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updated 6/4/2006 1:18:26 PM ET 2006-06-04T17:18:26

MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: showdown with Iran, atrocities in Iraq and a 40 percent reduction in anti-terrorism funds for the two cities hit on September 11th. We’ll get the view of a Democrat who would like to be president, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware.

Then, the former United Nations chief weapons inspector Hans Blix has a new report on the threat of nuclear weapons worldwide.

And in our roundtable: Hillary Clinton and the Iraq war. Insights and analysis from John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal and CNBC, and Gwen Ifill of “Washington Week” on PBS.

But first, can we stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb? Joining us: the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joe Biden.

Welcome back.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE): Good to be back with you, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: As you well know, Secretary of State Rice announced direct talks with Iran were possible if they would stop enriching in their program. This is how David Brooks of The New York Times wrote about it in his column. “The accomplishments over the past few weeks have been impressive. Bush and Rice have created a coherent policy. They have organized the Europeans, Russians and Chinese around that policy. They have put Iran on the defensive, and forced the different factions in the regime to argue about what sort of country they wish to become.” Do you agree with that?

SEN. BIDEN: I agree with it in part. I think it’s a very positive step, and I think David picks up one of the strong elements of what our policy should have been from the beginning, which was, there’s two audiences here. There’s the Iranian public and our ability to have an impact on the public and split the—split that country in terms of getting real debate going, and secondly, keeping the Europeans and our allies together and on the same page. And I think it’s long in coming, but very welcome.

MR. RUSSERT: If the Iranians refuse to stop enrichment, what should the U.S. then do?

SEN. BIDEN: Well, in my view, we’re sort of locked into a position now, because they’ve got the European—the European three, China and Russia apparently on the same page saying they must stop enrichment. I think what’s happening is the Iranians are figuring out there are consequences short of all-out sanctions that affect their economic growth. There’s been a diminution in any investment by the major powers in Iran; not because of any policy, but because of the uncertainty in Iran. There’s also been a drop in their stock market. They’ve had—they’re having some difficulties. And so I think at a minimum it will keep the world united, and move toward a Security Council resolution that maybe holds everybody together and adds additional sanctions from other countries. And that may have an impact.

But as you know, Tim, myself and Senator Lugar and others have called for direct talks with Iran for the past year and a half. I think we’ve kind of seen this movie before in Korea.

MR. RUSSERT: If the Iranians simply refuse, and full-speed-ahead with their program to build a nuclear bomb, should we undertake military action?

SEN. BIDEN: No, we shouldn’t undertake military action now. It should be the absolute last resort. And one of the things that—I’ve gotten all the briefings, as most of the people in my position have, and there is no imminent threat at this point. There is a looming threat, there is a threat of a capacity to be able to demonstrate a real threat to the United States and our allies down the road, but there’s nothing imminent at this point. And we should be playing the inside and the outside game, both in Iran and outside to continue to put pressure on them, because there’s nothing at all certain about the support that this administration in Iran has from its own people. And the one way to unite the 71 million Iranians with a government they do not like would be to attack them.

MR. RUSSERT: Based on our experience with Iraq and intelligence...

SEN. BIDEN: Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: ...do you believe if the president of the United States stood up before the world and our country and said, “Iran has this, therefore we have to undertake military action,” would he be believed?

SEN. BIDEN: No.

MR. RUSSERT: How do you deal with that?

SEN. BIDEN: You don’t except try to build confidence by the way—look, as I understand it—and you usually have better sources than I do, and I’m not being facetious—but as I understand it, this was a bit of a knock-down, drag-out fight between Cheney and, and Condoleezza Rice, and Rice won this round as to how to proceed with regard to Iraq. What you do is you continue to proceed down the line, and apparently Secretary Rice now has the president on, rather than return to the bellicose notions of threats and—and look, it’d be one thing, Tim, if you said to me—and anyone could show me—that military action, A, that there’s an imminent threat at the moment; and B, that there was utility in the use of that military action.

This is not the—like a lot of people think—this is not the Israelis taking out an Iraqi reactor, which happened a decade ago. This is a very different, very spread out, very sophisticated program. And, and so the question is what are your reasonable options? And the options are, it seems to me, is to continue to squeeze with the world community the government in Tehran.

MR. RUSSERT: As you well know, we had gone into Iraq hoping to establish an ally in that region. Richard Engel, NBC correspondent over there, interviewed Prime Minister Maliki, the new prime minister, and asked him about Iran. Let’s watch.

(Videotape):

MR. RICHARD ENGEL: (Foreign language spoken) Would you support American military action against Iran launched from Iraqi territory?

PRIME MINISTER NOURI AL-MALIKI: (Through translator) Iraq will not be a platform for any military action against its neighboring countries, including Iran, because such action would drag the region, and Iraq, into catastrophes.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Whether you’re for or against military action, it’s quite interesting to hear the Iraqi prime minister talk about the United States and Iran.

SEN. BIDEN: Totally predictable, though, Tim. Totally, completely predictable. The notion that—remember, it was four years ago the president announced the axis of evil. He said there are these three countries—Iraq, Iran and Korea—and implied he had a plan how to deal with them by isolating them. Where are we now? Korea has 400 percent more nuclear capacity than it had when he announced the policy. Iran is—has eliminated the modulus at any democratic instincts: their parliament. There’s no democracy there in, you know, in waiting as there was four years ago. And now you have Iraq in a circumstance where the leaders of Iraq, who belong to two parties, the dominant parties, Dawa and SCIRI parties, who have relationships with Iran. So, I mean, so far for a policy that was going to make us safer—I mean, anybody who would think that there would be a welcome mat by the part of an Iranian—an Iraqi government to attack Iran doesn’t understand the region at all.

MR. RUSSERT: Does Iran have more influence with Iraq than the U.S.?

