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Bush Administration Winning War on Terror?

Aired June 23, 2004 - 16:30   ET


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

In the CROSSFIRE: Fighting the war on terrorism.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The free world cannot be intimidated by the brutal actions of these barbaric people.

ANNOUNCER: Are Bush administration policies making things better or are they making things worse?

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: The attempt to rid Iraq of nuclear weapons it didn't have damaged our credibility.



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


A U.S. general in Iraq says Tuesday's airstrike on a terrorist safe house in Fallujah killed about 20 people believed to be foreign fighters. That's 20 fewer terrorists the world will have to worry about. I hope the liberals are not whining over that.

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: Well, of course, Bob, any time we get terrorists, it is a good thing.

But it's a bad thing when the Bush administration has to admit that it told us terrorist attacks were at their lowest level in 30 years, when the truth is, they were at their highest level in 20 years.


BEGALA: No wonder even President Bush's hometown "Dallas Morning News" says he has a credibility problem.

We will debate the war on terrorism right after the best little political briefing in television, our CROSSFIRE "Political Alert."

CNN experts have concluded today that the voice on a new audiotape threatening to murder interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is in fact terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi was behind the savage beheadings of American Nick Berg and South Korean national Kim Sun-il.

Astonishingly, NBC News has reported that -- quote -- "Long before the war, the Bush administration had several chances to wipe out his terrorist operation and perhaps kill Zarqawi himself, but never pulled the trigger" -- unquote. Now, why would President Bush pass up a chance to stop this killer? Well, NBC reports that destroying Zarqawi's operation might have undermined a higher Bush priority, building a case for invading Iraq.

And so Zarqawi went on to live and to kill and to kill and to kill, making this terrorist thug one of the very few people to actually benefit from Mr. Bush's obsession with going to war in Iraq.

NOVAK: You know, Paul, this is the second time or third time to me you have brought up this thing. This is a two-month-old, three- month-old NBC report. It has nowhere been confirmed by anybody. It's not been reported by CNN or anybody else. It's not come out in any of the commission hearings or the congressional hearings.


NOVAK: And it is outrageous for you to report this unsubstantiated



BEGALA: It's not been denied by the Bush administration. They could have gotten this thug and they took a pass on it. And that's the crime. And it's the second or third time he's beheaded somebody. And every time he does, I'm going to remind the American people of that, Bob.



NOVAK: You don't know that. You don't know that.

BEGALA: Damn right I do.

NOVAK: And it's an outrage. This is not a cheap political campaign to make accusations like that against your own country.

BEGALA: It's straight from a credible report.

NOVAK: John Kerry made a rare cameo appearance on the Senate floor yesterday and then returned to AWOL status on the campaign trail today.

While still a U.S. senator, he is seldom there, missing 80 percent of this year's votes. Making this rare personal appearance, he expected the Senate to rearrange its schedule to permit him to vote on veterans' benefits. When it didn't, he whined.


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They found a way all day to twiddle their thumbs, do very little, attend a reception at the White House, but not let John Kerry vote. That's the way they play. That's what's at stake in this race.


NOVAK: Twenty years in the Senate may not prepare you for much useful work, but it made John Kerry a world-class whiner.


BEGALA: I don't know, Bob. The Senate should do its business.

They should have had the vote on veterans' benefits, which President Bush wants to cut. They should hold the vote on raising the minimum wage, which John Kerry wants to do and George Bush opposes, a patients bill of rights, which John Kerry supports and George Bush opposes, or energy independence, which John Kerry supports and George Bush opposes, or health care coverage or anything else. It is going to take a new president and a Democratic Senate to get moving on those things.



NOVAK: The Senate is not in business for the convenience of the Democratic presidential candidate.


BEGALA: Or for the American people, apparently.

NOVAK: Not for the Democratic presidential candidate.

BEGALA: Nor America's veterans.

Well, Senate Republicans, as Bob pointed out, pretended that they were going to schedule a vote yesterday on a veterans bill just to force Senator Kerry to cancel his campaign schedule for the day and return back to Washington, which he did. Then, of course, they postponed the vote, wasting Senator Kerry's time and disappointing millions of veterans.

