched Operation Ivy Serpent, a military campaign targeting Saddam Hussein's loyalists in Iraq. This follows on the heels of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Sidewinder, Operation Peninsula Strike, Operation Desert Scorpion, even what one wag dubbed Operation Desert Spam, which required sending nasty e-mails to Saddam's henchmen before the war.

Meanwhile, yet another American hero, tragically, has been killed in Iraq, bringing the total number of American troops who have died in Iraq since President Bush landed on that aircraft carrier declaring mission accomplished to 81. No word he yet on when the administration will launch Operation We Don't Have a Clue About the Occupation, but President Bush is working full time on Operation Blame George Tenet.

CARLSON: I don't know. I don't think that's fair. Ultimately, President Bush pushed this war. He argued that it was in America's vital interests. And if it turns out to be a mistake -- and we won't know that for years -- he will solely take the blame. This stuff about blaming Tenet, it's ridiculous.

You were against the war from the very beginning. You've been consistent about it. I'll give you that. But nobody ever thought, even its most vigorous advocates, that it would be without casualties or easy. And it hasn't been.

BEGALA: I agree with that. But the president also misled us about the occupation. That may turn out to be the biggest whopper he told.

CARLSON: That's ridiculous. That's ridiculous.

BEGALA: Yes. We have lost 81 guys and women since he declared mission accomplished. He shouldn't have declared mission accomplished on that carrier. He shouldn't have taken us into the war to begin with.

CARLSON: He said the war was over, which it was. It doesn't mean the violence is over, because it's not.

Jerry Springer has officially thrown his chair into the ring. Springer filed a statement of candidacy, in part to avoid legal problems from a 30-minute infomercial and fund-raising plea that he's already running. Incidentally, you can buy his C.D. of favorite rockabilly hits on that, although not in Ohio. Springer, a former Cincinnati mayor and city councilman continues to make appearances around the state. He says he'll make a final decision on challenging Republican Senator George Voinovich by the end of this month.

For those of you who are keeping score at home -- and we hope you all are -- if Springer runs, he would join Al Sharpton, Dennis Kucinich, Carol Moseley Braun, Howard Dean and John Kerry as leading lights of the Democratic Party seeking office this fall. And if you're not smiling by now, you should be, because, say what you want about the Democratic Party. It is amusing as hell.

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: Look, I think that Springer is one of the most engaging and effective guests we have ever had on this program.

CARLSON: I love him.

BEGALA: And I love when elites make fun of him, because it shows how out of touch you are with ordinary people. Millions of people watch that show. And they're good Americans. And they pay taxes. And they deserve representation in the Senate.

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: I like Jerry Springer. And if you want to defend him...

BEGALA: I do.

CARLSON: ... as the archetypical Democratic Senate, more power to you.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: I'll tell you what. He never lied to us about a war. I'll say that for Jerry Springer. They may throw chairs and talk about tawdry subjects, but he never lied to us about war. I'd rather have that. I'd be more ashamed of Bush than I would be of Jerry Springer any day of the week.

CARLSON: So that's the comparison, Bush, Jerry Springer? BEGALA: Yes, yes.

CARLSON: Not much of a defense. You stand up for your candidates. Good for you.

Refighting the war against Saddam Hussein: Democrats believe they can win the 2004 election with conspiracy theories. Can they?

We will debate it. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

President Bush this afternoon told reporters that his State of the Union speech, including the claim that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa, was cleared ahead of time by the CIA. Does it follow, then, that CIA Director George Tenet should be clearing out his desk? That's our question.

Here to debate it: former Democratic Congressman Tom Andrews. He's now the director of Win Without War. And with him is New York Republican Congressman Peter King.

BEGALA: Thank you both for joining us.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Congressman King, in his farewell press briefing today, Ari Fleischer, who really is a very good guy, described all this as...

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: So are you.

BEGALA: Well, thank you.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Described -- he used a little Texas colloquialism. Ari's from New York, but he called it a bunch of bull. And I suspect one of the criticisms is, it all focuses on just one sentence. So let me play for you that sentence and the sentence that follows it, so we can see the larger context.

KING: Sure.

BEGALA: Here's our president in his State of the Union.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high- strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BEGALA: Now, we know for a fact -- the White House has admitted -- the first sentence is false. The second sentence, according to most experts who have looked at it, is also false. This case for war was built on falsehood upon falsehood. And isn't that the president's responsibility?

KING: Actually, you're wrong on every count.

