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CNN Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer - Transcript

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BLITZER: Arwa Damon in Baghdad, we'll get back with you. And of course, if we get more information on the fate of these four Russian diplomats, we'll bring that to our viewers right away.

Joining us now, here in Washington to talk about Iraq, the latest on the war on terror and more are two top members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

First, in Las Vegas, the panel's ranking Democrat, Joe Biden of Delaware; here in Washington, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel in Nebraska. He also serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senators, thanks very much for joining us.

Let me get your quick reaction, if, in fact, it's true, Senator Biden, that these four Russian diplomats have been executed by Al Qaida in Iraq, what would that be mean?

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), DELAWARE: Well, that would mean that the Russians would be as upset as we are. The question is whether Russia joins us, whether it's in trying to get some kind of agreement with their regional neighbors, putting pressure on the Iraqi government to purge their militia.

It's hard to tell, but it's not surprising, actually, unfortunately.

BLITZER: What about that? Let me bring Senator Hagel in. What do you think?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), NEBRASKA: Well, I think Joe said it as well as you can say it. Obviously, this goes back to a central point here in Iraq. And that is this is a regional, international issue. And I think we are starting to focus, at least this administration, on the regionalization, the internationalization of what's going on here, whether it's Iran, the Palestinian-Israeli issue, Iraq. It all consumes every one of us.

And the answer, the way forward is to work through alliances and our allies to get to the core issue here. And so, obviously, if this has happened, the Russians, I suspect, will respond in some way.

But just as Joe said, I don't think anyone is surprised or, unfortunately, it's not unpredictable.

BLITZER: Senator Biden, the New York Times has a major front page story today suggesting that General George Casey, the U.S. military commander in Baghdad, outlined a proposal for reducing U.S. troops in Iraq over the next year and a half or so, assuming that conditions on the ground -- the Iraqi government gets its act together, the Iraqi military and police force gets their act together -- it would reduce the number of brigades from 14, right now, combat brigades, down to five or six by the end of this year.

And starting in September, the reduction would begin in significant numbers. What do you make of this?

BIDEN: It's totally predictable. You may remember, wolf, a year ago on your program, I predicted to you there was no possibility we would have any more than 100,000 troops in Iraq by the end of this year and we draw down that significantly next.

And there's a reason for that. We have trouble sustaining these troop levels, number one. Number two, they've always planned on moving in this direction. And that's why this debate we've recently had where Chuck Hagel and Joe Biden, kind of, get caught in the middle of it here, on the floor was a lot of puffery, sometimes, on both sides here.

The plan put forward by Senator Levin and Senator Reed is exactly what Casey called for. I have the New York Times here. I read the article this morning.

I mean, so it's a reality. The reality is you cannot sustain 130,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely unless you break the volunteer army by having people go back four and five and six times. So it's inevitable

BLITZER: Senator Hagel, here's how General Casey put it on Thursday when he was briefing reporters. Listen to this.


GEN. GEORGE CASEY, CMDR., MULTINATIONAL FORCES, IRAQ: I'm confident that we will be able to continue to take reductions over the course of this year. It's both a security situation and the progress of the Iraqi security forces.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: It looks like they've got a pretty good plan to reduce those troops, if, in fact, the Iraqi government can get its act together.

Do you have confidence in this new government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki?

HAGEL: Well, one of the things Senator Biden says exactly right, and I've been saying this, and others, the last three years. The forces of reality are determining the outcome in Iraq.

The fact is the Iraqi people will determine their own outcome. We can help. We can support. But just as the new Iraqi national security adviser noted in an op-ed in the Washington Post this week, the Iraqis, the Iraqi government, the Iraqi people want the United States out of Iraq.

They see us as oppressors, rather than liberators. That's just a fact of life. I think our leaders understand that. I think General Casey's doing the best he can to work our troops out. But yes, we're coming out. We should come out.

And let's not be unmindful of the fact that we are now in Iraq longer than the Korean war lasted. Another five months of the Iraqi war, we'll be in longer than World War II lasted. I was in Nebraska over the weekend, just came back last night. I had a man who, three years ago, was a very strong supporter of the war in Iraq, come up to me yesterday and say to me, Senator, we have National Guard troops from Nebraska going back to Iraq for the third and fourth time. How can that be? What's going on? We were not told that was going to be it.

Just as Senator Biden said, we're not going to be able to sustain it politically. But the fact is, the Iraqis want us out. We should be out. They need to govern and support themselves, and we can't be there forever.

