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Bush Strategy to Pick Campaign Battles; Afghanistan Lapsing Again into Narco-Terror State?

Aired April 10, 2004 - 19:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, THE CAPITAL GANG.
MARK SHIELDS, HOST: Welcome to THE CAPITAL GANG. I'm Mark Shields, with Al Hunt, Robert Novak and Kate O'Beirne. Our guest is Congressman Charles Rangel, New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.

It's great to have you back, Charlie.

REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D), NEW YORK: It's good to be back.

SHIELDS: Thank you.

At the request of the independent 9/11 commission, the White House has just released an August 6, 2001, eyes-only presidential briefing report that said, quote, "FBI information indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York," end quote.

That followed national security adviser Condoleezza Rice's public testimony before the commission.


CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: President Bush understood the threat, and he understood its importance. He made clear to us that he did not want to respond al Qaeda one attack at a time. He told me he was tired of swatting flies. There was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks.


SHIELDS: She engaged in heated exchanges with Democratic members of the commission.


RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, 9/11 COMMISSIONER: Did you tell the president at any time prior to August 6 of the existence of al Qaeda cells in the United States?

RICE: Fist let me just make certain...

BEN-VENISTE: If you could just answer that question?

RICE: Oh, I really don't remember, Commissioner, whether I discussed this with the president.

BOB KERREY, 9/11 COMMISSIONER: Dr. Rice, we didn't...

RICE: That was what was meant.

KERREY: We only swatted a fly once, on the 20th of August, 1998. We didn't swat any flies afterwards. How the hell could he be tired?


SHIELDS: Al Hunt, what is the impact, at the end of this tumultuous week, of the released presidential memo?

AL HUNT, CAPITAL GANG: It shatters what was a very forceful appearance by Dr. Rice. You recall she said of that daily presidential briefing on August the 6th, 2001, that it was vague, that it was really an historical document. Well, what was released today -- and it was -- they only redacted, apparently, the names of sources. It not only is headlined, as we learned a couple days ago, that "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.," but it went on to say that intelligence sources were talking about bin Laden hijacking an airplane and there was a lot of suspicious activity in New York. That's not vague and historical.

Could it have -- could it have been prevented? Who knows? But her -- the impression she left on Thursday was clearly misleading on that score and a number of other scores, Mark.

SHIELDS: Bob Novak, your judgment of what this does to this story this week?

BOB NOVAK, CAPITAL GANG: Well, I think this -- the release of this, which I'm glad they released, knocks down the -- the statements of certain Democratic commissioners that this was horrible, that -- the scare story in this morning's "New York Times." Al and I must have been reading different documents, or else we look at it from a different -- different standpoint because I thought there was nothing in there that indicated the -- in advance the nature of the 9/11 -- 9/11 disaster. The -- the idea that bin Laden wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft they say is uncorroborated. They say that -- that bin Laden is a bad guy, wants to attack the United States. Boy, that is not exactly new.

SHIELDS: Not exactly news, Charlie Rangel?

RANGEL: Well, I can tell you that if you live in New York and you work in the Capitol and you know the record that al Qaeda's had, it certainly would have gotten me excited. And it just surprises me that there was not a more concern about something like this that can and actually did happen. And that is why I'm concerned that the president is supposed to go before the commission, not be under oath and have Cheney there. I think the whole country now just wants to know not whether or not it could have been prevented but what did we do when we heard about this?

SHIELDS: Kate O'Beirne. KATE O'BEIRNE, CAPITAL GANG: This released document is exhibit A in how incredibly political looking back before 9/11 has become. It's so important the White House got it out there. Everybody in America will see the content of it -- it's brief enough -- in their newspapers tomorrow morning. And they will be able to realize that the Democrats on the commission, who didn't think it would ever be released, mischaracterized it as far more long than it is, and they'll be able to decide for themselves.

There is one 3-year-old hijacking threat. Osama bin Laden might hijack an aircraft to release a prisoner -- 3 years old, uncorroborated. It's titled, "Osama bin Laden wants to attack the United States," has for the past four years.

Well, yes. In fact, he even did in 1993 attack the United States. The FBI sees some evidence of possible hijacking or some other activity. They're surveilling federal buildings in New York. But the FBI is on top of that with 70 field investigations. The public will see that this has been grossly mischaracterized by the president's critics.

HUNT: "Patterns of suspicious activity" in this country, and they're surveilling federal buildings. This was the document presented to the president. Who knows what was discussed.


HUNT: But Mark, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Dr. Rice also said -- her basic premise was anti-terrorism was a top priority for this administration in the first eight months of the Bush presidency, and yet she chaired 33 cabinet-level national security meetings, not once did they mention al Qaeda. At one point, she said, Look, basically, the al Qaeda, the anti-terrorism -- that was Dick Clarke's charge. Remember it was Dick Cheney who said Dick Clarke was "out of the loop." I mean, there is a -- there is a -- there's so much disparity...

