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updated 7/26/2007 7:40:34 PM ET 2007-07-26T23:40:34

MR. TIM RUSSERT:  Our issues this Sunday:  What is the real terrorist threat to the United States homeland?  How good is our intelligence gathering?  And nearly six years after September 11th, why is Osama bin Laden still at large? With us, the director of national intelligence, Admiral Mike McConnell, in his first television interview.

Then briefings, debates and votes—the Iraq war front and center.  With us, Democratic senator from Wisconsin Russ Feingold.

And in our roundtable, insights and analysis from New York Times columnist David Brooks, The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, and The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes, author of “Cheney:  The Untold Story of America’s Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President.”

But first, this week, this document, the National Intelligence Estimate entitled “The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland,” was released.  How serious is this threat and what can we do about it?  Joining us for an exclusive interview is the director of national intelligence, Admiral Mike McConnell.

Welcome.

Admiral MIKE McCONNELL:  Thank you.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me show you an—a key judgment from this report, “We judge the U.S. homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years.” In layman’s language, for the American viewers watching today, what is the most serious threat facing our country?

Admiral McCONNELL:  Tim, the most serious threat is that the plotters that are being observed will be successful in penetrating our defenses and conducting an attack that would result in mass casualties.  Their intent is to effect an attack with mass casualties.  A secondary attempt, attempt would be political or infrastructure targets to even include economic targets that would have long-lasting impact.

MR. RUSSERT:  Is it biological and chemical?  Or the—is—do they achieve nuclear?

Admiral McCONNELL:  They have not achieved nuclear, based on our current understanding.  The intent is either chemical, biological, nuclear radiological or even nuclear to include a nuclear yield.  I, I would add what we see currently is primarily a focus on explosives, explosives that can generate a large explosion but they’re put together with commercially available material.

MR. RUSSERT:  Why haven’t we seen more suicide bombers the way we see in the Middle East?

Admiral McCONNELL:  In the United States, you mean?

MR. RUSSERT:  Mm-hmm.

Admiral McCONNELL:  The efforts that the United States and our allies have gone through over the past five years have been significant in establishing barriers so that the terrorists perceive us as a much more difficult target, very different from what it was in 9/11.  So barriers have been established, databases have been established, the National Counterterrorism Center, which conducts, three times a day, a teleconference with all the players—federal level, state level, international—to try to coordinate these things.  And if someone can be identified, they’ll be taken out of the pipeline in their process to come into the United States.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me read another key judgment.  “Although we have discovered only a handful of individuals in the United States with ties to al-Qaeda senior leadership since” September 11th, “we judge that al-Qaeda will intensify its efforts to put operatives here.” But there are people in the United States, you are saying, who have direct ties to al-Qaeda senior leadership?

Admiral McCONNELL:  And the way I would describe it is we have strategic warning. We know what al-Qaeda, in their safe haven in Pakistan, intends to do.  We're watching them train and recruit, and their effort is to put someone inside the United States. There have been some clues in some cases where there would be a tie. But we do not have tactical warning currently that there are sleeper cells tied directly to al Qaeda inside the United States. So we have the strategic warning, not the specific tactical warning, but we know their intent.

MR. RUSSERT:  But you say there are a handful of individuals in the United States with ties to al-Qaeda senior leadership.

Admiral McCONNELL:  That’s correct, and that’s in the form of raising money or being sympathetic to.  But we haven’t identified the individuals who are actively plotting or planning.  But there have been some that have been sympathetic to al-Qaeda’s cause.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you believe there are sleeper cells in the U.S.?

Admiral McCONNELL:  I worry that there are sleeper cells in the, in the U.S.  I do not know.  There is no specific on, on a sleeper cell.  There are some elements under surveillance because we’re not sure, so it’s warranted—court-approved, warranted surveillance.  We have some ties.  This is what I meant when I said we’ve raised the barriers and made it more difficult.

MR. RUSSERT:  This intelligence report that came out this month raised a lot of alarm and concern in the U.S., and it seems to be in stark contrast to the National Intelligence Estimate from last April, this one.  And let me read that key judgment to you:  “United States-led counterterrorism efforts have seriously damaged leadership of al-Qaeda and disrupted its operations.

“We assess that the global jihadist movement is decentralized, lacks a coherent global strategy,” “is becoming more diffuse.” That seems so different than your assessment in July of ‘07.  What a difference a year makes.  What changed?  We were told that the al-Qaeda had been, in many ways, close to being destroyed or dismantled.

Admiral McCONNELL:  Following the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, about two-thirds of al-Qaeda’s, not only leadership, but their soldiers, the foot soldiers, had been eliminated.  And, at that point in time, that was an accurate assessment of where we were.

Now, what happened?  What’s different?  What changed?  In Pakistan, where they’re enjoying a safe haven, the government of Pakistan chose to try a political solution.  The political solution meant a peace treaty with a region that’s never been governed—not governed from the outside, not governed by Pakistan.  The opposite occurred.  Instead of pushing al-Qaeda out, the people who live in the—these federally- administered tribal areas, rather than pushing al-Qaeda out, they made a safe haven for training and recruiting.  And so, in that period of time, al-Qaeda has been able to regain some of its momentum.  The leadership’s intact, they have operational planners, and they have safe haven.  The thing they’re missing are operatives inside the United States.  So that’s the difference between last year and this year, in, in our assessment.

MR. RUSSERT:  Why haven’t we captured Osama bin Laden?

