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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Interview With Condoleezza Rice; Interview With John Kerry; Interview With Abdullah Abdullah

Aired July 13, 2003 - 12:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's noon in Washington, 9:00 a.m. in Los Angeles, 7:00 p.m. in Jerusalem, and 8:00 p.m. in Baghdad. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks for joining us for LATE EDITION.
We begin with a controversy here in the United States that's simply not going away. At issue, did President Bush deliberately mislead the American public and indeed the world about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction?

Just a short while ago, I spoke with his national security adviser, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, about the intelligence uproar, the president's just-completed trip to Africa and more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Dr. Rice, welcome back to LATE EDITION. Welcome back to the United States...

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Thank you.

BLITZER: ... from an important trip to Africa. We'll get to that in just a few moments.

Let's talk, though, about the uproar that has happened over these past several days as a result of these 16 words. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, the key question: How did that get into the president's State of the Union address, arguably the most important speech he gives every year? How did it get in, if that wasn't necessarily meeting the standards that you think that should have been met?

RICE: Wolf, let me just start by saying, it is 16 words, and it has become an enormously overblown issue.

The president of the United States did not go to war because of the question of whether or not Saddam Hussein sought the uranium in Africa. He took the American people and American forces to war because this was a bloody tyrant, who for 12 years had defied the international community, who had weapons of mass destruction, who had used them in the past, who was threatening his neighbors, and who threatened our efforts to make the Middle East a place in which you would have stability and therefore not people with ideologies of hatred driving airplanes into the World Trade Center. That's why we went to war.

This 16 words came into the State of the Union from a whole host of sources. We used unclassified sources, like the British paper. There were references to this in the National Intelligence Estimate. And the State of the Union was constructed on the basis of several different documents, all of which talked about efforts to acquire uranium in Africa. Now...

BLITZER: Let me interrupt for a moment, because three months earlier, in October, the president was going to give a speech in Cincinnati, and supposedly the CIA director, George Tenet, personally intervened and said, don't get involved in the uranium Africa issue, and took that out of the speech.

RICE: What I understand is that at the time of the Cincinnati speech, there was a single report of a particular transaction, a particular arrangement, and that there were questions about that. And it was taken out of the Cincinnati speech like that. No questions asked, simply taken out.

When we got to the State of the Union, there were -- first of all, a lot of time had passed, several months. There were reports in the NIE about other African countries. There was the British report that talked about the efforts to get uranium in Africa.

The British, by the way, still stand by their report to this very day in its accuracy, because they tell us that they had sources that were not compromised in any way by later, in March or April, later reports that there were some forgeries.

Now, we have said very clearly that the information went in on the basis of a number of sources, but we have a different standard for presidential speeches, which is that we don't just put in things that are in intelligence sources. We put in things that we believe the intelligence agency has high confidence in, and that's why we have a clearance process.

BLITZER: They didn't have high confidence in this...

RICE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

BLITZER: That's why we had to pin it on British intelligence, as opposed to U.S. intelligence.

RICE: The British intelligence report, as far as we knew, was a report that was underpinned by reporting that was solid. We sent it out to the agency for clearance, said, can you stand by this? They said, apparently, that's inconsistent (ph). I'm understanding now that the sentence is accurate.

As George Tenet has said, accuracy is not the standard. Of course, the sentence was accurate. But we were asking about confidence. And George Tenet rightly says that the agency cleared the speech, it should not have been cleared with that sentence in.

And I can tell you that had there been a request to take that out in its entirety, it would have been followed immediately.

BLITZER: Should George Tenet resign?

RICE: Absolutely not. The president has confidence in George Tenet. This was a mistake.

The State of the Union process is a big process. We're checking lots and dozens and dozens of facts. It goes out for clearance. And in this case, the agency did not react to a statement that they now believe should not have been there.

But George Tenet is a fine director of central intelligence. He has fought the war on terrorism well.

And let's, again, put this in context. We're talking about a sentence, a data point, not the president's case about reconstitution of weapons of mass destruction, or of nuclear weapons in Iraq. That's based on key judgments in the National Intelligence Estimate that deal with his procurement network, with his training of scientists, with the fact that in 1991, he was pursuing multiple routes to a nuclear weapon.

So yes, it is unfortunate that this one sentence, this 16 words, remained in the State of the Union. But this in no way has any effect on the president's larger case about Iraqi efforts to reconstitute the nuclear program and, most importantly, and the bigger picture, of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program.

BLITZER: So you have no doubt that Saddam Hussein was trying to reconstitute his nuclear weapons program?

RICE: I think we had a lot of evidence going in that a procurement network, efforts to reestablish scientists, groups of scientists who had worked on the programs before, the fact that he still had the designs, the fact that he clearly had sought weapons of mass -- nuclear weapons in the past, that all of those things made a compelling case for nuclear reconstitution.

Now, I think now that we're in Iraq and we are interviewing scientists and we are looking at the documents and we are finding, for instance, that he had somebody bury centrifuge parts in their yard...

BLITZER: Before the first Gulf War.

RICE: Before the first Gulf War -- well, in 1991. We're going to learn how far along he might have been in his reconstitution efforts, what was missing from it, where was he. But you have to remember that, as a policymaker, you always have to look at what is the threat. And to allow this bloody dictator, who had used weapons of mass destruction in the past, who had an active effort to acquire the technologies and the means to make weapons of mass destruction, with $3 billion in illegal revenues, sitting in the most volatile region in the world, the president of the United States had to act.

Wolf, I think it has to be remembered that, back in his speech on September 20 of 2001, after the September 11th events, the president said, and said subsequently, we're going to have to fight this war on the offense, the war on terrorism.

My colleagues, Tom Ridge and John Gordon (ph) spend every day trying to harden this country against threats. But the fact is, we have to meet terrorism on its own ground, and Iraq is a part of that larger picture of the creation of a different Middle East.

BLITZER: George Tenet is getting hammered, he's getting criticized for allowing these words to be in the State of the Union address. But you're also now being criticized, because you're the national security adviser to the president, your job is to protect him.

Listen to what Maureen Dowd writes today in "The New York Times": "It was Ms. Rice's responsibility to vet the intelligence facts in the president's speech and take note of the red alert that tentative Tenet was raising. Ms. Rice did not throw out the line even though the CIA had warned her office that it was sketchy. Clearly, a higher power wanted it in."

RICE: First of all, no higher power wanted anything in. We wanted into the president's State of the Union what could be defended by the intelligence agencies at the highest levels.

I rely on the clearance process. I send the material out, the draft out to the agencies. I also send it directly to the principals.

Look, Wolf, of course, anybody involved in this process at this point would have to say there was a mistake here, something went wrong. And we will all go back and redouble our efforts to see that something like this doesn't happen again.

We're talking about a single sentence, the consequence of which was not to send America to war. The consequence of which was to state in the State of the Union something that, while accurate, did not meet the standard that we use for the president.

BLITZER: But 11 months earlier, you, the Bush administration, had sent Joe Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador to Niger, to find out whether it was true. He came back, reported to the CIA, reported to the State Department, it wasn't true, it was bogus. The whole issue was bogus. And supposedly, you never got word of his report.

RICE: Well, first of all, I didn't know Joe Wilson was going to Niger. And if you look at Director Tenet's statement, it says that counterproliferation experts on their own initiative sent Joe Wilson, so I don't know...

BLITZER: Who sent him?

RICE: Well, it was certainly not a level that had anything to do with the White House, and I do not believe at a level that had anything to do with the leadership of the CIA.

BLITZER: Supposedly, it came at the request of the vice president.

RICE: No, this is simply not true, and this is something that's been perpetuated that we simply have to straighten out.

The vice president did not ask that Joe Wilson go to Niger. The vice president did not know. I don't think he knew who Joe Wilson was, and he certainly didn't know that he was going.

The first that I heard of Joe Wilson mission was when I was doing a Sunday talk show and heard about it.

The other thing is that the reporting, at least, of what Ambassador Wilson told the CIA debriefers says that, yes, Niger denied that there had been such a deal made, that they had sold uranium to the Iraqis.

It also apparently says, according to this report, it also apparently says that one of the people who was meeting with the Iraqis thought that they might, in fact, be trying to use commercial activity to talk about yellow cake.

So what the director says in his statement is that they believed, when they looked at what was reported about the Wilson trip, that it was inconclusive. They therefore did not brief it to the president, the vice president or any senior officials.

So no, the Wilson trip was not sent by anyone at a high level. It wasn't briefed to anyone at high level. And it appears to have been inconclusive in what it found.

BLITZER: Did George Tenet know about the Joe Wilson trip to Africa?

RICE: I am not aware that George Tenet was aware that this happened before it happened.

BLITZER: Let me read to you what Joe Wilson wrote in "The New York Times" in that op-ed piece on July 6th.

"I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

RICE: Well, Joe Wilson, or anyone else, has to recognize that the president relied, in what he said about Iraq's ability and desire to reconstitute, on a host of intelligence sources. There has been a lot of focus this week on 16 words. The president at the State of the Union, before that in Cincinnati, before that at the United Nations, Colin Powell in his presentation to the United Nations, laid out an entire case about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program, a case that goes back to 1991 when he learned about his weapons of mass destruction; when we learned that he was closer to the development of the nuclear weapon than anybody thought; that the IAEA had been wrong about his level of development; when we learned that he was pursuing five different routes to a nuclear weapon; when we learned that he had a clandestine biological program that didn't come to light until his brother-in-law defected; in 1998, when UNSCOM talked about all of the unaccounted-for weapons of mass destruction agent that he had. So we're talking about a very long history here, and the president relied on that history.