So the right-wingers, as you just heard from Bob, are complaining about Senator Kerry missing votes. But if anybody is shirking his job, it is Mr. Bush.


BEGALA: A quick count of President Bush's vacation days shows that he has spent an astonishing 43 percent of his entire presidency on vacation, sometimes at his multimillion-dollar 1,600 acre ranch in Texas with its own private 10-acre lake stocked with 5,000 bass, sometimes at his family's multimillion-dollar three-story mansion in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Mr. Bush even stayed on vacation after he was warned of Osama bin Laden's plans to hijack airplanes and attack America. George W. Bush is plainly a gentleman of leisure. So let's send him on a permanent vacation November 2.


NOVAK: Well, I hate to accuse my colleague of telling a mistruth. But you know he didn't -- he wasn't on vacation when the attack on 9/11 came. He returned to the United States.



BEGALA: Well, he was warned. On August 11, he was warned that bin Laden had a plan to attack America. He went and played golf.

NOVAK: I will say this. I will say this, that I don't begrudge any president, even Bill Clinton, taking vacation time. But I do know this. When the president's in the Oval Office, he's working and not making out with an intern.


BEGALA: Well, he's lying about a war, though.

NOVAK: The Green Party's national controversy today decides whether to endorse Ralph Nader for president. If the Greens do that, they will endure the wrath of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Caucus members met with Nader behind closed doors in the basement of the U.S. Capitol. And it was not pretty. Nader called it a robust exchange. But CNN producer Ted Barrett described it as a shouting match, with black lawmakers shouting at the old environmental activist loud enough to be heard through the door.

The "Hill" newspaper reported Congresswoman Carolyn Kilpatrick telling Nader, "Get your 'blank' out." How dare -- I can't use the word she used -- how dare any Democrat defy the Black Caucus? How dare Ralph Nader exercise his constitutional right to run for president?


BEGALA: No, he has a perfect right to run for president. He doesn't have a right to pretend that there's no differences. He is more liberal than John Kerry. It's true. John Kerry is more moderate than Ralph Nader. That's true.

But there are enormous differences between Bush and Kerry that Nader doesn't want to recognize. Ralph Nader, like John Kerry, wants to take on the big oil companies. He should support John Kerry, not George Bush. By running, he is supporting George W. Bush.

NOVAK: You're doing the same thing as the Black Caucus. You're saying he doesn't have a right to


BEGALA: He has a perfect right to ruin the election for the liberals, which is what he did the last time.


BEGALA: He has a perfect right. It's just stupid.



NOVAK: There is -- there is a right-wing constitutional party candidate. There's a right-wing candidate. We don't whine about that. Why don't you just play the game straight and stop the whining?

BEGALA: I am playing the game, bud. And we're going to win the game, I'll bet you right now.


BEGALA: Ralph Nader can run five times and John Kerry is still going to whoop his butt.

Well, the Bush administration told us the Iraqis would welcome us as liberators. Of course, they also told us Saddam Hussein was tied to al Qaeda and that Iraqi oil, not American taxpayers, would pay to rebuild Iraq. What ever happened to three strikes and you're out? Well, up next on CROSSFIRE, we will debate whether the Bush administration is winning America's war against terrorism.

And, later, John Kerry rocks. And you'll be able to hear it with your own ears right here on CROSSFIRE .

Stay with us.

ANNOUNCER: Join Carville, Begala, Carlson and Novak in the CROSSFIRE. For free tickets to CROSSFIRE at the George Washington University, call 202-994-8CNN or visit our Web site. Now you can step into the CROSSFIRE.



BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

Newly released Bush administration documents show that, in December of 2002, Donald Rumsfeld approved the stripping of prisoners and using dogs to scare them during interrogations. Of course, after photographs of such actions and much, much worse surfaced in Iraq, the whole world was shocked and the terrorists won a propaganda victory.