BLITZER: I'll bring in Senator Biden in in a second. But why didn't you vote for that resolution, that non-binding resolution that Senator Reid, Senator Levin put forward on the Senate floor this week?

HAGEL: Well, I explained my position in a speech on the Senate floor, and I said I would not vote for it at this point because I felt it did crowd the president on taking some general options away from him. However, just as the new prime minister of Iraq said, just as our president and just as our U.S. ambassador to Iraq said, the next five to six months are going to be key.

We'll see where we are in the next five to six months. I may lead the charge next time if we've not seen some progress here. But I thought that the right thing to do was not put any limitations, perceptual limitations or real limitations on the president. And I stated that and I said some other things as well on the floor.

BLITZER: Here's what the vice president, Senator Biden, Dick Cheney told our John King earlier in the week about one of those Democratic proposals that was defeated in the Senate. Listen to this.


DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The worst possible thing we could do is what the Democrats are suggesting, and no matter how you carve it, you can call it anything you want, but basically, it is packing it in, going home, persuading and convincing and validating the theory that the Americans don't have the stomach for this fight.


BLITZER: All right. You want to respond to the vice president, Senator Biden?

BIDEN: No, I don't want to respond to him. He's at 20 percent in the polls. No one listens to him. He has no credibility. It's ridiculous. If you look at the plan that Carl Levin put forward, it in fact called for a beginning of a transformation, not even as much as the administration is planning. And instead if conditions on the ground changed, you don't even change that.

Look, this is -- I am so saddened by the way in which the administration has pursued this. There's guys like me and a lot of others and on the Republican side, Chuck Hagel and Lindsey Graham, John McCain, across the board, who realize that this requires a political solution.

I wish the president -- and maybe he does. I wish the president had a plan, a plan along with the Iraqis how you're going to purge the militia out of the Iraqi military, making up the death squads. Number two, how are you going to get the Sunnis to buy in and give them a piece of the oil revenues in a constitutional amendment that our ambassador was able to carve out last December to get the Sunnis to vote? And how do you keep the neighbors out?

Therein lies the solution. As Chuck said, we're going to have to be leaving there anyway because of the Iraqi -- over time, because of the Iraqi people demanding it, and we can't sustain it. So, what's the political solution here? We should be working on that.

BLITZER: I want Senator Hagel to weigh in as well. Go ahead.

HAGEL: Just a brief comment on the vice president's comments. In a speech I gave on the Senate floor, I specifically targeted that kind of rhetoric. War is a serious business. War should never be held hostage to a political agenda. I think both sides do a great disservice, especially to the men and women doing the fighting and the dying.

Not the people in Washington who are so anxious to send these guys to die and fight, but to them. We do a great disservice, and to our country, when we make this a political issue to say the Democrats did this, the Republicans did this. War is far more serious than that. I complimented Senators Levin and Reid on the floor of the Senate for their amendment. I complimented them, Wolf, because they brought forward a responsible amendment to debate. We didn't do that in Vietnam. And consequently, it was a disastrous ending when, in 1975, and Joe was here and I was here, we just pulled the plug. And we grabbed a hold of a helicopter and got out of Vietnam any way we could. We don't want that kind of ending here. We need to be serious about it. The Congress needs to be part of this. We're not potted plants.

BLITZER: Let me interrupt for a second. When you hear Republicans saying the Democrats only want to cut and run, that irritates you?

HAGEL: Well, it's wrong. I said so on the Senate floor, by the way. And I said specifically that "cut and run" is political phraseology. And we debase our system. We defeat who we are and we misdefine who we are, and do a great disservice to our country when we do this. Serious things deserve serious debate and serious issues by serious leaders. That's what America wants. That's why we're all so low in the polls. We're not doing that, Wolf.

BLITZER: Senators, stand by for a moment. We're going to continue this conversation. Just ahead, we'll ask senators Hagel and Biden about Dick Cheney's other statement this week, causing some rankles, taking the offensive on the administration's handling of the war on terror.

Then, protecting Iraq's oil pipelines. The Iraqi oil minister, Hussein Shahristani, talks about his plans for protecting his country's most valuable assets from insurgent attacks.

And has the fight in Afghanistan become the forgotten war? In a "Late Edition" exclusive, we'll talk with the country's president, Hamid Karzai, about the troubling surge in violence in Afghanistan. "Late Edition" continues right after this.