This 16 words has been taken out of context. It's been blown out of proportion. The director of the Central Intelligence Agency has said -- the director of central intelligence has said that it should not have gotten in because it didn't have the level of confidence that we require for presidential speeches. I could not agree more.

But this was a mistake on 16 words, not on the president's discussion and the president's case for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

BLITZER: Let's talk about what's happening in Iraq right now, because there's a lot of concern, some concern that this could be a quagmire.

Since the war started on March 20th, 218 U.S. military personnel have been killed in both hostile and non-hostile action. More than 1,000 have been wounded. Since May 1st, when the president declared major combat operations were over, about 79 U.S. troops have either died in accidents or in hostile operations.

The question is this, is this situation -- were you prepared for what is happening now in Iraq?

RICE: Well, we certainly knew that after the major military operations were over, that it was going to be a complicated situation and that it would be a dangerous situation, and the president said that in his May 1st speech.

Jerry Bremer, the coalition provisional administrator, has been out there now for a period of time. He has adjusted our strategies, as he reported earlier today in a publication, he has adjusted our strategies to what we found on the ground.

It's not possible to plan for every contingency that you're going to find on the ground. But, yes, we knew that it was going to be complicated.

There is a security problem there. Some of it is these Baathists and remnants of the old regime that are now losing power because Saddam Hussein is out of power. They're doing to their Iraqi citizens what they did for almost 30 years, which is attacking their success. BLITZER: Is Saddam Hussein personally organizing some of these attacks?

RICE: I don't think we know, Wolf, whether Saddam Hussein is there in the background or not. The fact is, he ruled the old- fashioned way, with secret police and an army and territory and great wealth and torture chambers in prisons. He doesn't have control of those anymore.

What you have now is that the coalition and the Iraqi people are beginning to make some gains. Oil is beginning to flow again. Electricity is being repaired. Police are being trained. Universities are being opened. And not surprisingly, the old Baathists are trying to attack that success.

But just today, a governing council has been put in place. This governing council is going to have real political responsibility, and that's a very positive sign forward for the Iraqi people.

BLITZER: Those two audiotapes that were just released, Lebanese broadcasting, Al-Jazeera, supposedly of Saddam Hussein, are they authentic?

RICE: Well, there's a lot of authentication to be done, and as I understand it, one can never be 100-percent sure.

But I repeat, the people who are trying to attack the successes of the Iraqi people, as they did for the 30 years prior, are simply not going to succeed.

And this new governing council, which declared today that a new Iraqi holiday is going to be the day of liberation, the day that the statue came down, this is now an extremely important phase for the Iraqi people.

They're going to succeed. We're going to help them succeed, and these old-line remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime are going to be swept away.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Africa. You just came back. You, the administration, the president, appear to be on the verge of announcing a deployment of some significant numbers of U.S. troops to Liberia.

When will that decision be announced?

RICE: Well, the president has not made a determination of what we need to do to support the very active diplomacy and effort that we're engaged in with the U.N. and with the West African states, ECOWAS.

The president had very good conversations with President Obasanjo in Nigeria, with President Kufuor of Ghana, about what is needed, and we're obviously going to participate in trying to bring stability.

But what that means I think we will have to see. And the president has an assessment team that will be returning. We will look at what's necessary. ECOWAS has said that they will commit some forces. I think we will just have to wait and see what participation is needed by the United States.

BLITZER: You think we'll get a decision this week?

RICE: Well, we'll see. Obviously, the key here is the cease- fire needs to hold. Charles Taylor, of course, needs to leave, because he is the source of instability for Liberia, and there isn't going to be any stability with him still a part of the political process. But we're working this very hard with Kofi Annan, with the presidents of ECOWAS -- president of ECOWAS and with the regional leaders. And the president will do something when he thinks that he has an effective way to move forward.

BLITZER: One final question. You were also asked by the president to be his special envoy, if you will, to the Israeli- Palestinian peace process.

The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, suggesting today the Europeans are not doing enough to isolate Yasser Arafat, that Arafat is part of the problem, not part of the solution, and that, if necessary, the Israelis should think about deporting him from Ramallah.

What do you say about those kinds of words?

RICE: Well, we have been as clear as anyone about the role of Yasser Arafat, and we have been very clear that we think the future is with the Palestinian leadership of Abu Mazen and his reform cabinet, reform government.

The president, in fact, believes that that is one of the reasons that we have a new opportunity for peace. And in fact, even though the steps are tentative, things have been going relatively well over the last several weeks.

When I was there, I spent a lot of time talking with the parties about how to keep the process moving forward, and that means that terrorism has to be confronted. It also means that Israel has to make room for this Palestinian leadership to be successful. I think both parties understand that.

Now, as to the Europeans and others, we've made no secret of the fact that we think it does not help to deal with Yasser Arafat. We hope that he is not somehow trying to stand in the way of a positive future for his people.

But the Palestinians have been very clear about what it is that they need. We are trying to help strengthen that leadership. I think the Israelis want that leadership to be strong. And if we can do that, we'll have a chance for some forward momentum in the peace process.

BLITZER: Dr. Rice, I'll end by saying what I said at the beginning. Welcome back to the United States.

RICE: Thank you. It's good to be back.

BLITZER: Thank you very much.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Coming up, we'll go to the CNN headquarters for a quick check of the hour's top stories.

Then, digging deeper for answers into the controversy over weapons of mass destruction, as well as the 9/11 attacks. We'll talk with two top United States senators, Richard Shelby and Carl Levin.

Also, a special conversation with Massachusetts Senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. We'll ask him about Iraq and why he thinks he should be the next president of the United States.

LATE EDITION will continue right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GENERAL TOMMY FRANKS: I believe that we will either find the weapons or we will find evidence of the weapons of mass destruction. And I believe, sir, that will vindicate the intelligence that we received.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Now-retired U.S. Army General Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command during the war on Iraq, testifying this past week at a congressional hearing.

Welcome back to LATE EDITION. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Joining us now are two leading members of the United States Senate. Here in Washington, Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama. He's a former chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. And in Detroit, Senator Carl Levin. He's the top Democrat on the Armed Service Committee, also a key member of the Intelligence Committee.

Senators, welcome back to LATE EDITION.

Let me begin with you, Senator Levin, and get your reaction to what we just heard from Dr. Condoleezza Rice. She says, basically, these were 16 words in the president's State of the Union address. George Tenet, the CIA director, says, "You know what? He shouldn't have allowed that to go in. It was a mistake."

But is it time to move on?

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN: No, quite the opposite. It's time for a thorough inquiry or investigation as to how this happen, but also, into all the use of the intelligence. It's not just this one statement as, in my judgment, as misleading as it was, and I'll get to that in a moment, but it's other things which were also utilized, including the way in which the aluminum tube sale was utilized, the way in which the al Qaeda-Iraq connection was exaggerated, the evidence of that, at least.

So, there's a lot here to look into, not just the so-called 16 words. But the 16 words are deeply, deeply troubling to me. And the way in which the administration has responded in the last few days raises more questions than it answers. Because now it looks as though there was just a conscious attempt here to create a false impression.

BLITZER: All right...

LEVIN: What happened here...

BLITZER: Senator Levin, let me just bring Senator Shelby in...

LEVIN: Sure.

BLITZER: ... then we'll continue your line of thought.

What do you say about this, Senator Shelby?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R), ALABAMA: Well, as far as the 16 words, we all know words have meaning. And in this case, perhaps they had too much meaning, or -- for the moment, and there was not enough substance to back it up.

But the president, I believe, whoever the president is, in this case George W. Bush, he ought to be able to rely on the intelligence that is given him. He ought to be able to rely on the speechwriters who vet on this stuff before he gives it.

And I think that's a role for the CIA director ultimately, as he has recently said, to get this -- say, "Stop that. Don't say that." And that's why you need a strong CIA director.

BLITZER: Well, you were calling for George Tenet's resignation long before a lot of the current -- or, shortly after 9/11. Do you think he should go?

SHELBY: Well, I have said all along, he works for the president. And the president has even, I believe, yesterday, said he had confidence in him. But I want to reiterate, there have been more failures of intelligence on the watch of George Tenet than anybody in recent history as director of the CIA.

Now, this 16-word deal is more than just a little flap. There is substance behind that. And somebody ought to be accountable.

BLITZER: So you want Tenet out?

SHELBY: Well, that's up to the president.

BLITZER: But if you had your way, you would want him to go? SHELBY: If I were the president, he wouldn't be there.

BLITZER: What about you, Senator Levin?

LEVIN: Well, I would like to wait for the end of the investigation to reach a conclusion as to whether Tenet should go. I'm obviously dissatisfied with him in this regard, but also in other aspects as well. But who is pushing Tenet? This statement that Tenet made and that the White House has reacted to really raises the key question here. Tenet was pushing back against pressure from the White House. But who in the White House, or who at the National Security Council, was pressing him to make a statement that they didn't believe was accurate, by putting the words in the mouth of the British?

You can't avoid a statement's impact or the inaccuracy of that impact by just saying, "The British have learned that the Iraqis are trying to seek uranium from the Africans."