Admiral McCONNELL:  Think about attempting to capture a single human being whose primary purpose and emphasis is to remain unobserved or hidden.  It’s a very difficult challenge.  From having been in intelligence for most of my professional life, it’s not difficult to find something large—an armored division, ships that are being built, or airplanes or whatever.  But a single human being that wants to be unobserved, who’s being assisted in that process, it just makes it very, very difficult.

MR. RUSSERT:  If we captured Osama bin Laden, we might lose General Musharraf of Pakistan because of unrest such apprehension might create in his country. Would it be worth to—losing Musharraf but apprehending Osama bin Laden?

Admiral McCONNELL:  Well, first, I wouldn’t agree that if we capture or kill Osama bin Laden it would be—particularly increase a direct threat to President Musharraf.  President Musharraf is one of our strongest allies.  He agrees with capturing or killing Osama bin Laden.  And while he tried the political arrangement, the peace agreement last fall, he has made decisions over the last few weeks—you, you are aware of the Red Mosque and cleaning that out—and he’s gone on the offensive to go back into this federally-administered tribal area.  FATA is the, is the shorthand we use to refer to it.  Now, in doing that, there’s been a price.  He has lost already, I would say, 100 troops.  Broadly across Pakistan, the number’s probably approaching 300 from suicide bombs and roadside attacks.  So there is a price to pay, but President Musharraf is a moderate, he has a moderate view, and he is attempting to cause the nation of Pakistan to, to rally around a moderist view to eliminate the extremists.

MR. RUSSERT:  If his government fell, how detrimental would it be to the U.S.?

Admiral McCONNELL:  It would have a severe impact.  It would depend—if it fell, it depends on who would replace him.  It’s a democratic nation, if they continue down this current path.  So, if the process of turnover happens in a democratic way, it, it may not have severe impact.  One of the things that I would like to highlight, however, is President Musharraf is one of our most valued allies.  And, and let me just highlight this:  Probably the majority of the senior leadership that have been captured or killed are the—is the direct result of assistance and cooperation and participation of the Pakistanis.

MR. RUSSERT:  Are you convinced Osama bin Laden is alive?

Admiral McCONNELL:  We have not heard from Osama bin Laden for over a year. There was a recent video where he appeared.  Many people thought that was current.  That was actually old videotape.  So it’s been a year.  There are rumors about his illness.  My personal view is that he’s alive, but we, we don’t know because we can’t confirm it for over a year.

MR. RUSSERT:  And living in Pakistan?

Admiral McCONNELL:  I believe he is in the tribal region of Pakistan, and how he conducts his affairs, only speaking to a courier, staying completely removed from anything we could exploit to find him, I think he’s in that region.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me ask you about the executive order the president issued about enhanced interrogation measures.  What does that allow a CIA-held target—what kind of measures can they use to get information from them?

Admiral McCONNELL:  Well, Tim, as you know, I can’t discuss specific measures.  A variety of reasons for that.  One, if I, if I announce what the specific measures are, it would, it would aid those who want to resist those measures, measures to train to understand them and so on.  So I won’t be too specific. Let, let me, let me go back to a higher calling in this context.  The United States does not engage in torture.  President’s been very clear about that. This executive order spells it out.  There are means and methods to conduct interrogation that will result in information that we need.  And what I would highlight, I was, I was concerned and worried and quite frankly appalled by Abu Ghraib.  My view was America risked losing the moral high ground.  And so I focused on this when I came back.  What I can report to you is that was an aberration.  The people who were responsible for the atrocities at Abu Ghraib have been held accountable, and, and they’re serving a sentence for that. That is not the program the CIA was administering.  It is not the program that the president approved in the recent executive order.

MR. RUSSERT:  But by the use of the term “enhanced interrogation measures,” there clearly are things that are used to elicit information.  Have we eliminated waterboarding?  Can you confirm that?

Admiral McCONNELL:  I would rather not be specific on eliminating exactly what the techniques are with regard to any, any specific.  When I was in a situation where I had to sign off, as a member of the process, my name to this executive order, I sat down with those who had been trained to do it, the doctors who monitor it, understanding that no one is subjected to torture. They’re, they’re treated in a way that they have adequate diet, not exposed to heat or cold.  They’re not abused in any way.  But I did understand, when exposed to the techniques, how they work and why they work, all under medical supervision.  And one of the things that’s very important, I think, for the American public to know, in the history of this program, it’s been fewer than 100 people.  And so this, this is a program where we capture someone known to be a terrorist, we need information that they possess, and it has saved countless lives.  Because, because they believe these techniques might involve torture and they don’t understand them, they tend to speak to us, talk to us in very—a very candid way.

MR. RUSSERT:  Does this new executive order allow measures that if were used against a U.S. citizen who was apprehended by the enemy would be troubling to the American people?

Admiral McCONNELL:  I can report to you that it’s not torture.

MR. RUSSERT:  How do you fine—define torture?

Admiral McCONNELL:  Well, torture is—an attempt to define torture in the, in the executive order, it gives examples:  mutilation or murder or rape or physical pain, those kinds of things.  Let me just leave it by saying the, the techniques work, it’s not torture.  They’re not subjected to heat or cold, but it is effective.  And it’s a psychological approach to causing someone to have uncertainty and in a situation where they will feel compelled to talk to you about what you’re asking about.

