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Bush Administration Continues Iraq Damage Control

Aired July 18, 2003 - 16:30   ET


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

In the CROSSFIRE: a week of casualties, controversy.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think the intelligence I get is darn good intelligence.

ANNOUNCER: And a helping hand from a friend.

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: In the 1980s, we know for sure that Iraq purchased around about 270 tons of uranium from Niger.

ANNOUNCER: Is more damage control necessary?



ANNOUNCER: Live from the George Washington University, Paul Begala and Robert Novak.

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

furor over the president's false statement in the State of the Union address rages on. And a Pentagon study says the potential for chaos in Iraq is becoming more real every day. Meanwhile, the White House says it has a plan to control the damage -- the political damage, that is. And we will debate whether the Bush administration should be focused on the president's political risks at home or our troops' security risks in Iraq.

But first, the best political briefing in television, our CROSSFIRE "Political Alert."

Ever since the controversy over President Bush's apparently false claim that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa, the Bush administration has claimed that it did not have copies of what turned out to be forged documents about those purchases. It turns out that statement, too, is false. Today's "Washington Post" reveals that, in fact, the Bush administration had those documents three months before the president's State of the Union address.

Moreover, the Bushies hid those documents from U.N. weapons inspectors for four months. Now, why would the Bush White House mislead the American people and the world? Well, we may never know, because Senate Republicans this week voted to kill plans for an independent investigation.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: You know, Paul, you're always behind the times, behind the news, because, today in Crawford, Texas, which is the Texas White House, the White House released the classified intelligence saying there was compelling evidence that Iraq sought uranium for nuclear weapons.

So you don't know the answer to this question. I don't know the answer.

BEGALA: That's right.

NOVAK: So why don't we get it straight and say, let's see what the evidence is, because they're pointing it out?

BEGALA: That's what -- I agree wholeheartedly, Bob. That's why we need an investigation. That's why the Republicans are wrong to be blocking an investigation. Let's put the facts out. We don't know what the facts are. Let's get the facts out.



BEGALA: Why did the Bushies oppose an investigation?


NOVAK: You know as well as I do that the Democratic senators want to just pound on the president, because it's the only issue they have going for them, and it's not much of an issue.


NOVAK: Senator Bob Graham of Florida, seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, has proposed a tax increase in the top bracket, from 35 percent to 40. Now, what will that do to investment?

Graham made clear on "Meet the Press" last Sunday that he doesn't care. He indicated the top 1 or 2 percent of income earners only -- quote -- "invest in more stocks and bonds" -- end quote. Can you fathom such economic ignorance? Bob Graham claims to be a centrist from the electable wing of the Democrats. I guess running for president in his party just does strange things to a person.


BEGALA: He has a terrific economic plan, Bob. What he wants to do is maintain the tax cuts for middle class and have a payroll tax cut for the poor, but, yes, ask rich people to go back to the tax levels they were paying under Bill Clinton. By the way, we did pretty well when the rich were paying 40 percent under Bill Clinton. Why can't we do that again? What's wrong with that? It's a great idea. NOVAK: Paul, I would like you to tell me what you think, because I think -- I don't think you're an idiot at all, most of the time.


NOVAK: And when you -- and when he says that poor people go out and buy things, but if you give rich people more tax cuts, they'll just buy stocks and bonds, is that bad? Is that bad?

BEGALA: They just invest in -- they invest in overseas -- they invest in overseas corporations that don't create any jobs here.

NOVAK: No, no, no, stocks and bonds, stocks and bonds. You can't answer that.

BEGALA: No, no, no.

Well, "The Washington Post"'s "Reliable Source" column today reveals that White House officials contacted cyber gossip Matt Drudge to smear an ABC News reporter. This reporter had reported a story that said our troops in Iraq are angry and bitter with the Bush administration for placing them in what amounts to a shooting gallery in Iraq.

