BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION. The Massachusetts senator, John Kerry, is one of nine Democrats hoping to challenge President Bush next year for the White House. He's also among many Democrats on Capitol Hill calling for a public investigation of the administration's use of pre-war intelligence on Iraq.
Earlier today I caught with Senator Kerry on the campaign trail in Austin, Texas.
BLITZER: Senator Kerry, thanks for joining us on LATE EDITION.
The president, the White House, insists case closed, as far as the flap involving the president's State of the Union address and Iraq nuclear ambitions, Niger's.
Is the case closed, as far as you're concerned?
SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No, the case is not closed. I don't believe that George Tenet saying something about responsibility ends the question of ultimate responsibility, nor does it answers the question or questions about what really happened, nor does it provide an answer, which is the most critical one, which is, are Americans safer today than they were three years ago? And do we have the kind of knowledge about our intelligence gathering that allows us to make the judgment that we are safer?
I believe there are enormous questions still about the overall intelligence given to the Congress, the quality of that intelligence, and even about the politics that entered into the judgment of taking that famous phrase out of one speech but leaving it in another.
BLITZER: Well, let's go through some of the points you just raised. The issue of, are Americans safer today than they were three years ago? What do you believe?
KERRY: Well, I believe in some regards we are, but in the larger regard, no. I mean, look, if we don't know the answer about our intelligence, if we do not know what our intelligence community is telling us and whether or not it is broadly true, we have a serious problem.
I mean, I know that I was shown photographs by the intelligence community, and we were told very specifically, "Here is what's happening in this building, here's what's happening over here. We have information and sources that tell us the following."
Clearly, thus far, those particular intelligence tid-bits have not borne out. The question is, you know, what about the future? What happens when they come to us and tell us, well, now, this is what our intelligence tells us about Iran, or this is what our intelligence tells us about Syria or North Korea?
I believe there is an enormous, serious question about our protection and the judgments we must make in the future and the quality of our intelligence.
And we need, the American people needthis is not a matter of politics.
This has nothing to do with Democrats or Republicans. It has to do with Americans and American security and the judgments we may be called on to make in the future.
BLITZER: Well, are you suggesting, Senator Kerry, that the president deliberately misled the American public...
KERRY: I am not...
BLITZER: ... about the threat from Iraq?
KERRY: I am not making any such suggestion, I am not making any accusation. I am simply saying we know that thelook, the intelligence we were given about unarmed flying vehicles has proven to bewhat? Where are they?
We are asking questions today about the 45 minutes that, apparently, Secretary Rumsfeld has said they have the ability to be able to deploy these weapons in. Well, if you have 45 minutes of deployment, and our intelligence is doing its job, or our oversight intelligence is doing its job, you know, we have right to know, sort of, what happened to that. Why did we make a misjudgment? Was it a misjudgment? Wasn't it a misjudgment?
But I know that there are a host of questions that are outstanding. And, ultimately, even George Tenet saying, "Well, I'm responsible for that particular phrase," does not deal with the issue of how it knowledgeably was taken out of a speech earlier, how various people in the administration were given warnings, and yet a political decision was made, with many visits, may I add, by the vice president, over to the CIA, a political decision was made, we're going to go ahead and use it in the State of the Union message.
Notwithstanding whatever George Tenet says, there were some other ingredients of this decision. And I think the president needs to tell the truth to the American people about Iraq itself, what is happening, what we're going to do to proceed, how we will make our American troops safer over there, how we begin to build the international support to really win the peace.
BLITZER: Well, Senator Kerry, are you suggesting the president has not been telling the American people the truth?
KERRY: Well, we certainly learned for the first time that the cost of the war was going to be considerably more. We're certainly learning now that there is a serious question about the number of troops. The president landed on an aircraft carrier and told Americans the hostilities are over. The hostilities are not over.
There are serious questions here, Wolf, and I think the American people have a right to ask the question of whether or not we are safer today than we were three years ago. It is the single question which determines the future and how we proceed.
BLITZER: Senator Kerry, some of your Democratic colleagues are suggesting George Tenet should resign as director of central intelligence. Do you believe he should?
KERRY: Well, I don't think that's the issue right now. I think that, you know, that doesn't solve the problem that I just articulated.
I mean, George Tenet, making him the fall guy does not resolve the question or make go away the questions about the overall intelligence, and why the administration clearly had this political tug of war over the kind of information they were presenting America. That is only going to be answered by the White House.