MR. RUSSERT:  And we would find it acceptable if a U.S. citizen experienced the same kind of enhanced interrogation measures?

Admiral McCONNELL:  Tim, it’s not torture.  I would not want a U.S. citizen to go through the process, but it is not tortures, and there would be no permanent damage to that citizen.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me turn to Iraq, another key judgment from the National Intelligence Estimate.  “We assess that its association with AQI—al-Qaeda in Iraq—helps al-Qaeda to energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources and” “recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for homeland attacks.” That seems to suggest that the Iraq war has been a very effective recruiting tool for al-Qaeda.

Admiral McCONNELL:  It has served as a recruiting tool to draw additional terrorists into Iraq, but it’s a mutually beneficial situation for both organizations.  Now, the debate often is was al-Qaeda in Iraq prior to, to the U.S.-led coalition invasion?  Some members of the—of those who associate with al-Qaeda were there.  Zarqawi, who had served in Pakistan with Osama bin Laden, was the principal lead.  In, in 2004 he swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden.  As you know, he was subsequently killed about a year ago, June 2006. The person that replaced him has sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden.  So al-Qaeda finds it beneficial in that it—it’s in the press, it draws in recruits, and al-Qaeda in Iraq finds it beneficial because it, it unites in a broader context.

There’s one thing, I think it’s very important, it’s in the NIE but it’s often overlooked.  There is an element of extremism in the Middle East that runs from North Africa down into South Africa into the Levant, to Syria into Iraq and over to Afghanistan, even Pakistan.  What al-Qaeda has done is find a method for uniting that—those extremists views.  And so what we see now is, is groups who are predisposed to extremism and terrorism are uniting, uniting under the al-Qaeda banner.

MR. RUSSERT:  But al-Qaeda is a much more robust and larger presence in Iraq now than it was before the war.

Admiral McCONNELL:  That’s fair to say.  That’s fair to say.  Now, but let me, let me just highlight one thing for you.  This is also important.  At one point in the war, al-Qaeda controlled the huge expanse to the west; it’s called Anbar province.  What’s happened is because of the atrocities in their approach, the leadership, the tribal sheiks in that region, collaborated with the coalition and turned on al-Qaeda.  So is al-Qaeda defeated in Iraq?  No. But in some areas, they’re back on their heels for two reasons:  The local citizens have turned against—Iraqi citizens have turned against al-Qaeda, and the coalition has been much more effective.  As you know, the troops in this surge arrived in about the middle of June, and so the effort has been to take the fight to al-Qaeda, and they have a fairly high level of success in doing that.

MR. RUSSERT:  In terms of the violence in Iraq, which is—which creates more of the violence—which is the greater cause for violence, sectarian conflict or al-Qaeda?

Admiral McCONNELL:  I think it is both.  We—in some cases, we even have Shia on Shia sectarian violence.  But for the most part, it is Sunni vs. Shia.  And al-Qaeda is the, the one that takes—is the organization that attempts purposefully to serve as an accelerant, attacking things like the, the mosque, the grand mosque that was destroyed over a year ago, and then revisiting with attacking the two minarets that were still up.  The whole purpose is something massive against the Shia or against something the Shia holds sacred to act as an accelerant to stimulate, stimulate the violence.

MR. RUSSERT:  But there seems to be, admiral, a coordinated campaign by the administration to elevate al-Qaeda as the threat in Iraq.  And yet the Pentagon quarterly report which came out in March said this:  “‘The conflict in Iraq has changed from a predominantly Sunni-led insurgency against foreign occupation to a struggle for the division of political and economic influence among sectarian groups and organized criminal activity,’ the Pentagon’s quarterly report on Iraq to Congress.

“The Pentagon report also said sectarian violence ‘has become the greatest impediment to the establishment of security and effective governance in Iraq.’” Do you agree with that?

Admiral McCONNELL:  I agree with that.  It is true.  But what I would highlight is al-Qaeda is part of that sectarian violence.  Al-Qaeda is part of that crime.  In some neighborhoods, it’s—it would be a classic shakedown.  “We will provide security if you give us money and resources.” So al-Qaeda is a, is a major portion.  Not the only.  It’s had significant impact, but there are other sectarian disagreements and criminal activity going on.  As I mentioned, even Shia on Shia in some cases.

MR. RUSSERT:  Stephen Hayes has written this book on Vice President Cheney, and, as I was reading it, I found an interview with you about your views of the administration and some of their methods of gathering intelligence.  And I want to share that with you and have you a chance to talk about it.

It says here, “In November of 2006, Michael McConnell, who had been working on intelligence issues in the private sector since resigning from the NSA in” ‘96, “was asked to consider joining the Bush administration as the nation’s top intelligence official.

“McConnell was honored to be asked, but had serious reservations.  He had been unimpressed with many aspects of the Bush administration and its conduct of the war on terror, particularly what he felt was a politicized use of intelligence in the lead-up to the war.

“‘All of these current players, Secretary Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney, and the president,’ McConnell said in an interview in late November ‘06, ‘what’s come through for me as a citizens—I’m no longer on active duty so I can say these things—they had first and foremast very strong political convictions. My sense of it is their political faith and convictions influenced how they took information and interpreted it, how they picked up and interpreted outside events.

“‘As a former intel pro, when you don’t like the answer and you set up your own thing, you tend to get the answer you want.  You hire people who think like you do or want to satisfy the boss.  I’ve read much more about the current set of players and they did set up a whole new interpretation because they didn’t like the answers.  They’ve gotten results that in my view now have been disastrous.’” That’s pretty harsh.

