SHOW: HARDBALL 21:00
BYLINE: Chris Matthews; Jim Miklaszewski; Norah O'Donnell; Lawrence O'Donnell
GUESTS: Bob Graham; Bob Dornan; Robert Baer; Arlen Specter; Saxby Chambliss; Lindsey Graham; Mark Dayton; Richard Shelby
HARDBALL debate: What's the political import of the error in the State of the Union speech? And in the "Political Buzz," will Blair's visit to the U.S. help diffuse the heat against Bush?
MATTHEWS: Senator Arlen Specter is a Republican from Pennsylvania. Senator Lindsey Graham is a Republican from South Carolina and a member of the Armed Services Committee. Senator Mark Dayton is a Democrat from Minnesota and a member of the Armed Services Committee. Senator Saxby Chambliss is a Republican from Georgia and a member of the Armed Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee.
Senator Saxby, NBC has learned the CIA official, Alan Foley, particularly warned the NSC official, the deputy of the National Security Council, Robert Joseph, that this British intelligence report had so many problems with it, that the U.S. CIA had tried to get the British not to use it. Why would the president's deputy in the Security Council put in the president's mouth something that he had been warned by the CIA was not useful? Was not true and was not reliable? Why he would do something like that? Who would lead him to do?
SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS, (R)-GEORGIA: Chris, obviously I can't talk about the details, what was talked about in the hearing yesterday. But let me say this. First of all, it was Director Tenet's obligation to review that speech and to look at any intelligence issues. He has taken responsibility for it. I'm not going to beat that dead horse.
But, the fact of the matter is, there was discussion, as there is in every discussion between the White House and the intelligence community about intelligence information in the speech. As to why it was done, I can't say. But I assure you, Chairman Robert said yesterday, we're going to follow this dog until we get to the tail and find out exactly what happened.
MATTHEWS: Well, Senator Saxby, do you want to follow the dog all the way to the question of whether who in the White House got this guy Joseph to take the action he did?
CHAMBLISS: Well, certainly we know from yesterday that there was discussion about what was going to be in the president's speech. We know there was conversation with National Security advisors, with the CIA. So it's important that we take what we found yesterday and pursue that back to see exactly where it does lead. So yes, we're going to go where we need to to find out just what happened.
MATTHEWS: Senator Graham, in the last presidency, we had a big issue, especially in programs like this one about the president's honesty and whether he has candor in telling people the truth. Why did the president dodge the question today in his press conference as to whether he was willing to stand behind what he said in the State of the Union about the arms deal -- or the reported arms deal the with Niger?
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R)-SOUTH CAROLINA: I think it is part of the president to remind us why we went to Iraq, why we were there and not get into the weeds about 16 words. But, it's important that we find out what the CIA told the White House official and how the White House official responded.
But, the big elephant in the room no one is talking about, which astonishes me, is that Prime Minister Blair came to Washington, D.C. today and said that he stood behind the allegation that Saddam Hussein was in Africa to procure uranium. I want to know that. I mean, to me, that's an interesting assertion. And I don't want to call him a liar. I believe at the end of the day that he was in Africa trying to procure uranium and we're forgetting who is the bad guy. It's not Bush. It is Saddam Hussein.
MATTHEWS: What do you make of the testimony by the CIA official, Mr. Alan Foley yesterday in the Senate Committee that the British report is inaccurate? It is not useful. It is not reliable. What do you make of that?
GRAHAM: Well, I believe Tony Blair. Tony...
MATTHEWS: You don't believe our CIA? You believe the British MI-5?
GRAHAM: No. No. Here's what I'm saying. I'm saying the MI-5 and the CIA, I don't think have sat down and talked about this in any great detail. But one thing we found out...
MATTHEWS: Then why don't we hire MI-5 and get rid of our CIA if they are better at this?
GRAHAM: No. Well, why does the British prime minister stand up in front of the world and say -- and say -- and says, I stand behind the accusation, the allegation?
MATTHEWS: Because it is his. He's defending his people. He is defending his bureaucracy.
GRAHAM: Well now, he's -- no. Well, he's putting his credibility on the line.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask -- let me ask Senator Dayton now. What do you believe is the issue here? Is it the fallibility of the CIA, the failure of the chief of the CIA, Mr. Tenet, to even read the speech? Or is it a political movement within the White House that pushes past facts? That ignores warnings from the bureaucracy of the CIA and pushes ahead with the ideological agenda to go to war. What's the issue?
SENATOR MARK DAYTON, (D)-MINNESOTA: Those are the two issues. The one is, can we rely on the information we're getting from our intelligence organizations. And the second is, when they provide that information, is it being presented truthfully to the Congress and to..
MATTHEWS: What do you see the problem is?
DAYTON: ...and to the American people.
