MATT LAUER, co-host:
On CLOSE UP this morning, Iraq, homeland security, and the 2004 presidential race. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry is seeking the Democratic nomination, and today he'll address those topics and more in a speech to New York City firemen and police officers.
Senator Kerry, good morning. Good to have you with us.
Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Good morning. I'm glad to be with you.
LAUER: Good. I want to talk about your speech in a second. But first, in Washington today, CIA Director George Tenet is going to answer questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee. If you were on that committee, what is the most important question you'd like to ask Director Tenet?
Sen. KERRY: Well, I'd ask a series of questions about the credibility overall of the intelligence, obviously the sources and methods are tough. But we have a right to know, all Americans have a right to know, we must know because our credibility is at stake. And in everything we do now, why we haven't discovered what they said was there.
LAUER: Do you think he should resign? Most people are saying that they don't call for his resignation. But if he is to blame, and he's taken responsibility, should he resign?
Sen. KERRY: Well, remember the old saying, the Harry Truman saying "The buck stops here?" Right now, apparently, the buck stops at Langley, and there are a lot of questions about the political input to this intelligence. I don't thinkII think we have to see what happened. I want to know if the White House had an impact.
LAUER: Do you have a suspicion that Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Powell, had some role to play in this?
Sen. KERRY: Well, we know that Vice President Cheney was visiting the CIA frequently in the days previously. We do know that there was a considerablethat the speech was written in the White House, and the speech is where you are responsible. So I think there are serious political questions about the credibility.
LAUER: Let me play you a couple of comments that the president made during his State of the Union Address back on January 28th and you can comment on the other side.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: (From file footage) The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.
LAUER: On the uranium question, there had been questions about that information dating back to October, about three months before the State of the Union Address. On the aluminum tubing issue, it was disputed by a former American intelor State Department intelligence expert named Greg Thielmann who said that months earlier, quote, "We had high confidence that the aluminum tubes were not intended for the Iraqi nuclear weapons program." So let me ask you bluntly, did the president mislead the American public in using that information in his State of the Union Address?
Sen. KERRY: Whether it was purposeful or not, we don't know. But the impact is yes, both statements have proven to be incorrect.
LAUER: Sobut do youeither he knew the information was false, and if questions were raised by experts and he still delivered that information then, in fact, he misled the American public intentionally, or he had no idea that the information was faulty. And I'm asking in your gut what do you think happened?
Sen. KERRY: II'm not going tothis is not a gut response. I think it's too important, it's too critical, it would be unfair to do that. But here'shere'shere's the bottom line. We need to know because of our relationship with other countries, because our troops are dying every single day. Because families care and Americans care, we need to know for our credibility what happened, and we've got to get to the bottom of it.
LAUER: Democrats are jumping on this issue, not only intelligence leading up to the war, but the efforts in Iraq post-war. House Leader Tom DeLay said this: He said, quote, "The Democrats are asking overblown questions on Iraq." And went on to say "Democrats know that they have to attack Operation Iraqi Freedom to energize their Bush-hating base." He went on to say, "They think if they get a little angrier, a little bit meaner, and a little bit louder, the American people will start hating the president as much as they do."
Sen. KERRY: Iyou know, I feel sorry for Tom DeLay some days, and I think I feel sorry for him for that comment. It is so inappropriate and wrong. This isn't about Democrats. Look, I fought in Vietnam and half the wallhalf the wall is filled with the names of people who were there because leaders were filled with pride and wouldn't make the right decisions. We need to get the sense of American occupation over with. We need to protect our troops, and that mean that pride should not prevent this administration from going to the United Nations and doing what they should have done in the first place.
LAUER: You say the administration was arrogant, that they didn't have a better plan to win the peace in Iraq. You say it's like the Bush administration, quote, "stumbled into Baghdad with no idea how to secure the country after Saddam Hussein was removed from power." As a member of the Senate, when you voted to authorize the president to use military force in Iraq, did you lay out a better plan than the administration had laid out?
Sen. KERRY: I laid out the requirements of a plan. I absolutely did. I made it very clear that their diplomacy leading up to the war was inadequate. I said I thought the president should have even done more diplomacy before he went to war. I said to the president, 'Mr. President, don't rush to war. You need to build the large coalition necessary in order to win the peace.' And I said very clearly, winning the war was not what was difficult, it's winning the peace. And I don't believe the president put a plan together to do that.
LAUER: Here's some of what you'll say in a speech to firefighters and police officers in New York today: "All of the shortcomings of this administration when it comes to playing it straight on national security, none affects New Yorkers and all Americans more than the preparedness gap. The preparedness gap is the huge difference between where America needs to be to combat terrorist attacks and where we are now. The huge difference between what the administration in Washington is telling America and the reality which local firefighters, police officers and front line defenders are living with on the ground." Most people say the president's strength is homeland security. You're basically saying it's smoke and mirrors.
Sen. KERRY: Yes.
Sen. KERRY: Because it is.
LAUER: So you don't think that we're any safer today in this country than we were on the day before September 11th?
Sen. KERRY: Well, in airline security and in a few other things we are, Matt, but we haven't done what we need to do for what the president and others have said is inevitable. They say there's an inevitability to attack. You know, intwo thirds of our firehouses are understaffed. We have police officers being laid off. They're the front line preventers, not just responders. Weinininin about 50 percent of the average firehouses in America, theythey don't have enough radios for most of the people in thein theon the staff.
LAUER: So you think the president's vulnerable here? This is what some people, most people, think is his strength going into 2004.
Sen. KERRY: I think America is vulnerable. And what is important here is to stop thinking of this just as politics. This is the safety of our country, and I don't believe the president has done the job of homeland security.
LAUER: It is impossible not to let politics come into play here because some people, your critics, have called you a political opportunist here. They've said that...
Sen. KERRY: That's fine.
LAUER: ...some of the other Democrats have been attacking the president on Iraq and homeland security for months, and you've come to this party kind of late.
Sen. KERRY: No, I have said this all along. On the contrary, Matt, I said this before the war started. I've been consistent in saying this about the president with respect to homeland security. I gave a speech months ago criticizing him with respect to the homeland security. I don't believe they've done the job, and I've been consistent about that.
LAUER: When it comes to the presidential race in 2004, Senator, can you ignite the kind ofpeople have called you a little bit aloof, some people call you cold, a little distant, can you ignite the kind of passion in the American voters that you're going to need to win the nomination and the election?
Sen. KERRY: Matt, I believe I'm doing it, and I believe that I wouldn't have been elected four times to the United States Senate if some of those adjectives were true. I think I've had the ability to be able to lead, I've shown that leadership, I'm showing it now. And you can look out there and see all those young people, they're ready to roll. See them?
LAUER: Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, had a pretty good fund-raising quarter in the second quarter of this year. Is he a person who could make you stumble, derail your campaign, if he does well in Iowa and in New Hampshire?
Sen. KERRY: I take every candidate seriously in this race. Ilook, we have to work hard every single day. You've got to go out and ask people to vote for you. That's what I'm doing. But I have a vision for this country, that is what motivates me to run. I'mI think we can have health care for every American. I know we can do a better job with the economy than this president. And I know that I can offer the kind of leadership that brings the world to us and does a better job of making America safe and secure. That's what it's about.
LAUER: And those are some of the topics you'll speak about today here in New York City.
Sen. KERRY: I sure will.
LAUER: Senator John Kerry, good to have you here, sir.
Sen. KERRY: I'm glad to be with you.
LAUER: Thanks very much.
Sen. KERRY: Thank you very much. Thank you.
Copyright 2003 National Broadcasting Co. Inc. NBC News Transcripts