Two members of the House Armed Services Committee join us now to debate whether America is winning the war against terror. They are Republican Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania. He's the vice-chairman of that committee. And Kendrick Meek, he is a Democratic congressman and a member of that committee. He's from Florida.

Thank you both for joining us.



NOVAK: Congressman Meek, I want to give you a demagogue test to see whether you're as big a demagogue as Teddy Kennedy. Teddy Kennedy said the other day, speaking of our policies in Iraq: "The result has been a serious setback for our nonproliferation policy and may very well have made al Qaeda terrorists even more determined to find a way to make a nuclear attack on America."

In other words, our invasion of Iraq, getting rid of the tyrant Saddam Hussein has made al Qaeda terrorists more likely to make a nuclear attack. Isn't that demagoguery?

MEEK: Well, I wasn't there for the speech.

And to pull a line from the senator's speech I think will not serve the speech justice. But I will tell you this. There is more of an al Qaeda presence in Iraq now after the preemptive strike than there were prior to. And it's given them a stage to carry out terror on behalf of Americans that are trying to create a democracy there.

NOVAK: You think it's possible that it's easier for al Qaeda to operate in a country that is not controlled by the tyranny of Saddam Hussein? Would you be willing to pay off Saddam Hussein controlling Iraq? Do you think that's a good trade-off?

MEEK: Well, this is a debate before the 9/11 Commission, if there was a real connection between al Qaeda and...

NOVAK: No, it's a debate on CROSSFIRE. What's your opinion?

MEEK: It's a real debate. My opinion is that the 9/11 Commission has received a lot of information from the FBI, CIA, and they're saying there was no connection between al Qaeda and


NOVAK: So you'd rather have Saddam Hussein there?

MEEK: I'm not saying that.

NOVAK: Well, that's what I heard you saying.

MEEK: Saddam Hussein should be where he is right now. There's no question. And we don't need to even debate that. BEGALA: Let me bring Congressman Weldon into this.

One of the documents the White House released yesterday, a remarkable document, was written by Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee. Don't know the gentleman. It made a rather audacious claim. And that is that the president of the United States is above the law, that he doesn't have to follow federal anti-torture statutes or treaties against torture.

Now, to his great credit, our president did not accept that advice. There's nothing in these documents that suggest the president ever approved torture. But isn't it astonishing to you that the man who wrote that was then placed by President Bush on the powerful 9th Circuit Court of Appeals? What in the world is President Bush thinking, giving a guy with that kind of poor legal judgment such an important legal job?

REP. CURT WELDON (R), PENNSYLVANIA: Well, I'm not a lawyer, Paul, so I can't give you a legal opinion. And I don't condone the use of torture against any prisoner. I agree that we should be abiding by the Geneva Conventions.

And we're going to investigate that. In fact, we have 12 separate investigations under way right now. We're looking at who was involved in ordering the kind of acts. I happen to think -- and I've interviewed actually before the CID and the Pentagon met with him a soldier who was at the prison and who saw firsthand what occurred there. So I know pretty much what occurred. And I'm convinced that it was pretty much a localized effort by a group of soldiers at the prison.

But I want to also comment on Bob's questions about Ted Kennedy's comments. The proliferation is a problem. But I happened to bring along a couple of devices, Bob. This is a Soviet gyroscope and this is a Soviet accelerometer. We caught these being transferred from Russia to Iraq in the 1995-'96 time frame three times. These devices are used to improve the accuracy of missiles, the same missile that took out the lives of 28 young Americans in Saudi Arabia in Dhahran.

That missile was improved because Russians entities were illegally transferring this guidance system, the accelerator, this guidance system, the gyroscope to improve the -- we caught them. Now, arms control agreements that were in force back then said we should take action. We never imposed any sanctions.

In fact, I had a


BEGALA: Against Russia, you're saying.

WELDON: Against Russia and China; 38 times in the '90s, we had evidence of illegal technology flowing from China and Russia into Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea, 38 times of sanctionable violations. The Clinton imposed sanctions four times. We wonder why we have a problem today. That's why you have a problem today. (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)


NOVAK: Congressman Meek, I want to go back to the torture question.