Admiral McCONNELL:  Indeed.  We’re all influenced by what we see and hear and read.  I am a concerned citizen.  I read those things and read those accounts. What I was taking greatest exception to was to have a secondary unit established in the Pentagon to reinterpret information.  And, and the problem I have with that is the way you do intelligence is all sources considered. You have to factor one issue against another and balance it.  If you start an independent effort with a point of view, it’s not infrequent that you would take a single piece of data to make a point as opposed to consider everything.

So what I was referring to and talking about at that time is I was worried that, in the Pentagon, there had been established this separate unit.  And I, I thought it would have been too influential.  Now, you can imagine—I consider myself an intelligence professional.  I’ve been doing this either in—on active duty or serving this community for 40 years.  The first responsibility of an intelligence professional is ground truth, and the second responsibility is to speak truth to power.  So, when I was asked to consider this nomination, that was the condition under which I would consider it.  And I focused on it very intently once I came back.  What I found or what I discovered was quite refreshing.

I—as you know, I meet with the president and vice president six days, and on occasion seven days a week.  That dialogue is, is open and frank and direct. And the thing that the president and the vice president frequently will do, whether talking to me or one of the analysts that go in with me, is that “We’re not telling you what to think or how to think or what your conclusion should be.  We need your information.  We can challenge your assumptions or your assessment, but we want to know what your opinion is.”

MR. RUSSERT:  But leading up to the war in Iraq, you strongly suggest, and many Americans believe, that we went to war on Iraq on faulty intelligence, skewed intelligence, or cherry-picked intelligence.

Admiral McCONNELL:  I, I would, I would just report what was—what came out of the WMD Commission, and, and even the 9/11 Commission to some, some extent. The assessment that was concluded, I think it was October 2002, determined or made an assessment that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.  I believed it at the time, and, and I mostly believed it because of my experience as the intelligence officer for General Powell during the—in the first Gulf war.  I knew they had them.  I knew they had—Saddam had killed 300,000 of his own countrymen.  He had engaged in two wars.  He had those weapons.  So I believed it.

What I believe happened is that the community allowed itself to be lulled into making the call on information, in some cases, from people who thought they had them.  Even Saddam’s generals thought they had weapons of mass destruction.  So those threads took us to a place that turned out to be not valid.

MR. RUSSERT:  But did the policy makers hype the intelligence?

Admiral McCONNELL:  I—that’s a judgment that I think the American people will have to make.  I have paid very close attention to hyping of intelligence, and what I can tell you in personal experience is the decision makers are making every attempt to call it straightforward based on the information that we provide to them, and we are not being asked to cherry-pick or to go down one path or another path, but to give them complete information or the best assessments we can.

MR. RUSSERT:  Admiral Mike McConnell, we thank you very much for coming here and sharing your views this morning.

Admiral McCONNELL:  Thank you so much.

MR. RUSSERT:  Coming next, the Democrats.  They do not have the votes in the U.S. Senate to stop the war in Iraq.  What now?  We’ll ask Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat from Wisconsin.

And in our political roundtable, David Brooks of The New York Times, Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard and author of a new book on Vice President Cheney.  The debate over the war in Iraq right here, coming up on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin on the war in Iraq, then our political roundtable—David Brooks, Steve Hayes and Bob Woodward—after a very brief station break.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we’re back.

Senator Russ Feingold, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D-WI):  Good morning.

MR. RUSSERT:  Democrats took control of both houses of Congress in November of 2006, many of them running, pledging to end the war in Iraq.  Is there any sense that Congress will be capable of ending the war?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  Well, I think we will.  This has been a slow, very painful process.  Sometimes I’ve been very pleased with the progress we’ve made, sometimes I’m not.  But I’ll tell you, what happened this week, a majority of the United States Senate, including four Republicans, voted for a binding deadline to end the war by the early part of next year.  And, you know, this is a proposal that I made a long time ago which, at the time, people thought was sort of extreme.  Now it is a mainstream view.  We need to do more, but the unity that the Democrats are showing is causing more Republicans to come on board, which I think will lead to our being able to pass something in the, in the not-too-distant future.

MR. RUSSERT:  This fall?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  I believe so.  I’m hoping that can happen, either in the Department of Defense authorization bill.  I also think we have to look, as Senator Reid and I have talked about, at using the power of the purse, our ability to cut off the funding after the troops are safely redeployed, as a way to actually enforce this kind of a binding deadline.

MR. RUSSERT:  You were—used the word redeployed.  John Burns, the bureau chief in Baghdad for The New York Times, who’s lived there for some time, offered these words this week:  “It seems to me incontrovertible that the most likely outcome of an American withdrawal any time soon would be cataclysmic violence.  And I find that to be widely agreed” among “Iraqis, including Iraqis who strongly opposed the invasion.” Is—are you concerned that we leave behind violence, catastrophe, genocide?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  Let’s be clear what we have now.  We now have cataclysmic violence.  That’s the status quo.  It is possible that things would get worse if we left; it is possible that things would get better.  But this is what I believe:  Right now we’re holding the bag in Iraq.  The other countries in the region—Iran, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait—they have an interest in stability in Iraq because, if what you say will happen, it will cause great instability in their countries and danger for them.  The only way we get them engaged, the only way they put up the money and the resources to stabilize this situation is if we stop what they consider to be an occupation of Iraq.  So I think the only way to avoid the situation getting worse is for us to orderly redeploy our troops and get these other countries engaged in what is in their own interest, which is a stable Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT:  So, if the country explodes, you think you get the attention of people in the region?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  I’m, I’m saying it would not necessarily get worse if we, if we took the step of redeploying.  I’ve heard a number of experts on the Foreign Relations Committee come in and say, in fact, it’s just the opposite. It is our occupation, as it’s perceived, that leads to so much of this free- floating violence throughout the country, not through any fault of ours, but it creates an environment that leads to more and more violence, more and more possible genocide, more and more tribal tension.  Our getting out in an orderly way at least gives the opportunity for a new start in Iraq, and that’s what it’s time for us to do.