MATTHEWS: Is it the bureaucrats of the CIA who didn't really want the war or is it the ideologues in the White House who really did? Whose fault was it...
DAYTON: I think the State of the Union is the tip of the iceberg. I think from the beginning, when Vice President Cheney came out the end of August last year, said there's no doubt that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, that there was a repeated, by the top level officials in the administration, exaggerations and representations of fact and certainty that was being presented, at least to us in the top secret briefings I was in, as a probability or uncertainty.
MATTHEWS: Do you believe the vice president and his office is pushing -- was pushing this war to the point of really pushing aside facts to get the war started?
DAYTON: I think that they had their conclusions reached from the beginning and they wanted information that would support those conclusions.
MATTHEWS: Here's what I got from the vice president's office this afternoon. A spokesman for the vice president told me late this afternoon that neither the vice president nor his chief of staff, Lewis Libby, were aware of Joe Wilson's trip to Niger or were informed of the trip or aware of its conclusions or saw a report of Wilson's trip to the CIA until after the press reported it this spring.
DAYTON: Well, then, Mr. Wilson says he went at the vice president's behest,. I can't reconcile those two differences.
MATTHEWS: Mr. Wilson told me this afternoon that the CIA told him that the vice president was informed of the results of the trip. So there we have a contrast. Senator Specter, your thoughts. Is it the CIA bureaucracy that is at fault here, or is it the ideologues working with the president who pushed the war, notwithstanding the facts?
SENATOR ARLEN SPECTER (R)--PENNSYLVANIA: Well, We haven't ascertained what the facts are yet, Chris. The basic question here is was Saddam looking for nuclear materials in Africa? The president was very careful in the State of the Union speech to say explicitly that the information came from Great Britain.
Now, the British authorities, the prime minister and the foreign minister there, back it up. What I think we need to do is make the determination as to what the facts are. Did Saddam really look for nuclear materials in Africa? Beyond that, we need to make a determination as to what happened within the CIA and the National Security Council to lead to president to leave that statement in his speech if it was suspect.
Those are the real questions, and the Senate passed a resolution last Thursday to get to the bottom of it. I think we will.
GRAHAM: Chris, if I may.
MATTHEWS: Sure, Senator.
GRAHAM: The worst thing that could happen as far as I know right now is that you had somebody who is overzealous in trying to make a case that probably didn't need any padding at all. If you assume the worst case, that somebody didn't like no for an answer and wanted to put something extra, there is no suggestion that President Bush tried to mislead anybody.
And I don't know what happened between conversation with the CIA and the White House staffer but I know Vice President Cheney didn't bury a centrifuge in the back of a scientist's yard in Iraq. The idea that Saddam Hussein has been trying to procure nuclear weapons should stand on its own. He's been doing it for about 20 years now. And I would like to know why Prime Minister Blair says, to this day, that he was in Africa.
The nuclear weapons procurement activities of Saddam Hussein was real and would I like to know all the facets of it. But, we didn't go to the war because of those 16 words. We went to war because of a man who was very dangerous to his own people, to the region, and our way of life who has done a lot of bad things over a long period of time.
MATTHEWS: Let me go to the Saxby Chambliss. Senator, the nuclear fact here. I keep going back to this because I know people who thought the nuclear issue was the one that really threatened us. Did you think it was an important part of the president's case for war and therefore he has to defend it even now?
CHAMBLISS: I really didn't think it was very significant. Colin Powell was very careful not to emphasize it in his presentation to the United Nations. And I think all along that all of us who were involved in the intelligence community were concentrating on the fact that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction which primarily meant chemical and biological weapons. It did include the possibility of nuclear weapons but that was never at the forefront from a weapons of mass destruction standpoint.
MATTHEWS: Ok. Senator Chambliss, thank you very much. You have to leave right now. The other Senators are staying with us. We'll come back beginning with Senator Dayton. Please stay with us. We are talking about a very important question tonight.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The regime of Saddam Hussein was a grave and growing threat. Given Saddam's history of violence and aggression, it would have been reckless to place our trust in his sanity or his restraint. As long as I hold this office, I will never risk the lives of American citizens by assuming the good will of dangerous enemies.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
President Bush remade his case for war against Saddam Hussein's regime, saying Saddam cultivated lies of terror, repeatedly defied the United Nations, produced and possessed chemical and biological weapons, used chemical weapons on his own people, and this is very important, tried to reconstitute his nuclear program.