Mr. Drudge told "The Washington Post" -- quote -- "Somehow from the White House communication shop" -- quote -- told him that the ABC reporter is gay. I'll tell you what, Bob Novak had better be careful, because if he criticizes President Bush, maybe Mr. Bush's thugs might start saying that Bob Novak is a flaming heterosexual, that he spent all of the '90s as a sexagenarian, he even matriculated once at the University of Illinois.

Bob, this is...

NOVAK: It's very troubling.

BEGALA: Very troubling. It is a smear, though. It is a smear.

NOVAK: I think -- I think -- I think you stole that from someone.




NOVAK: You know, you were in the Clinton White House. And you can't deny -- and isn't it -- you know for a fact that some smart guy thinks he's going to help the president by getting on the phone and giving a leak to Matt Drudge. Do you really think that that's impossible to happen in the White House?

BEGALA: I think it's a firing offense. I think the president should apologize to this reporter and his family. And he should fire whoever did this. (CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: But I worry about a White House that smears its critics.


BEGALA: It's J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy all over again.

NOVAK: Let's have a Senate investigation now.


BEGALA: Let's -- no, let's fire the son of a gun who did it. Let's have a White House that doesn't smear journalists.

NOVAK: Congressman Bernie Sanders, the only member of the House of Representatives from the people's republic of Vermont...


NOVAK: ... attends the Democratic caucus and is an avowed socialist. Naturally, he loves socialist Scandinavia. When Federal Reserve Chairman Greenspan testified last week that the U.S. has the world's highest standard of living, Sanders interrupted to say that honor really belongs to Scandinavians. He is wrong.

But his Republican opponent for Congress, Greg Parke, is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who now is a commercial pilot. Noting that Scandinavian states now are groaning under their socialist burden, Colonel Parke offered to fly Congressman Sanders to his Marxist dreamland. We should be so lucky.


BEGALA: Bob, you and I sat at this table yesterday and watched Tony Blair, the prime minister of Great Britain, give one of the best speeches I've ever seen in my life. And the Republicans were cheering. They were weeping. They were throwing their underwear on the stage, like an Elvis concert.


BEGALA: Guess what? Tony Blair is a socialist. Now, maybe he's a socialist who you love, but...

NOVAK: You know, you have a genius for going off the subject. What do you think? Do you think Bernie Sanders would be happier in Scandinavia than he is in the United States?

BEGALA: I don't know. I


NOVAK: Do you think

(CROSSTALK) BEGALA: Do you think those Republicans would be happier in Great Britain?

NOVAK: Do you think he'd take -- do you think he ought to take Colonel Parke up on his offer?


NOVAK: President Bush says we won't be proven wrong about Iraq, but at least one of the Democratic presidential candidates is actually talking about impeachment.

We'll debate the political game-playing in just a minute.



NOVAK: Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bob Graham says that, if President Bush misled the public in order to attack Iraq, that's grounds for, yes, impeachment. Is that the voice of Democratic moderation?

To debate the political game-playing, as well as what's really needed in Iraq, we're joined by P.J. Crowley, former spokesman for President Clinton's National Security Council; and veteran Republican consultant Charlie Black.


BEGALA: All right, guys, thank you both for making time on a Friday afternoon.

Charlie, last night, in his news press conference with the very impressive prime minister of Great Britain, the president asserted enormous certainty that his version of events will be proved right.

And here's one of the reasons. Look at what the president said.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're just beginning to get some cooperation from some of the high-level officials in that administration or that regime. But, yes, we'll bring the weapons. And, of course, we will bring the information forward on the weapons when they find them. And that will end up -- end all this speculation.


BEGALA: So he says, we're just beginning to get cooperation and, when we get that cooperation, we'll show you the evidence.