First of all, I don't think the president should of, in any way, retracted what he said about British intelligence, because British intelligence believed then and believes now that Iraq did attempt to purchase uranium from Africa. There's been nothing at all that has caused Tony Blair, who, by the way, was Bill Clinton's closest friend as a world leader, who has stood by our country in a terrible time, Tony Blair, to this day, believes 100 percent that that intelligence is accurate.

BEGALA: But this is the nation that thinks Prince Charles is a good catch. I don't think we should base our foreign policy on what England thinks.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: No. I think it's very valid for the president of the United States, after laying out all the intelligence we have, and on top of that to say, and our closest ally, with a very reputable intelligence service, also believes this.

Now, as far as the tubing, that is a very interesting point, because, throughout all the briefings during the fall which we got from the CIA and from the NSC and from the State Department, they told us that the CIA and the State Department both believed that these tubings were suitable for nuclear weapons. But they also made a point of saying that the Department of Energy did not. That was always out there. But the consensus in the American government...

BEGALA: The president didn't say that to Americans, did he?

KING: No, no, because the consensus in the American government was that they were for that. And that's still the consensus.

CARLSON: Now, Mr. Andrews, I want to throw up something you've seen. It's a spot put on the air by Win Without War and MoveOn.org, both of which I think you're affiliated with. And it addresses this question of uranium in Africa pretty directly.

Here it is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)

NARRATOR: Now there's evidence we were misled. And almost every day, Americans are dying in Iraq. We need the truth, not a cover-up.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CARLSON: Now, there are a number of problems just with that very short segment of the ad. One, it tries to draw a connection between this statement about buying uranium in Africa to American deaths directly. And that's unfair, almost outrageous.

And, second, it alleges a cover-up. And, in fact, there is no cover-up. The White House has admitted this information was wrong, that they made a mistake. There's no Nixonian cover jump at all. And don't you undermine a serious inquiry into this with hyperbole like that?

TOM ANDREWS, FORMER U.S. REPRESENTATIVE: Well, when you have plausible deniability being drawn out again, like it was in the Nixon White House during the Watergate area, you know there is a problem; 16 words -- listen, if you take a look at what the CIA was saying repeatedly, for months and months and months, none of these allegations, they told the White House, they told the vice president, they told the State Department, has any substance in reality. Despite that fact, despite...

CARLSON: That's not a fact, but we'll get to that in a minute.

ANDREWS: No, it is. It is a fact.

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: It's actually not a fact. The CIA, a month before the State of the Union address, gave a large intelligence dossier to the White House that did not say, this is not true. That's just not true.

ANDREWS: Listen, let's not mince words.

George Tenet was very clear that the administration was heading in the wrong direction when they started making allegations such as this. He tried very, very hard to stop the administration from going forward with these allegations. The pattern that we've seen with other CIA agents now talking about what they learned and what they did was that there was enormous pressure from this administration to have the facts add up to what they had concluded was the truth.

And so you have this bending, this twisting, this distortion. The American were people were sold a bill of goods. And it's because we were sold that bill of goods and members of Congress are now calling for an independent investigation who voted for this war, because they feel they were misled. That's why people are dying right now, Tucker. That's the relationship.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Let me ask you why you're not for an independent investigation, because not only is there serious dispute about the uranium claim and the aluminum tubes, most experts say that the Bush administration overhyped whatever connection there might have been to al Qaeda, overhyped any connection to 9/11, which they claimed that there had been some secret meeting in Europe, overhyped a claim about unmanned vehicles that could hit America. They can could only fly 300 miles. We're 6,000 miles away.

Overhyped the whole case for war -- now, if that's not worthy of an investigation, what is?

KING: Let's go down each of those points.

First of all, as far as the chemical and biological weapons, President Bush was saying nothing that Bill Clinton didn't say. Remember, Bill Clinton, without authorization in Congress or any authorization from the United Nations, launched a preemptive attack on Iraq in 1998 because of chemical and biological weapons that were an imminent threat to the United States.

BEGALA: And don't you think he hit a few? And that's why they didn't have them for the war.

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: Do you really believe that?

BEGALA: I think the bombing, the sanctions, and the inspections brought them to their knees.

CARLSON: That's insane.

KING: You're saying four days of bombing knocked out all the chemical and biological weapons?

BEGALA: And years of sanctions and years of inspections.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: What happened? Did they paint them with invisible paint guns?

ANDREWS: They were not an imminent threat. That's the point. They were not an imminent threat.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: And nothing, to me, changed between 1998 and 2001. And the fact is, the CIA never said that they could not -- that it was untrue that Iraq was trying to purchase uranium from Africa. They said, we didn't have the evidence. But the British said their intelligence services do, which they

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: Mr. Andrews, the question is...