BLITZER: In 1991, Senator Kerry, you voted against the authorizing legislation to go to war during the firstbefore the first Gulf War. Last October, you voted in favor, giving the president authority to go to war. Some of your Democratic colleagues are insisting, at this point, that you blundered on both votes.
KERRY: Absolutely not. I think they were both correct, and I defend the vote. I think based on the information we were given, I voted for the security of the United States of America.
And I am absolutely convinced that anybody who was thinking about the history with Saddam Hussein, who knew the information of the prior years with those weapons, was right to give the president the authority to go to the United Nations, to be able to have a threat of force.
We had already learned, Wolf, that without a threat of force, Saddam Hussein would do nothing. So my vote was the correct vote,.
But the president, I believe, did not do what he told Americans he would do. He did not exert the kind of diplomacy, he didn't build the kind of coalition, he didn't lay down a plan for winning the peace.
And moreover, he did not need our authority to do what he was going to do. The president has the inherent authority. Bill Clinton went to Kosovo without a vote by Congress. Bill Clinton went to Haiti without a vote by Congress.
What we did was provide the threat of force, and what the president didn't do is provide the diplomacy and the leadership necessary to put in place the kind of coalition that could win the peace.
BLITZER: Just before, about a week or so before the vote in October, you said this, and I'll put it up on the screen, Senator Kerry. You said, "You don't go to war as a matter of first resort. You go to war as a matter of last resort." Six days later or so, you voted in favor of the resolution giving the president authority to go to war.
And then, around the time of the State of the Union address, January 23rd, you said this: "I say to the president, show respect for the process of international diplomacy, because it is not only right, it can make America stronger. And show the world some appropriate patience to building a genuine coalition. Mr. President, do not rush to war."
Do you believe the president ignored your advice and rushed to war?
KERRY: Well, I think that judgment has to be made by finding the answer to the questions that I just said. I mean, it depends on what the reality of the state of the intelligence was.
We gave the president the authority to use the threat appropriately.
I believe the president didn't build that kind of coalition. In fact, I said at the time, Wolf, when the president made his decision to proceed forward, that it would have been my wish and my preference to see the president take additional time to do additional diplomacy with Russia, France, and other countries and build the coalition.
Look, the way we have to think about thisand I say this as a veteran of Vietnam, remembering what it was like when we lost the legitimacy and consent of the American people. And I raised that issue as an important one in how you take America to war. I believe that for the soldiers who are currently in Iraq, they don't want politics right now, they want to know how they can be protected. They want to know day to day how their lives are not going to be taken by walking into a store in Baghdad and being shot in the head from someone they can't distinguish from friend and foe.
And I believe the obligation of the United States government, of the president is to rapidly internationalize the effort in Iraq, get the target off of American troops, bring other people, particularly Muslim-speaking and Arabic-speaking Muslim troops, into the region, help us diffuse the sense of American occupation, and rapidly transfer power to the Iraqis.
BLITZER: All right.
KERRY: Now, the president clearly didn't have a plan to do that, and we're paying a price for it.
BLITZER: Well, as someone who served with distinction in Vietnam, Senator Kerry, do you believe Iraq is emerging as another Vietnam-like quagmire?
KERRY: Not yet. It doesn't have to be at all. I believe we can win the peace. I believe that it is important for us to win the peace, because if we don't, the complications with respect to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the war on terror, al Qaeda, will be enormous. We must do this successfully.
And it really, I think the American people have the right to ask serious questions about why the administration, in its rush to try to obviously remove Saddam Hussein, were not prepared to do what is necessary to win the peace, which many of us always said is the far more complicated operation.
BLITZER: In suggesting the administration may not have been prepared for what's happening in the post-war environment in Iraq, let's put some poll numbers up. A new Gallup Poll just asked the American public, involving U.S. troops, should you send more? 16 percent say send more. Bring some home, 40 percent say bring some home. No change, 41 percent.
Where would you stand on this poll number, as far as U.S. troops in Iraq, nearly 140,000 to 150,000 on the ground right now?
KERRY: Let me tell you bluntly, Wolf, with all due respect, it's not the job of a president to run a war by poll numbers, and I wouldn'tI don't care what the poll numbers say. I would do what is necessary to protect American troops and to win the peace.