BLITZER: So...

LEVIN: Let me just finish this, if you would, Wolf, because this is a very significant point. You can't just say that the British learned something if you yourself don't believe it and if you tried to persuade the British they were wrong.

That is highly misleading. It is intended to create a false impression. And someone in the White House was pushing the CIA. The CIA finally concurred, to use Tenet's word. They shouldn't have. But the White House should not have been pushing to create a misleading statement.

BLITZER: Well, let me ask you, Senator, what do you suspect, Senator Levin? Who was pushing Tenet?

LEVIN: People at the NSC, I assume.

BLITZER: Who?

LEVIN: We don't know that, and that's the reason we need an investigation or an inquiry. That's exactly one of the purposes of the inquiry.

But it's not just these 16 words. It's beyond the 16 words, and the use of intelligence and the very disturbing evidence that intelligence was exaggerated in a number of ways.

BLITZER: All right, Senator Shelby, go ahead.

SHELBY: Well, people are always going to be pushing, that's the nature of the job, you know, for more information, more intelligence, better intelligence.

But where there is something that's not clear, or something's not certain, I believe, ultimately, it's up to the director of the central intelligence, whoever that is, to say, "Look, take that out of there. That's not right. We're not sure about that."

And that's why you've got to have a strong director of CIA. And we've said that all along. In our joint inquiry last year, we recommended that we have a Cabinet-level position for the director of CIA.

BLITZER: Are you in part motivated politically, Senator Shelby, because George Tenet was originally named to the CIA by Bill Clinton?

SHELBY: Absolutely not. As a matter of fact, I have said on this program and others, George Tenet is bright. He has done a lot of good things over at the CIA, and we should not ignore those. He has worked well in a lot of areas. But I think I just point out the obvious that people know.

BLITZER: Senator Levin, let me read to you what Senator Pat Roberts, your chairman, the current chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said on Friday just before Tenet released that lengthy statement accepting responsibility: "What concerns me most, however, is what appears to be a campaign of press leaks by the CIA in an effort to discredit the president." Those are pretty strong words coming from the chairman.

LEVIN: I mean, he might know about those press leaks. I don't think that that's really the issue here. The issue here is the accuracy and the objectivity of intelligence and whether or not the CIA was exaggerating, but also whether or not that there are people at the National Security Council, at the White House, who were pressing the CIA to concur in a statement which was an attempt to mislead.

And that is something which has to be routed out here. It's not enough just to simply say that the CIA has accepted responsibility. I am glad they've accepted their share. But it is at least equally important --at least equally important -- to find out who was putting the pressure on the CIA to go along with something that the CIA did not believe in.

BLITZER: Does Condoleezza Rice, Senator Levin, share some of the blame for this flap?

LEVIN: Even to this day she says that the statement was technically accurate. She doesn't yet acknowledge what is so obvious, it seems to me, that you cannot make a statement which you believe is untrue by saying somebody else has learned that something has happened, creating an impression that it is true, a false impression that something's true.

She, to this day, does not acknowledge why that is wrong. It is simply a misleading way to approach the truth.

BLITZER: Do you agree with Senator Levin on that, Senator Shelby?

SHELBY: Well, I tell you what, I have a lot of confidence in Dr. Rice. And at the end of the day, Dr. Rice does not collect the intelligence. You know, she is director. But... BLITZER: But her job is to protect the president from these kind of mistakes.

SHELBY: But I think -- well, I think her job is to protect the American people, and she's working for the president. And she is very, very knowledgable and very skilled.

But ultimately, what those 16 words in that speech there, they might turn out a lot better than people think. Tony Blair is still staying with what the British have told him, the British intelligence.

But intelligence is not always certainty. But where it is certainty, it helps. And when you're giving a speech like the president had to give on this, it reached a high standard, probably the highest standard, and the intelligence was not up to that standard.

BLITZER: Well, let me show you some poll numbers very quickly, Senator Levin. The new "Newsweek" poll out today, "Did the Bush administration mislead the public to build support for the war?" Look at this. 38 percent say yes. 53 percent say no. Don't know, 9 percent.

But 38 percent, that's a pretty significant minority, believe the president may have mislead the American public.

LEVIN: I don't think it's the president necessarily. I think it's the people who work for the president who prepared a speech which contained a statement that was simply an attempt to create a false impression. I don't think there's any way around that.

And that's -- it's not the president, necessarily, that knew about this, but surely the NSC that was pressing the CIA to come up with a formulation of words which could create an impression, which the CIA did not believe in, is the heart of the matter.

BLITZER: And, Senator Levin, you're still pressing for a formal inquiry. Specifically, what kind of investigation do you want to see the U.S. Congress begin?

LEVIN: There ought to be a bipartisan investigation -- there is in (ph) Intelligence Committee, there ought to be in the Armed Services Committee, and there ought to be in the House -- which will look at the use of intelligence to see whether it was exaggerated or shaped in order to support the policy of the administration.

We have to have credible intelligence. I know Dick Shelby, when he was chairman, very strongly believed in having objective, credible intelligence. We rely on it. It's a life-or-death matter.

And Dick is right, by the way. The American people deserve to be told very accurately what the facts are, and not to have them shaped or exaggerated or in any way an attempt to mislead them to believe that the administration believes something which it does not believe.

BLITZER: You want a select investigation, a new committee, a special investigation, or the existing committees to simply go forward with a formal inquiry?

LEVIN: There ought to be a thorough investigation, either by the existing committees or by a select committee. That's not to me the great issue. The issue is whether it be thorough. Whether or not there be interviews of witnesses, whether or not there be hearings that are open, and that it be done on a bipartisan basis, both from the intelligence perspective, and from the defense perspective -- because our operations were affected by this intelligence. These are life-and-death issues, for where men and women who go to war are going to be operating, and where they're going to be putting their lives on the line.

These are really critical issues for the American people, and that's why there ought to be a bipartisan investigation, either by the existing committees, both committees, at least in the Senate and in the House, or by a select committee.

BLITZER: What about that, Senator Shelby?

SHELBY: Well, the quality of the intelligence always is information that's central to all of this. I believe that, if anybody's going to look at this, and they should, it should be the Intelligence Committees. You've got them on the House side, you've got them on the Senate side. Senator Levin's on the committee. That probably would be the proper committee.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to take a quick break, but we have much more to talk about.

We'll continue our conversation with Senators Shelby and Levin. We're also looking for your phone calls. This is a good time to call us. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION. We're continuing our conversation with Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan.

Senator Shelby, some suggestion that not only the Bush administration may have exaggerated the nuclear threat from Iraq, potentially, at least, but also the al Qaeda connection, if there was an al Qaeda connection, between Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden. Was that overblown?

SHELBY: Well, I don't think the administration overblew that.

You know, we've talked about this, and others have written about it. There has been connections, maybe not just like this joined together, between al Qaeda and the goals of Saddam Hussein. And there have been people that have been in Baghdad for medical treatment. We know there were a lot of al Qaeda people into northern Iraq, you know, after they were run out of Afghanistan.

There is a connection. How deep it is and how it will turn out, we don't know. BLITZER: But this whole 9/11-al Qaeda-Iraq connection that an Iraqi intelligence operative had met with Mohammed Atta, the ringleader in Prague, is that bogus?

SHELBY: Well, it is questionable, anyway. There has never been anything that has been closed on it. It is not certain. There has been a lot written on it, and there has been a lot of talk about it.

BLITZER: What do you say, Senator Levin?

LEVIN: I think there is evidence of exaggeration, quite clearly. And it is troubling that there would be stated, in order to provide the impetus to go to war, the statements that were made, that it there is clear connections between al Qaeda and Iraq.

It was very dubious. There may have been an al Qaeda person who went for medical treatment in Iraq. The people in the north were not under the control of the Iraqi government at all -- quite the opposite. They were in the -- surrounded by the Kurds.

And it's one -- another area that just simply has to be inquired into, because it's important, again, that this intelligence be reliable.

SHELBY: I think when he said intelligence has to be reliable, Senator Levin is absolutely right. It's never like a mathematical problem. It's not going to be that precise. There are judgments have to be made off of information, because that's what intelligence is all about.

But the president and our commanders need the best intelligence that can -- that we can put together, and they don't always get it, Wolf.

BLITZER: Senator Shelby, you've been investigating 9/11, the mistakes, the failures that occurred. You're about to release a report at some point from this investigation, these committee hearings that you've been going through.

There is some concern out there -- and you can clarify this for us -- that the administration, or at least elements in the Bush administration, have been pressuring you to avoid coming down too hard on the government of Saudi Arabia and their role, if any, in creating the climate that resulted in 9/11.

SHELBY: Well, the administration has not pressured me regarding this. But I can tell you, the joint inquiry, the House and Senate intelligence committees, there is some information we were hoping is going to be declassified soon that will shed some light, maybe not all the light, on that.

But I think that we have got to follow the money. We've got to follow whoever is supporting terrorist activities, and it is generally through money. If it is Saudi Arabia, if it is somebody else, we cannot look the other way. And our intelligence committees are not going to look the other way. BLITZER: Is it Saudi Arabia?

SHELBY: I'm going leave that up to you, but I can tell you this, there are a lot of high people in Saudi Arabia, over the years, that have aided and abetted Osama bin Laden and his group. And they've done it through charities, they've done it directly and everything else. It would be embarrassing, I think, to a lot of people there.