The problem is, David Ignatius, a columnist for "The Washington Post," reports today the following. We're not disclosing the testimony that we're receiving from the scientists that we've captured. We're hiding those people and what they say. And here's why. He writes this today: "Why not disclose the testimony of people the coalition worked so hard to catch? The only convincing explanation, argues a former CIA official, is that their accounts would 'directly refute the Bush administration's insistence that weapons of mass destruction still exist somewhere, an assertion we all know is growing more questionable every day.'"

So isn't the president, again last night, misleading us about this weapons issue?


The entire world knows that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He committed genocide on the Kurds with weapons of mass destruction. He violated 17 U.N. resolutions. When the U.N. most recently demanded that he account for the weapons of mass destruction, which they and he stipulated that he had, he stiff-armed them. He refused to account for them. If he had and he didn't have them, he'd still be in power today.

The president knows what he's talking about. If Democrats want to stake their chances for winning in '04 on whether or not we find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that's a bad bet.

NOVAK: P.J., go ahead.

P.J. CROWLEY, FORMER SPOKESMAN, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: Well, I think there's a very important distinction between having weapons programs and having actual weapons.

It goes to the heart of the centrality issue today, which is the rush to Iraq and the fact that the way the president did it means we do not have the people or resources in Iraq right now, which is why our troops are struggling, our troops are getting killed. The way the president has rushed us into Iraq, not so much -- I mean, I agree Saddam's a bad guy. But the question of urgency that they created that we have to act now directly results in where we are today, why we're struggling today.

And this is going to have a much -- significant issue when it comes to the broader war on terrorism, if we don't get Iraq right.


NOVAK: P.J. Crowley, I've been a friend of -- I've watched Bob Graham for 30 years, always admire him, don't always agree with him. But I guess, when you run for president, you begin to take leave of your senses, because he's calling for impeachment.

Now, I want to see if you've joined the lunatic fringe, too. Surely you don't think that these accusations being made of the president are grounds for impeachment.

CROWLEY: I -- I personally believe that this is absolutely grounds for regime change in the United States. (LAUGHTER)


NOVAK: You mean by these reports? You don't mean regime change, do you? You mean party change? I think there's a difference.

CROWLEY: I mean, put it this way. I think that what we've seen here is an erosion...

NOVAK: But answer my question on impeachment.

CROWLEY: It's an erosion of the credibility that the president has. I don't question that there's a case for going after Saddam. I question the urgency...

NOVAK: Please answer my question on impeachment.

CROWLEY: I question the urgency that the president used. He did mislead us. They have absolutely misled -- you know, manipulated intelligence.


CROWLEY: And that's a great concern.

NOVAK: You won't answer my question on impeachment?

BEGALA: Speaking of which, let me ask Charlie to try to address the first question that I asked him again.


BEGALA: Which is this: Our president said, as we interview these former officials, we're going to release what they say. But the facts are, he hasn't. Why hasn't the Bush administration told us what these scientists who worked for Saddam Hussein are telling us? The CIA official says it's because they're telling us something Bush doesn't want to hear. Isn't that why he's covering up the facts?

BLACK: When you've got -- in any case, even in a petty crime, when you've got multiple witnesses, you don't release what one said before you interview the other one. There's a bunch of other people to interview. You have the collate...

BEGALA: He's got to get their stories straight, huh?

BLACK: No, you have to collate to test them. This is utter nonsense.


BLACK: Are you saying that the United Nations and every Western intelligence agency was wrong through the '90s when they said...


BLACK: Who killed all those Kurds?

BEGALA: I'm saying that George W. Bush should put the facts before the American people.


BLACK: If he didn't have chemical weapons, who killed all those hundreds of thousands of Kurds in the early '90s?

NOVAK: P.J. Crowley, I've been doing this a long time. I usually don't ask a guy a question four times. But I really believe that you had a distinguished position. You are considered a knowledgeable person. And I want to ask you the question one more time. And you give me a yes-or-no answer. Do you think there's grounds for impeaching George W. Bush, if these accusations are correct?