MR. RUSSERT:  President Bush is determined to continue the war in Iraq, he’s made that very, very clear.  Is there anything that Democrats can do to get him to pay attention or to hold him accountable, in their minds?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  Well, I’m shocked by the administration, in particular the president’s response to the November election.  Usually, when presidents are repudiated in elections, they say, “Well, maybe I ought to reassess.” Instead, he did just the opposite.  He did this surge, which went contrary to the will of the American people.  I think we need to do something serious in terms of accountability.  And that’s why I will be shortly introducing a censure resolution of the president and the administration.  One, on their getting us into the war of Iraq—in Iraq and their failure to adequately prepare our military and the misleading statements that have continued throughout the war in Iraq.  And the second, on this administration’s outrageous attack on the rule of law, all the way from the illegal terrorist surveillance program to their attitude about torture, which we heard a little bit about today on this show.  This administration has assaulted the Constitution.  We need to have on the historical record some kind of indication that what has happened here is, in the words of Director McConnell, as you just quoted him, disastrous. Somehow we have to address that.  And I think it’s a good time to begin that process.

MR. RUSSERT:  A censure resolution against the president?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  Correct.

MR. RUSSERT:  Anybody else?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  Potentially yes.  I think when it comes to Iraq, obviously the vice president.  Vice President Cheney has been one of the worst actors in American history in this situation.  There may be others.  On the rule of law issue, on the attack on the Constitution, the current attorney general has had one of the worst records of not being honest with the Judiciary Committee, of being intentionally misleading, and of not taking responsibility for everything from the disastrous consequences of the Patriot Act to the U.S. attorneys debacle.  So, yes, potentially others.  But, of course, the president.  Since the buck stops with the president, that is the number one.

MR. RUSSERT:  Last year you introduced a resolution to censure the president regarding the wiretapping of Americans within the U.S. under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.  You got three other Democrats to join with you.  Just four Democrats.  Isn’t this the futile effort that will be described simply as politics?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  Well, let’s see what actually happened, Tim.  What happened was, after I introduced the censure resolution, there was a lot of talk that didn’t mean anything.  But what did the administration do?  They stopped this TSP program.  They brought it within the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.  When they saw that there was sentiment in this country and almost every legal scholar saying that their idea that they could just make up their own laws was wrong, they brought it within the program.  So I think it had a very positive impact.  And it sets the stage for setting the historical record here, which is that this administration has done the greatest assault on our Constitution perhaps in American history.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you think the American people will look on this saying, “Here go the Democrats just trying to create something sensational by censuring the president rather than trying to solve the problem of Iraq”?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  Well, there’s a lot of sentiment in the country, even the polls show it, for actually impeaching the president and the vice president. I think that they have committed impeachable offenses with regard to this terrorist surveillance program and making up their own program.  What I am proposing is a moderate course, not tying up the Senate and the House with an impeachment trial, but simply passing resolutions that make sure that the historical record shows the way they have weakened our country, weakened our country militarily and against al-Qaeda, and weakened our country’s fundamental document, the Constitution.  I think that’s a reasonable course and does not get in the way of our normal work.  But the American people are outraged at the way they’ve been treated.  They are outraged at the dishonesty that they have been subjected to.  The American people—we deserve better than the way we’ve been treated, and somehow this has to be reflected.

MR. RUSSERT:  Have you talked to the Senate Democratic leadership about this?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  I have.

MR. RUSSERT:  And will they be supportive?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  They—we haven’t drafted it yet.  We’re going to work cooperatively with whoever wants to work with me.  I’ve talked to the majority leader, I’ve talked to Senator Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and we will be working together to see what kind of a thing we should come up with.  But yes, I have talked to them.

MR. RUSSERT:  Will it get any Republican support?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  We’ll find out.  You know, I think this might be an opportunity for some Republicans who may be uncomfortable with taking steps such as impeachment to say, you know, somehow we have to reflect the fact that so much of this has gone wrong.

Take, for example, Gordon Smith, who actually said on the floor of the Senate that this Iraq situation may be—have criminal elements.  He actually said the word criminal.  This is an opportunity for people to say let’s at least reflect on the record the fact that something terrible has happened here. This administration has weakened America in a way that is frightful at one of the most important times when we need to be strong.  And we as a Congress have to reflect this tragedy.

MR. RUSSERT:  What is the legal impact or effect of a censure?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  It is not—does not have legal impact.  It is a resolution that has been done before both with regard to members of Congress and also presidents, and it does not have legal consequences to my knowledge.

MR. RUSSERT:  You’ll be introducing this when?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  Shortly.  In a few days.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, we thank you for coming here...