But what we've got to do is find the truth. The mother milk, what sustains terrorists, is money.

BLITZER: You want to name names, as far as Saudi officials are concerned?

SHELBY: I'm not going to do that yet.

BLITZER: All right, what about you, Senator Levin? You've been involved in this bipartisan -- this bicameral investigation, as well.

LEVIN: I agree with Senator Shelby here, let the chips fall where they may. That report should be released. I think there has been a dragging of feet within the administration, in terms of declassification of this report.

There was clearly Saudi money supporting Osama bin Laden and the terrorist group that he led. And I think we've got face up to that fact, the Saudis should face up to that fact and end it.

But that report should be released. It should be declassified. And that should have happened, actually, months ago.

BLITZER: Senator Levin, you're the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. There's some concern now with about U.S. deployment of troops to Liberia. The president may be on the verge of making a formal announcement on that issue in the coming days.

Is it a good idea to send troops to Liberia?

LEVIN: In a very supporting role only, I would say, if at all. We cannot lead that effort. It's got to be basically African nations which are capable of putting together the military force, and for us to give them support in kind of a junior partner role.

But African nations have been undergoing that kind of training, so that they can take the major role in that.

And we're overstretched, way overstretched, by the way. One of the reasons we ought to be seeking some international support in Iraq is because our troops are so overstretched, including our reserves.

So, we've got to be cautious in doing this. But I think that if the president and the assessment team which went in there decides that we can do it safely, and if Taylor is gone so that we're not going to face armed resistance when we go there, that it would be reasonable for us to be there in a supporting role only.

BLITZER: All right. Let me bring Senator Shelby in.

Jimmy Carter, the former president, who writes in "The New York Times" today, he writes this: "A relatively small but significant American military presence of perhaps 2,000 troops should join the coalition."

A lot of your constituents, I'm sure, in Alabama and around the country wonder, why does the United States always have to do this? Why not allow Germany or France or other countries in Africa to get the job done?

SHELBY: Well, the bottom line is that we are the leader of the world, militarily, economically and so forth, and I believe we do have a role.

But I agree with Senator Levin, it should be a supporting role, it should not be central to the whole thing. We need people from Africa and perhaps multilateral assistance here. We should not go it alone. We're too stretched now, and we'll be stretched farther if we do.

BLITZER: And one final question before I let both of you go, Senator Levin. When you say U.S. troops are too stretched right now, does that mean that the U.S. military has to start thinking of bolstering, getting bigger numbers of troops, especially in the Army, out there to get the job done around the world?

LEVIN: I think we do have to consider that. We also should be considering -- I hope, not just considering, we ought to end the feud that we have with Germany and France. That is just simply absurd, that that feud be maintained, that we not go to NATO formally, ask NATO to authorize the effort in Iraq, get the U.N. involved, so that then France would be willing to go, and Egypt perhaps would be willing to go, and India would be willing to go.

Part of the overstretching problem is that we've gone it alone in too many places, it's been too unilateral. We ought to specifically go to the international community now, even those countries that were not with us going into Iraq, and urge them to support the post-war effort in Iraq now.

BLITZER: Senator Shelby, 10 seconds, you get the last word.

SHELBY: We can spread the risk, and we can spread the cost. It costs the taxpayer a lot of money to do this.

LEVIN: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Thanks, Senator Shelby. You said it in less than 10 seconds.

(LAUGHTER)

Thanks for joining us.

Senator Levin, always good to have you on the program as well. LEVIN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks to both of you very much.

Still ahead, U.S. troops facing armed resistance in Iraq. Is a quagmire in the making? We'll get some special insight from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

And Afghanistan was ground zero for the war on terror. We'll have a special conversation with Afghanistan's foreign minister, Dr. Abdullah.

LATE EDITION will continue right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And our LATE EDITION Web question of the week is this: Should Congress launch a formal inquiry into President Bush's handling of Iraq intelligence? You can cast your vote by logging on to cnn.com/lateedition. We'll have the results later in this program.

It's time now for Bruce Morton's essay on an old label for so- called liberal Democrats.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRUCE MORTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Democrats, pundits and probably very few other people have been worrying lately that the party may nominate a liberal, progressive in today's jargon, and thereby return to the bad old days of nominees George McGovern and Walter Mondale, who each carried one state against the Republicans.

Well, the Democrats are the left-of-center party and their activists, naturally, are left of center, just as the GOP's are over on the right. I think what did the Dems in in the 1970s, though, wasn't that they were liberal on this issue or that, it was the perception that they were the party of hippies, long hair, sex, drugs, rock and roll, Jane Fonda in Hanoi. George McGovern, no hippie himself, a World War II bomber pilot, nominated at 2:00 a.m., or was it 3:00?

People were put off by the hippie trappings. And it took Bill Clinton in 1992 to make voters see the Democrats as centrists again. He did it with gestures, dishing rapper Sister Souljah at a Jesse Jackson event, and with issues: being for the death penalty, pushing welfare reform. And America, with occasional veers, is usually a centrist country.

This time, Vermont's Howard Dean is the one some Democrats worry about as too much of a lefty for the general election. He's not 100 percent, of course. The National Rifle Association likes him because he thinks states ought to decide what additional gun laws, if any, they need. And he's for balanced budgets, which used to be a conservative position, though not in this administration. But George W. Bush, not Dean, may be the real problem for the Democrats. Yes, he's changed positions. He didn't like nation building, but he's doing it in Afghanistan, Iraq, maybe Liberia. Changed his reasons for going to war against Saddam Hussein. But those don't seem to have bothered the voters so far. Mostly, I think, because polls show Americans see him as strong president. And in these war times, a strong leader is what they want.

That could change if Mr. Bush began to sound weak and uncertain. But garbled sentences aside, he hasn't so far. It could change if the guerrilla warfare in Iraq, the American casualties in Iraq continue and the president seems uncertain of how to deal with that.

Mr. Bush told Americans for the first time this past week that a lot of U.S. troops will have to stay in Iraq for a long time. The losses they take and his response to them may be the real issue on which this election turns.

I'm Bruce Morton.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Bruce.

And coming up next, we'll get a quick check of the hour's top stories.

Then, many Democrats on Capitol Hill are demanding answers from the White House about faulty intelligence concerning Iraq, including Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. I'll talk with him about Iraq and his run for the White House.

Also, war-torn Liberia, will it be the next hot spot for U.S. troops?

LATE EDITION will continue after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION. The Massachusetts senator, John Kerry, is one of nine Democrats hoping to challenge President Bush next year for the White House. He's also among many Democrats on Capitol Hill calling for a public investigation of the administration's use of pre-war intelligence on Iraq.

Earlier today I caught with Senator Kerry on the campaign trail in Austin, Texas.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Senator Kerry, thanks for joining us on LATE EDITION.

The president, the White House, insists case closed, as far as the flap involving the president's State of the Union address and Iraq nuclear ambitions, Niger's.

Is the case closed, as far as you're concerned?

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No, the case is not closed. I don't believe that George Tenet saying something about responsibility ends the question of ultimate responsibility, nor does it answers the question or questions about what really happened, nor does it provide an answer, which is the most critical one, which is, are Americans safer today than they were three years ago? And do we have the kind of knowledge about our intelligence gathering that allows us to make the judgment that we are safer?

I believe there are enormous questions still about the overall intelligence given to the Congress, the quality of that intelligence, and even about the politics that entered into the judgment of taking that famous phrase out of one speech but leaving it in another.

BLITZER: Well, let's go through some of the points you just raised. The issue of, are Americans safer today than they were three years ago? What do you believe?

KERRY: Well, I believe in some regards we are, but in the larger regard, no. I mean, look, if we don't know the answer about our intelligence, if we do not know what our intelligence community is telling us and whether or not it is broadly true, we have a serious problem.

I mean, I know that I was shown photographs by the intelligence community, and we were told very specifically, "Here is what's happening in this building, here's what's happening over here. We have information and sources that tell us the following."

Clearly, thus far, those particular intelligence tid-bits have not borne out. The question is, you know, what about the future? What happens when they come to us and tell us, well, now, this is what our intelligence tells us about Iran, or this is what our intelligence tells us about Syria or North Korea?

I believe there is an enormous, serious question about our protection and the judgments we must make in the future and the quality of our intelligence.

And we need, the American people need -- this is not a matter of politics.

This has nothing to do with Democrats or Republicans. It has to do with Americans and American security and the judgments we may be called on to make in the future.

BLITZER: Well, are you suggesting, Senator Kerry, that the president deliberately misled the American public...

KERRY: I am not...

BLITZER: ... about the threat from Iraq?

KERRY: I am not making any such suggestion, I am not making any accusation. I am simply saying we know that the -- look, the intelligence we were given about unarmed flying vehicles has proven to be -- what? Where are they?

We are asking questions today about the 45 minutes that, apparently, Secretary Rumsfeld has said they have the ability to be able to deploy these weapons in. Well, if you have 45 minutes of deployment, and our intelligence is doing its job, or our oversight intelligence is doing its job, you know, we have right to know, sort of, what happened to that. Why did we make a misjudgment? Was it a misjudgment? Wasn't it a misjudgment?