NOVAK: Let me -- let me...


NOVAK: ... agree with one thing that Al said. And when I can agree with one thing that he said, I'm really ahead of the game.

HUNT: You are.

NOVAK: And that is that I thought she did a fabulous job in testifying. A lot of people didn't think she did, but I thought she was -- she was...

O'BEIRNE: Most people -- based on polls, most people think she did!

NOVAK: I mean, some of the people -- some of the -- some of the talking heads. And Tom Shales, the TV critic for the -- for the -- for "The Washington Post," not exactly a conservative, thought she had really cleaned the clock of the commissioners. And the commissioners -- the Democratic commissioners came over so partisan, and your friend, Richard Ben-Veniste -- he comes over as a thug!

RANGEL: Well, she did clean the clock of the commission, but she never could have gotten away with that in a court of law. She knew that they only had 10 minutes. She was very good in answering questions that they never asked, and she was very vague on answering the questions that they really...


O'BEIRNE: Look, Jamie Gorelick was No. 2 in Reno's Justice Department. It is completely ludicrous that she's passing judgment on Condoleezza Rice about what we've done about terrorism. Jamie Gorelick, as No. 2 in Justice, knew more about the FBI's problems, knew more about the legal impediments to doing something about the kind of threats we saw, knew more about the CIA and FBI, knew more about the INS being lackadaisical than Condi Rice would ever have known. So who is she to be judging...

HUNT: Every...

O'BEIRNE: ... the Bush administration?

HUNT: Every single document, every budget document shows, every testimony shows that anti-terrorism was Janet Reno's top priority.

O'BEIRNE: Oh! Day care centers...

HUNT: ... in contrast...

O'BEIRNE: Day care centers were her top priority!

HUNT: Look at the record, Kate, not the rhetoric. Look at the record. By contrast, John Ashcroft came in and he was more interested in chasing hookers in New Orleans than he was...

NOVAK: Oh, that's not fair!

HUNT: He cut -- he cut the anti-terrorism budget. That's the record. Wait until we hear him next week.

SHIELDS: Yes, I'm -- I'm just curious. I got -- I got the distinct impression that John Ashcroft is going to be the fall guy on this, Bob, that -- "The New York Times" story in Saturday that got a look at the FBI, the FBI let up, Bob Kerrey's own testimony that the FBI failed, that they were unsupervised, overlooked, unchecked.

NOVAK: Let me add one thing. I really do believe that these -- that they were right in the first place, that these independent commissions -- and I -- I probably have read more about the Pearl Harbor commissions than anybody here...

SHIELDS: No way!

NOVAK: I really have... (CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: They are always partisan, Charlie. They are -- they can't help but being partisan.

HUNT: But you see this just as...

SHIELDS: Hey, wait a minute!

HUNT: Democratic partisan. You don't see this as -- you see it one -- one side is partisan...

NOVAK: No, it's two-sided...

SHIELDS: We got to go.


NOVAK: Unlike you, I'm a fair person.

HUNT: Oh, I'm sorry.

SHIELDS: We got to go. But let's get one thing. The commission unanimously requested this. The commission consistently has acted unanimously, and they will have a report that is unanimous...

O'BEIRNE: Now they're going to be sorry they...


SHIELDS: Charlie Rangel and THE GANG we'll be back with the shooting war in Iraq.


SHIELDS: Welcome back.

The U.S. military today announced a change in dealing with the uprising in Iraq.


BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMITT, DEPUTY CHIEF OF OPERATIONS: Following on yesterday's unilateral suspension of offensive military operations, coalition forces are prepared to implement a ceasefire with enemy elements in Fallujah commencing at noon today.


SHIELDS: A 12-hour ceasefire will begin Sunday morning. Earlier, the U.S. commander said he needs no more troops.


GEN. JOHN ABIZAID, CENTRAL COMMAND: It is a counterinsurgency operation up here, and it's an operation against an illegal militia force down in the south. A lot of -- a lot of military activity going on, but still a level of activity that can be handled with the troops available.


SHIELDS: Back home, Iraq was compared to Vietnam.


SEN. EDWARD M. KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam, and this country needs a new president.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD (D), WEST VIRGINIA: Surely, I am not the only one who hears echoes of Vietnam.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: To make these comparisons with the Tet offensive or -- or the -- or the entire Vietnam conflict are not only uninformed, but I think a bit dangerous.

COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: Vietnam is another part of the world, another time in history.


SHIELDS: Kate O'Beirne, whether it compares with Vietnam or not, is Iraq turning into a quagmire, politically and realistically, for George W. Bush?