SEN. FEINGOLD:  Thank you.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...and sharing your views.

SEN. FEINGOLD:  My pleasure.

MR. RUSSERT:  Coming next, does the surge continue or will we begin to withdraw troops from Iraq?  David Brooks, Bob Woodward and Stephen Hayes—our political round table is next only on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  Welcome all.

Bob Woodward, you just heard Senator Feingold, the Democrats now suggesting, in his mind, censuring the president for his conduct of the war in Iraq.

MR. BOB WOODWARD:  Yeah, I, I don’t know where that goes.  Clearly, the Democrats are frustrated.  One of the things you learn, when you try to understand presidents, in, in the end they work their will, particularly on issues of, of war, and they can’t, you know, find a hook to get into this to stop it or change it.

MR. RUSSERT:  David Brooks, you spent an hour and 10 minutes with the president and some—with some other conservative columnist reporters.  You wrote this:  “I left the 110-minute session with President Bush thinking that far from being worn down by the past few years, Bush” seemed “empowered.  His self-confidence is the most remarkable feature of his presidency.” No second-guessing about the war in Iraq?

MR. DAVID BROOKS:  Not really.  No.  I mean, on the little things—it’s interesting, on the big things I don’ think there has been second-guessing. Bob would call it a state of denial, and I think on the big things, on whether he thinks theologically all human beings have a gift of wanting to desire freedom and all countries should be democratic, he hasn’t budged an inch on that.

And the second thing which impressed me about that meeting, his faith in his own power, the power of the presidency to change the world, he has not budged on that.  And so you might think that’s strong leadership, you might think he’s deranged.  But, but his basic attitude, I think, has not changed.  What has changed, I think, is a little more honesty and tactical flexibility now that Donald Rumsfeld is gone.  I think they’ve hired people like Mike McConnell who are much more honest and who are much more willing to look realistically at the situation.  But on the basics, no change.

MR. RUSSERT:  But when the president sees or hears what I just read from Steve Hayes’ book about McConnell speaking candidly about his perception as a citizen as what he saw the administration do in terms of molding or shaping intelligence, what would the president say about that?

MR. BROOKS:  I would still think he thinks the fundamentals are, are true, that in the long run he’ll be proved right, and that’s kind of remarkable.  I think a lot of us who supported the war, the failures of the war have set off a whole cascade of philosophical thinking.  “Maybe in the Arab world they’re not culturally ready for democracy.  Maybe we don’t have the power to do it, we just don’t have the competency as a government.” It’s created a whole set of serious debates.  It doesn’t seem to have created that in the president’s mind.

MR. RUSSERT:  And now a Democratic senator’s going to introduce a resolution to censure him for his conduct in the war.

MR. BROOKS:  Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT:  I think a big tactical mistake from a Democratic perspective. There are 30 Republican senators who are desperate to get away from President Bush.  They’ve been pushed back toward President Bush by, one, Harry Reid making this more partisan, and a censure resolution would make it hyper- partisan.  So I think it would be huge for the whole political landscape if those Republicans drifted away from Bush.  But it’s not going to happen if there’s censure resolutions, if it’s a partisan debate.

MR. RUSSERT:  Steve Hayes, in your new book, “Cheney:  The Untold Story of America’s Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President,” you write this. “Some people think if we” walk—“just walk away from Iraq everything will be fine, that it’s the optional war, that you don’t have to be here, that it’s possible to retreat behind our oceans and be safe and secure; withdrawal from Iraq doesn’t damage our interest in this wider conflict.  And that may be in part because they don’t believe there’s a wider conflict.  I know different. It’s so clear to me.  I have trouble understanding why” it’s “unclear to everybody else.” That same certitude that David Brook uses to describe the president, you’re using to describe the vice president.

MR. STEPHEN HAYES:  Yeah, it’s very interesting.  I think one of the things we saw this week, and this, this speaks directly to what the vice president told me, is with this—the release of this NIE we saw a shift in thinking.  I think for a long time administration critics had begun to make the argument that really this al-Qaeda threat is overblown, that they misled us into the war in Iraq, they’re misleading us about the seriousness of the threat from al-Qaeda.  And I think what the NIE does, even though in some ways it’s, it’s very critical of the administration, is it strengthens the basic case that the administration has been making that al-Qaeda remains a serious threat.

MR. RUSSERT:  But it seems to contradict last year’s intelligence estimate...

MR. HAYES:  No question.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...that al-Qaeda’s ability had been diminished.

MR. HAYES:  No question.  I think what, what Admiral McConnell said about that was, was exactly right, and it’s what you hear, I think, if you talk to sort of on-the-ground intelligence officials over there, that, that this March 2006--or truce between Pervez Musharraf and the Islamists was, was catastrophic.

MR. RUSSERT:  In your book you ask the vice president about the insurgency being in the last throes when he was interviewed about it.  He now acknowledges to you that was a mistake.

MR. HAYES:  Yeah, he said it was obviously wrong for him to have said that. And what he said was he had been reading reports that Zarqawi was on the run, that they weren’t getting close to getting him, and that, at this point, it looked like that was going to be sort of a marker.  And, you know, one of the things he said to me in, in—as I conducted these interviews was that he thought that there would be these markers, and these markers that—the capture of Saddam Hussein, the election, Zarqawi’s death would contribute to sort of a turnaround, and they didn’t.  And, and he said that, that, that comment was obviously wrong.