But I know that there are a host of questions that are outstanding. And, ultimately, even George Tenet saying, "Well, I'm responsible for that particular phrase," does not deal with the issue of how it knowledgeably was taken out of a speech earlier, how various people in the administration were given warnings, and yet a political decision was made, with many visits, may I add, by the vice president, over to the CIA, a political decision was made, we're going to go ahead and use it in the State of the Union message.

Notwithstanding whatever George Tenet says, there were some other ingredients of this decision. And I think the president needs to tell the truth to the American people about Iraq itself, what is happening, what we're going to do to proceed, how we will make our American troops safer over there, how we begin to build the international support to really win the peace.

BLITZER: Well, Senator Kerry, are you suggesting the president has not been telling the American people the truth?

KERRY: Well, we certainly learned for the first time that the cost of the war was going to be considerably more. We're certainly learning now that there is a serious question about the number of troops. The president landed on an aircraft carrier and told Americans the hostilities are over. The hostilities are not over.

There are serious questions here, Wolf, and I think the American people have a right to ask the question of whether or not we are safer today than we were three years ago. It is the single question which determines the future and how we proceed.

BLITZER: Senator Kerry, some of your Democratic colleagues are suggesting George Tenet should resign as director of central intelligence. Do you believe he should?

KERRY: Well, I don't think that's the issue right now. I think that, you know, that doesn't solve the problem that I just articulated.

I mean, George Tenet, making him the fall guy does not resolve the question or make go away the questions about the overall intelligence, and why the administration clearly had this political tug of war over the kind of information they were presenting America. That is only going to be answered by the White House.

BLITZER: In 1991, Senator Kerry, you voted against the authorizing legislation to go to war during the first -- before the first Gulf War. Last October, you voted in favor, giving the president authority to go to war. Some of your Democratic colleagues are insisting, at this point, that you blundered on both votes.

KERRY: Absolutely not. I think they were both correct, and I defend the vote. I think based on the information we were given, I voted for the security of the United States of America.

And I am absolutely convinced that anybody who was thinking about the history with Saddam Hussein, who knew the information of the prior years with those weapons, was right to give the president the authority to go to the United Nations, to be able to have a threat of force.

We had already learned, Wolf, that without a threat of force, Saddam Hussein would do nothing. So my vote was the correct vote,.

But the president, I believe, did not do what he told Americans he would do. He did not exert the kind of diplomacy, he didn't build the kind of coalition, he didn't lay down a plan for winning the peace.

And moreover, he did not need our authority to do what he was going to do. The president has the inherent authority. Bill Clinton went to Kosovo without a vote by Congress. Bill Clinton went to Haiti without a vote by Congress.

What we did was provide the threat of force, and what the president didn't do is provide the diplomacy and the leadership necessary to put in place the kind of coalition that could win the peace.

BLITZER: Just before, about a week or so before the vote in October, you said this, and I'll put it up on the screen, Senator Kerry. You said, "You don't go to war as a matter of first resort. You go to war as a matter of last resort." Six days later or so, you voted in favor of the resolution giving the president authority to go to war.

And then, around the time of the State of the Union address, January 23rd, you said this: "I say to the president, show respect for the process of international diplomacy, because it is not only right, it can make America stronger. And show the world some appropriate patience to building a genuine coalition. Mr. President, do not rush to war."

Do you believe the president ignored your advice and rushed to war?

KERRY: Well, I think that judgment has to be made by finding the answer to the questions that I just said. I mean, it depends on what the reality of the state of the intelligence was.

We gave the president the authority to use the threat appropriately.

I believe the president didn't build that kind of coalition. In fact, I said at the time, Wolf, when the president made his decision to proceed forward, that it would have been my wish and my preference to see the president take additional time to do additional diplomacy with Russia, France, and other countries and build the coalition.

Look, the way we have to think about this -- and I say this as a veteran of Vietnam, remembering what it was like when we lost the legitimacy and consent of the American people. And I raised that issue as an important one in how you take America to war. I believe that for the soldiers who are currently in Iraq, they don't want politics right now, they want to know how they can be protected. They want to know day to day how their lives are not going to be taken by walking into a store in Baghdad and being shot in the head from someone they can't distinguish from friend and foe.

And I believe the obligation of the United States government, of the president is to rapidly internationalize the effort in Iraq, get the target off of American troops, bring other people, particularly Muslim-speaking and Arabic-speaking Muslim troops, into the region, help us diffuse the sense of American occupation, and rapidly transfer power to the Iraqis.

BLITZER: All right.

KERRY: Now, the president clearly didn't have a plan to do that, and we're paying a price for it.

BLITZER: Well, as someone who served with distinction in Vietnam, Senator Kerry, do you believe Iraq is emerging as another Vietnam-like quagmire?

KERRY: Not yet. It doesn't have to be at all. I believe we can win the peace. I believe that it is important for us to win the peace, because if we don't, the complications with respect to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the war on terror, al Qaeda, will be enormous. We must do this successfully.

And it really, I think the American people have the right to ask serious questions about why the administration, in its rush to try to obviously remove Saddam Hussein, were not prepared to do what is necessary to win the peace, which many of us always said is the far more complicated operation.

BLITZER: In suggesting the administration may not have been prepared for what's happening in the post-war environment in Iraq, let's put some poll numbers up. A new Gallup Poll just asked the American public, involving U.S. troops, should you send more? 16 percent say send more. Bring some home, 40 percent say bring some home. No change, 41 percent.

Where would you stand on this poll number, as far as U.S. troops in Iraq, nearly 140,000 to 150,000 on the ground right now?

KERRY: Let me tell you bluntly, Wolf, with all due respect, it's not the job of a president to run a war by poll numbers, and I wouldn't -- I don't care what the poll numbers say. I would do what is necessary to protect American troops and to win the peace.

And the way you win the peace is by bringing other countries who have a stake in our winning the peace. They have a stake too. And we should bring NATO, we should bring the United Nations, we should bring other countries into the effort. We can still manage most of the security operation, even as we do that, but the humanitarian and the governance components of this must be broadened.

We have to diffuse the perception and reality of American occupation. We have to get the target off of American troops. We have to empower Iraqis to feel the liberation that we have already celebrated and to make sure that they feel the transition in their lives.

That requires a much more significant effort. That's something this administration hates and hasn't done properly even in Afghanistan. It's called nation building, and they need to get about the business of doing it.

BLITZER: Well, the administration may be on the verge of nation building in Liberia right now. The president may be on the eve of authorizing the deployment of U.S. troops to Liberia. Would you support the president in that initiative?

KERRY: I believe we have an historical connection to Liberia that provides the kind of imperative that, frankly, we saw exercised when we went to Kosovo, because of our ties through Europe and history there.

I think it is important for the United States to play a role in the reduction of violence in Liberia, and I'm confident of our capacity to do so.

I think the important thing is to do it in conjunction with the United Nations and other countries, under their aegis, but I think the United States can take a lead there. After all, France and Great Britain have taken the lead in Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire.

And I think it's important for us to play our role in stabilizing states which have the ability to become havens for the al Qaedas of the world, for terrorists. Failed states are a threat to the United States in this new world we live in, and we need to respond accordingly.

BLITZER: We only have a little time, but I wanted to ask a few political questions, Senator Kerry.

KERRY: Oh, no.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Let's take a look at some of the Democratic challengers for the Democratic nomination. You have a new poll, shows that Gephardt's at 14 percent among registered Democrats, Democratic leaners; Lieberman at 13; Dean at 12; John Kerry at 10.

Who's your biggest worry right now, as far as capturing the Democratic presidential nomination?

KERRY: I don't view the race that way. That's not how I look at it at all. I am proceeding along a strategy, which is building a national campaign. I have the most money in my campaign of any presidential candidate at this point in time, more than Al Gore or Bill Bradley or Bill Clinton had. I am growing in the states where I need to. We're proceeding along our own strategy.

And frankly, the polls right now mean nothing. They are a reflection of sort of who got a bump in national coverage in the last days here or there. The key is, obviously, what will be happening as we go into December and January, and we're on a great course for that. I feel very confident about it.

BLITZER: You and your fellow New Englander, Howard Dean, seem to be getting a little bit acrimonious toward each other. How much of a threat is he, as far as New Hampshire is concerned?

KERRY: I completely dispute that characterization. That's wishful thinking by the press. I have never mentioned one of my opponents in any speech I've given anywhere in this country. I'm not talking about them. I am talking about George Bush and my vision for the country, and that's the way I want to continue to campaign.

BLITZER: One final question. I want to put up on the screen a picture that was released -- that your campaign released this week, of you and John Lennon. Tell us about this picture. When was it taken? What does it mean?

KERRY: Wolf, we didn't release that. I don't know where that came from. Some -- apparently -- a piece of campaign literature that thought it was relatively private, I guess, I am told, somewhere in New York or something. It came out of an archive. I think may have run in "Boston Globe" series or somewhere. I am not sure.

But it was in 1971. We were together speaking at an anti-war rally. He had asked me personally to introduce him at that particularly rally, and we were just chatting before we talked.

Actually, I love the photograph. I cherish the moment. I was a huge fan and remain a great fan of The Beatles, and I enjoyed my moment with John Lennon. It was a great privilege.

BLITZER: Like all of us. Do you keep that picture in your office?

KERRY: That picture is in my office, one of my favorite pictures.

BLITZER: If I had a picture with John Lennon, I'd keep it in my office as well.

Senator Kerry, thanks for taking some time.