BLITZER: Our "Late Edition" web question asked this: Do you think there's a significant number of al Qaida members in the United States? Cast your vote. Go to Straight ahead, though, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, Democratic Senator Joe Biden. More with them on U.S. tensions with Iran and North Korea and whether it's time to exercise a military option. You're watching "late edition, " the last word in Sunday talk.


BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." We're talking with two leading members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the ranking Democrat, Joe Biden of Delaware, and Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska.

I want to get to North Korea in a moment, but I just want to wrap up on Iraq. First, Senator Biden, do you have a clear understanding what the new Iraqi government is prepared to do as far as amnesty for insurgents and terrorists, Sunnis, Baathists, Saddam loyalists, specifically whether amnesty will be granted to those involved in killing Americans?

BIDEN: No, I don't have a clear understanding, but I have a general understanding. I've contacted the State Department, and Maliki's comments today are consistent with what they said. And that is, it will basically depend. It's important that they distinguish in giving amnesty -- and every government has given amnesty at some point -- between those who have committed acts of terror and outright murder and those who have engaged in a resistance that hasn't resulted in murder or the killing of innocent people and/or our military.

And so, I'm counting on Maliki meaning what he says. But the truth of the matter is, at the end of the day, every government in this kind of circumstance to get the warring factions in their own country in, ends up with some kind of plan. But the devil's in the details, and we'll be watching very closely what the details of such a plan are.

BLITZER: Let me let Senator Hagel weigh in.

HAGEL: Well, I think Joe framed it up exactly right. Knowing what we know, which we don't have all the facts, but to talk about amnesty blanket unconditional for everyone, I think, is premature. And this is going to be a difficult issue, because I think Maliki does need some options here and flexibility and options. And after all, they are a sovereign government now. And that's what we helped produce for them.

And that's what we said we believe in, is a democratic, constitutionally-based government that was freely elected. They'll have to make tough choices here. And we're going to have to help them as much as we can. But this is going to get, I think, a little complicated at some point. But my thought would be, I suspect this is where they are. Let's work it step by step and see if we can get some agreements, some foundational agreements first before we get into these tougher issues.

BLITZER: Senator Biden, as you know, the North Koreans have this missile, potentially an intercontinental ballistic missile, on a launch pad, ready to be test-fired. There was a provocative article in The Washington Post this week by a former Clinton defense secretary, Bill Perry, and one of his deputies, Ashton Carter.

Among other things, it said this: "If North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched. Diplomacy has failed and we cannot sit by and let this deadly threat mature." Is that wise?

BIDEN: Well, I think it's premature. Here's what I think. Look -- and I have great respect for Secretary Perry. He is the guy that did negotiate an agreement that, and I think we should have pursued, but that's another question. Having said that, what happens with regard to South Korea and Japan?

We cannot be on a different page than South Korea and Japan. If, in fact, we were to strike a missile and that resulted in artillery retaliation, killing thousands of people in South Korea, it would be a very big deal. Even if they didn't do that, if South Korea, as a consequence, expelled American forces from South Korea, we'd be much worse off.

I would want to know what the South Korean government and the Japanese government were prepared to do. This should not be taking place, in my view, unless there is a firm understanding among those three governments. But it's something -- the notion of use of military force with North Korea, which I think is the most serious danger we face in the world, should not be taken off the table. Although I think the call for a strike is premature. I think it is not, to me, based on what I know, it's not something I'd suggest being done now.

BLITZER: The former CIA director, James Woolsey, who's also served in the Clinton administration, I asked him about the possibility of this kind of preemptive strike against that missile, and he said this. Listen to what he said.


JAMES WOOLSEY, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: It would be relatively easy to do. A few submarine-launched cruise missiles, not nuclear, high explosives could take this out very easily. It's a fully fueled thin- skinned missile sitting on a pad. It would be a very simple task.


BLITZER: All right, so, if it's that simple, why not just do it?

BIDEN: Well, by the way, he's correct...

HAGEL: Wolf...

BIDEN: Oh, I'm sorry.

BLITZER: Let me let Senator Hagel weigh in, and then I'll bring you back, Senator Biden.

BIDEN: That's all right.

HAGEL: Wolf, I heard that same kind of simple tactical commentary before we went to Iraq. And I think Mr. Woolsey was one of those with Mr. Perle and others, and Wolfowitz, who were so sure of themselves that this was going to be a fairly easy cakewalk, as some said in that crowd, in Iraq. And here we are in Iraq longer than we were in the Korean war and almost World War II.