MR. RUSSERT:  And no doubts about the war in Iraq?  No second-guessing.

MR. HAYES:  Zero.  I think what, what he says is, “What we’ve got to do is a better job communicating that this part—that this war in Iraq is a central part of the broader war.”

MR. RUSSERT:  Bob Woodward, you’ve written three books on the Bush administration, the war, and here they are on the screen:  2002, “Bush at War”; 2004, “Plan of Attack”; 2006, “State of Denial.” In that trilogy did you see any change or wavering in the level of certitude about the correctness of going to war?

MR. WOODWARD:  No, no.  I mean, Bush jumps in his chair when he talks about the duty to free people and bring democracy to the world.  But the, the problem here is that we haven’t been getting enough of the truth about what’s been going on in the ground.

And just to step back, you know, Iraq is not just a philosophical issue, particularly for our fellow citizens who are there.  It is a war, a violent war.  And if you look at the precedence here, and look at Vietnam or any other insurgency, you cannot prop up a government that does not have the support of its people, or does not have some sort of process to settle the political issues without violence.  Iraq is an incredibly violent place.  How do you get out of this?  How do you solve the political problem and—I mean, even General Petraeus says, “Look, we don’t—we can’t solve the political problem militarily.” Well, where does this government go, the Maliki government?  How do they function?  How do they govern?  And you get into the details of how this place works and there’s no realistic prospect.  People who are in the administration say this is a five- or 10-year process to create this government, prop it up, whatever you want to call it.  So we’re on a timeline for some sort of fix that is way, way in the distant future.

MR. RUSSERT:  And is there five or 10 years of patience in the American political process?

MR. WOODWARD:  No, there is not.  You, you talk to lots of Republicans, what David rightly refers to as the 30 Republicans who, in their soul, are in a kind of despair—would you agree?

MR. BROOKS:  Absolutely.

MR. WOODWARD:  ...about where we are on this war.  Those people are going to move at some point, and they’re going to say, “We have to, we have to end this.” And what, what is absent in all of this is some sort of effort to achieve political consensus between the, the president and the Democrats to come up with some sort of glide plane so it—we don’t have in January 2009 helicopters leaving from the roof of the embassy.

MR. RUSSERT:  Is there any way to achieve, in Washington, a bipartisan consensus on what to do about Iraq?

MR. BROOKS:  It’s based on this unknown.  I don’t think there’s any possibility that within five years that we’re going to see a drastic diminution of violence.  So we could be losing 125 Americans every month for five years.

MR. WOODWARD:  I mean, that’s just...

MR. BROOKS:  On the other hand...

MR. WOODWARD:  ...politically impossible.

MR. BROOKS:  But, but—so you think OK, get out.

MR. WOODWARD:  No.

MR. BROOKS:  On the other hand, if we leave...

MR. WOODWARD:  Glide plane.

MR. BROOKS:  Well, if we leave, we could see 250,000 Iraqis die.  You had the John Burns’ quotation earlier in the program.  So are we willing to prevent 10,000 Iraqi deaths a month at the cost of 125 Americans?  That’s a tough moral issue, but it’s also a tough national interest issue because we don’t know what the consequences of getting out are.  And the frustration of watching the debate in Washington, very few people are willing to, to grapple with those two facts, that there’s—that the surge will not work in the short-term, but getting out will be cataclysmic.  And you see politicians on both sides evading one of those two facts.  But you’ve got to grapple with them both.

MR. HAYES:  And, and one of the things that the president said at this discussion that David was at, and I was at as well, was that he intends to make the case that, “Look, this is going to be a disaster if we get out.” He didn’t say it in exactly those terms, but he’s going to start making, in many cases, the negative case.  “Look at what Iraq will look like if we leave.  We have a moral obligation to the Iraqis to stay.”

MR. WOODWARD:  And the problem, though, is, we don’t know.  People can say, “Oh, it’s going to be a disaster.”

MR. BROOKS:  Uh-huh.

MR. WOODWARD:  I mean, you cite numbers which you have pulled out of the air of 10,000 dying.  I mean, that’s—that—where does that come from?

MR. BROOKS:  Well, A, it comes from John Burns.  Second, it comes from the national intelligence...

MR. WOODWARD:  Well, no, he doesn’t say 10,000.

MR. BROOKS:  Well, no, no, but it talks about genocide.

MR. WOODWARD:  Yeah.

MR. BROOKS:  So I just picked that 10,000 out of the air.

MR. WOODWARD:  OK, but that—we’ve got...

MR. BROOKS:  The National Intelligence Estimate says that—well, most people, as Burns reports, say it will get much, much worse.  So that’s the, that’s the dilemma.

MR. RUSSERT:  But, David Brooks, you, you will hear a lot of people will say, you know, “The administration has made misjudgments before about WMD, about the level of troops needed, about being greeted as liberators.  They could be wrong about what would flow from a redeployment of American troops.”

MR. BROOKS:  Absolutely they could be wrong.  And, and so we’ve—and, and it could be that peace will break out.  But I think, if you look at Iraq, you see four or five civil wars going on at once.  You see Shia fighting each other. You see the Sunni-Shia thing.  It could be that there’s—this is just a process they need to go through, and there’s no way we can stop it in any case.  Joe Biden was very honest this week.  He said it’s a moral failure if we leave, but we’re going to have to do it.  That at least is grappling with the issue.

MR. RUSSERT:  Steve, I want to read a quote from your book in a second.