I just want to leave our viewers -- you're in Austin, Texas, right now. You feel as if you're in the lion's den?

KERRY: Right behind me, right here. I am a stone's throw away from the place where it began. It's kind of fun being here. I'm going to raise some money right here in Texas today, and I am going to talk to La Raza.

And I'm looking forward to the opportunity to talk to Hispanics, who I feel this president has deserted in many ways -- on immigration, on education, on job opportunities. And there is an enormous gulf between the promises of George Bush and what he has delivered to Hispanics across the country. I am looking forward to talking to them about that gulf.

BLITZER: All right, Senator John Kerry, the Democratic presidential hopeful, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts. Thanks for joining us.

KERRY: Thank you very much.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Just ahead, will U.S. credibility be a casualty of unproven claims about Iraq's nuclear threat? We'll get some insight from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Then, hunting down the world's most wanted man, Osama bin Laden. We'll talk about that and more with the foreign minister of Afghanistan.

And there is still time for you to weigh in on our LATE EDITION Web question of the week: Should Congress launch a formal inquiry into President Bush's handling of Iraq intelligence? Cast your vote right now. Go on to cnn.com/lateedition. We'll have the results later in this program.

We'll continue right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: There's going to be, you know, a lot of attempts to try to rewrite history, and, you know, I can understand that. But I'm absolutely confident in the decision I made.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: President Bush downplaying questions this past week about intelligence used to make the case for war against Iraq.

Welcome back to LATE EDITION.

Let's turn now to two men who have advised U.S. presidents on diplomatic and national security matters. In Kent, Connecticut, the former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. He served in the Nixon and Ford administrations. Here in Washington, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser during the Jimmy Carter administration.

Gentlemen, welcome back to LATE EDITION. Dr. Kissinger, should someone resign right now, in the aftermath of this intelligence flap involving Iraq and its alleged nuclear weapons program?

HENRY KISSINGER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: I don't think anyone should resign. We should analyze where the problem arose, but I don't think this was a central fact in making the decision, and I think we ought to see it in some perspective.

The British still maintain that their information was accurate. Some of our people think now that the documents on which it was based were forgeries. So, but I don't think that this was a central element in the president's decision.

BLITZER: At the same time, Dr. Brzezinski, the whole nuclear issue was one of the most, if not the most, important motivation for going to war against Iraq, the fear that Iraq could reconstitute its nuclear weapons capability.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: That was one of the elements. But I think the uranium or the nuclear issue, regarding which there has been such a flap over the last few days, is a symptom of a much larger problem. And I think it is the larger problem that has to be addressed.

BLITZER: What's that problem?

BRZEZINSKI: And the larger problem is that the United States stated, at the highest level, repeatedly, without any qualification whatsoever, that Iraq was armed with weapons of mass destruction. Not just nuclear, but bacteriological and chemical. And that was stated without any ambiguity. In fact it was hyped. It was stated that Iraq is armed with the most dangerous weapons that man has ever devised.

And that's why we went to war. This is what we said to the world. This is what we said to the American people.

BLITZER: Well, do you have any doubt about that?

BRZEZINSKI: Well, it's clear that they weren't armed with these weapons. They didn't use them. We defeated their army in the field. We have control over their arsenals. We haven't found them.

We're now maintaining that they may be hidden somewhere, which is kind of comical, actually. If they had them, and the were armed to the teeth with them, why didn't they use them? If they didn't use them and hid them, that means they were deterred. And how do you hide all of these hundreds and hundreds of thousands of weapons with which they're armed?

The problem is, was that administration misled by very poor intelligence? In which case, some heads should roll in the intelligence community, absolutely, because an intelligence failure at this scale totally destroys American global credibility. Or...

BLITZER: All right. Dr. Kissinger? BRZEZINSKI: ... or was anyone in the administration hyping it while as the intelligence was qualifying it? And that has to be established.

BLITZER: Well, the intelligence analysts and professionals were more nuanced, whereas the top leadership, you're suggesting, may have been black and white?

BRZEZINSKI: But that's the issue that has to be established because I think the credibility of our system, domestically and internationally, depends on that issue being resolved.

BLITZER: That's a fair point.

What do you say, Dr. Kissinger?

KISSINGER: In 1998, just before attacking Iraq in an air campaign of several days, President Clinton lifted specific quantities of weapons of mass destruction that the Iraqis were alleged to have. These numbers were never challenged. They were confirmed by the U.N. inspection team that was there.

It was rational to assume that since there was no inspection for five years after that, that if those numbers were correct, that if anything, the quantities must have increased.

In last November, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution which assumed that these weapons of mass destruction existed, proof by countries that had their own intelligence (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

It is an interesting question. It's an important question to determine of what happened to these weapons of mass destruction.

Secondly, I believe that the war against Iraq has to be seen in the whole context of the international situation that evolved after the attack on September 11th and on the presence of the country that we knew had had these weapons of mass destruction in '98 and then lived for five years without inspection, that had challenged the international system in that region repeatedly, and that was violating the cease-fire that it had signed with the United States.

So, I don't think that this was simply a question of weapons of mass destruction when the final decision was made.

BLITZER: All right.

Dr. Brzezinski, the point that Dr. Kissinger makes is that in '98, when the inspectors left, at the end of '98, the then-Clinton administration outlined, together with the U.N. inspectors, thousands of pounds of anthrax and VX and mustard gas that they said the Iraqis had never accounted for. And in the years since then, the burden of proof, they say, was on the Iraqis to account, what happened to all of these weapons of mass destruction.

Is that not good enough for you? BRZEZINSKI: It's partially true, but only partially true. There's no doubt that there was such evidence. It is also a fact which most people ignore that both anthrax and VX die, quite literally die, after a while, so they had to be replenished, the weapons have to be reconstituted.

The key point, however, is this. The best we had, insofar as knowledge is concerned, was that they may have these weapons therefore. And this is presumably the case that was being made.

But this is not what the administration was saying. The administration was saying explicitly, "We know they have weapons of mass destruction. We know that they are a menace and might use them against us." And we all now know that they weren't there.

BLITZER: And in fact the administration, Dr. Kissinger, did say there was intelligence that battlefield commanders had been given authorization for 45 minutes to actually use some of these weapons of mass destruction in case of war, 45 minutes. Obviously they never used it during the case of the major combat that was going on.

Dr. Kissinger, I want you to listen to what the former Vermont governor, Howard Dean, now a Democratic presidential hopeful, is saying. You well know how these kinds of issues can almost get a life of their own, in terms of creating an uproar. Listen to these words.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD DEAN, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's beginning to sound a little like Watergate. They start throwing people over the side, but the deeper you go, the more interesting it'll be.

It's very clear that it may be George Tenet's responsibility, but that information also existed in the State Department, it also existed in the vice president's office. So they will not get away with simply throwing George Tenet over the side.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He says it's beginning to sound like Watergate. That obviously is politics, to a certain degree. But what do you make of what Governor Dean is saying?

KISSINGER: Well, I think it's an outrage to compare it to Watergate. The president was faced with the belief that these weapons existed. From what I saw in the administration, I never saw this evidence questioned in any briefings.

Maybe the Iraqis destroyed them in the meantime, and for some obscure reason did not make that public, maybe because they were afraid it might encourage Iran to attack them, or -- I don't know what they might have thought. And they had plenty of opportunity to demonstrate that they had got rid of weapons which we knew they had had.

But the president of the United States cannot take a chance, and say, "Well, maybe they have destroyed them." And he had to act on the best judgment of his key advisers and his own best judgment. And I believe that, in essence, he was right, even if it now turns out that some of these weapons may have been destroyed.

BLITZER: And I think, Dr. Brzezinski -- let me press you on this point, because it wasn't really U.S. intelligence and the president of the United States who argued that the Iraqis did have weapons of mass destruction flat, no nuanced statement there, but it was also the French and the Italians and the Germans and the U.N. They came down with the same point, even though they disagreed with the president on how to go about dealing with the issue.

BRZEZINSKI: Wolf, you could add to that list even me. I attended the same briefings that Henry attended. And I came to believe them, because I don't think that Colin Powell or Condi Rice or Don Rumsfeld would lie to me. So I came to believe that they had weapons of mass destruction too.

The fact nonetheless -- and we cannot evade it -- is, they did not. That is a basic fact...

BLITZER: They did not have weapons of mass destruction?

BRZEZINSKI: They did not. I mean, if they did, show them to me. They didn't use them. They weren't in their arsenals. We have been there for months, and we haven't found them.

And, therefore, there's an important issue at stake here. U.S. credibility is now very badly damaged. You say other countries' intelligence services said they have weapons of mass destruction. What you ignore is that most of them said that they had weapons of mass destruction because we had said so, and they trusted us. Our word has been pure; our word has been trusted around the world. It's now very badly damaged.

And our democracy depends on our people being able to trust their leaders. And therefore, the issue we have to establish is, why did our leaders come to believe that something existed that did not? Was it an intelligence failure, or was it a political hype?

I don't know which of the two it was. I prefer to think it was the former. But we have to find out for the sake of our democracy, for the sake of our security.

BLITZER: All right, let's take a caller from Ohio.

Go ahead, Ohio, with your question.

CALLER: Yes, do you think the administration had a predisposition to promote regime change in Iraq? And do you think that could have influenced their view of the intelligence data?

BLITZER: What about that, Dr. Kissinger?

