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CNN Crossfire - Transcript

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HEADLINE: Congress Views Iraqi Prisoner Abuse Photos

GUESTS: Gary Ackerman, Peter King

BYLINE: Wolf Blitzer, Tucker Carlson, Paul Begala

Members of Congress are getting their own look at pictures taken of Iraqi prisoner abuse.

BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

On Capitol Hill today, private viewings of more photographs and videos from the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal. Members of Congress were allowed to see the new images firsthand for the first time today. And one lawmakers says they're a lot worse than those that you have already seen that have been made public. And as the scandal continues here in Washington, an American family in Pennsylvania grieves over the beheading of their loved one in Iraq, Nicholas Berg.

In the CROSSFIRE today, from Capitol Hill, Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman of New York and Republican Congressman Peter King. He's also from New York. Why are all the smart congressmen from New York?


CARLSON: Congressmen, thanks, both of you. Thanks a lot for joining us.

REP. GARY ACKERMAN, (D), NEW YORK: You're half right.

CARLSON: And you both have just seen these photographs. Do you want to tell us quickly about them, Congressman Ackerman, then Congressman King?

ACKERMAN: They're absolutely disgusting and disgraceful and most of us didn't stay to watch the whole thing. It just kept getting worse and worse, and I had seen enough. And I think Peter did, too.

REP. PETER KING ®, NEW YORK: Yes, the photos are disgraceful.

I, quite honestly, didn't see anything significantly different from what we've seen before. They're variations really on the same theme. There was one or two which showed some violence. I really couldn't even quite figure them out as to exactly whether it was a self-inflicted violence or the person was being told to do it.

But, other than that, it was pretty much what we've seen before. I didn't see anything-maybe Gary would disagree-I didn't see anything significantly different. But it really became almost numbing after a while, just picture after picture of the same type of depravity.


ACKERMAN: Some of it was-some of it was video and people were I believe forced to smash their heads against doors until their heads broke open. There were people who were forced to have sex with each other. We didn't see the videos of the soldiers having consensual sex with each other. We left before that.

CARLSON: Now, Congressman Ackerman, I'm usually for full disclosure of everything. But even listening to your descriptions of these pictures is making me upset. I'm not even in al Qaeda.

I don't think there's any question that releasing these pictures worldwide would increase violence against Americans. Given that, do you think it's a good idea to release them?

ACKERMAN: I think it's a good idea to release them, because, if you don't release them, the backlash of that is going to be even worse.

If we have a system of transparency, and the administration should know this from a tactical point of view-they should have gotten this out as early as they could and got it over with and get on top of the situation. Now it looks like they're trying to cover it up and they're trying to hide the pictures.

CARLSON: Well, wait, wait, wait a second. Congressman Ackerman, you seem to agree that releasing them would increase the chances that Americans abroad would be killed. Can you again explain maybe more slowly this time why we should release them if Americans will die when they're released?

ACKERMAN: Releasing them is not going to make Americans die.

People know the pictures are out. It's the image of America and whether or not we have a transparent system or whether we're engaged in a cover-up. And I think that's what we're dealing with now and what we have to deal with. We have to show that we are a transparent society. I would think a lot of the media would touch up or cover up arts of the picture. And that would be more than appropriate, I believe.

But it should be out there for the public to see to know that we are not covering anything up.

BEGALA: Now, Congressman King, in fact, the president's only talking point on this, besides, of course saying what we all say, that this is outrageous, is that at least it's being dealt with openly because we're a democracy, unlike a dictatorship.

Doesn't that kind of make it impossible for him to cover these pictures up if he's bragging about how openly we're handling this problem?

KING: You know, we are handling it openly.

But I do have concerns about releasing them now. And Gary makes a good point in that they may come out anyway. And that could be worse. But the concern I have about releasing them now is, first of all, there's nothing dramatically new in there. So it's not really probative as far as evidence is concerned. As far as inflaming, the fact that we have I don't know how many civilian contractors are being held hostage.