O'BEIRNE: Well, the comparison with Vietnam was completely ridiculous. And Senator Kennedy's angry rant this week was a disgrace! We have young soldiers engaged in bloody battles. Imagine how that sounded to those young Marines and soldiers in the field, that he's giving a morale boost to their enemies. And if John Kerry disagrees with his great friend, Ted Kennedy, about Vietnam, raising the morale of our enemies, then he ought to say so because it's crucial we be united in this war. We are going to prevail, owing to the bravery and courage of those young soldiers and Marines, and also because the majority of Iraqis want a democracy. They don't want an Iranian-style theocracy.

SHIELDS: Charlie Rangel, I guess, according to Kate, John Kerry and Ted Kennedy are in a quagmire, but George W. Bush is riding high in Iraq.

RANGEL: This whole idea that because we're in war that members of the Congress are just supposed to support the president and support the troops and be silent and not be able to determine whether we should be at war -- all of the evidence that we're talking about this evening said it was Osama bin Laden, that that's where the attack was coming from. That's where the war on terrorism -- there's not one scintilla of evidence that anyone has shown that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11, that he has weapons of mass destruction or that he has connection with al Qaeda.

O'BEIRNE: Not true! RANGEL: One thing is clear, though -- one thing is clear, that the president knew before he -- before 9/11 that he wanted to have a regime change and he wanted to check out -- take out Saddam Hussein. And he's done that.

Now, we all agree that this should happen, but we've lost over 600 lives, and they're not all young people. Today I greeted the 719th regiment that came back, National Guard, some grandfathers there. And the other reservists that are there have another three months there, which means that it's a draft here. And somebody has to take a look and to see whether or not we're winning or losing. The secretary of defense doesn't know. So just because they're fighting men and women doesn't mean that we don't have an obligation...

O'BEIRNE: It's disgraceful!


SHIELDS: Bob Novak, 40 percent of the fighting force right now...

RANGEL: Reservists.

SHIELDS: ...National Guard and reserves. And the parallel to Vietnam really comes down to Gulf of Tonkin versus weapons of mass destruction, in both cases misleading the American people about the casus belli of going to war.

NOVAK: Well, see, the question is -- and we've had this debate before. I didn't think we should go to war in Iraq. That was -- that was known, and -- but I really do believe that once you're in war, that I believe the kind of speeches that Senator Kennedy makes are inflammatory and they are wrong. And I -- I support the troops. I believe this. I believe there -- I went to Vietnam many times. I'm too old to go to -- to Iraq. And there is no comparison between this and Vietnam. I believe -- I was -- always wondered whether -- how we're going to end up in Vietnam, and my worst suspicions were -- were founded. But I think if we stick to it, we can win -- win this war. We are there. Nobody wants -- nobody wants to move out, Mark. And I really do believe that the fact that we are less than seven months away from Election Day is creating all this hysterical talk.


HUNT: Well, Mark, I support the forces there, too. They are brave. And that doesn't mean the people who engaged in a catastrophic post-Saddam strategy should not be held accountable and we shouldn't figure out what went wrong. This was a dreadful week.

Rumsfeld loves to say it's just the Ayatollah Badr (ph) and those Saddam camp followers in the Sunni triangle are terrible, you know, thugs. They are. But why are they gaining more support? Why does Adnan Pachachi, the most respected member of the -- of the -- of the exiles on the -- on that governing council there saying what America's doing is unacceptable and illegal? This is not coming from a thug, this is coming from one of the people who should be our greatest supporters.

And because of that catastrophic post-war planning, they've created terrible dilemmas for us. We need more troops there. But as Bob Novak wrote this week, so does Afghanistan. Where do we get them? Korean peninsula? Hardly. Want to call up more reserves? I don't think so. We -- we argued last week that if we had a lower presence, that that might help stabilize the country. Fallujah disproves that. A bigger presence, we inflame. You know, having some kind of elections next January...

NOVAK: So what are you going to do?

RANGEL: If you really want to help the troops, you should get some of those Arab friends of the president from Saudi Arabia, from Egypt, from Jordan -- we haven't the slightest clue who we're fighting over there. They have no flag, no country. We -- if they wanted to surrender tomorrow, we would not know who to go to, to -- in order to get them to surrender.

What we really need is some people from the region in order to help us, and the international community.

SHIELDS: Let me just pick up...

RANGEL: Not just our troops.

SHIELDS: ... on Charlie's point -- 45,500 American troops frozen last month, whose time was up, whose duty was fulfilled. They had volunteered. They are being effectively drafted there. But beyond that -- and I think this is -- this is what -- what drives me -- it is not a question -- I mean, what you've done is you've taken young Marines and you put them in Fallujah, in an impossible situation. If they fight, they're going to kill civilians and they're going to inflame the population. If they don't fight, there's going to -- they're going to encourage...

NOVAK: Let me...