SEN. BIDEN: At this moment I think it does. And—well, let me back up. That’s not true. The United States has more influence because we still have 130,000 troops there. We have more influence with the Kurds. We have more influence with the Sunnis, although not much influence at all. I’m not sure I would argue that the Iranians have as much influence with the 60 percent of the population that makes up the majority of the parliament now, the, the Shiia, than we do.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to some comments that Maliki made. This is how The New York Times reported it on Saturday: “On Thursday, Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq condemned violence by the American-led coalition against Iraqi civilians. But Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, said Friday that Maliki had told the American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, that his comments were misquoted. ...

“In The New York Times, Mr. Maliki was quoted as saying that many troops in the American-led coalition, ‘do not respect the Iraqi people. They crush them with their vehicles and kill them just on suspicion. This is completely unacceptable.’ Accounts elsewhere quoted him similarly, and a review of the translation on Friday found the quotation accurate.

“In its translation, The Times also quoted Mr. Maliki as saying that the violence he was condemning had become a ‘daily phenomenon.’ The review of that quotation found that it was inaccurately translated. Mr. Maliki said the violence had become a ‘regular occurrence’ - not a ‘daily phenomenon.’” But here is the prime minister of Iraq saying the U.S. soldiers are mistreating his people.

SEN. BIDEN: Look, Tim. We put our U.S. soldiers in the most God-awful position they can be put in. We put them into a situation without any plan as to how to occupy a country. We put them in with too few troops, without the proper equipment, without the proper defenses. And now these poor guys and women are sitting in the middle of what is a sectarian war. It is no longer—you know, aside—remember that Carville quote back in the ‘92 campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid, it’s the economy”? It’s not the insurgency. It is the sectarian violence, stupid, sectarian violence. And so now you have the leader of a group that is 60 percent of the population feeling significant pressure from his constituency to take on—even though he wants us to stay there—to take on the existing military occupation in, in Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT: Well, Senator, all politics is local.

SEN. BIDEN: You got it.

MR. RUSSERT: Whether it’s Wilmington or Baghdad.

SEN. BIDEN: You got it, man.

MR. RUSSERT: The prime minster of Iraq is criticizing the United States to shore up his political standing?

SEN. BIDEN: Absolutely. And by the way, guess what’s going on in Afghanistan? Same exact thing. Karzai. What’s Karzai doing?

MR. RUSSERT: Are these comments not encouraging hostility to U.S. troops?

SEN. BIDEN: Well, I think they do encourage hostility to U.S. troops, and I think what they do is they call for the administration to come up with a plan. Look, the president says, Tim, that it has been saying we’re going to stand down when the Iraqis stand up. But there’s no plan to help the Iraqis stand together. Now the whole notion here is what’s the plan? On one hand, you have the president with a plan how not to lose, but not to win by keeping us there interposed between these constituencies, and you have others calling for just pulling out. What are we going to leave behind? What do we do? That’s why I came up with the plan that I have. Come up with a plan that gives some sense of how you keep these three major factions within a country together so that you don’t have them blow apart, which is what I worry most about.

MR. RUSSERT: But neither the Republicans nor Democrats accepted your plan.

SEN. BIDEN: Well, no, but a lot of—mark my words, it’s going to get a lot more popular as we move down the road here.

MR. RUSSERT: A year ago, let me show you exactly what you said in one of your committee hearings. “My patience is running out. I’m not sure I could in good faith, a year from now” that’s today...

SEN. BIDEN: Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: ...”if things aren’t drastically different, continue to support American troops being in Iraq.”

SEN. BIDEN: Well...

MR. RUSSERT: Are things drastically different?

SEN. BIDEN: They are drastically different. And I tell you what, it’s about at the end of the rope. That’s why in the proposal that I laid forward, which would take too long to lay out here, but the bottom line here is, we’ve got to give each of the parties a rationale to stay in the game, keep this country together. As I said repeatedly, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men are not going to keep Iraq together if there’s an all-out civil war, and we’re moving closer and closer to that. And the administration continues to rely on, Tim, on something that’s not going to happen, and that is that a unity government is going to come along and all of a sudden all’s going to be well. The insurgency is going to be quelled and the militias are all going to go back to their neutral corners.

We’ve got to do something like we did in Dayton, Tim. What’d we do in Dayton when we settled the Bosnian war? We ended up with two distinct territories, we ended up with three different armies, and we ended up with three different presidents, and now they’re trying to pull together and become part of Europe. We gave them breathing room in order for them to be able to stay together. That’s what has to be done now. And if it isn’t, I just don’t see any—I don’t see any successful end in sight.

MR. RUSSERT: It’s time to get out.

SEN. BIDEN: It’s getting close.

MR. RUSSERT: This is what you said leading up to the war in ‘02. “He’s a long-term threat, a short-term threat to our national security.” (April 13, 2002)

“He must be dislodged from his weapons or dislodged from power.” (September 26, 2002)

“We have no choice but to eliminate the threat. ... This is a guy who is an extreme danger to the world.” (August 4, 2002)

“There was sufficient evidence to go into Iraq.” (May 25, 2003)

Looking back on all that, didn’t you help feed the appetite to go into Iraq and—which created our current situation?

SEN. BIDEN: Well, I—you know, I guess, depending on which of the various quotes you read, you could say that, but remember what the game was back then. We were trying to resist the effort to pull sanctions off of Saddam Hussein, that’s what the world was pushing for. And we got together and we all said, “Look, we’re going to give the president the power to demonstrate at the United Nations that the United States is together, and use that power to increase pressure on Saddam to deal with the weapons. We called for—I called for, the inspectors, including Hans Blix, who’ll be on here, who I’ve met with repeatedly during that period, to stay in and go in. The assertion was made by the president that, in fact, there was no imminency about us going in. Repeated quotes I have as well saying there’s no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein. But the fact of the matter is, we gave the president a power that, I believe, that he did not very competently use.

MR. RUSSERT: Ted Kennedy said yesterday, voting against the war in Iraq was the best vote he ever cast in his 40 years in the U.S. Senate. Is voting for the war the worst vote you ever cast, in your mind?