There is also the question what it would do as far as the fair trial, as far as appeals. So right now I am reluctant to release them. I understand Gary's argument. I'm not saying he's wrong. I just disagree with it at this time. If I could guaranteed that these photos would never come out, then I would be emphatic that they should not be out. But, right now, I'm saying I would still hold them for a while, because I didn't see anything there that was different than what I'd seen before.

If I had seen these two weeks ago, I would have been shocked. Today, I was pretty much jaded and numb, unfortunately.

BEGALA: Well, help me out here on the process. Who makes the decision on whether to release them? How do they make that decision and when will they will?

KING: I would say right now, it's up to the Pentagon. Obviously, Congress could I assume subpoena them. Then you get into a whole litigation as far as the court-martials that are coming up.

But, right now, I'm assuming the Pentagon has total control over them. Congress can assert its power, see what happens. The attorneys for the defendants can I assume attempt to subpoena them. And they could also attempt to block them. So, again, I don't have all the answers. Right now, I do know that the Pentagon has physical control of them.


ACKERMAN: The Pentagon has possession of them, but the president of the United States is the commander in chief. And he could do anything that he wants to do in this regard.

The truth of the matter is, this is-this is the axis of incompetence, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. They have mismanaged and mishandled the entire episode from the very beginning, as they have the war.


CARLSON: Now, Congressman, Congressman, as upsetting as these photographs are, I'm sure you agree it's possible to go over the top in describing them and their significance.

And as a prime example, I want to read you something that Senator Ted Kennedy, a close adviser to the Kerry campaign, senator from Massachusetts, of course, said about them-quote-"Shamefully, we now learn that Saddam's torture chambers reopened under new management, U.S. management."

Now, leaving aside the almost comic irony of getting a moral lecture from Ted Kennedy, don't you think it's a bit much to compare the U.S. government to Saddam's regime, which, after all, killed hundreds of thousands of people?

ACKERMAN: There is no comparison between the regimes.

But if we're going to say that this is OK because Saddam was worse, these people didn't want to trade Saddam in for Saddam-light. And if that's going to be our attitude, then shame on us. We have to show that we are better.


CARLSON: Have you heard of anybody express that attitude?

ACKERMAN: And we have to show that we are transparent and let the chips fall where they may. To have this covered up and to hang it on a bunch of poorly trained-and that's the responsibility of the commander in chief and of the secretary of defense. If they are poorly trained, this should go all the way to the top and the chips should fall where they might.

CARLSON: But, Congressman, nobody, as far as I know, is even alleging a cover-up at this point.

But I want to get back to Senator Kennedy's quote. He is using this to attack the United States and to compare the U.S. government to the regime of Saddam Hussein. It's a big deal to make a charge like that. Don't you agree?

ACKERMAN: No, I don't think that's what Senator Kennedy was trying to get across.

What he was trying to get across is that we went in there for one reason. Now it seems that there's a different reason and the reason is to liberate the Iraqi people so they can live in peace and freedom and dignity. This is not what we signed up for and certainly not what they were led to believe if they believed it in the first place. Now they believe nothing.

Whatever residual of goodwill we had left, the well has now been poisoned.

BEGALA: Congressman King, let me get to accountability up and down the chain of command.

The Red Cross reports that a year ago it briefed the Bush administration about abuse in the prisons. Secretary Rumsfeld when he testified said that he briefed the president about it, maybe January, maybe February-it's a little hazy-but many, many months ago. What did the president know? When did he know it? What did he do about it? And how are we going to find out the answers to those questions?

KING: Well, that's the purpose to have the investigations. I have to disagree with Gary.


BEGALA: Whose investigation, Congressman? Donald Rumsfeld is going to investigate Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush? Whose investigation is going to get to the bottom of this?

KING: Well, let me try to answer that. First of all, we have the military investigations going on, which have been incredibly thorough. I don't know of any army in the world


BEGALA: Run by Donald Rumsfeld.

KING: But no one-again, the Democrats and Republicans on the Armed Services Committee yesterday both said that this was a very intense, very thorough investigation.