KING: That's a distinction that any intelligent person should be able to appreciate, which is why so many Democrats are calling for an investigation.

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: You're leaving out one thing.

ANDREWS: How can you make a claim... CARLSON: Then let me ask you this. You say the evidence doesn't exist.

KING: What you say is, your closest ally says it's true.

CARLSON: The difference here...

ANDREWS: The CIA said the evidence doesn't exist.

CARLSON: The difference here is that there's a presidential campaign under way, as I think you know. The number of candidates now running for president had access to basically the same information that the president himself had access to. And they reached the same conclusion he did.

I want to read you a quote from one. This is from Senator Graham of Florida -- quote -- this is what he said October 2002 -- "Saddam Hussein's regime has chemical and biological weapons and is trying to get nuclear capacity." That is the same point that every member of the Security Council, that Bill Clinton, the Democrats all through Congress made and that the president made. And now, because the election is in full swing, they're claiming, oh, we never believed that. Come on. This is political.

ANDREWS: Most Americans believed it because the president of the United States looked us in the eye and told us that. Vice President Cheney told us back in March that Iraq has a reconstituted, in his words, nuclear program, a reconstituted nuclear program, with nuclear weapons.

We now know there was no evidence to support that. So, when the vice president tells us something, when the president of the United States tells a joint session of Congress and the American people, in the most important speech of the year, the State of the Union speech, something that turns out to be not true, well OK, we're guilty. We believed them. But we should never believe them again. We should never believe them again.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Listen, this is the problem that our president has. The CBS News poll that came out on Friday said that, a month ago, just one month ago, the majority of Americans thought Iraq was an imminent threat that required military action.

One month later, because of these falsehoods, the majority of Americans think, no, that it wasn't an imminent threat. Isn't that the whole heart of why we went to war? The American people no longer believe Iraq was an imminent threat.

KING: First of all, there were no falsehoods. You haven't been able to prove one. Secondly, it wasn't just President Bush saying this. Last September, Al Gore said, based on the intelligence he had seen as vice president, that Iraq had massive chemical and biological weapons and he had secreted them around the country. That's Al Gore. Your vice president, our vice president, said that last September. Bill Clinton, just this past May, said he doesn't question George Bush's intelligence requirements, because he said he was told the exact same thing from the CIA and from the intelligence agencies.

CARLSON: Unfortunately, Clinton/Gore always a good place to end. We're going to take a quick break. We'll be back in just a minute.

Coming up after a quick break and Wolf Blitzer's check of the headlines, we'll give our guests the "Rapid Fire" treatment; and later, a "Fireback" of sorts from a former occupant of the White House who isn't happy with Paul Begala. We'll explain.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

BEGALA: Welcome back.

Time now for "Rapid Fire," where the questions and answers move faster than President Bush moving to avoid blame for his misstatements.

With us are New York Republican Congressman Peter King and former Democratic Congressman Tom Andrews.

CARLSON: Congressman Andrews, should George Tenet resign?

ANDREWS: No.

BEGALA: Is this a political problem for George W. Bush, when "TIME" magazine says "Untruths and Consequences," with a picture of our president on the cover?

KING: No. He can survive a lot more than that. Listen, it's clever. It's funny. But the American people trust George Bush, like they trust me and Tucker, but not you and Tom.

(LAUGHTER)

CARLSON: Congressman, in your heart -- you can be honest, even though we're on television.

ANDREWS: Just between us?

CARLSON: Yes. Do you really believe those 16 words in the State of the Union, that was the predicate for war against Iraq?

ANDREWS: No. It was a system. It was a pattern. We had one after another after another of statement that was distortion, a misrepresentation, an outright deception of the American people, 16 words. This is not about 16 words. This is about a pattern. And this administration has got to be held responsible for that pattern.

BEGALA: Who should be held responsible for the words in the president's speeches?

KING: Ultimately, the president. But the president was wrong to in any way back track. I would have stood by that to the very end, because I think it was right. It was correct. And he shouldn't have left Tony Blair out on a limb that way.

CARLSON: Do you think, Congressman, the Democrats can ride this tiny -- this issue to victory in 2004?

ANDREWS: Well, I think truth goes a long way to the American people. And I think the Bush administration should start telling the truth outright, very honest, and let the chips fall where they may. This is more than a bit of partisanship here.

This is about being honest with the American people about a case of life and death, about sending our young men and women into harm's way. No one, Democrat or Republican, should be allowed off the hook when they deceive the American people.

BEGALA: Congressman King, has the president leveled with us about the occupation in Iraq?