But, Bob Woodward, last week on this program I cited a piece you wrote in The Washington Post about the head of the CIA, General Hayden, ranking threats to Iraq security, and had al-Qaeda last.  Senior intelligence officials sent us a statement saying, “He was not rank ordering the causes of violence.  He does not list al-Qaeda last.”

MR. WOODWARD:  Well, he list—at that moment, he listed it last.  And that’s, and that’s all I said.  And clearly there’s a debate about whether it’s al-Qaeda, is it sectarian violence, is it criminality, is it all of these things.  The point is, in, in that report, it was General Hayden saying late last year that the situation of the government governing seems irreversible. Now, that is a giant word.  Irreversible, meaning we can’t change it whether, he said, in the short run or in the long run.

MR. RUSSERT:  Did he walk that back at all in his congressional testimony?

MR. WOODWARD:  Well, he’s tried to, he’s tried to walk it back.  But he was being incredibly candid in that session with the Iraq Study Group.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you believe the administration has begun to emphasize al-Qaeda much more than sectarian violence in dealing with Iraq?

MR. WOODWARD:  Well, sure, because it—the president regularly says, “Look, we’re fighting them there so we don’t have to fight them here.” And if you were to ask Admiral McConnell about that, you know, there is, there is a kind of loose connection, but there’s no evidence.

MR. RUSSERT:  Well, that’s what he said.

MR. WOODWARD:  That somebody is on—over there in Iraq getting ready to go here.

MR. RUSSERT:  Steve Hayes, in your book “Cheney,” you write this:  “Cheney’s real influence is unseen.  It lies in his ability to work the levers of power at the highest levels of the U.S. government and, more directly, in his private conversations with George W. Bush.

“For more than 200 years, vice presidents, generally an ambitious lot, sought more power and craved more recognition.  Cheney, who certainly does not want for influence, dislikes the attention that comes with it.  So he does his best to avoid it.

“‘Am I the evil genius in the corner that nobody ever sees come out of his hole?’ Cheney said in 2004.  ‘It’s a nice way to operate, actually.’

“To many, Cheney is a man almost devoid of passion.  His admirers find his demeanor reassuring; it says he is contemplative, unshakable, discreet.  To his critics it registers as scheming, uncaring and secretive.” That’s the man you found.  Which one?

MR. HAYES:  I think, in some ways, both, actually.  I mean, I tend to think that he’s more unshakable.  He, he—the things he says in public are typically the things he believes in private.  And in that way, he’s, he’s not terribly complicated.  In other ways, he is quite complicated.  I mean, I think he does have—he is able to work the levers of power behind the scenes, and I think the caricature that we’ve seen of him painted thus far, through almost seven years of the Bush administration, in some ways is the polar opposite of the man that Dick Cheney really is.

MR. RUSSERT:  But he was asked about the firing of Donald Rumsfeld, and you say in the book that he was prepared to go on television, if asked, and say he opposed the president in that firing.

MR. HAYES:  Yeah, and it would have been an extraordinary moment.  He has, he has publicly taken a different position that the president one other time, with respect to, to his daughter Mary on the issue of gay marriage.  But he was preparing, in a, in a murder board session before another Sunday show, he was asked...

MR. RUSSERT:  He was, he was not asked.

MR. HAYES:  And he was not asked on air.

MR. WOODWARD:  But he never does anything in terms of operating or working behind the scenes bureaucratically, which he’s very, very effective at, that the president does not either direct him to do or approve of.  Is that correct?

MR. HAYES:  I agree with that entirely.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you—is he aware, conscious of the negative ratings he has?

MR. HAYES:  He is.  I mean, in, in some ways, it seems not to bother him at all.  But he does pay attention to it.  At one point, we were discussing a book that had been really critical of, of him.  And he said to me, “I did the index flip, and looked, and there it was, and there were these accusations, and I found them not credible.” And, and at another point he talked about watching Jay Leno on Valentine’s Day of this year and seeing Jay Leno make fun of the shooting incident from more than a year ago, and, and the vice president said, “It never ends, never goes away.”

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you think president and vice president, in their minds, it’s full speed ahead on Iraq?

MR. BROOKS:  I think it is.  I would say about Cheney, I think it’s been incredibly destructive to the process that Cheney has his own secret channel with the, with the, with the president, that you have these political discussions, Cheney sits in the meetings silently, and then it’s a secret back channel between the two.  I think it’s disrupted the entire White House.  The other thing that’s interesting...

MR. WOODWARD:  But it’s, it’s what the president wants.

MR. BROOKS:  That’s true.

MR. WOODWARD:  He wants that sort of, “OK, Dick, what do you really think?”

MR. RUSSERT:  If the president didn’t want that channel, he could close it.

MR. BROOKS:  Obviously.  The other interesting thing, there’s a parlor game about has Cheney changed.  I think we see from Steve’s book he hasn’t changed that much.  He’s always been this way.

MR. RUSSERT:  David Brooks, Bob Woodward, Steve Hayes.

We’ll be right back, and we’ll continue our discussion about this subject and ask these reporters what’s it like to cover the Bush administration and the Iraq war, our MEET THE PRESS Take Two Web extra on our Web site this afternoon, mtp.msnbc.com.  We’ll be right back.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  That’s all for today.  On this Tuesday on MSNBC, it’s Super Tuesday all day, political coverage only on MSNBC, msnbc.com.

We’ll be back next week.  If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.

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