SHIELDS: ... the worst elements. And I will...


NOVAK: Well, it's a long, long speech, Mark.

SHIELDS: No, let me just say this -- Bob, I haven't spoken throughout this. Let me just say this. The question was about George W. Bush. George W. Bush can't use the Abraham Lincoln. He can't use...

NOVAK: Oh, well, that's -- that's...

SHIELDS: ... "Bring it on." Now he can't use 9/11.

NOVAK: That's a -- that's a...

SHIELDS: He's the war president! NOVAK: That's harangue! Let me -- let me -- let me just say something. In Vietnam, at least, people like you were saying, let's pull them out. Let's go. And that was a clean thing. But this thing on Iraq -- nobody except Mr. Kucinich is saying, let's get out right now. It's just this pounding on Bush. It's all political. And we ought to really say, let's get this -- let's clean this place out because we're there, and when -- and no -- you don't want to pull out, do you?


HUNT: ...but I want to listen to people like Tony Zinni, who told us what we shouldn't have done. And I want to...

NOVAK: Oh, it's all politics!


HUNT: Tony Zinni's not politics, Bob!

NOVAK: You're politics, though!

HUNT: Oh, and you're not, right, Robert? No.


O'BEIRNE: The senior...

HUNT: You're a statesman.

O'BEIRNE: The senior leadership at the Pentagon, uniforms and civilian, is committed to moving heaven and earth to give the troops in the field every single thing they might need. And the Marines do have a job they can do in Fallujah because they're going to win in Fallujah because this administration is not tying their hands and is backing them 100 percent.

HUNT: The senior military officers at the Pentagon, according to...

O'BEIRNE: Not true!

HUNT: ... a columnist this week, are absolutely dead set against Don Rumsfeld.

O'BEIRNE: Not true.

HUNT: That came from Bob Novak.

O'BEIRNE: There are 400 of them, Bob! How many...


HUNT: I'll stick with Robert D. Novak on that, Kate.

O'BEIRNE: It's a big building, Bob... (CROSSTALK)

RANGEL: Rumsfeld said he doesn't know whether we're creating more terrorists than we're killing.


NOVAK: The one thing -- the one thing...

SHIELDS: One at a time!

NOVAK: The one thing, Kate, I will say -- and this is not very controversial -- Don Rumsfeld is not popular with the uniformed (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

SHIELDS: When Novak speaks, you'll notice, it is a thoughtful delivery, not a harangue.

O'BEIRNE: It's controversial...

HUNT: Baloney!


SHIELDS: Kate! Time out, Kate! You've had three times now. That's enough for you. Women talk too much!



SHIELDS: ...John Kerry's economic plan.



SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Under my economic plan, I protect the middle class. Under my economic plan, all we're going to do is roll back George Bush's unaffordable tax cut for the wealthiest Americans, and we're going to invest that money in health care and education and job creation.


SHIELDS: That was Senator John Kerry's economic plan, as the presumed Democratic presidential nominee. He was asked whether he could tie together his primary campaign proposals into a succinct and compelling agenda.


KERRY: Succinct agenda: We're going to balance the budget. We're going to cut the deficit in half in four years. We're going to create 10 million jobs. And we're going to provide health care to all Americans. How's that? (END VIDEO CLIP)

SHIELDS: The new CNN/"Time" poll shows public disapproval of the way President Bush is handling the economy at 54 percent, with 41 percent approving.

Bob Novak, has John Kerry altered his own primary election economic agenda for the general election campaign?

NOVAK: Obviously, he is pulling back from -- from a lot of the spending plans he was talking about because he can't -- he can't raise the taxes that much and have this deficit reduction. It's an irrational economic plan. And then he -- then he -- we're going to talk about that later, but then he wrings his hands when the -- when the Republicans point it out. It is -- it is the -- it is the weak spot of the Democrats that they want a lot of spending and a lot of taxes, and that is a problem because they have in the last several elections.

SHIELDS: Charlie Rangel, Kerry's plan -- is it a plan that somebody -- which somebody can get elected and can govern?

RANGEL: You know, when people start really seeing what has happened under the Bush plan -- and even today, the evidence shows that the wealthy people and the corporations are not paying the taxes, and the middle class has been overburdened. We're involved in a war which we don't know when it's going to end. They don't even include the cost of the war in the Bush budget. And the number of people that are unemployed and underemployed -- this is painful.

If Kerry comes and says that he's going to not make permanent some of these tax cuts, it's breath of fresh air.

SHIELDS: Breath of fresh air, Al Hunt?

HUNT: Well, if it's modeled after the Clinton approach in 1993, it's going to produce one of the best economies we've seen in our lifetime, and Robert Novak will even be wealthier. Look, I don't think the budget deficit plan of Kerry's has that much credibility. Has more credibility than George Bush's, however.