KISSINGER: I think the administration believed that Saddam Hussein was a threat to security in the region, and they were right. And I think they had a predisposition toward regime change.

But I want to make one point with respect to what Zbig said earlier.

It is possible that there was an intelligence failure. It is not possible that there was an attack on our democratic systems because the president of the United States acted deliberately in defiance of knowledge that he might have had or should have had.

If Zbig was impressed by all the briefings that he and I might have attended, since the president, no doubt, received even fuller briefings, it was absolutely rational for the president of the United States not to want to take a chance that maybe, somehow these weapons had been destroyed but nobody had ever suggested this possibility.

If they were, in fact, destroyed, if there was an intelligence failure, then I think there should be some investigation of just exactly what it is that happened with respect to these weapons.

But this is not relevant to the decisions that the president made in good faith in acting on behalf of national security.

BLITZER: Do you want to respond, Dr. Brzezinski?

BRZEZINSKI: Yes, I'd like to respond to that. It seems to me the argument is, the president had all of this information to the effect that they may have these weapons, therefore, he acted in good faith.

Good and well. The issue is not at this stage whether the president was deliberately lying. The issue, however, is, why did we go to war on the basis of absolutely erroneous information?

This is fundamental to our security and to the trust that others have in us.

BLITZER: But when you say absolutely erroneous, it's still possible, isn't it, Dr. Brzezinski, that they'll find weapons of mass destruction? They may have been transported, they may have been sent to a third country?

BRZEZINSKI: Look, that's becoming increasingly ludicrous. Here is an argument: A country is armed to the teeth. It's poses a monumental threat to us. We go to war, we destroy its army, it never uses these weapons, we cannot find them in their arsenals. And now we claim that they may be hidden somewhere or exported somewhere. I mean, that really strains credulity.

The point is that we have to find out why there was such a massive misinformation at play, because it affects our security.

BLITZER: All right, Dr. Kissinger, does it strain credulity?

KISSINGER: No, I don't think anybody ever said that they pose a direct threat to the United States. That was not the key issue. The key issue was the existence in a region from which a terrorist attack on the United States had been launched, in which the distinction between national borders as the origin of these attacks had been eliminated by the recruiting of various people, to permit the capability of the production of weapons of mass destruction to exist in a country that had already used them on its own people and on its neighbors, and that had attacked almost all of its neighbors at some point.

It was a prudent decision in the context of the situation that arose after September 11th. And it's reckless to pose this as something that was totally unnecessary because our intelligence had made perhaps an error in finding that these weapons had been destroyed in the few weeks before the attacks started.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Dr. Brzezinski.

BRZEZINSKI: Well, you know, it tells you something about our intelligence if Iraq allegedly had all of these weapons, was so well armed, and then could destroy them without us even knowing about it. I mean, I think that's kind of a preposterous argument.

If we were so well informed that they had them, and we had all these reasons to go to war, and then they destroy them, disarm themselves, in effect, and we don't know about it, it clearly proves my case that there is something fundamentally wrong with the information on the basis of which we operate and on the basis of which we make decisions that we want the rest of the world to trust.

BLITZER: So, let me wrap this up, because we don't have a lot of time left.

Dr. Brzenzinski, how do you resolve this matter right now? What kind of investigation is required?

BRZEZINSKI: I think it's in the interest of the United States, it's in the interest of the George Bush administration, to clarify this issue fully. And making Tenet the fall guy doesn't clarify it.

I think we need to establish why there were no knew new answers in the administration's presentation, why there was this alleged certainty about something very important, very fundamental, and why it turned out to have been wrong.

BLITZER: All right.

Dr. Kissinger?

KISSINGER: I think if the administration -- one a mistake the administration may have made is that they were convinced that regime change was necessary. They were convinced that there was a strategic geopolitical reason to eliminate the presence of such a regime in that region.

They focused on weapons of mass destruction because that seemed to be the point that everybody understood most easily, and it therefore gave the number of weapons of mass destruction that may have existed a disproportionate influence.

One should analyze what happened in the intelligence community, but one should not make it as a question of American democracy, nor a question of the ultimately correct judgment of an administration staffed by people that have a lot of experience in the security field and a long record of distinguished service.

BLITZER: But, Dr. Kissinger, a public inquiry, is that called for now?

KISSINGER: I think the first that thing that ought to be done is to assemble a few absolutely trusted people to make an internal report. In due course, there could be a public inquiry, but I really believe we are -- it is absolutely essential that we prevail in Iraq. It is absolutely essential that we retain confidence in what we are doing.

BLITZER: All right.

KISSINGER: And we should, therefore, have some analysis of what our strategic objectives are now and how we got into this particular limited credibility problem...

BLITZER: Dr. Brzezinski...

KISSINGER: ... and not start another nightmare of Vietnam debate.

BLITZER: All right. Let me let Dr. Brzezinski wrap it up, because we only have a few seconds left.

BRZEZINSKI: I think we'll be far more successful in Iraq and far more self-assured about our own system if we address this issue fully, because we'll have international support, and we can clarify this matter.

The U.S. credibility, internationally, is now at stake.

BLITZER: Dr. Brzezinski, Dr. Kissinger, thanks to both of you for joining us. Clearly, this issue is not going away.

And coming up next, we'll have an exclusive interview with Afghanistan's foreign minister, Dr. Abdullah, about Osama bin Laden, the war on terror and the state of his own country.

Then, U.S. troops in Iraq under constant attack. Are American forces spread too thin? We'll get an assessment from two top military experts.

And don't forget to vote on our LATE EDITION Web question of the week: Should Congress launch a formal inquiry into President Bush's handling of Iraq intelligence? Go to our website, cnn.com/lateedition. We'll have the results.

LATE EDITION will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Afghanistan became the first front in the war on terror after 9/11. But while that country's Taliban government was toppled, serious problems remain, with Osama bin Laden still apparently on the loose.

Joining us now in an exclusive CNN interview is the foreign minister of Afghanistan, Dr. Abdullah.

Welcome back to LATE EDITION, Dr. Abdullah. Always good to have you on the program.

Osama bin Laden, is he making a comeback of sorts in Afghanistan?

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH, AFGHANISTAN'S FOREIGN MINISTER: Not Osama bin Laden in al Qaeda as an organization as such, but the remnants of Taliban and al Qaeda in the small groups or individuals, they are still capable of carrying out some operations.

BLITZER: Is Osama bin Laden still operating someplace in Afghanistan or along the border with Pakistan?

ABDULLAH: Osama bin Laden is hidden, of course. There have been some terrorist actions inside of Afghanistan which are linked to al Qaeda. It means that his people are active, to some extent.

BLITZER: Why is that so -- why is it so hard to find Osama bin Laden?

ABDULLAH: We shouldn't forget that two years ago, just two years ago, 80 percent or 90 percent of Afghan soil was under control of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda as an organization. Not only that, al Qaeda had established its networks in the region, in our neighboring countries and beyond the region.

For a single person to hide somewhere among his supporters -- I should say that he is outside Afghanistan. He is not within Afghanistan. I know he's...

BLITZER: Where do you believe he is?

ABDULLAH: One cannot say categorically, but it is likely that he is in Pakistan.

BLITZER: Where in Pakistan?

ABDULLAH: Some other members of -- high-ranking members of al Qaeda have been arrested in Karachi and Lahore and Rawalpindi.

BLITZER: So you think he might be...

ABDULLAH: He could be anywhere.

BLITZER: He might be in a city in Afghanistan? Because there has been, as you know...

ABDULLAH: Pakistan.

BLITZER: In Pakistan -- some suggestion he might be in that tribal area which is very remote, not necessarily even under the control of the Pakistani military.

ABDULLAH: The fact of the matter is that most of al Qaeda members who have been arrested by Pakistani security apparatus have been arrested from the cities, from the big cities, not from the tribal areas.

BLITZER: So what you're suggesting is Osama bin Laden could be in Karachi or Rawalpindi or some other major city in Pakistan?

ABDULLAH: It is a likelihood. I shouldn't make that claim, but it is a likelihood.

BLITZER: But you believe categorically he is not inside your country, Afghanistan?

ABDULLAH: He is not, definitely he is not.

BLITZER: How can you say that categorically?

ABDULLAH: He has no basis of support in Afghanistan whatsoever. And the operations, terrorist actions which have taken place inside Afghanistan have been mainly in the border areas.

BLITZER: What about the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar?

ABDULLAH: Somewhere with Osama bin Laden.

BLITZER: You think he is with Osama bin Laden?

ABDULLAH: It is likely, because in the last days of the war, in most cases, the reports suggested that they were together.

BLITZER: Is the Taliban -- I guess this is the bigger question facing your government right now. Is the Taliban making a comeback and threatening the government of President Hamid Karzai, your president?

ABDULLAH: Two issues. First, is it possible that Afghanistan will return to the old days or Taliban would prevail in Afghanistan? That's just impossible. But are they still capable of carrying out some operations in some parts of the country? Yes.

And we expect from Pakistan, a member of the coalition against terrorism, to take actions against Taliban leaders, which are -- Mullah Omar is hidden, but some others are not. They are in the cities.

BLITZER: Well, are you blaming Pakistan for the problem?

ABDULLAH: I am not blaming Pakistan. But as a friendly country to Afghanistan and as a neighboring country of Afghanistan, we expect them to deliver on that front as well.