KING: Yes, he has. Nobody said it was going to be easy. The fact is, we've had I think 32 fatalities from combat since May 1. Every one is tragic. And this is going to be a long, hard occupation. But it's certainly better than what was there before. And he certainly has leveled, saying it's going to be tough. It's part of the war against terrorism. It's going to go on for many years.

CARLSON: All right, Congressman King, former Congressman Andrews, thank you both very much. I appreciate it.

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: Now that you've heard the debate, we want to ask our audience what they think about the Iraq uranium controversy. Pull out your audience voting devices. Press one if you think the Iraqi uranium controversy is a serious issue. Press two if you think it's being blown out of proportion. Press three if you'd like to make popcorn.

We'll have the results after the break, along with former President Bush's candid assessment of Paul Begala. And you definitely won't want to miss that.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Time now for "Fireback."

But, first, let's check our audience poll. We asked folks if they thought that the Iraq uranium controversy was a serious issue. Lookie here. Almost all of the Democrats think yes, 84 percent. But guess what? Seventy-eight, almost all the Republicans, say no. So we're a divided nation once again. CARLSON: Are you saying this is a partisan issue, Paul?

BEGALA: Well, it appears that way, Tucker.

CARLSON: I think is the point I was making during the interview segment, but yes.

BEGALA: It is. But credibility for the president shouldn't be partisan. It's a shame for him, but he should have told the truth.

Estee Campbell of East Hampton, New York, says: "Just 16 words. Just 16 words. If that's the official line excusing George Bush's misstatement about Iraq as a nuclear threat, I would remind the Bushies that it only took eight words, 'I did not have sex with that woman," to unleash the Republican dogs of impeachment on President Clinton."

CARLSON: All right, to which I would reply with three words: Get over it.

George Principe of West Palm Beach, Florida writes: "John Kerry backed the war in Iraq, having the same intelligence the president had, and now he blames the president for misleading us into war."

That's a little surprising, George. I degree.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: I am tempted to say that John Kerry has a lot more intelligence than George Bush, but that would be a cheap shot. And I would never say anything like that about our president.

Mary Hanson of Chimney Rock, North Carolina writes: "I find it hard to believe that the president could rehearse his State of the Union speech and not question which country in Africa he was referring to. Could it be that those who actually run our government consider this president on a need-to-know basis?"

CARLSON: I love that. Yes. I'm not even going to respond to that.

And next up, a viewer from Texas, George H.W. Bush, in fact, a former president, told "Texas Monthly" the other day: "You don't expect Paul Begala to worship George W. Bush" -- parenthetically, no, you don't -- "so I just tune him out now. He was a fairly engaging person back in the old days, but he's off my list."

(LAUGHTER)

CARLSON: Meaning, I think, Christmas card list.

BEGALA: Right. I had mentioned this Congressman King just before he left. And he pointed out, you were never an engaging guy, Paul. So...

(LAUGHTER) BEGALA: Look, I admire President Bush's service from the days as a 19-year-old Naval pilot in the Second World War, through his time as president. And now as a dad, he's taken up for his son. And I think that's a wonderful thing. So I do feel terrible if it hurts Mr. Bush's feelings. He's a wonderful man.

CARLSON: OK. Good. You should moderate your rhetoric then and that might go a long way.

BEGALA: No. If I agree with George Bush on everything, one of us is not doing our job. And I have an idea which one.

CARLSON: Yes, ma'am?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi. My name is Kylie (ph). And I'm from Ithaca, New York.

And I have a question about Bush's reelection. I wondered if you guys thought that this would -- this current scandal would hurt his reelection chances, despite the fact that he was apparently successful in ousting the Iraqi regime.

CARLSON: It probably doesn't help. On the other hand, Democrats have to convince voters that they can protect the country from terrorism. And they haven't. By 40 points, they're losing that question. There's no chance a Democrat will win until they close that gap. And I don't see how they're going to.

BEGALA: Tucker's right. The Democrats have to close that gap. The problem is, the president has now opened up a credibility gap. And his greatest political strength, until this month, was that the American people thought he was telling the truth. Now the majority of Americans no longer believe that he's a truth-teller. That is a catastrophic political problem for George Bush.

CARLSON: He said something wrong. He got bad intelligence.

BEGALA: So did Bill Clinton, but we didn't go to war over it. He just had a girlfriend on the side.

CARLSON: That was a lie, Paul.

BEGALA: That's not the same thing, you know?

CARLSON: After you.

BEGALA: From the left, I'm Paul Begala. That's it for CROSSFIRE.

CARLSON: And from the right, I'm Tucker Carlson.

Join us again tomorrow for yet more CROSSFIRE.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com


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