But you know, overall, Charlie, John Kerry has not had a very good month. He gave a speech in Chicago a couple days ago. Heavy hitters who were there told me it was a pretty dismal performance. And when news of any day is dominated by which media strategist's on top rather than jobs, that's bad for Kerry. He's still got to get his act together, Mark.

SHIELDS: But Kate, the president's in a problem. He's got -- he's got an economic plan that's produced more gay weddings than it has jobs. I mean, so what's he going to do?

O'BEIRNE: John Kerry would switch places with him in a heartbeat. George Bush is going to be able to run on the economy. The new job numbers this month make that easier now because now it fits with the stock market and interest rates and take-home pay. John Kerry's problem is he's been a tax-and-spend, big-government, big-tax liberal for 19 years, and he's trying to figure out some sort of plan that'll convince the American public that that's not what he is. And he's not going to be able to do that.

SHIELDS: And George Bush is running as a war president, right?

Charlie Rangel, thank you for joining us.


NOVAK: ... that was the last segment.

SHIELDS: Well, Bob, it's all one thing.

NOVAK: I see.


NOVAK: With you it is!

SHIELDS: It's inseparable, Bob. You know, you make sense to the American people when you (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

There's much more still ahead in the second half of THE CAPITAL GANG. "Beyond the Beltway" looks at America's other war in Afghanistan with CNN's Nic Robertson; "THE CAPITAL GANG Classic" and our "Outrages of the Week." And next, Kate O'Beirne is "On the Beat" with the Bush campaign's reelection strategy.


LIN: I'm Carol at the CNN Center. More CAPITAL GANG in just a moment. But first here are the headlines.

The White House has released part of a key intelligence report on Osama bin Laden. It says the head of al Qaeda had been determined to conduct terror attacks in the U.S. since 1997. President Bush got the report on August 6, more than a month before the September 11 attack. It was declassified at the urging of the 9/11 Commission after National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's testimony.

The document suggests plots to disrupt the millennium celebrations in Canada may have market bin Laden's first serious attempt to carry out his plan. The report indicates the FBI was tracking patterns of suspicious activity here in the U.S. Federal agents believed those patterns were preparations for some type of hijacking.

The report also says al Qaeda maintained a support group which included U.S. citizens to aid in any kind of attack.

Coming up at 10:00 Eastern in our primetime show, I'm going to be interviewing Governor James Thompson of Illinois. He is actually the former governor there. He is a 9/11 Commission member. We're going to get his reaction to this White House revelation.

And that's a check of the headlines. Now more of the CAPITAL GANG on CNN.

ANNOUCER: Live from Washington, THE CAPITAL GANG.

SHIELDS: Welcome back to the second half of THE CAPITAL GANG. I'm Mark Shields with Al Hunt, Robert Novak and Kate O'Beirne.

Kate O'Beirne was on the beat this week, covering Bush-Cheney campaign headquarters in suburban Northern Virginia.


O'BEIRNE (voice-over): In a week with political news focusing on the war on terror, with fierce fighting in Iraq, a fierce attack from Senator Ted Kennedy, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice facing some fierce questioning about the 9/11 attacks, the Bush-Cheney campaign had stuck to their own war plan.

The campaign launched daily assaults on John Kerry's old record and new platform on taxes and spending. In an interview this week, campaign manager Ken Mehlman explained to me that although he intends to be nimble and aggressive, he has no interest in being controlled by a campaign inbox that dictates his agenda.

"You can have a clean inbox but not move forward," he explained.

His current agenda is the message he sees taking hold in a recent poll that found the percentage of people who think John Kerry is going to raise their taxes as president is up to 58 percent.

The ads on Kerry's past support for tax increases have been running for three weeks, "surrounded," in Mehlman's words, "by surrogates who appear weekly."

Commerce Secretary Donald Evans previewed John Kerry's major policy speech on his proposed budget plan.

DONALD EVANS, COMMERCE SECRETARY: Senator Kerry's record indicates that he will get the money he needs not by reducing spending, but by burdening workers and business owners with even higher taxes.

O'BEIRNE: After the Kerry speech, it was House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle's turn to criticize the plan as vague and unworkable.

While the Clinton 1992 campaign famously resolved to answer every single attack, the Bush campaign sees the strength in picking and choosing with the determination not to get off their own game.


O'BEIRNE: They say that no war plan survives contact with the enemy, but we'll see over the campaign season whether or not the Bush- Cheney team is able to stick to its own agenda.

SHIELDS: Al Hunt, you've watched more than a few campaigns, does this Bush plan look workable in the view of events? HUNT: Mark, I think political general, like military generals that don't adjust to changing circumstances are usually ex-generals. The Bush campaign has only looked good when it has savaged John Kerry. But when you come to the president himself, this week, the worst week in the war in Iraq, and he's driving pick-up trucks around Crawford, Texas.