SEN. BIDEN: I, I don’t think so. I think misunderstanding this administration is the worst miscalculation I’ve ever made in my career.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Clinton has, unlike you, where last time you were here, you said, knowing what you know today, you would not vote for the war, Senator Clinton has not said that. Do you believe that for Senator Clinton to become the Democratic nominee, she has—and I have to say, to the Democratic Party, that voting for the war was a mistake, and knowing what she knows today, she would not do it?

SEN. BIDEN: I haven’t figured out how I can become the Democratic nominee let alone give her advice on how to become the Democratic nominee.

MR. RUSSERT: But is the Iraq war a dilemma for her within the Democratic Party?

SEN. BIDEN: I don’t know. Look, I think the, I think the Democratic Party understands Mrs. Clinton’s—Senator Clinton’s instincts that are consistent with theirs. I will be surprised if the vote on the war in Iraq becomes the defining issue in a Democratic nominating process.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think Al Gore, who won the popular vote in 2000, who was against the war, who has—now has a new movie on global warming, would be a viable candidate in 2008?

SEN. BIDEN: Sure. Sure, I think he’d be viable. And I think he would be welcome. I think it would, it would add to the, to the debate that this party has to have. I’d welcome him getting involved.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think he’ll run?

SEN. BIDEN: I have no idea. I truly have no idea.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me ask you a last question on Iraq about Haditha and some of the other alleged atrocities. The fact is, our government knew about that for some time. How high up the chain, based on your information, do you think this goes?

SEN. BIDEN: The secretary of defense.

MR. RUSSERT: And what should be done?

SEN. BIDEN: He should be gone. He shouldn’t be in his office tomorrow morning. And I’m so tired of saying this on your show. I’ve been saying this for two years.

MR. RUSSERT: Well, the president knew about it in March.

SEN. BIDEN: Well, we can’t get rid of the president. He’s there for two and a half more years. There is a system of accountability. The system of accountability is, it used to be a gentlemanly thing, as they say, when you make serious mistakes, you step forward and you acknowledge them and you walk away. Presidents can’t and shouldn’t do that. Secretaries of defense can and should.

MR. RUSSERT: There was a report out from the Department of Homeland Security which reduced anti-terrorism funds to Washington and New York by 40 percent. Your reaction?

SEN. BIDEN: Look, this is—the idea that they have us in a debate about how to spread out $740 million dollars to protect America is bizarre. We should be spending much more than that. The idea that we’re only spending a hundred--$740 million dollars—Tim, look, they sent—the, the 9/11 commission has flunked this administration and Congress on all the major initiatives relative to making our, our homeland more secure. If we were just to take one year of the tax cut for people making over a billion dollars, that would generate 53 billion in revenue. To implement the entire, the entirety of the 9/11 commission report is $42 billion dollars. As my dad would say—we were talking about our dads earlier—my dad would say, “If everything’s equally important to you, nothing’s important to you.” It’s priorities.

MR. RUSSERT: But Senator, you can read the headline, “Biden calls for tax increase.”

SEN. BIDEN: Yes. I’ll say it again, “Biden says you should not have the new tax increase for people making over a million dollars.” They didn’t ask for it.

MR. RUSSERT: Tax cut.

SEN. BIDEN: The tax cut. And they’ll argue it’s an increase.

MR. RUSSERT: So that’s a tax increase.

SEN. BIDEN: Yeah. No—“Sign me up. Sign me up.” Because in the meantime what happens? We have this ridiculous circumstance where Washington, D.C., and New York City are going to lose funds that are going to go to St. Louis, where they’re needed, and we’re arguing about—it’s like having the blind compete with the hearing impaired. This is bizarre. We should be dealing with our domestic security needs. And the idea that the wealthy people in America aren’t patriotic—they didn’t ask for this, they didn’t ask for this additional increase, and I believe they would support if they knew this money was going to go to fully implement 9/11. I don’t know a millionaire in New York who wouldn’t be supportive of that.

MR. RUSSERT: The Senate is considering a repeal of the estate tax, which would cost a trillion dollars over 10 years.

SEN. BIDEN: Bad idea.

MR. RUSSERT: Will it happen?

SEN. BIDEN: Well, I don’t know whether it will happen.

MR. RUSSERT: Democrats would have to vote for it in order for it to become law.

SEN. BIDEN: Well, yeah, Democrats have to vote for it to become law. I hope they don’t vote for it to become law. Look, they’ve—this—the idea is, so few people pay an estate tax—something like 99 percent of the American people never pay an estate tax.

What we should do with the estate tax is we should adjust it for the economy. We should, in fact, raise the limit that’s exempt—I think you can go as high as $8 million dollars—and you should reduce the amount from in the mid 50s down to the low 40s. That would still, in fact, have little impact upon, on the total revenues, and it would allow what is really what people are concerned about: Can you pass on a family business? You should be able to pass on a family business—the family farm, the family automobile dealership. If you’re going to pass it on to Charlie, your son, pass it on and don’t pay an estate tax.

But this idea of total elimination. What’s that mean? Remember, it was Teddy Roosevelt who came up with this idea. Why did Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, come up with it? So there wouldn’t be continued concentrations of wealth in America. They already control a significant part of the total wealth in America. This is not a meritocracy.

MR. RUSSERT: Will, will you filibuster if need be?

SEN. BIDEN: I’m not a good filibusterer, but I would join a filibuster, yes.

MR. RUSSERT: The president used his radio address yesterday, and tomorrow in the Rose Garden, to talk about a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

SEN. BIDEN: You know, think about this. The world’s going to Hades in a handbasket. We are desperately concerned about the circumstance relating to avian flu—we don’t have enough vaccines, we don’t have enough police officers—and we’re going to debate, the next three weeks, I’m told, gay marriage, a flag amendment, and God only knows what else.

I can’t believe the American people can’t see through this. We already have a law, the Defense of Marriage Act. We’ve all voted—not, where I’ve voted, and others have said, look, marriage is between a man and a woman and states must respect that. Nobody’s violated that law, there’s been no challenge to that law. Why do we need a constitutional amendment? Marriage is between a man and a woman. What’s the game going on here? And now we’re going to also vote, right after that, about desecration of the flag. If you can’t...