CROWLEY: I actually don't, because I don't think that the president knew what he was saying. He was given information from his staff that he didn't write himself.


BEGALA: Charlie, let me ask you a question.


BEGALA: No, let me follow up on this same topic. Tim Russert...

NOVAK: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. This is not a filibuster.

BEGALA: It's not the Bob Novak hour either.


I'd like you to listen to something that Bush said in his session with Blair yesterday.

Let's take a -- let's listen to it.


BUSH: We won't be proven wrong.


BUSH: I believe that we will find the truth. And the truth is, he was developing a program for weapons of mass destruction.


NOVAK: There's no doubt about that, is there?

CROWLEY: There's no doubt he had a program of weapons of mass destruction. But that's not what the administration said. From Cheney to Rumsfeld on, they said, they have actual weapons and we know where they are.

Well, here we are coming up on 100 days after we entered Iraq. And we've found a van here, a centrifuge there, but nothing that said there was the compelling risk that the president painted that meant that we had to go in now, before the rest of the world was able to join us. And that has great significance, now that our troops are bearing a disproportionate share of the burden and the disproportionate share of the lives lost.

BLACK: Well, wait a minute. Wait a minute. There are -- there are...


BLACK: It's been a little over two months since the end of the war, since Baghdad was secured. The Iraqi police are being trained. There's going to be an Iraqi army that's being trained that will take some of the burden. Other nations are getting ready to send troops in to help with the peacekeeping.

Let me tell you what was urgent about it. We were able to go in there and win the war with minimal casualties, military and civilian, and preserve the infrastructure, so that, today, things aren't so terrible over there, when the schools are open, the electricity is on, the hospitals are functioning. You do have police forces in most cities. You have freedom of expression and local self-governments on the way. It's not a disaster in Iraq.


BEGALA: Well, when was the last time you were in Baghdad? That doesn't sound like what any of our troops are saying, Charlie Black. In fact, a Pentagon study that was released today says the potential for chaos in Iraq is becoming more real every day, because we don't have a plan, do we?

BLACK: Well, I got -- everything I just said came out of "The Washington Post," "The New York Times," CNN, and news reports. I have no inside information. But you really...

BEGALA: Our troops are telling us that they're over there being shot at every day. They said that they'd like to have Rumsfeld resign. That doesn't sound like it's Disneyland, does it?

BLACK: Out of 160,000 U.S. troops, any smart reporter can go around and find one or two or three dissidents. Let me tell you something.

BEGALA: And smart Iraqis are finding ones who they're shooting every doggone day.

BLACK: Let's talk politics for a minute. Every single...

BEGALA: We're going to have -- we're going to (CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: We're going to go to a break right now. After...

NOVAK: We're going to have to take a break. We're going to have to take a break.

And after a quick break, Wolf Blitzer will have the headlines, including the latest on the coming announcement on Kobe Bryant's legal situation. We're standing by for the prosecutor's press conference live from Colorado.

Then, we'll back with "Rapid Fire," the quickest question-and- answer session in all of politics.



BEGALA: Time now for "Rapid Fire": short questions, short answers. No time for damage control.

Our guests today: Republican consultant Charlie Black and former National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley.

NOVAK: Mr. Crowley, why did the Democrats cheer and yell for Tony Blair when he was saying exactly the same thing that George Bush says?

CROWLEY: Tony Blair is a great statesman. He's a great world leader. We wish George Bush was.


BEGALA: Charlie, Lloyd Grove of "The Washington Post" today reports that White House officials called Matt Drudge to say that an ABC News reporter was gay and they didn't like his reporting. Is that the White House policy, to smear journalists they don't like?

BLACK: I don't know anything about it. It doesn't...

BEGALA: Should the president fire anybody who did that?

BLACK: If he can find -- if it happened and if he can find him, he should fire him. It doesn't ring true to me. It's not the policy of this administration to do that kind of thing.