The fact is, it is not easy. It is not simple. There are consequences. We are already engaged in two wars not going very well in the world, Wolf, right now. These guys want to put us in three and four wars now, Iran and North Korea. Of course, they have the luxury of not being responsible to anybody. They can talk and chatter and write all they want. Some of us do have some responsibility. And I hope all of us who do have responsibility understand what we're talking about here. We are not anywhere close to talking about attacking North Korea. We should shut up and stop it. We need to talk directly with North Korea. The sooner we do that, the sooner we're going to get this resolved, just like the president has turned a corner on Iran. That's the way to figure this out, with our allies, and especially our allies in North Asia.

BLITZER: I'm going to move on to the war on terror, but I want you to respond. Go ahead, Senator Biden.

BIDEN: I agree with Chuck. Nineteen-hundred and twenty days into this administration, no talking, no direct talk. Dick Lugar, Joe Biden, Chuck Hagel, many others call for direct talks. It may not work, but, my Lord, it sure in devil is a better way of approaching this and finding what the bottom line is than this brinksmanship.

BLITZER: Seven suspects were arrested in Miami this week, Senator Hagel, and the FBI director, Robert Mueller, made it clear this is part of a bigger war on terror, potentially. Listen to what he said.


ROBERT MUELLER, FBI DIRECTOR: While we have made great strides in disabling traditional terrorist models like al Qaida, the convergence of globalization and technology has created a new brand of terrorism. Today, terrorist threats may come from smaller, more loosely defined individuals and cells who are not affiliated with al Qaida, but who are inspired by a violent jihadist message.


BLITZER: The so-called homegrown terror threat. This Miami plot, alleged plot, is it a big deal or a little deal?

HAGEL: Well, I would quote one of the senior FBI officials on this. I think his quote was, these guys were aspirational rather than operational. They weren't close to anything serious. However, that said, the fact is the FBI deserves great credit here. Our intelligence communities deserve great credit. But the fact is, we are the most open, transparent society in the history of man.

Of course, we have to be aware and alert. Of course we have to do more within our own country. Of course there are cells that develop or potentially develop every day. So I don't think we should overstate this or scare the American people.

I think just as many in the FBI stated, this was a very significant accomplishment for the FBI. It should reassure the American people some things are working. But let's don't overstate it. But the fact is, we're going to be dealing with this kind of thing for years and years.

BLITZER: The other story that developed this week, Senator Biden, was a New York Times story matched by a lot of other newspapers and news organizations, very quickly, that the U.S. was engaged since 9/11 in a secret plan to monitor bank transactions to see if money was being wired from al Qaida to suspected terrorists.

Listen to what Peter King, Republican of New York, said earlier today on the -- what he believes The New York Times should face right now.


U.S. REPRESENTATIVE PETER KING, R-NEW YORK: No one elected The New York Times to do anything. And The New York Times is putting its own arrogant elitist left-wing agenda before the interest of the American people. And I'm calling on the attorney general to begin a criminal investigation and prosecution of The New York Times.


BLITZER: What do you think about that? Because there's a lot of people angry at The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today for reporting this kind of sensitive information, so much of it classified.

BIDEN: Look, there's a lot of things the newspapers do and sometimes you guys on television do that I don't like. I understand Senator Specter said something to the effect this morning, I believe Jefferson is right. If you give me a free press or a free government with no press, I'll take the free press.

The truth of the matter is, they've uncovered an awful lot of things that the government has been doing that doesn't make sense as well. I'd rather them not have published this story. And by the way, what is being done, I think, is very different than the broad eavesdropping proposal that was underway.

Which takes me to the 9-11 Commission. The 9-11 Commission gave the administration high marks in this area in terms of bank transfers, one of the only places they did. With regard to what was going on down in Florida, not only does the FBI deserves credit, they deserve 1,000 more agents, 1,000 more agents. We deserve to put more cops back on the street rather than cutting them.

There is homegrown, bush-league and minor terrorists, like what we got out of Oklahoma City. Only now they're jihadists. The truth of the matter is, we are letting the country down by not funding local law enforcement like we did and not giving the FBI all the tools it needs. And it all ties together here in terms of, are we doing all we can do?

Look at the 9-11 Commission report. This undertaking is basically a sound one. You referenced in terms of interception. What they're not doing, the administration, with regard to local law enforcement, I think, is close to criminal.

BLITZER: We're going to have to leave it right there. Unfortunately, we're all out of time, Senator Hagel and Senator Biden. Always good to have you on "Late Edition." HAGEL: Thanks, Wolf.

BIDEN: Thank you very much.


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