MR. RUSSERT: But aren’t these issues ones that the Republicans used successfully to demonstrate that the Democrats were out of sync on cultural and values, in that, in that degree?

SEN. BIDEN: I don’t know if they’ve used it successfully. A fascinating thing Katrina did. Katrina not only blew away the Gulf, it blew away the illusion that these guys were competently able to deal with the real problems that Americans face. And I think this just highlights the fact they have no intention, they have no plan, to deal with health care. They have no plan to deal with our national security. They have no plan to deal with the energy crisis. They have no—I mean, gasoline’s going up an incredible amount. I’ve got a bill, along with others, saying, look, make every single automobile company—by the year 2008 or 9, depending on which one you pick—have flex-fuel automobiles. Make every gas station in America have to have a flex-fuel pump. That would fundamentally begin to alter importation.

But no one wants to offend anybody. We don’t want to offend the oil companies. We don’t want to offend the auto workers. We don’t want to offend anybody. And what are we going to do? Because we don’t want to make any hard decisions, let’s go talk about gay marriage. I think it’s ridiculous.

MR. RUSSERT: Before we go, let me hook back around to Iraq and conclude our interview. If things are the way they are today a month from now, two months from now, three months from now, when, when and where do you draw the line? How much time?

SEN. BIDEN: I draw the line at the point where there is no reasonable prospect of me believing you can keep the country together. And that’s when this sectarian violence is so far out of hand that there is no possibility of keeping the country together.

MR. RUSSERT: And how close are we?

SEN. BIDEN: I think we’re perilously close. I think we...

MR. RUSSERT: Months?

SEN. BIDEN: Well, as I said to you last time I was on the show, I think the time that that’s going to be determined is whether or not they amend the Constitution, which is four more months after they, in fact, get in power, which has just begun now. And so I suspect that’s by the fall. We’re going to know whether there’s been any progress made or not. If there’s no progress made—and by the way, Tim, the other thing, pulling the troops out. My proposal calls for no troops there after the year 2007, other than an over-horizon force, and that is, that’s going to practically take that long for the military to do it.

MR. RUSSERT: But if you do get out, and the country just disintegrates...

SEN. BIDEN: It will.

MR. RUSSERT: ...and you have a haven for terrorism...

SEN. BIDEN: You do.

MR. RUSSERT: ...and for al-Qaeda.

SEN. BIDEN: You do.

MR. RUSSERT: What have you...

SEN. BIDEN: That’s why we...

MR. RUSSERT: What have you achieved?

SEN. BIDEN: Well, you—what you’ve done is you have put us in the position—this administration has—where you lose Iraq, you lose Afghanistan. Watch Afghanistan. Watch Afghanistan, and watch Musharraf after Afghanistan falls if we don’t get smart here. And what you end up with is you end up with trying to contain the policy. That’s what I’ve called for for over a year and a half, a regional conference. Get the permanent five of the United Nations to call for a regional conference of all the parties, set up a contact group, agree on a hands-off policy internally in Iraq so this doesn’t develop into a regional war. Nothing’s been done on any of this. There’s no forward thinking here.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you feel partially responsible?

SEN. BIDEN: No, I don’t. I, I’ve been laying out in detail, on your show and others, for three years how to approach this. And every single recommendation has been rejected. And I would respectfully suggest in almost every instance what I’ve said has turned out to be—end up being the case.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Joe Biden, as always we thank you for your views.

SEN. BIDEN: Thank you, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, the man who led the pre-war inspections in Iraq has a new report on weapons of mass destruction worldwide.

And then our roundtable with John Harwood and Gwen Ifill. We’ll talk about Hillary Clinton’s Iraq war dilemma and a battleground seat in California—a traditionally Republican seat too close to call. All coming up right here on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: We’ll hear from the man who led the inspections in Iraq before the war, and then our political roundtable after this brief station break.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: Dr. Hans Blix, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

DR. HANS BLIX: Thank you.

MR. RUSSERT: You chaired a committee and their report is out. “Weapons of Terror: Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Arms.” This is how some of the news reports characterize your report: “Hans Blix, the former chief United Nations weapons inspector, said that American unwillingness to cooperate in international arms agreements was undermining efforts to curb nuclear weapons.” Why blame the Americans?

DR. BLIX: Well, I think there was a disenchantment, a disillusionment in the United States after the Iraq war in 1990 and ‘91 at the international conventions and the inspections had not found out what was going on. And then they turned to the more military means, to what was called “counterproliferation.”

Now that we have now practiced counterproliferation in the Iraq—in the war of 2003 and I think we have now come to the conclusion that taking out weapons of mass destruction which didn’t exist by military force was not very successful. And maybe there is now an opportunity to again to see whether we can improve the international conventions like the treaty of the convention against nonproliferation. Strengthen the verification and strengthen the support for these treaties.

MR. RUSSERT: But isn’t there a consensus that North Korea and Iran just lied and deceived and cheated?

DR. BLIX: In the case of—yes. In both cases, actually, they were, they were cheating. But the—we did not have earlier the strong inspections which we—which the IAEA has got, got later. And in fact, the Iranians have gone back on, on permitting this on a voluntary basis because of the stress they feel, perceived they were subject to.

MR. RUSSERT: You also, you also wrote this, which was interesting to me. “The [Weapons of Mass Destruction] Commission rejects the suggestion that nuclear weapons in the hands of some pose no threat, while in the hands of others they place the world in mortal jeopardy.” Do you believe that the United States, France, Great Britain having nuclear weapons is an equal threat to North Korea and Iran having nuclear weapons?

DR. BLIX: We don’t compare whether it’s equal. We simply say that in the hands of anybody it is a threat. You have threats, as Senator Nunn will say here, you ought to take the weapon—nuclear weapons out of a hair-trigger alert because there can be mistakes and there can be misunderstandings. So they are dangerous. Whether in the hands of a reckless government or a reckless regime, yes it would be worse, clearly. But who is in control in the government in a particular case? You take Pakistan today. Well, we have a president who is trying to keep control, but what if there were another government in Pakistan? So I think they’re all dangerous. The weapons sit in Pakistan and they’re dangerous; they sit elsewhere and they’re dangerous.

