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CNN Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer - Transcript

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Location: Washington DC

CNN

SHOW: CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER 12:00 PM EST

October 17, 2004 Sunday

HEADLINE: Interview With Don Evans; Interview With Ralph Nader

BYLINE: Wolf Blitzer

GUESTS: Don Evans, Wesley Clark, Mitch McConnell, Evan Bayh, Ed Gillespie, Terry McAuliffe, Howard Dean, Ralph Nader, Bill Frist, Anthony Fauci

HIGHLIGHT:

Interviews with Don Evans and Ralph Nader.

BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

We're joined now by two key members of the United States Senate. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is the Senate's second-ranking Republican. Democrat Evan Bayh of Indiana is a member of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, as well as the Armed Services Committee.

Senators, thanks very much for joining us.

Before we get to Iraq and politics and everything else, Senator Mark Dayton of Minnesota this past week said he is shutting down his office in the Senate because he is concerned about terrorists striking, didn't want his employees there, didn't want Minnesotans to come to Capitol Hill.

Listen to what he told me earlier in the week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARK DAYTON (D), MINNESOTA: I do have the responsibility to protect the security of my own staff. Their lives are my responsibility. For me to be leaving them in Washington on Capitol Hill exposed to what I consider to be an unacceptable risk, knowing what I know about the situation, not sharing that with them, leaving for the relative safety of Minnesota, I think is immoral.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. I want both of you to weigh in. I take it, Senator McConnell, you have not shut down your Senate office. SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL ®, KENTUCKY: Well, there are 99 other senators who have heard the same briefing, and as far as I know, no one else has shut down. In fact, I'm on the same floor as Senator Dayton in the Russell Building, and we're open for business.

BLITZER: Does he know something that the rest of you don't know?

MCCONNELL: I don't think so. We all had the same briefings. And, with all respect to Senator Dayton, I think that's an overreaction.

We've known for a long time that the Capitol is a target. We have done everything we can to secure it. I think our staff should be at work and visitors should come to the Capitol. We're happy to have them.

BLITZER: Senator Bayh, you're on the Intelligence Committee. How concerned are you?

SEN. EVAN BAYH (D), INDIANA: Wolf, I share Mitch's reaction. You know, there is some heightened risk. I've sat in some of these briefings that, frankly, were a little hair-curling. But it's a fact of life.

I don't think there is an imminent risk. There are some reasons to believe there is a heightened threat at this time. You look at the situation in Spain as an analogy, for example.

But we've got to get on with our daily lives. And the fact of the matter is, we can't let the terrorists succeed in shutting down our government.

BLITZER: All right. Let's get to an issue, a substantive issue, that came up during this last debate. The president denying a charge from Senator Kerry that he once suggested that Osama bin Laden was really not all that important.

Listen to what the president actually said in March of 2002.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: Terror is bigger than one person, and he's just-he's a person who has now been marginalized. I don't know where he is, nor do I-you know, I just don't spend that much time on him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president seemed to deny something that he had actually said in that debate.

MCCONNELL: I think the point he is trying to make is that the war on terror is bigger than one person. And it's actually bigger than al Qaeda.

If you remember, in World War II, we were attacked by the Japanese but the first invasion after that was in North Africa against the Germans. President Roosevelt understood it was a broader conflict.

President Bush understands the same. We're after al Qaeda. We have destroyed two-thirds of the leadership. We certainly would like to capture bin Laden. But it's much broader than that. You have problems in Iraq...

BLITZER: But he is central to the whole war on terror, finding, capturing, killing him.

MCCONNELL: Look, capturing Saddam Hussein didn't eliminate every problem in Iraq. Capturing or killing Osama bin Laden would not eliminate al Qaeda.

Would we like to do it? You bet. But it doesn't mean that the war on terror comes to an immediate end.

BLITZER: What do you think?

BAYH: On a strategic level, Wolf, I think it would be very important to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. And I suspect the White House would make a big deal out of it if in fact we did that. They would claim it is an important step forward.

But on a tactical level, on a day-to-day basis, he's no longer running the daily operations of al Qaeda. But it would be a tremendous blow to their prestige, to their morale and an important step forward, but it's not going to end the war on terror regrettably. We've got a long way to go.

BLITZER: Time magazine had some interesting numbers in the last issue in terms of U.S. troops deployed around the world. In January of 2000, there were 203,000 troops deployed around the world. Now, October 2004, 500,000 American troops deployed overseas.

In Iraq, in January of this year, there were 122,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. It's gone up now in October to 137,000 troops.

What do you make of this massive deployment and the whole uproar, Senator McConnell, of reviving the draft?

MCCONNELL: Well, of course, no one has suggested the draft be revised except Charlie Rangel and a couple of Democrats in the House. That's just a complete fabrication.

The key to getting the troop level down in Iraq is the training of Iraqi troops. General Petraeus, the hero of the 101st, who led them into-up through Iraq and up to Mosul, is back over there working on training not only the Iraqi military but the Iraqi police.

And our exit strategy for Iraq is to help them get their government up and running-they're going to have elections in January-and to help them have a military and a police force that can deal with our own security problems. And that's well under way.