The legislative strategy is "four corners," let's stall until November. And the only domestic vision he has is tax cuts for the rich.

SHIELDS: Bob Novak.

NOVAK: Well, in the first place, I don't think he's savaged John Kerry. Savaging is saying a guy is dumb, he's evil, he's a crook, he's a liar. The Republicans haven't done that. What they've said is that he is a taxer. He is a taxer. He has voted so many times for higher taxes, Senator Kerry has, and for spending.

And I think that is a very good strategy. Obviously if the war in Iraq, if it goes down, if it continues, if there's no improvement, that's going to be bad news. But the plan, you don't go out, as many of our talking heads say, apologize for something that wasn't done.

Let me say this, in the Mason-Dixon poll in Florida, the negatives in over a three-week period in a very important state on Kerry went from 21 percent to 42 percent, double. You say, well, maybe they were always at 21 percent when it started. But that stuff works, when you show he's a taxer.

O'BEIRNE: I think there is evidence that message discipline works. As I said, they're nimble. They'll respond to certain things. But they're going to choose when they feel like it.

Two months ago, in those 18 swing states, John Kerry was up by 12 points. Two months later, George Bush is up by 6 in those same states. John Kerry used to have a favorability rating of 66 in those states, where these ads are running, it's now down to just 50.

So I think the discipline, supplemented by the speakers really is working.

SHIELDS: I'll say this, after the president spent $40 million, after the best week he's had in economic news in his entire administration of new jobs last week, he's essentially tied with Senator Kerry. And the latest "Newsweek" poll, which will be out this week, taken Thursday and Friday, shows that six out of 10 Americans say the Bush administration underestimated the threat of terrorism.

This is what he's running on. He is the war president. He can't run on good times. So I mean, I just -- I think he's got to - I think Al's absolutely right, Bob. He's looked like he's missing in action again this week, one of the worst weeks in the war.

NOVAK: You say he had such a great week, and then you tell me it's a terrible week. You've got to make up your mind what you're going to say. I would say it was a rough week for the president. There's no question it's a rough week.

But what surely - you used to be a campaign consultant, you shouldn't say, Mr. President, what you've got to do is get out there and say, I'm so sorry I screwed up. That's ridiculous.

HUNT: But Bob, you put your finger on it. The only effect that all of these ads have had, they have driven up John Kerry's negatives, you're absolutely right. They have not driven up George Bush's positives because he doesn't have any positives to...

NOVAK: But they have changed the polls in the key states and nationally. There was no question -- I mean, this is going to change a hundred times, I know that.

HUNT: Right. It's a dead-even race right now and we all know that. It was a dead-even race a month ago...


O'BEIRNE: It's a dead-even race with John Kerry having a very artificial low on favorability rate, that's going to start moving up.

SHIELDS: Well, I mean, it's kind of tough when all you can do is -- your campaign strategy is drive up the negatives of your opponent.

Coming up, a "CAPITAL GANG Classic," a White House reversal on the 9/11 Commission.


SHIELDS: Welcome back. In September of 2002, President Bush suddenly reversed course and agreed to an independent investigation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

The White House announced it changed its mind after talking to the families of the victims. Your CAPITAL GANG discussed this on September 21, 2002.


SHIELDS: Was it really the pressure from families that forced the flip-flop on the part of the administration as far as an investigation?

MARGARET CARLSON, CAPITAL GANG: Well, the families are a very powerful force. The administration needed to find a way, just as they did on homeland security, to be for it because it was going to -- you know, it was the inevitable outcome eventually.

NOVAK: I have great sympathy for the families of these victims, but their becoming a political force bothers me, and particularly the president of the United States saying, we didn't think this was a good idea, but since the families want it we're doing it.

HUNT: They say they're for a commission now. But it shouldn't get into intelligence, why? because they're afraid of embarrassment. I don't know who - this is just an absolutely outrageous cover-up.

O'BEIRNE: Experience tells me not to ever expect too much from these independent commissions. But I think in this case there was obviously such a colossal intelligence failure, the stakes are so high to not repeat it, that I'm willing to ignore my experience and endorse this one.


SHIELDS: Kate O'Beirne, would you amend your endorsement and your appraisal of 2002?

O'BEIRNE: Mark, I was wrong, wrong, wrong. I should have stuck with my experience. This commission has become predictably political. They're looking back to assign blame, not fix problems. And nothing makes that more apparent than the release of the of President's Daily Briefing.

They were hoping it wouldn't be released, some of the partisan types. They wanted just the alarming title to be out there. But now the public can judge for themselves how unfair this commission has been about what this White House did.

SHIELDS: Bob Novak, I couldn't disagree more highly with Kate. I think Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton have been...

O'BEIRNE: Big fry (ph).