MR. RUSSERT: Are you optimistic that the world can stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb?

DR. BLIX: I think they could, but I think that they—and I—and the commission is also in favor of urging and getting Iran to stop enrichment of uranium. But I think they have to see what is it that might move them towards further enrichment, enriched uranium and to a weapon. What is that—what are the incentives and what should be the disincentives for it?

I think it’s welcome that the Western states have now suggested that they might give Iran light-water reactors, because I think that counters the argument that the Western world would like to deprive Iran of the—of the more modern technology. I’m not so sure that the U.S. joining the table will make that much of a difference because, as I understand it, the Iranians will read it that, “Yes, we would like to sit down with you and discuss stopping enrichment, and we will tell you what goodies you’ll get for that, but that is presupposing that you stop enriching.”

MR. RUSSERT: Well, the U.S. is saying, “Stop enrichment and we’ll sit down.”

DR. BLIX: That’s right.

MR. RUSSERT: Well, isn’t the ball in the Iranians’ court?

DR. BLIX: No. I think that when you say that, “We will sit down with you, provided you stop enrichment,” well, then, you are really staking out what you want the negotiations to end in. I think there ought to be a possibility to reach this result, but I think you have to look at the question of security. And this is very likely what we should do.

MR. RUSSERT: So the U.S. should lift that condition?

DR. BLIX: I think they will in due course. I think that they will be brought to discuss also the security of Iran.

MR. RUSSERT: You think...

DR. BLIX: But the—there—there is also weakness in the attitude of the states that have nuclear weapons in saying that, “You must stay away from this. We will not.” It’s a little like a person smoking a cigar and telling his children, “You should not smoke.”

MR. RUSSERT: You also write in your report that the U.S. should, in effect, make a guarantee against a military attack.

DR. BLIX: Well, guarantee is a word that I think the U.S. will not say, but I think it will be enough if they said we will respect the U.N. charter,’ in Article 2, paragraph four, which says that you can’t use armed force against a territorial integrity in other states.

MR. RUSSERT: “Mohamed ElBaradei the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has privately told Western leaders that they have to accept a limited Iranian enrichment program under IAEA monitoring, as it was a matter of national pride and to insist on scrapping it may only bolster Iranian hardliners.” Do you agree with that?

DR. BLIX: I think he’s absolutely right in saying that it’s a matter of national pride. But I think there is a lot of prestige, also, in the Western positions.

MR. RUSSERT: So, but how do you say to the Iranians, “It’s OK to enrich,” and that’s the—one of the key international spokespeople, and when, when the Europeans and the Americans are trying to says, “Stop enriching or we won’t talk”?

DR. BLIX: I fully understand the demand that they should stop enrichment, because it—the Middle East is such a dangerous place that if a country like Iran is beginning to move in that direction, it will increase tensions. And I—and, and it will—if they do enrich on large scale, it will bring them perhaps two years closer to a nuclear bomb. But Iran today is not an imminent threat. And they talk a lot about the chapter seven of the U.N. charter, that presupposes that Security Council will establish that there’s a threat to international peace and security. No one talks about chapter six, which says—talks about controversies, which if they continue, may constitute a threat to international peace and security.

MR. RUSSERT: After the war in Iraq began, a year—about a year later, you had said this: “There was a lack of critical thinking, that there was probably not a wish to do critical thinking, and that there was a will to do spin. When you saw that, you felt, hey, this is a bit of an oversell.”

DR. BLIX: Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: Explain.

DR. BLIX: Well, take Prime Minister Blair, who said that the Iraqis had a capacity to use weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes, with the implication being that it could hit the United Kingdom in 45 minutes. Well, what was that but spin? And when we see the evidence, they certainly failed to, to examine the, the alleged agreement between the Iraq and, and Niger about the yellow cake, the uranium oxide. I mean, this—one could have doubts about even when hearing about it in the autumn. It was only Mohamed ElBaradei who revealed before the war in the Security Council that this was what he called not authentic, the contract was not authentic. What he should have said was perhaps it was a forgery. People would have understood it better.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think that the Bush administration spun the intelligence?

DR. BLIX: I think all the parties on the alliance were—spun the intelligence. They want to, they—I could say that they, they mislead themselves, first, and thereafter they mislead the world. I have never said that they were in bad faith. I think to say that you have to have very strong evidence. I have never said that.

MR. RUSSERT: Could the war have been avoided?

DR. BLIX: I think so. We had carried out about 700 inspections, and we had been to about three dozens of sites, which the intelligence had given us, and in none of these cases did we find any weapons of mass destruction. If we had been allowed a couple of months more, we would have been able to go to all the sites given by intelligence, and found no weapons, since there weren’t any. Now, the intelligence would have understood then that their sources were poor.

MR. RUSSERT: But the French and the Germans would have not gone forward with any kind of military action?

DR. BLIX: No, I think the U.S. would have refrained, also, from the war if they had seen that their sources were bad, and if this information had trickled upward. So the result would have been, very likely, that Saddam would have stayed. I think the great gain of the war was that Saddam the butcher was taken out. But for the rest, it was not, it was not a successful war.

MR. RUSSERT: Not having found weapons of mass destruction, why do you think Saddam engaged in this cat-and-mouse game and didn’t come clean?

DR. BLIX: That’s right. You know, that’s a good question, and one possibility is that he was like someone hanging a sign on the door, “Beware of the dog,” without having a dog. When he wanted to tell Iran, and he wanted to tell others that “I’m still dangerous.” He was also very isolated person. I don’t think that he really had, at the end of the 19--2003, that he had the power to come back. He would have become more like a Qadaffi or like a Castro, wing clipped.