BLITZER: Is that well under way? BAYH: Well, we hope it's well under way. General Petraeus is a good man. And that is the central challenge that we face, enabling the Iraqis to provide for their own security.

But this raises a broader question, Wolf, which is that our ability to protect ourselves abroad is now stretched to the breaking point with the commitments that you outlined. That's why more Guard units are being called up. Reservists' tours of duty are being extended.

And my concern is that, if we were to have something else unexpected arise, whether it's Iran, North Korea or somewhere else, where would we get the troops to deal with that unexpected eventuality?

That's why we're increasing the strength of the Army by a couple of divisions. But right now we're stretched very, very thin.

BLITZER: Forty-three percent of the U.S. troops are Reservists or National Guard personnel. That's an extremely large number.

I suspect many of them are from Kentucky.

MCCONNELL: Absolutely. And, of course, the 101st Airborne is from Kentucky. So we've been right in the middle of this fight.

Look, the overall strategy is to stay on offense. It's no accident that we've not been attacked again here at home for the last three years. The principal reason for that is we've been fighting these people where they are so we don't have to deal with them in Washington and in New York.

BLITZER: Although you've acknowledged that al Qaeda's modus operandi is to space out their big attacks against the United States every three, four, five years.

MCCONNELL: Yes, but who would have predicted on September 12, 2001, that we would not be attacked again here at home in three years? Everybody thought we'd be hit again. And I'm not saying we never will be. But it's clear that staying on offense, going after the bad guys where they are, is the key to protecting us here at home.

BLITZER: Senator Bayh?'

BAYH: Well, we have to be proactive, Wolf. We saw what happened on September the 11th when we waited too long.

But that being said, it is still a difficult challenge because it's what they call an asymmetric threat. In order for us to succeed, we have to stop them every time. In order for them to achieve their goals, they only have to succeed every so often.

But I share Mitch's view. It's much more important to be on the offense than just trying to sit back and seal off the country.

BLITZER: There were some relatively surprising remarks from General Tommy Franks, retired head of the U.S. military Central Command, down in Florida this past week on Tuesday. Let me put it up on the screen.

"What I would have liked to have seen done better in Iraq, once they were gone"-referring to Saddam Hussein regime-"is hire them back," the Iraqi military personnel. "Congress never appropriated money for that purpose. No other country offered to pay for it."

In other words, suggesting that that was a big mistake to just let that Iraqi military disband without getting them back on the ground to make them part of the solution.

MCCONNELL: Well, it's a legitimate observation. There's been a lot of discussion about whether or not it was a mistake to disband that military. There were some who suggested-hindsight, of course, is always 20/20 -- that if we had just taken the leadership and removed them and kept the rest, it might have been easier to get the job done in Iraq.

BLITZER: Four-hundred-thousand Iraqi troops basically go home with their weapons and sort of blend in. And they are, by almost all accounts, many of them, the source of a lot of these Saddam Fedayeen loyalists.

MCCONNELL: Well, look, you know, D-day probably wouldn't have been completed if we'd had a bunch of retired World War I generals second-guessing Eisenhower, particularly after what happened on Omaha Beach. It's pretty hard to conduct a war with perfection. John McCain always says, "As soon as it begins, things go wrong." And I'm sure we can find things that might have been done differently.

BAYH: Wolf, the genesis of a lot of our troubles in Iraq has been the fact, as John McCain and others have said, we did not have enough forces at the beginning and we've never had enough forces. Why was that?

Our generals were asked how many troops they needed. Well, to defeat the Iraqi army and to overthrow Saddam, we needed the number of troops we had.

But because their army melted away, because their police forces went home, that's not the mission that we took on. It was to try and secure an entire country of 26 million people. We have not had enough forces to do that. That allows lawlessness to take root. And we're reaping the unfortunate fruits of that today.

One other thing I'd say: Sending all of the Baathists home, I think, was also a mistake. The top ones, absolutely. But the file clerk, you know, those kind of people, that sent a message to the Sunnis that they weren't going to have a place in the new society. It made a lot of them hostile, and we're paying a price for that as well.

BLITZER: Does the U.S. have enough troops have enough troops on the ground right now to get the job done, or do you think they need more? BAYH: In the short run, we may need a few more, particularly as we're trying to clear up Fallujah and some of these other places leading up to the elections.

But as we were discussing earlier, with General Petraeus, the key to all of this is training Iraqi troops and police forces to take that mission over, so that in the longer term, we can begin to pull our troops out.

BLITZER: Senator McConnell?

MCCONNELL: Yes, Evan's got it right. The key is more Iraqi troops, getting them trained. It's their country. In the end, they need to be able to defend their own country.

Also, it's important to remember that two-thirds of the country is relatively safe and secure. We're talking about the Sunni triangle. And the future of Iraq ultimately rests with the Iraqi military and the Iraqi police that are being trained by General Petraeus now.

BLITZER: Senator McConnell, Senator Bayh, thanks to both of you for joining us.

MCCONNELL: Thank you, Wolf.

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