SHIELDS: ... the epitome of bipartisan, responsible, civic, thoughtful...

NOVAK: If everybody was like Lee Hamilton, it would be OK. I don't think it's very valuable and I don't think you'll learn much. But Jamie Gorelick, a Clintonian, she's so clever and partisan. And Richard Ben-Veniste -- I've been watching him savage witnesses for about 30 years. And it -- I mean, I can't even argue. These commissions are always bad and this is a bad one.

SHIELDS: Bob, I'd like to have you meet Richard Ben-Veniste, go ahead.

NOVAK: I've had some experiences with him.

HUNT: This commission has provided an incredibly valuable public service. They are going to establish a very important record. Richard Ben-Veniste, as we keep saying on this show, has never been a Democratic functionary. He is a good lawyer. He asks good questions. I'm sorry, I think that's the function of a commission. And I think, sure, there is some partisanship creeps in, but I think they've done a splendid job. And we all...

SHIELDS: Can I just say in closing, I think Jamie Gorelick's questions are as thoughtful and insightful as anybody's, and I think Al agrees with me.



SHIELDS: Next on CAPITAL GANG, if I could speak, "Beyond the Beltway" gets an update on another American-led war, this one in Afghanistan, with CNN's own Nic Robertson.


SHIELDS: Welcome back. In Afghanistan, a powerful warlord's troops swept into a provincial capital this week, overpowering U.S.- backed security forces and driving out the governor.

It was announced today that the warlord's troops have withdrawn, supplanted by the Afghan national army. The U.S. ambassador asserted the conditions in Afghanistan are improving.


ZALMAY KHALILZAD, U.S. AMB. TO AFGHANISTAN: Things are going a lot better in Afghanistan. So our senior people do not need to be as focused on a day-to-day basis as they are on Iraq.

Along the Pakistani border in the south and east, there are problems, attacks by the Taliban, al Qaeda and Hate Mattiar's (ph) remnants. We are very much focused on defeating the remnants of these forces, and at the same time we are engaged with Pakistan.


SHIELDS: Joining us now is CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson who is embedded with Task Force 1 of the 501st Parachute Regiment of the United States Army that's 15 miles away from the Pakistan border in the town of Khowst.

Nic, do the troops on the ground take as rosy a view of the situation in Afghanistan as the United States ambassador does from Washington, D.C.?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think right here, Mark, they take a very realistic view. Just about four hours ago, everyone here had to get out of bed. The alarm had sounded. Two rockets were fired at this base.

They missed. But it's an indication that these troops here can't rest easy. Talking to soldiers here, they recognize the tempo of their work has really increased during over the last few weeks.

In the last couple of days, Bravo Company here had two, what were classified as serious contacts close to the Pakistan border. An IED drawing them into an ambush, and a second ambush less than 24 hours later.

The perpetrators in both cases appearing to escape across the Pakistani border. They do take the situation here very seriously, and perhaps from their perspective, what they see here, perhaps, is a little less rosy than what the ambassador in the bigger picture for Afghanistan - Mark.

SHIELDS: Bob Novak.

NOVAK: Nic, do you believe, or do the troops believe, I should say, that more -- that reinforcements are needed, that there are insufficient troops to perform the U.S. mission in Afghanistan?

ROBERTSON: That is the view of the Afghan government. The view of the troops here is that their tempo has picked up. And they recognize that what they really need is good, accurate intelligence if they're going to be able to pick up their enemies here, the Taliban, al Qaeda, Hate Mattiar (ph) as the ambassador said.

What they need is to be able to put more people on the ground so they can contain larger areas for searches. That needs more people, that there are more people coming in. But to provide realistic security across the whole of Afghanistan, that would allow the economic situation to improve, that would allow elections, full and proper elections to take place in September. That doesn't seem a reality.

NATO is expected to step in and provide some of that. But they've yet to say how many people and where they will go. So there is a big gap still there, Bob.

SHIELDS: Kate O'Beirne.

O'BEIRNE: Nic, what is the latest with respect to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden? There seemed to be some optimism about getting him some weeks ago. Is that still the case?

ROBERTSON: It's very, very difficult to say, in all honesty, Kate. I think the view here is that there needs to be a huge amount of pressure put on him both physically in terms of troops out on the ground, psychological pressure; hearing from the Pakistani side, the Afghan side, that through the media, through us, that there is a huge effort, campaign under way to find him, that will in some way force him to make a mistake and come out.

Nobody we talked to here thinks they're on the verge of picking him up. Again it comes back to that key issue of intelligence. And what we're seeing happening is the development of more and smaller bases along the Afghan-Pakistan border in order to try and encourage Afghans that the U.S. troops are here to do a good job that will help them.