Obviously, it's now before Congress. Congress will investigate it and it will work its way up the chain of command. Everything that's being done by the military will be subject to review by the Armed Services Committee. I think it's important to note here that there is no cover-up. There's not even a hints of a cover-up. Two days after


BEGALA: But they knew about this for a year.

KING: No, no one knew this was going on for a year.

As Colin Powell said yesterday, the Red Cross is always making suggestions. The Army and the State Department were working with the Red Cross on that throughout the fall. No one was talking about these type of specific allegations. Once they were known, they were fully investigated. And any army in the world, any police department in the world, you go to any local municipality in this country, it's constantly being sued for police abuse, for police brutality, what goes on in jail.

The way you test it is not whether seven or eight or 10 or 15 people did it, but what did the other 150,000 or 200,000 do and what did the military do when they were confronted with it. If it turns out there was any cover-up, I'll be the first to criticize it. So far we haven't seen that. And getting back to what...


BEGALA: We're going to come back to this in just a minute. I'm sorry, but we're going to have to take a break.

Next, in "Rapid Fire," we will ask our guests if they agree with John Kerry's choice on who should be the next secretary of defense.

And right after the break, how has our defense secretary been changed by the recent events in Iraq? Wolf Blitzer will report.

Stay with us.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Coming up at the top of the hour, President Bush says there can be no justification for the beheading of Nicholas Berg, as U.S. officials in Iraq promise a thorough and robust hunt for the killers.

Fallout from the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal. Observers say Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld clearly is shaken, but will he stay on the job?

And we'll discuss Iraq, the presidential election and other issues with one of America's most prominent journalists, Jim Lehrer of "The NewsHour."

Those stories, much more, only minutes away on "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS."

Now back to CROSSFIRE.

CARLSON: Well, it is time for "Rapid Fire," where both questions and answers are crisp.

We're talking about the new photographs and videos from the prisoner abuse scandal shown privately to members of Congress today. In the CROSSFIRE, two of those members, Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman of New York and Republican Congressman Pete King, also of New York.

BEGALA: Congressman King, my man, Don Imus, this morning interview John Kerry, asked him, OK, who would you pick for defense secretary? The first name he picked, John Kerry did, was your preferred presidential candidate, John McCain. Do you think John McCain should be defense secretary under a Kerry administration?

KING: Well, John Kerry's not going to get elected, so the question is moot. I think Don Rumsfeld should stay in. But, obviously, John McCain would be a great Cabinet official in anybody's administration.

CARLSON: Mr. Ackerman, today...


ACKERMAN: It's just like the Republicans declaring the election is over before the votes are even held.



CARLSON: Congressman Ackerman, today, John Kerry's campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, described the situation in Iraq as-quote-"George Bush's war." Do you see this as George Bush's war or a war fought by all of America, by nonpartisan soldiers, a war that we all have an investment in? What do you think is right?

ACKERMAN: Well, you know, he's a wartime president. He's a wartime president. We've heard that from him any number of times. He wants to be a wartime president. He's certainly mucked up this war in the end and we're not even at the finish line yet. It's going to be regarded as his war and his Waterloo.


BEGALA: Congressman King, do you agree with the intellectual godfather, really, of the conservative movement and the Republican Party? And that is, of course, Rush Limbaugh, who compared the treatment of these prisoners to a fraternity initiation and in fact a Skull and Bones initiation, which is some sort of secret society at Yale.

Do you agree with that or do you condemn those remarks?

KING: I wouldn't use those remarks at all.

Listen, to put it in the context, this type of harassment, torture, whatever you want to call it, is nothing compared to what other countries do.


KING: But, as Gary said, America is above that, so it's terrible for us to do it.

CARLSON: All right. Thank you very much, both of you, Congressman Ackerman of New York, Congressman King of New York, also a best-selling novelist. "Vale of Tears," his new novel, available in bookstores near you.

Thanks for joining us. We appreciate it.

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