NOVAK: P.J. Crowley, do you think we'd be better off in the country and the world if Saddam Hussein was still in Baghdad?

CROWLEY: No. That's not the issue. The issue is not whether we went to Baghdad. It's how we got there and what we do now.

BEGALA: Charlie, 83 heroic Americans have died since that day that George Bush landed on that aircraft carrier and announced mission accomplished. Are you worried you're going that footage in a Democratic ad in the election?

BLACK: Well, Paul, if we do, it will backfire on Democrats.

Every day that the political debate is about Iraq or national security is a bad day for Democrats. You can't beat George Bush on that. You're playing against his strength.

NOVAK: CIA Director Tenet was grilled for five hours behind closed doors in the Senate Intelligence Committee. Is there anything more we can get out of him in the investigation that Paul Begala wants?

CROWLEY: What I would like to have is President Bush stand up and say, "The responsibility stops with me," and stop blaming people within his administration.


BEGALA: Sure. Why not? Why did the Senate Republicans vote against an independent investigation, not one controlled by one party or the other, but an independent investigation? They voted that down on Wednesday. Why?


BLACK: What's wrong with the Intelligence Committee? The Intelligence Committee is...

BEGALA: It's controlled by one party.

BLACK: It's not. It's bipartisan, No. 1. The Democrats get to ask questions of Tenet. They can call other witnesses, if they want.

NOVAK: Thank you very much, Charlie Black, P.J. Crowley.


NOVAK: It's time for today's "Ask the Audience" question.

Now take out your voting devices -- this is an order -- and tell us whether you think Saddam Hussein had a nuclear weapons program. Press one for yes, Saddam was trying -- trying -- to build a bomb. Or press two if you think there wasn't any nuclear weapons program. And we'll have the results after the break.

And in "Fireback," one of our viewers points out what the Democrats are missing in all their second-guessing about Iraq.


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

But first, our "Ask the Audience" question today. Did Saddam Hussein have a nuclear weapons program? Almost every single Republican says yes, 94 percent, but it's about 50/50 among Democrats.

NOVAK: That's very interesting.

BEGALA: Pretty interesting.


Sheila Lee of Pomona, California -- oh, we've got the wrong one. Go ahead.

BEGALA: David Varao -- sorry, Bob -- David Varao of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, writes: "Why haven't we heard anything from Vice President Dick Cheney about the Bush administration taking criticism over Iraq and the budget deficit? Is he in that undisclosed location again? Very good point."


BEGALA: Very good point.

NOVAK: You know, there was a guy who looked very much like Cheney presiding over the joint meeting of Congress.


BEGALA: I tell you what. I'd like to see him presiding over a deposition where we get to ask him questions about what he did to mislead the American people about this war. That's what I'd like.

NOVAK: You've turned Johnny one-note, aren't you?


NOVAK: Sheila Lee of Pomona, California, says: "All I've been hearing from Democrats is criticism of this administration. I would like to know, what are the Democrats' plans for keeping this country safe? What is their plan for keeping us from having another 9/11? To criticize is easy. To have a plan requires more."


NOVAK: I'll tell you what their plan is: to attack George Bush morning, noon and night and call him a liar. That's what the plan is.

BEGALA: No, the plan is to get rid of Bush, put a competent president in there who will internationalize this, get some allies over there, so that our boys aren't the only one dying in the streets of Baghdad.


NOVAK: Question, question from the audience. Go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi. My name is Rosemary Lou (ph). I'm from Tokyo, Japan. Do you think Democratic attacks on the president are going to backfire and be seen as unpatriotic?

NOVAK: That is the danger. And I would say there's nothing the Republicans want more than to get into that briar patch of national security as the Democratic issue this summer.

BEGALA: The issue is not national security. The issue is, did the president mislead us about national security? And we now know, factually, he uttered many, many statements that were factually false. He has to be held accountable for that. And to me, that's the most patriotic thing I can do as an American.


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

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak.

Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.


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