There are provisions of so-called serve (ph) funds, $2 million at the disposal of U.S. commanders here on the ground to pay for schools to put into (UNINTELLIGIBLE) clinics, to put into health care facilities, designed to show the Afghans they're here to help, designed as well to draw out that critical information along the border. And that's where the effort is needed most. And that's where most believe they're likely to make some progress. But there's a huge, big hinterland here as well. Taliban remnants there, could he be hiding there? Nobody really has a firm answer, Kate.


HUNT: Nic, let me go back to the situation overall again in Afghanistan. There had been a number of press reports, including a comprehensive piece in "The New Yorker," that paint a very bleak picture.

They say that opium trade is soaring from Afghanistan, that the Taliban now is back controlling a number of areas in the country, and cites a U.N. report that says Afghanistan threatens to again become a breeding ground for terrorists.

Are those threats real?

ROBERTSON: Very real. There are provinces here, Zabol, Oruzgan, Helmand in the south, provinces that grow a lot of poppy, provinces that are controlled almost effectively by the Taliban.

There are -- if you go to U.N. compounds here you'll find those compounds, particularly outside of Kabul, where there is decent security. But in the other areas around Afghanistan you'll find the U.N. compounds full with their white vehicles, why? Because they don't believe it's safe enough to put into action a lot of programs they'd like to put into place.

When we travel around independently here, we need significant amounts of security to ensure that we're safe. It's an indication that the country is not under the control of the central government here. And it does come down to a provision of security, security in, for example, the capital of Helmand province, it's a massive poppy- producing province, Lashkar Gah.

There are no international programs there to help rejuvenate the economy. Why? Because the security is bad. The Taliban are very prevalent in that area. Poppy production is up. Twenty-eight out of the country's 32 provinces, three-quarters of the world's opium coming from this country.

And a British official, who -- and it is the British here who are charged with cracking the opium problem, if you will, British officials said there is quite a realistic possibility if this isn't dealt with effectively, Afghanistan could turn into a narcotic terrorist state.

From what we've seen, poppies were in abundance, the problem is very, very real. Corruption, again, goes to the root of tackling that problem as well, Alan (ph).

SHIELDS: I have to say, Nic Robertson, thank you so much, once again you've provided us with thoughtful, insightful and up-to-the- minute judgment and information. And please be safe, Nic. Thank you.

The gang will be back with our "Outrages of the Week."


SHIELDS: And now for "Outrage of the Week."

The United States has more troops under arms in Iraq than any other power. But second is not Great Britain. You know the second- biggest force in Iraq are the 20,000-plus armed mercenaries of private security companies under contract in Iraq to defend, among others, the top American administrator, Paul Bremer.

Unlike the courageous men and women of the United States military who fight for their country, their buddies and their units for modest wages, these mercenaries are paid up to $20,000 a month and are free from any chain of command or any Uniform Code of Military Justice.

But war, but not suffering, has apparently been privatized.

Bob Novak.

NOVAK: The stranglehold over the United States Senate by Democratic leader Tom Daschle has tightened. He has exerted life and death power over any federal judicial nomination, and many bills for the use of the filibuster.

Now he is preventing legislation, passed by both the House and Senate, from going to a Senate-House conference to iron out differences. That gives the minority of one chamber an absolute veto over everything.

In 16th Century Poland, a single member of parliament could veto any piece of legislation. Tom Daschle has that same power today.

SHIELDS: Kate O'Beirne.

O'BEIRNE: Washington's double standard was exemplified by the reaction to Democratic Senator Chris Dodd's fulsome praise of his Democratic colleague Robert Byrd in a recent tribute.

Dodd included the Civil War period in a litany of our past when Byrd's service, according to Dodd, would have been "right." Not content to be a mere segregationist like Strom Thurmond, Byrd was a good caring member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s.

One standard demanded Trent Lott's resignation, the other ignores Dodd's whitewash of Byrd's hateful history. Where is the outrage?


HUNT: Oh no, Mark, totally different. Chris Dodd is a man with an impeccable civil rights record. He praised Robert C. Byrd as a man who would've been a great senator in any era. To liken this to Trent Lott's endorsement of Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential quest, since Byrd was, to be sure, a terrible segregationist, is nonsense.

Chris Dodd didn't endorse Byrd's views then or now. He simply said he would've been a formidable senator any time, as John C. Calhoun and Richard Russell, both segregationists, were.

By the way, at the same time Dodd was saying this, GOP Senator leader Bill Frist called Byrd an "American icon" and "legend."

SHIELDS: This is Mark Shields saying good night for THE CAPITAL GANG. Coming up next, "CNN PRESENTS: The Mystery of Jesus." At 9 p.m. on "LARRY KING LIVE," actor Jason Patric. Then at 10 p.m. "CNN SATURDAY," former POW Ronald Young Jr. is on to talk about hostages in Iraq.

Thank you for joining us.


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