MR. RUSSERT: About two months before the war, this was a piece in The Los Angeles Times: “The chief U.N. weapons inspector [Hans Blix] disclosed troubling new details about Iraq’s weapons programs and expressed frustration with what he described as Baghdad’s refusal to resolve long-standing questions about efforts to produce biological and chemical weapons, as well as long-range missiles. ... His criticism was perhaps his sharpest since the current confrontation with Iraq began ... and its tone surprised veteran weapons inspectors.” You later said in your gut, you felt that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

DR. BLIX: In the autumn of 2002, I was asked, “What do you think? Do they have them or not?” And I said, “My job is not to tell you my gut reactions. My job is to inspect,” and that’s what we did. In my gut, as you say, I also was under the impression, like most people, that these guys had played cat-and-mouse during the whole of the ‘90s, so I was suspicious of that. But as the inspections proceeded, gradually, and we didn’t find anything, well, I became more doubtful. And we looked at, at the evidence, that was our job. And the evidence did not point to anything. We were displeased with the Iraqis, that they did not make a greater effort to clarify, and—but maybe they couldn’t do much more. So that’s—we expressed that displeasure with, with them publicly.

And I will say that by the time of February, February 2003, they were frantic in trying to clear up the, the question. We could say that there are lots of things unaccounted for, but unaccounted for means are they there or are they not there? And the U.S. administration was saying, “They are unaccounted for. Where are they?” That was a very different type of conclusion.

MR. RUSSERT: Where are they?

DR. BLIX: Well, they aren’t there. I mean, there are people who think that there are still nuclear weapons in Iraq, but they are few. And the U.S. military’s not...

MR. RUSSERT: Not nuclear?

DR. BLIX: No, none. None.

MR. RUSSERT: Biological or chemical?

DR. BLIX: No. No.

MR. RUSSERT: Were they fed to surrounding countries?

DR. BLIX: No. They were destroyed in 1991. This is what the son-in-law of Saddam said. And I think that is the truth. There could be relics somewhere, something that was forgotten, but that’s all.

MR. RUSSERT: As we sit here in June of ‘06, North Korea has the nuclear bomb, Iran is pushing to have it.

DR. BLIX: Maybe.

MR. RUSSERT: Maybe?

DR. BLIX: Maybe.

MR. RUSSERT: You don’t believe Iran wants a nuclear bomb?

DR. BLIX: Well, I think, after Iraq, we ought to look pretty well at the, at the evidence. And I hear some people saying that, “What could they—why could they go for nuclear? They have oil.” Well, no one says that to Mexico. But I certainly don’t exclude that there will be groups, important groups in Iran that may be going there, but I think it’s a little wild to jump to the conclusion today.

MR. RUSSERT: How fearful are you that a rogue nation would use a nuclear bomb?

DR. BLIX: Well, the risk is there, the risk is that anyone can do so. There is discussion in this country about using nuclear weapons also. And there’s—one of the things that we turned against in the commission is that there, there can be use of nuclear weapons against any threat of, of chemical weapons, for instance. We think that one can have understanding if a country’s attacked by a nuclear weapon there will be retaliation. But the, the fact is that the doctrine hasn’t broadened the scope in—with, within which nuclear weapons can be used.

We think the world should go away from nuclear weapons, and we’ve seen now an arms race coming, in space, for instance. I was told the other day that U.S. is spending about $20 billion dollars a year in, in space. We have some engineers who tie together with microphones, and then we have a lot of other engineers who are spending $20 billion dollars to see how we can shoot down each other’s satellites. This is not talked about. It is as if people are sleepwalking into a new arms race. That’s what Kofi Annan said the other day.

MR. RUSSERT: What’s the most important recommendation you make that is practical and doable immediately?

DR. BLIX: Well, immediately, it would be a—the—that the U.S. would ratify the comprehensive trest ban—test ban treaty. The administration doesn’t want that, and it’s not on the agenda. But I think that would send the signal to the rest of the world that we are interested in disarmament and we are willing to participate in it. We are not simply telling the countries of the world, “You stay away from it and we build up arsenals,” we will also participate in it. So that would be one thing.

The other would be the agreement that, that has now tabled by, by the U.S. about cutting off the production of enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons purposes. If they add to that verification, it would be made more clear. The U.S., I think, is alone at the present time in the world in not wanting to have verification of weapons. Without verification of such an agreement, we will not be credible.

MR. RUSSERT: All right. Dr. Hans Blix, thank you for joining us to talk about your report.

DR. BLIX: Thank you.

MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, our political roundtable on Hillary Clinton, the new secretary of the Treasury and what his appointment means, and the continuing whiff of scandal all across Washington and how it will affect the 2006 midterm elections, right here on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: And we’re back. Mr. Harwood, Ms. Ifill. Welcome, both.

MS. GWEN IFILL: Hi.

MR. RUSSERT: Let’s go right to it. California. Duke Cunningham convicted of a crime, a Republican seat, and now it’s too close to call. Republican Bilbray, Democrat Busby. Gwen, what do you see?

MS. IFILL: Brian Bilbray is a lobbyist. That’s what he’s been doing lately, and that’s what Francine Busby uses in all her ads. “Lobbyist Brian Bilbray has done this for you. Lobbyist”—that’s become the bad words, especially in a district where Duke Cunningham is now in a—serving some time for hanging out with lobbyists. So that’s considered to be a bad thing. At the same time, Bilbray tries to talk about immigration. He tries to change the subject. Talk about immigration, so, you know, this—she’s on the wrong side of immigration, which counts somewhat in the Southern California district. But that’s why it’s come down to this.

MR. RUSSERT: What happens, what’s the fallout, if the Democrats win this seat, or if the Republicans hold it?