And the way you win the peace is by bringing other countries who have a stake in our winning the peace. They have a stake too. And we should bring NATO, we should bring the United Nations, we should bring other countries into the effort. We can still manage most of the security operation, even as we do that, but the humanitarian and the governance components of this must be broadened.
We have to diffuse the perception and reality of American occupation. We have to get the target off of American troops. We have to empower Iraqis to feel the liberation that we have already celebrated and to make sure that they feel the transition in their lives.
That requires a much more significant effort. That's something this administration hates and hasn't done properly even in Afghanistan. It's called nation building, and they need to get about the business of doing it.
BLITZER: Well, the administration may be on the verge of nation building in Liberia right now. The president may be on the eve of authorizing the deployment of U.S. troops to Liberia. Would you support the president in that initiative?
KERRY: I believe we have an historical connection to Liberia that provides the kind of imperative that, frankly, we saw exercised when we went to Kosovo, because of our ties through Europe and history there.
I think it is important for the United States to play a role in the reduction of violence in Liberia, and I'm confident of our capacity to do so.
I think the important thing is to do it in conjunction with the United Nations and other countries, under their aegis, but I think the United States can take a lead there. After all, France and Great Britain have taken the lead in Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire.
And I think it's important for us to play our role in stabilizing states which have the ability to become havens for the al Qaedas of the world, for terrorists. Failed states are a threat to the United States in this new world we live in, and we need to respond accordingly.
BLITZER: We only have a little time, but I wanted to ask a few political questions, Senator Kerry.
KERRY: Oh, no.
BLITZER: Let's take a look at some of the Democratic challengers for the Democratic nomination. You have a new poll, shows that Gephardt's at 14 percent among registered Democrats, Democratic leaners; Lieberman at 13; Dean at 12; John Kerry at 10.
Who's your biggest worry right now, as far as capturing the Democratic presidential nomination?
KERRY: I don't view the race that way. That's not how I look at it at all. I am proceeding along a strategy, which is building a national campaign. I have the most money in my campaign of any presidential candidate at this point in time, more than Al Gore or Bill Bradley or Bill Clinton had. I am growing in the states where I need to. We're proceeding along our own strategy.
And frankly, the polls right now mean nothing. They are a reflection of sort of who got a bump in national coverage in the last days here or there. The key is, obviously, what will be happening as we go into December and January, and we're on a great course for that. I feel very confident about it.
BLITZER: You and your fellow New Englander, Howard Dean, seem to be getting a little bit acrimonious toward each other. How much of a threat is he, as far as New Hampshire is concerned?
KERRY: I completely dispute that characterization. That's wishful thinking by the press. I have never mentioned one of my opponents in any speech I've given anywhere in this country. I'm not talking about them. I am talking about George Bush and my vision for the country, and that's the way I want to continue to campaign.
BLITZER: One final question. I want to put up on the screen a picture that was releasedthat your campaign released this week, of you and John Lennon. Tell us about this picture. When was it taken? What does it mean?
KERRY: Wolf, we didn't release that. I don't know where that came from. Someapparentlya piece of campaign literature that thought it was relatively private, I guess, I am told, somewhere in New York or something. It came out of an archive. I think may have run in "Boston Globe" series or somewhere. I am not sure.
But it was in 1971. We were together speaking at an anti-war rally. He had asked me personally to introduce him at that particularly rally, and we were just chatting before we talked.
Actually, I love the photograph. I cherish the moment. I was a huge fan and remain a great fan of The Beatles, and I enjoyed my moment with John Lennon. It was a great privilege.
BLITZER: Like all of us. Do you keep that picture in your office?
KERRY: That picture is in my office, one of my favorite pictures.
BLITZER: If I had a picture with John Lennon, I'd keep it in my office as well.
Senator Kerry, thanks for taking some time.
I just want to leave our viewersyou're in Austin, Texas, right now. You feel as if you're in the lion's den?
KERRY: Right behind me, right here. I am a stone's throw away from the place where it began. It's kind of fun being here. I'm going to raise some money right here in Texas today, and I am going to talk to La Raza.
And I'm looking forward to the opportunity to talk to Hispanics, who I feel this president has deserted in many wayson immigration, on education, on job opportunities. And there is an enormous gulf between the promises of George Bush and what he has delivered to Hispanics across the country. I am looking forward to talking to them about that gulf.
BLITZER: All right, Senator John Kerry, the Democratic presidential hopeful, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts. Thanks for joining us.
KERRY: Thank you very much.
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