I want to play on the screen what President Bush said about torture.


BUSH: We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being.


NOVAK: And this is all -- this was something new. But back in January, before this came out, Donald Rumsfeld said, gave this order to -- down the chain of command from the secretary of defense. He said, "In all interrogations, we should continue the humane treatment of detainees, regardless of the type of interrogation technique implied."

Can we say that torture was not the policy of President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld and get that off the table?


MEEK: Well, we don't know right now, because the Republican Congress will not have hearings. We're not investigating anyone above a two-star general right now. We just happen to have a four-star general that has now been appointed to overlook the issue of abuse and torture at this time in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And I think it's important to remember that, from the beginning, Secretary Rumsfeld did not mean for this to go above the enlisted ranks.

NOVAK: You think they're not telling the truth, the president and secretary of defense.


MEEK: We don't know right now. All we're doing is taking the word....

NOVAK: You don't take them at their word.

MEEK: Taking the word of this president in this democracy is not necessarily what has reigned in the halls of Congress. In the Clinton administration, this Congress gave over 1,000 subpoenas, and this administration and this Congress has not even given one subpoena.

NOVAK: You're saying the president may be lying? Is that what...


NOVAK: Are you calling the president a liar?

MEEK: I'm not saying he's lying. But I'm just saying that a lot has happened that we have been told that hasn't been true, weapons of mass destruction.


MEEK: I wish Mr. Weldon could put those weapons up here right now.

And I would also say this, Mr. Novak. I think it's important here to remember that if one may say this is about politics because we want to look into what the president is saying, then Democrats would just sit back and fold their arms and let the American people speak for themselves. But, unfortunately, in this case, American lives are at stake. We have Marines that have sand in their teeth right now and they deserve some inquiry about some of the things that are being told here in Washington.


MEEK: The politicians


NOVAK: You think it helps the Marines to call the president a liar?


MEEK: I'm not calling the president a liar.

BEGALA: I asked about this report that I mentioned earlier.

NBC News reported -- and I'm quoting NBC -- "Long before the war, the Bush administration had several chances to wipe out his terrorist operation and perhaps kill Zarqawi himself, but never pulled the trigger."

NOVAK: What's the date on that?

BEGALA: Mr. Novak -- that was reported in March. Mr. Novak believes that that's false. It's from Jim Miklaszewski, a fine reporter at the Pentagon who I know to be a trustworthy journalist. Will you hold hearings to find out if this is true, because Bob think it's false? And let's prove whether Bob is right.


BEGALA: Will you have hearings to find out if our president refused to go after this terrorist thug?

WELDON: We don't hold hearings based on what NBC News tells us.



WELDON: Let me say this to you. I will tell you, I will tell you, during the Clinton administration, we had numerous attempts to get bin Laden, and Clinton made a deliberate decision not to go after him. We would not have had this problem.



BEGALA: Let's ask you again.


BEGALA: Will you hold hearings? Will you hold hearings?

WELDON: We had bin Laden in the sight of a Predator UAV, with a Hellfire missile on it. We could have taken out bin Laden in the '90s and we didn't do it.


BEGALA: You can attack Bill Clinton until the cows come home.


WELDON: We shouldn't be focusing on blame. We should be solving the problem together.


BEGALA: Will you or will you not -- will you or will you not hold hearings into whether George W. Bush refused to go after Zarqawi when he could have gotten him?

WELDON: If I get credible intelligence or information that says that, I'll be glad to do that.

BEGALA: An NBC News report.

NOVAK: There's been no other reporter who has confirmed that.


BEGALA: No other reporter confirms half the stuff you report, Bob.

NOVAK: Next, in "Rapid Fire," I'll ask if the Miami Police Department is nicer to suspects than the U.S. is to detainees.

And, after the break, Wolf Blitzer has the latest on a death threat against the new Iraqi prime minister. Who does the U.S. think is behind it?


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Coming up at the top of the hour, a senior CIA officer says the United States is losing the war on terror and he blames the White House and the war in Iraq. What's behind this surprising assertion? We'll hear from him this hour.