MR. JOHN HARWOOD: Well, if the Democrats win the seat, it’s a tremendous propaganda victory for them, and they’ll use it to argue that this is 1994. “They’re going to lose everywhere, and we’re going to rout them.” I talked to senior strategists in both parties this morning; they’re both now expecting a very, very narrow Bilbray win, but we’ll see what happens. It all comes down to turnout. Republicans have outspent the Democrats two-to-one in this seat, and they focused, in particular, on the early voting to try to juice that turnout that might not come naturally on Election Day because conservatives are so dispirited.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the Iraq war. This was Adam Nagourney in The New York Times. “With Iraq looming yet again over an American presidential campaign, senators considering a White House race are...forced to explain their votes - and in some cases, alter their views - on an increasingly unpopular war. Senator John McCain ... and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton ... both prospective 2008 candidates, have encountered hecklers protesting their support for the Iraq war. Both responded with hints of recalibrations in the way they discussed the issue, with Mrs. Clinton telling Democrats who nominated her on Wednesday for a second term to ‘stand with me’ in pressing the White House and Iraqis to develop a plan that would permit American troops to come home.”

And let’s take a look at Senator Clinton accepting the nomination of her party in Buffalo, New York, where else? Here’s Senator Clinton.

(Videotape, Wednesday):

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY): Stand with me as we push the Bush administration to take responsibility for the mistakes and misjudgments that they have made around the world, and stand with me as we put pressure on both the administration and the new Iraqi government to get behind a real plan for the Iraqis to assume a growing responsibility for their own security and safety so that we can begin to bring our troops home.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Gwen Ifill, will that message work with rank-and-file Democrats?

MS. IFILL: Think about what the options are, these senators have, who voted for the war. Hillary Clinton can either say, “I was—I made a mistake,” at which point she gets labeled a flip-flopper, something that’s happened in the family before. She doesn’t want to do that. John McCain has to stand by the president because he will also be labeled the same way, plus he actually believes that Iraq war was a good decision. I was interested to hear Senator Biden out here, talking about the miscalculation in trusting the president, rather than that his war vote was a mistake, and his optimism that the war vote would not be a defining question in the Democratic primary.

All that aside, these guys are in a box, so they have got to find some way out. In her case, it’s to say, “Let’s call attention to the miscalculations, let’s call attention to how we were misled,” instead of calling attention to whether we should have been in the war in the first place.

MR. HARWOOD: And Tim, the safe ground Democrats are trying to claim was reflected in that statement, and that is, accountability. “We’re—they’re messing it up.”

MS. IFILL: Right.

MR. HARWOOD: “We’re going to hold their feet to the fire.” They do not want—certainly in 2006--to get to the question of “What would you do differently?” because they’re split. We’ve talked a lot this year about splits in the Republican Party. Within the Democratic Party, the base of the party very much wants to get out of Iraq, and further questions, to some degree, the projections of American power. That’s fine when you talk about the sort of liberal—most liberal third of the population, but for others, for the swing voters Democrats need, they don’t question the projection of American power, and they’re not sure that the right thing to do is bring U.S. troops out.

MR. RUSSERT: It is interesting, though, that John Edwards has said he regrets his vote, it was a mistake. John Kerry, vote was a mistake. Biden, prior to the head, said his vote was a mistake. Russ Feingold voted against the war, Al Gore voted against the war. Hillary Clinton is still the one candidate out there who voted for the war who hasn’t pulled back on that vote.

MS. IFILL: She’s—it’s not insignificant that she’s also the one woman candidate who people are going to try to tar as being too soft. And so she’s almost got to be tougher. She’s got to be more firm in what it is that she says.

Now, that’s just interpreting it from her words. But also think about what these candidates have had to do. They’ve been able to carve out another line, which was, “We don’t support the war, but we support the troops.” We cannot underestimate the effects of the Haditha effect on even that argument. So I think that there—it’s a very rocky, very difficult road to navigate, and if you’re Hillary Clinton right now, maybe there’s room in the future to repudiate that vote, but there’s no reason to do it right now.

MR. HARWOOD: There are two things the Democrats worry about in a broad national sense right now. One is they charge that they’re going to raise your taxes. You’ll hear that from Republicans. And the second is this defeat and retreat. That still has some potency.

MR. RUSSERT: And also, this notion from the Republicans that if the Democrats take over Congress, here come the liberals. They’re going to take over all the committee structures. You can almost see the photographs being slotted in the TV ads now saying, “Watch out. You may not like us, but these are the Democrats.”

MS. IFILL: Yeah. Well, the photographs will probably be countered by the photographs of Duke Cunningham and others. Of course, Bill Jefferson, depending on whether there’s an indictment in that case or not, might offset that. But I think there’s going to be a lot of that mutual finger-pointing, and it could just make people say, forget about all of them.

MR. RUSSERT: This was in USA Today: “Bush tries to regain his footing on once-rock-solid conservative base. Whether President Bush is talking about a get-tough border policy or the importance of judicial restraint ... he is sure to throw in an appeal these days to wavering conservative supporters. ... Next week ... Bush will talk about the importance of a constitutional amendment that would bar gay marriage by defining marriage as being between a man and a woman, a major issue for social and religious conservatives. ... The president is scheduled to renew his call for a line-item veto, arguing it will help him rein in the runaway federal spending that has been another nagging source of conservative discontent.”

John, suddenly a constitutional amendment on gay marriage. We haven’t heard much about that in the last two years.

MR. HARWOOD: Well, we haven’t, but Republicans are very worried now that older voters, rural voters, religious conservatives, simply don’t have enough positive reasons to go out in midterm elections, which tend to be low turnout contests and dominated by which side has the most enthusiasm. The interesting thing about this is Bush has dropped among Republicans and among conservatives, but who’s really dropped are those Republican members of Congress. Their approval rating among conservatives in our Wall Street Journal/NBC poll since January of 2005 has fallen in half, and that’s one of the reasons why they’re so hot at the White House right now. They feel the White House has not backed them up.

MR. RUSSERT: You heard Senator Biden. He doesn’t think it works.

MS. IFILL: Three states: Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, the only states where President Bush is now getting over 50 percent approval ratings. That’s tough for him. So he’s got to speak to that base. He’s got to expand that base. He’s dropped precipitously among Republicans, he’s dropped even more so off the map among independents.

