SHOW: Capital Report (9:00 PM ET) - CNBC
HEADLINE: Senator Joe Biden talks about the controversy around misstatements in President Bush's State of the Union address
ANCHORS: GLORIA BORGER; ALAN MURRAY
GLORIA BORGER, co-host:
Welcome back to CAPITAL REPORT. Those 16 words in the State of the Union speech that turned out to be so problematic have now become a matter of credibility for the president. Is this a serious problem, or is it just a summer storm? We're joined by Senator Joe Biden, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator, summer storm or real credibility issue for the president?
Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware; Foreign Relations Committee): Well, it may be a summer storm for the president, but it's a real credibility issue for the United States of America, because the whole world's listening to this debate and the confusing responses that are coming out. There's an old expression: When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. And the president yesterday saying that they didn't realize that this information was incorrect until after the State of the Union--that's clearly not true. He probably didn't know that, but it's clearly not true. And so it just--I think there needs to be--better take a deep breath down there and just step up to the ball and lay out what took place.
BORGER: Well, if you were president of the United States, what would you do in this particular situation?
Sen. BIDEN: I honestly believe I would ask all those who have anything to do with the intelligence gathering, the writing of my speech, to lay out how it got in, and also other elements of my speech, like the gas--excuse me, the aluminum tubes--were they really for a gas centrifuge system? And whether or not al-Qaida had the ability--was in cahoots with Saddam Hussein, and all those implications and statements within the State of the Union--I'd say, 'Here's the deal. This is what we knew. This is what we didn't know. This is what was said. These are the mistakes we made, and this is what I know now and this is going to be--I'm going to get to the bottom of this, and those who are responsible are gone, and we're fixing it.'
ALAN MURRAY, co-host:
All right, Senator, but the question is, if Saddam Hussein didn't try to get uranium yellow cake in Africa, and if the aluminum tubes weren't for some sort of nuclear processing facility, would you still have supported the effort against Saddam Hussein?
Sen. BIDEN: Yes, I did, and I think I was even on your show--or at least Gloria asked me some time ago...
Sen. BIDEN: ...whether or not I believed about those aluminum tubes, and I said, 'No, I had no evidence that they were for a gas centrifuge system, and I saw no evidence of real al-Qaida connections.' But I believe we had to go against Saddam Hussein because of the necessity to deal with a man who broke, basically, a peace agreement that he signed when he sued for peace and said, 'All these things I do have and were cataloged in 1998 by the UN inspectors, were including VX gas and anthrax, I haven't destroyed. And my obligation is to show I destroyed them.' The burden was on him. That was enough.
But here's where it made a difference. I think the reason why the vice president and others pushed this issue so hard is to create a sense of urgency, and the reason that was so dangerous--had there not been this sense of urgency created, Lugar and myself and others may have prevailed with the State Department and we would have been able to put together a larger coalition; even though we might not have gone until the fall against Saddam, he'd be gone and we wouldn't be left in the circumstance we are now, which a number of us repeatedly said. The winning of the war is not the hard part. The winning of the peace is the hard part. And we can't be left alone to do it.
Sen. BIDEN: That's what happened.
BORGER: Senator, you raised the vice president's name in all of this. We had Senator Chuck Hagel on the show on Friday night. He also raised the vice president's name. He said, 'I want to know what was going on in that office.' Do you think that the vice president's office or the vice president himself has any culpability here?
Sen. BIDEN: I think it's the most ideological spot in the administration. It clearly has had the sense of wanting to control information and do its own analysis of intelligence. It clearly, along with the civilians and the Defense Department, have been very skeptical about whether or not the CIA and others are hard-nosed enough. And so I can't fathom that it wasn't coming out of that office to take the hardest-edged position.
Let me be very clear here. Let's take the aluminum tubes. There was somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the scientists and experts who said, 'Yeah, it was probably for a gas centrifuge system.' There was 60 to 70 percent that said, 'No.' I'm confident the vice president believed the 30 percent, but you could never tell from the president's speeches that there was fundamental disagreement within the community. It was stated as if it were a fact. That's not right.
MURRAY: Yeah. What--well, go ahead. Did you want to say something?
BORGER: Yeah. I was just going to say, do you think you were deliberately misled, then, as a United States senator, by this administration?
Sen. BIDEN: Again, it wasn't critical for me, because I was prepared to go in absent the--if necessary.