We are back with Senator Arlen Specter, Republican from Pennsylvania, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina, Senator Mark Dayton, a Democrat from Minnesota. Let me start with Senator Specter. I got to ask you about the cutting political question here. Do the people back in Pennsylvania focus now on the question of the president's speech and how he could have made a claim that turned out to be highly questionable about this arms deal in Africa?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER, (R)-PENNSYLVANIA: No. I just finished a 14 county tour, and this issue is not on the minds of Pennsylvanians. What is really on the minds of Pennsylvanians is what is going to happen in Iraq. The fact that we're facing guerrilla warfare there. If that situation did not exist, which is very problemsome, and I think the president is moving to solve it by trying to bring in other nations and perhaps U.N. peacekeepers, but here we have a situation where, in the political season with a great many presidential candidates for the Democrats, they're trying to dig into this issue.
But, as long as Prime Minister Blair stands up and says that the information was accurate, and so long as there's no showing that the president had reason to doubt it, this is not really something which is on the minds of the people of Pennsylvania. Listen, Chris, you're a Pennsylvanian. You know.
MATTHEWS: I know. I wanted to check with Senator Shelby. You've just joined us. Senator Shelby -- Richard Shelby. Let me ask you about this question. Is the issue really a troubling feeling about the occupation as Senator Specter just said? The casualties, the $4 billion a month cost of it? The fact we don't know when it is going to end? Is that what is driving these requestionings of how we got in it?
SENATOR RICHARD SHELBY, (R)-ALABAMA: Well, I think what's driving to it some extent is the political season, Chris. We have a lot of Democrats that are wanting to run for president of the United States. And I think that's what's driving it. You can look at the questions that are being asked. You can see amendments offered on the floor of the Senate to the DOD appropriation bill. You can't take politics out of it. This is a political season. You have got a very strong president.
MATTHEWS: Let me try for a second...
SHELBY: Wait a minute. You got a very strong president in President Bush. And they're trying to assault him and they're wrong.
MATTHEWS: Senator Dayton.
DAYTON: Yes, this is a smokescreen. You know, we're 16 months away from an election. We have got a job to do here in the United States Senate. We're under the military appropriations bill for which there's no money in it for either Afghanistan or Iraq. Told by the Secretary of Defense, it is $5 billion a month that's being paid. But, the fundamental issues here, we were told last fall, and we voted in October.
By the time the State of the Union, we had already, in Congress, had passed this over to the president. We were voted in October. Our constitutional responsibility to decide on the declaration of war based on information that we were given through that period of about two months leading up to those votes.
And time after time, the administration was exaggerating the information that I was hearing from the director of the CIA, from others in the intelligence community. So why was there that variance even then? That's what is driving this is whether we were told the truth in Congress. Whether the American people were told the truth. And that is a fundamental question to our democracy.
MATTHEWS: Back to Senator Graham. Is that the issue? Is the issue truth in whether the president made an honest case for war?
GRAHAM: Well, I think the issue has been well laid out, that they're trying to politicize an event that is taken totally out of perspective. Let's go back in time very quickly. In the 1980's, the Israelis, based on intelligence, bombed the nuclear plant in Iraq because they thought Saddam Hussein was going to turn that commercial reactor into a weapons program.
In 1991, the feds told us, you're wrong when you think they don't have a nuclear program. The documents and information is over here. We went and found out, hey, you're right. In 1995, his son-in-law defects and says, you didn't get it all.
In 1995, he told us some things and we found out the nuclear program was bigger than we thought. About two months ago, or a month ago, we found a centrifuge buried in somebody's backyard. So for anybody to suggest that Saddam Hussein has not been trying to procure nuclear weapons is dead wrong.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, Senator Graham to finish up here for everybody -- start with everybody. You make the first statement. Is it important to the Congress, the United States Senate, to find out if anyone in the White House dishonestly pushed information past the president he knew to be bogus? Senator Graham first. Is it important to know?
GRAHAM: Yes, it's important to find out what happened, but it is also important to put it in perspective.
MATTHEWS: OK. Senator Specter, is it important to find out if someone in the White House pushed bogus information past the president?
SPECTER: Chris, I already said earlier that the program that the Senate voted for an investigation to make a determination as to exactly what happened. First of all, what are the facts as to what Saddam was doing? Is Prime Minister Blair right or wrong. And secondly, what was the information that was given to the president? We ought to get to the bottom of it.
MATTHEWS: Let me go to Senator Dayton.
DAYTON: To say it's important to find out if anybody pushed bogus information past the president, it is important to find out if anybody pushed bogus information past the members of Congress before we voted last fall.
MATTHEWS: Senator Shelby, your thoughts. Is it important to find out what happened here in terms of that speech? And why there were inaccurate information in that speech?
SHELBY: We always need the truth. And I will tell you what. I would be interested in who vetted that speech at the CIA that George Tenet said he was accountable for? He is accountable. But, I would like to see who vetted it and put that out, too.
MATTHEWS: OK. Thank you very much, Senator Shelby, Senator Dayton, Senator Graham, and Senator Specter.