January 30, 2004 | Broadcast

CNN Crossfire

In the CROSSFIRE, Kerry campaign senior adviser Michael Meehan and former Republican National Committee communications director Cliff May, now with the Foundation For the Defense of Democracies.


PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: Gentlemen, thank you for joining us.


BEGALA: Mr. May.


BEGALA: It seems to me, actually, that the president was prudent in believing that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He was wrong, it turns out, but it was not unreasonable.

What was unreasonable was his characterization of the threat to the United States. Lots of countries have weapons of mass destruction. The question was, did Iraq threaten us? And the right now is saying, well, Bush never said it was an imminent threat.

MAY: Yes. That’s true.

BEGALA: Here’s what he did say. Let me just rip through this quickly: “The danger to our country is grave and it is growing,” “the unique and urgent threat posed by Iraq,” “a significant threat,” “a real and dangerous threat,” “a serious and growing threat,” “a threat of unique urgency.”

MAY: Right.

BEGALA: “A grave threat,” “a much graver threat than anybody could have possibly imagined.”


BEGALA: Vice President Cheney called it a “mortal threat.”

MAY: Yes.

BEGALA: That is, they’ll kill us if we don’t kill them.

And the White House press secretary, speaking for his boss, Scott McClellan, says, “This is about an imminent threat.”

That’s the big lie here, wasn’t it, Cliff?

MAY: Not at all.

And, as a matter of fact, Dr. Kay, if you listened to what he said, he did use the word imminent threat in regard to Saddam Hussein.

BEGALA: How would they threaten us without weapons? Were they going to make prank phone calls?


MAY: It’s very simple.

BEGALA: They had no weapons of mass destruction. How were they going to threaten us?


MAY: Well, you and I don’t know what happened to the weapons of mass destruction after 1998. We don’t know what happened to the anthrax. We do know that ricin was being worked on.

What we also know is, there were weapons scientists in the country who had no supervision whatsoever. There were terrorists in the country who were being trained to kill Americans. And there were weapons around that we have never found that may have been destroyed, buried, hidden. We still don’t know.

NOVAK: Mister…

MAY: And Dr. Kay said, it wasn’t an imminent threat. It was probably worse than what Bush said, based on the intelligence he…


NOVAK: All right, Mr. Meehan…

MAY: That’s what Dr. Kay said. And I believe him.

NOVAK: Michael…

MAY: Don’t you?


NOVAK: Michael Meehan, all the Democrats are supporting their new best friend, Dr. Kay. I’m going to give you a little secret. You don’t have to tell anybody else. Kay is a real hard-liner and a hawk. So this…


NOVAK: He’s a hawk.

MEEHAN: He’s a serious man.

NOVAK: And let me tell you what he said. They drove — he drove them — he’s driving them nuts.

Let me tell you what Dr. Kay — what David — Dr. Kay said: “I think if anyone was abused by the intelligence, it was the president of the United States, rather than the other way around.” And he said there is no evidence of this canard the Democrats are putting up that Dick Cheney went to the CIA and bullied the people at the CIA.

If you quote David Kay as saying there was no threat, you’ve got to say who misled who, don’t you?


MEEHAN: Well, Dick Cheney did go over to the CIA. It’s just a question of whether he was bullied or not or how he worked the information around. Whether the aluminum tubes were really for what they claimed they were or whether the mobile homes were what they claim they would be, there was a lot of false information that was given.


MEEHAN: That was given and portrayed around the time of this vote to members of Congress and to the country.


MAY: As you know, in 1998, Clinton believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He was right. And he said, sooner or later, he will use them. Clinton passed — I guess you were in the White House then — the Iraq Liberation Act. That was the official policy of this country, that Iraq needed to be liberated from Saddam Hussein. It was the correct policy under…


BEGALA: And so does Cuba and so does communist China.


BEGALA: But we don’t want and invade them, either, Cliff.

MAY: No, no, no.


NOVAK: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. One at a time.


MAY: We do not have a China liberation act. We do not have a Cuba liberation act. We passed, in 1998, under President Clinton, and rightly so, the Iraqi Liberation Act.


MAY: It made it the official policy of this country to secure regime change in Iraq.


NOVAK: Let’s get Mr. — I want to get Mr. Meehan in on this.


NOVAK: And I want to get Senator Kerry in on this.

Senator Kerry has had a very firm position upon this. I looked up quote after quote after quote of saying the need to disarm Saddam Hussein. Let’s just take one just about a year ago, January 23: “We need to disarm Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal, murderous dictator leading an oppressive regime,” nothing of this left-wing stuff that Begala is giving you.

If — if Paul — if George W. Bush was wrong about him, John Kerry was equally wrong, right?

MEEHAN: Well, there’s no great debate that Saddam wasn’t a thug. He’s a thug. He’s a man who killed his own people, clearly, John Kerry said. And that’s why he authorized the use of force, to give the president a way to do that.