MURRAY: OK. OK. How...
Sen. BIDEN: But I do think it was hyped. I do think...
Sen. BIDEN: ...they hyped, and I said it back in October, November, December. I said then I thought it was being hyped.
MURRAY: Let's back up a second here and look at the bigger picture, because we're now spending something like $60 billion a year to run Afghanistan and Iraq. That's like double what we spend on primary and secondary education. We're talking about going into Liberia. We're drawing up military plans for dealing with North Korea, according to US News & World Report. Are we overstretching ourselves as a country? And if we are, what would Democrats be doing differently?
Sen. BIDEN: Hopefully, what we'd be doing differently is leveling with the American people at the front end of this. My greatest worry--and again, it's just not me; it's Dick Lugar and others up here. We've been saying since last fall, this is going to cost tens of billions of dollars and require over 100,000 American forces for a long, long time. Let me tell you my greatest fear. My greatest fear is not so much we're going to lose support abroad; we're going to lose support at home...
Sen. BIDEN: ...for getting this right. And that's the danger.
MURRAY: Well, in a way, it's already happening in your party, isn't it? You have Howard Dean out there, who, unlike you, was against the war to begin with. He seems to be generating the most excitement among Democrats.
Sen. BIDEN: Well, I don't know enough--I'm not being facetious. I don't know enough to comment about that. I look at where he is in the polls, and he still gets only 8 percent of the vote. So I'm sure he generates excitement, and I in no way denigrate him. I mean, I expect he's a very fine guy. I don't know him. But my larger point is this: I don't care about the Democrats. I don't care about the Democratic primary. I care about whether or not the bulk of the American people are going to be prepared to stay the course in Iraq, which we have to, or whether or not, because they feel they've not been leveled with by the president of the United States, they're going to withdraw their support, we're going to prematurely leave there and the circumstance will be worse than it was before we went in. That's my worry. And it's time for the president to go to the nation, lay out the case and lay out what is expected of the American people, which is billions of dollars and tens of thousands of troops in the near term, and the need to internationalize this effort, bringing the French, the Germans, NATO and others.
BORGER: Senator, I know you say you don't care about the Democratic primary, but...
Sen. BIDEN: Well, I care about it. I mean...
Sen. BIDEN: ...you understand what I mean.
BORGER: I know what you're saying. But I guess the question we all have here is: Are you at some point going to get into the Democratic primary?
MURRAY: Especially if it becomes clear that the big issue is going to be foreign policy, which is where you've spent your career.
Sen. BIDEN: The answer is, I don't know yet. One of the reasons I didn't get in yet is the moment I get in--if I had gotten in this race last fall, you all wouldn't be talking to me.
BORGER: Oh, sure we would.
BORGER: We would always talk to you.
Sen. BIDEN: You--no, no, no. Don't get me wrong. No. You know what I mean.
Sen. BIDEN: You wouldn't be treating me--and maybe you're just being nice to me--as if I really did know something about this issue. Everything I said would be viewed through the prism of whether or not I wanted the nomination. Now, for me, the time is getting short. Realistically, I have to make a hard decision--not hard; I have to make a decision by the beginning of September as to whether or not I am going to attempt to get into this race. And I honest to God haven't made that decision yet.
MURRAY: In your view, is the election of 2004 going to be about foreign policy, the things we've been talking about, or is it going to be about the economy and Medicare and domestic politics?
Sen. BIDEN: I think it is about both. Let me explain what I mean now. I think anyone who is unable, when they ante up in this poker game to run for president, to answer the question that the American people have--'Are you capable enough for handling American foreign policy?--if they can't meet that threshold test, then it doesn't matter what their position is on health care and everything else, even if it's absolutely right. Once they meet that test, then all those other issues come to play, and that's where the Democrat wins, in my view. But we have to meet that test. There's a 40 percent gap at the moment in the perception of whether or not the Republicans and the president are better able to handle our security questions than the Democrats. That's preposterous. Any nominee has to be able to eliminate that gap or he can't become president, or she can't become president.
BORGER: Well, Senator Joe Biden, thanks very much, and you have to promise us that in early September when you make your decision you're going to come back on the show.
Sen. BIDEN: I promise you, if I run, I'll be back on the show, and I hope you'll ask me back on the show even I don't run.
MURRAY: All right.
BORGER: Thanks a lot, Senator Biden.
Sen. BIDEN: Thank you.