But one thing, before we talk about what’s going to happen with the gay marriage debate, it’s important to remember what Senator Biden was just saying, which is that it takes two-thirds of a vote in the Senate to get this thing through. So it takes two-thirds of the House and Senate of the states. We’re talking about a constitutional amendment. So anything we do this week, paying attention to the president’s speeches, because the president has suddenly racheted up on this issue, or the debate on the Senate on this, on flag burning, on anything which involves a constitutional amendment, you have to talk about the reality of it. How much of this is a debate about the issue, a cultural touchstone issue—which is fine to have that kind of debate in Congress—and how much of it is about changing anything?

MR. HARWOOD: And Tim, on Biden’s point, in the long term, there’s no question this is a dying flame. The question is, how long is it politically useful for Republicans? Young people do not care about this issue. I talked to a senior Republican pollster on Friday who said people under 40 just don’t care about gay marriage at all in a large sense. And so Republicans know that this is a losing argument, you know, five, 10, 20 years down the road. But right now, it still has some utility for them.

MS. IFILL: Partly because people under 40 aren’t the ones voting right now.

MR. HARWOOD: Exactly.

MR. RUSSERT: When you hear discussion about the line-item veto, the get control—federal spending under control, I went back and looked at federal spending on a variety of categories from 2001 when the president became president, Republicans controlled the House and the Senate and the White House. And look at this. The budget went from a $281 billion dollar surplus to a $336 billion dollar deficit. A swing of $617 billion dollars. Federal spending went up 37 percent. The debt went up 46 percent. How is a line-item veto going to change any of that?

Bush Administration

(2001-Current)

          2001      Now      Increase

Budget    $281b     $336b    +$617b

          surplus   deficit

Federal   $1.9      $2.6     +37%

Spending  trillion  trillion

Debt      $5.7      $8.3     +46%

          trillion  trillion

MR. HARWOOD: It’s not going to change it very much, and when you really look at the complaints from some of these conservatives on the Hill, you have to also look back at what happened when the president came out with his Social Security privatization plan last year and when he came out with Medicare entitlement cuts this year. Republicans don’t want to vote for those things. So they share responsibility with the administration for what’s happened on the deficit. I talked to a White House official this morning who has some hope that perhaps after the election, the last two years of the Bush presidency, they will be some more appetite with help from new Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to deal with entitlements. But so far there hasn’t been much appetite.

MS. IFILL: But you’re talking about a real disconnect, not only between the Congress and Republicans in Congress and what the president is talking about, but also with the American people. I was struck by one poll number that I found this week which is that people were asked whether their gas prices, which everyone says we’re all so concerned about gas prices going through the roof, will it affect your vacation plans? Seventy-three percent said no. So, is there a disconnect between members of Congress and the White House? Yes. Is there a disconnect between what Americans say they’re concerned about and what they’re willing to do about it? Yes. And that has to do with the deficit as well.

MR. RUSSERT: Well, when people hear a line-item veto, “get tough on federal spending,” do they know that both parties have been reluctant to tackle the big issue of entitlement reform in, in—throughout years, and we’re leaving our kids a huge legacy of debt?

MS. IFILL: And do they know that when Bill Clinton had the line-item veto that didn’t—that wasn’t exactly what brought the deficit down? That’s, that’s an executive privilege issue, not an issue about balancing the budget.

MR. RUSSERT: John, you mentioned Hank Paulson, the new secretary of the treasury nominee. “Mr. Risk Goes to Washington” according to BusinessWeek. He is a strong environmentalist, very much outspoken on global warming. How’s he going to fit in in the Bush White House?

MR. HARWOOD: Well, White House officials say that when you really look at what he said as opposed to groups he’s associated with say, he’s not far out of step with the president on this. I think the significance could be when we get to the last two years of the Bush presidency, is there something like a carbon tax, for example, that might be used in the context of tax reform and deficit reduction? We don’t know what effect he’s going to have. Right now, what they really care about from Hank Paulson is somebody who has credibility with the markets, who can sort of keep smooth sailing between now and the election.

MS. IFILL: I’m certain that Hank Paulson has—feels he’s figured this all out and has gotten the guarantees he needs, but the question that has to be asked in the next two and a half years for any secretary of treasury is what it is that Henry Paulson can accomplish that Paul O’Neill couldn’t accomplish and that John Snow couldn’t accomplish? Is he going to be listened to? Does he have points of view which are actually going to change it? Or is it just important just to have someone in that chair who carries with him the credibility of Wall Street and therefore, silences some of the discontent of the critics and some of the nervousness, perhaps, about the Fed chairman as well.

MR. RUSSERT: Before we go, looking to November of ‘06, what is your reporting telling you? How are the parties feeling?

MR. HARWOOD: Well, there’s a lot of pessimism within the Republican Party. This Republican pollster I talked to on Friday said, “If the election were held today, we would lose the House.” That’s probably what’s going to happen. It’ll be fascinating to see how they handle this immigration bill, the House-Senate conference. Many of the House conservatives want to come out with a border security-only bill. They think that’s what their base wants.

MS. IFILL: Someone asked me the other day whether the Democrats were—if Republicans are as panicked this time as the Democrats were in 1994. And as I recall, Tim, the Democrats weren’t panicked because they didn’t see it coming. This time they see it coming and so that’s where you get the...

MR. HARWOOD: It’s a big difference.

MS. IFILL: That’s where you hear the panic coming from.

MR. RUSSERT: Is there time to adjust?

MS. IFILL: Sure.

MR. HARWOOD: There’s time to adjust and there’s also time to raise money. Remember, the Democrats—the Republican National Committee has more money than Howard Dean and the Democratic National Committee do.

MR. RUSSERT: John Harwood, Gwen Ifill, thanks a lot.

MS. IFILL: Thank you.

MR. RUSSERT: We’ll be right back.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week at a special earlier time, 8 a.m. Eastern, right before the French Open tennis finals. Check out our Web site during the week for air times in your area mtp.msnbc.com.

If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS. Thank you, Buffalo Sabres, for a great year.

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