The new interim prime minister of Iraq faces a death threat, and a well known terror suspect may be behind the plot.

And a prestigious new honor for a legend of golf. Arnold Palmer, he joins me live to tell us how he feels.

Those stories, much more, only minutes away on "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS."

Now back to CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: It's time for "Rapid Fire." We ask short questions and our guests give us short answers. Unlike the war on terrorism, this will be over right away.

We're talking with two members of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Kendrick Meek, Democrat of Florida, and Representative Curt Weldon, Republican of Pennsylvania.

BEGALA: Congressman Weldon, will you spend $100 million of the American people's money to tear down and rebuild Abu Ghraib prison just so President Bush can have a photo-op?

WELDON: I will actually -- absolutely do like Ike Skelton, the Democrat ranking member of the Armed Services Committee asked us to do. And that is tear down Abu Ghraib.

NOVAK: Do you think, Congressman Meek, that the U.S. is treating the detainees in Iraq any worse than the police treat suspects in Miami?

MEEK: Well, I am going to tell you, that is not a fair question. But I will tell you this much. The suspects in Miami -- treatment of the police -- well, the police treatment of them is not as bad to the world and to our image throughout the world, as we've done with the prisoners in Abu Ghraib.

BEGALA: Congressman Weldon, earlier in the show, Congressman Meek suggested that the investigation is stopping at the level of a two-star general. Where should the buck stop?

WELDON: It should stop wherever it goes. There should be no limit. As I mentioned, there are at least 12 separate investigations under way.

(CROSSTALK) BEGALA: They'll go all the way to the top?

WELDON: That's right.

The military started investigating this case long before the photos came out. So justice -- in fact, we have already had some convictions and actually some people have pled guilty. So the process is working. And it will. The military is a very fair system. Listen to Colin Powell. He'll tell you.

NOVAK: Contrary to Senator Kerry, Mr. Meek, Bill Clinton in a "TIME" magazine interview said, "I don't believe he" -- that is Bush -- "went in there, into Iraq, for oil." Who do you agree with, Clinton or Kerry?

MEEK: Well, I agree with going in for the right reasons. As it relates to going in for oil only, I think that there were other reasons why the president went in.

NOVAK: He said he didn't go in for oil. Do you agree with Clinton on that?

MEEK: I think it had some -- some of it had to do something with oil, yes.

BEGALA: Congressman Weldon, a political question. This week's ABC News/"Washington Post" poll says that President Bush's lead on who do you trust to handle terrorism was once 21 points, just in April, at the beginning of baseball season. Today, we're not even to the all- star break and it's disappeared. More Americans trust John Kerry to fight the war on terrorism than President Bush. That is a disaster for your party, isn't it?

WELDON: It isn't. And the Pew poll that just came out yesterday has President Bush's numbers actually up over last month. It's 58 percent support the president's handling of the issue, to 36 percent.



WELDON: So you can read any poll the way you want.


NOVAK: Congressman Meek, Congressman Weldon, thank you very much.

Stay with us. If you think John Kerry's droning speeches are an assault on your eardrums, you ain't heard nothing yet.


NOVAK: Bill Clinton occasionally makes noise on a saxophone, but his squawking sounds positively symphonic next to the racket made by onetime bass guitar player John Kerry. Kerry's presidential bid inspired his friends to dig up a 1961 recording of then high schooler Kerry thumping away with a band called the Electras. Instead of being hidden as a potential embarrassment, it's just been put on a C.D. Be warned. John Kerry the rock 'n' roller is even more frightening than the prospect of John Kerry the president.



BEGALA: This bit of breaking news. The University of Texas Longhorns have beaten the Georgia Bulldogs in the College World Series.

If you want to be part of the ultimate experience, though, tomorrow, you can fire back and log onto your computer at tomorrow at 4:30 Eastern. Play CROSSFIRE interactive Thursday with us.

That's it for Wednesday. From the left, I am 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.

"WOLF BLITZER REPORTS" starts right now.


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