But what he disagreed was about the way that this president took us in a preemptive way, did not — did not exhaust everything available to him…


MEEHAN: … before he went in.


NOVAK: He said we need to disarm him.

MEEHAN: Sure, absolutely.

NOVAK: All right.

BEGALA: But wait. We did, in fact, disarm him with sanctions, with bombing by President Clinton, with inspections.

NOVAK: This was a year ago, Paul.

BEGALA: He did respond. And it worked, that the Clinton policy actually worked.

And, by the way, let me come back to this point about Dr. Kay saying that the intelligence misled President Bush. I don’t believe it. I believe that the president picked and chose among the intelligence. Let me give you some examples.

“The CIA,” reported in “The New York Times,” “has no evidence that Saddam Hussein provided chemical or biological weapons or related terrorist groups.” This was before the war, this was reported in “The New York Times.” The DIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, said, “There is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing or stockpiling chemical weapons.” The CIA again voiced “strong doubts about a claim President Bush made that Iraq was trying to buy nuclear materials in Africa.”

And, “The Air Force sharply disputed the notion that Iraq’s UAVs,” which is unmanned aerial vehicles, “were designed as attack weapons.” Again and again, the president made these false claims.

MAY: No.

BEGALA: His intelligence agencies tried to warn him. When he wouldn’t listen, they leaked it to the press. So the intelligence agencies did their job, but they just couldn’t dissuade President Bush from misleading us.



MAY: You and I know that President Clinton and President Bush both had the same intelligence and came to the same conclusions.

BEGALA: No, they didn’t. Clinton didn’t go to war.


MAY: What’s more — Clinton did go to war. He went to war Against Milosevic twice. Now, Milosevic did not have weapons of mass destruction. Milosevic was a thug.

BEGALA: And Clinton never said he was a threat to America.

MAY: Saddam Hussein killed 10 times as many people as Milosevic. If you were in favor of the war against Milosevic, you have to be in favor of the war against Saddam Hussein.

NOVAK: Let me — let get back to…

MAY: You have to be.


NOVAK: Let me get back to Senator Kerry. I feel very badly we’re neglecting Senator Kerry.

Today, Ken Mehlman, the director — or the campaign manager for President Bush said something very…

MEEHAN: Not for President Bush. OK, no, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You’re right. You’re right.


NOVAK: I said President Bush. Keep on track.

MEEHAN: All right.


NOVAK: Ken Mehlman said — made a statement — and, please, Michael, don’t write him off just because he’s a Bush guy.


NOVAK: I want you to listen — I want you to listen to what he said. And I think it’s all factual. And I want to — I’m just desperate to know…


NOVAK: I’m just desperate to know how you can explain it.

Let’s listen to Ken Mehlman.


KEN MEHLMAN, BUSH CAMPAIGN MANAGER: We salute Senator Kerry’s honorable and heroic service in Vietnam, but we question his judgment in consistently voting to cut defense and intelligence funding critical to our national security.

Even after the first World Trade Center bombing, Senator Kerry voted to gut intelligence spending by $1.5 billion for five years prior to 2001. In 1996, he voted to slash defense spending by $6.5 billion. Both bills were so reckless and so out there that neither had any co-sponsors willing to endorse his plans.


NOVAK: What’s your response to that, Michael?

MEEHAN: Well, it’s flattering that the Bush administration honors John Kerry’s service in the military.

NOVAK: Well, I’d like you to respond to that. Respond to that.

MEEHAN: Well, that was the first thing he said.

And the second thing that he said was that John Kerry voted against all kinds of defense programs. And it’s clear that the Republicans haven’t met a defense program that they don’t want to increase. The president puts something down in Congress. The Republicans in Congress jack up the cost of it. And then they kick it back to the president and they blame each other why the costs go skyrocketing.

NOVAK: So, you endorse — you condone this cutting of defense, when nobody else would co-sponsor his bill?

MEEHAN: I’m going to finish my answer.

NOVAK: Please.

MEEHAN: Senator Kerry also voted for the defense authorization that John Warner, the chairman of the Republican Armed Services Committee, says was the biggest increase in defense spending since the early ’80s in 2003. And he supported it again in 2004.

What John Kerry does have a problem with is our over-reliance on the different — different types of mechanical programs and not enough emphasis on the human intelligence. And he wrote a back in the 1990s about this from his effort there.

NOVAK: Very quickly.


MAY: Well, just — look, human intelligence is one of the things that’s been lacking. What we’ve got to look at are those — and Kerry, I’m afraid was among them — who voted to cut intelligence spending and also to shackle, to hog-tie the intelligence agencies since the end of the Cold War. That was a mistake.

NOVAK: That will have to be the last word.

Thank you much, Cliff May. Thank you, Michael Meehan.

MEEHAN: Thank you.