We all appreciate what they have done against al Qaeda members. The Taliban leaders are as dangerous as al Qaeda. And in fact, it was Taliban leaders who provided the opportunity for al Qaeda.

BLITZER: The criticism of President Karzai, perhaps no fault of his own, that he's president of Kabul, basically, that he doesn't have much control outside of the capital.

ABDULLAH: Again, this issue, if you are talking about popular support, he has popular all over the country, all corners of the country, all walks of life.

Sometimes a confusion has been made, when there is a terrorist action, for example, when he visited Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, thousands of people, or tens of thousands of people, greeted him. One terrorist made an attempt against him. That was interpreted as lack of support, which it's not.

Yes, there are still risks by terrorists, small groups or individuals, in Afghanistan, but the popularity of the government is all over.

Then, it is the integration of the government administration throughout the country. That's a process which has started, and it will take time.

BLITZER: Elections are scheduled for next year, in June, but there has been some concern that those elections might not take place.

ABDULLAH: The government is fully committed to be on time, to have elections on time. We are working with the United Nations, as well as with our partners in the international community. We should do our best. If we are a month or so behind the schedule, that should be dealt with at that time. But at this stage, we should all focus on the work.

BLITZER: All of us know the treatment of women under the Taliban regime. It was brutal, it was repressive, it was awful.

But now there are reports coming out of Afghanistan that once again women are being put down, they're being forced to wear the veil if they don't want to, they're not being allowed to go to school. What's going on?

ABDULLAH: There might be individual cases of such actions. The policy of the government is well-known, and the overall conduct of that policy is well-known. Life for millions of Afghan women has changed, and of over 4 million students, 35 percent, 40 percent are girls. That's nothing in comparison to what was happening there. But, if you are talking about improvement in the lives of women, women's rights, yes, I think it is a process which has started, and significant achievements are there.

BLITZER: You're going to be meeting with top Bush administration officials here in Washington in the next few days. What exactly do you want? Do you want more U.S. troops? Do you want more U.S. money? Do you want all of the above?

ABDULLAH: Once again, we will remind everybody that Afghanistan is the biggest test of the United States and the international community. We cannot afford failure in Afghanistan. It is the credibility of the international community, the United States as the lead member of the coalition, which is at stake.

And there are great opportunities for success. There are some potentials for failure as well. Why not take in the opportunities for success that will make every other conduct of stabilization in the rest of the world much easier than it is today?

BLITZER: Dr. Abdullah, good luck to you, good luck to the people of Afghanistan.

ABDULLAH: Thank you.

BLITZER: Thanks for joining us.

ABDULLAH: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, it was one of the biggest mysteries in U.S. naval history. We'll explore newly revealed information about the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in June 1967. Was it deliberate, or was it an honest mistake of war?

And the results are in on our LATE EDITION Web question of the week: Should Congress launch a formal inquiry into President Bush's handling of Iraqi intelligence? We'll tell you how you voted, our viewers, when LATE EDITION returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our LATE EDITION Web question of the week is this: Should Congress launch a formal inquiry into President Bush's handling of Iraq?

Look at the results. This is how you've been voting. Ninety-one percent of you say yes; 9 percent of you say no.

Remember, this is not -- repeat, not -- a scientific poll.

LATE EDITION always loves to hear from you, our viewers. You can share your comments online. Go to our Web address, cnn.com/lateedition.

And LATE EDITION will continue right after a quick check of the hour's top stories.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: It's time now to say goodbye to our international viewers. Thanks very much for watching. Coming up for our North American audience: Are U.S. troops getting bogged down in Iraq? We'll get some analysis from the NATO supreme allied commander, at least the retired, the former NATO commander, George Joulwan; the retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Dan Cristman; and retired U.S. Air Force Major General Don Shepperd.

Plus, we'll talk about all sorts of other issues. LATE EDITION will continue right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION. We'll get to our military panel, including General Don Shepperd, in just a moment. But first, let's check the hour's top story.

The hour's top story today, like so many other days, Iraq. And today, a potentially significant event in the nation's path toward democracy. Iraq's new governing council met for the first time in Baghdad.

Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, is in the Iraqi capital. He's joining us now with the latest -- Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the first thing that governing council did when it met today was to abolish the previous national holidays in Iraq, national holidays that were given to mark the Baath Party's rise to power, mark revolution against the crown back in 1958.

They did announce, also, a new national holiday for Iraq, that to commemorate the 9th of April, the day Saddam Hussein fell from power.

Now, the new national assembly is made up of 25 different people. They're drawn from seven leading political parties. It has a majority of Shiite representatives: 13 Shiites, five Sunnis, five Kurds, one Christian, one Turkeman. Among their numbers, three women.

And when they met today, they were addressed by the U.N.'s top representative here, Sergio Vieira de Mello. He said that this was a defining moment in Iraq's history.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO, U.N. UNDERSECRETARY GENERAL FOR HUMANITARIAN AFFAIRS: Your convening, therefore, marks the first major development toward the restoration of Iraq's rightful status as a fully sovereign state.

Today brings Iraq one step closer toward fulfilling the explicit wish of the Security Council, which, in its Resolution 1483, resolved that the day when Iraqis govern themselves must come quickly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTSON: Now, many of the delegates have said that they wanted the U.N. to take a much greater role in this new governing council. The governing council does have the right to appoint interim ministers to a cabinet, does have the right to set a budget, does have the right to appoint ambassadors, representatives to international organizations and to the United Nations.

But the U.S., through its top administrative representative here, Paul Bremer, still does have the ultimate power and authority in Iraq.

And very interesting to hear today some of the speakers talking at the first governing council meeting, saying that Saddam Hussein was now sent to the dustbin of history. Quite something strong there to hear from an Iraqi political figure at this time. We haven't heard talk like that publicly very much up to now, Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic, the U.S. military has launched a new operation, Ivy Serpent. Tell us what that's all about.

ROBERTSON: Now, this mission is designed particularly to target at this time of when those Iraqi national holidays would have been happening, this coming week: the rise to power of Saddam Hussein, 1979, 16th of July; the Baath Party's revolution, 17th of July, 1968.

And these times, it's believed, the coalition believes it has intelligence that more Baath Party loyalists will be attacking U.S. troops.

Right now, Operation Ivy Serpent is designed to track down those elements believed to be principally north of Baghdad, north, in the area of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown. And that's where Operation Ivy Serpent is targeted at, at those loyalists to the old regime, Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson on the scene for us in Baghdad, as he always is.

Thanks, Nic, very much.

Armed attacks are continuing to take their toll on U.S. service members in Iraq. President Bush says the attacks won't deter the United States, but there is concern about troop morale.

Joining us now to talk about the military issues are three special guests. Here in Washington, the former NATO supreme commander, retired U.S. Army General George Joulwan, and the retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Dan Christman; and in Phoenix, Arizona, the retired U.S. Air Force Major General Don Shepperd.

Generals, welcome back to LATE EDITION.

General Joulwan, how vulnerable are U.S. troops to attacks inside Iraq right now?

GEN. GEORGE JOULWAN (RET.), U.S. ARMY: We are going through a transition, Wolf, from war to peace. We had the implementation of the war plan. Now we're going through stabilization. Hopefully that will lead to some degree of normalization. During this stabilization period, our troops are vulnerable, and they need to have the robustness in the rules of engagement and the number of forces in order not only to protect themselves, but to carry out this stabilization period.

So I think that the important thing here is to get a rotation of forces, so those that are coming in have the mission of Mission B, which is stabilization, not just Mission A, which is war-fighting. That is going on now.

BLITZER: Well, what do they need that they don't have right now?

JOULWAN: Well, a lot of things. Good, solid intelligence. They need to have the numbers to be able to carry out the sort of operations that are required to get control of the country. I'm not sure we have total control yet in that country, and they're going to need sufficient numbers to do that. And to do that, I think they're going to have to, at some point, bring in the international community to help.

BLITZER: Well, on that point, you're the former NATO commander, should NATO get involved?

JOULWAN: I believe so.

Remember now, in August, next month, NATO will assume command of the Kabul region in Afghanistan. That will come under NATO command. That is extremely significant. A German general will command that force, with a Canadian deputy. So I think that's a very good precedent for what could happen in Iraq.

The key here is that you must have unity of command, and that is a very touchy issue now, of who will be in command. If it's a NATO force, NATO will be in command.

So I think all of that needs to be worked out, but I believe NATO can play a very significant role in Iraq.

BLITZER: General Christman, let me bring you in. Are U.S. troops right now in Iraq stretched too thin?

LT. GEN. DAN CHRISTMAN (RET.), U.S. ARMY: They are stretched. Whether it's too thin or not, Wolf, I think will depend on one principal factor, and that's the assessment that's to be given by John Abizaid. Both George and I know John...

BLITZER: John Abizaid, the new Central Commander.

CHRISTMAN: Took Tommy Franks' place last week.

He is first-rate, and he is charged now by the secretary of defense to give feedback on what the status of forces is, in terms of numbers and ROE. He'll get back to Don Rumsfeld here very, very soon. So that will be very important.

In terms of what the troops need, they need Saddam, they need Saddam Hussein and his sons. That's probably the most important near- term...

BLITZER: But what happens if they find Saddam Hussein, Uday and Qusay, his two sons, what happens?

CHRISTMAN: Well, in the first place, it will diminish this whole luster that surrounds him right now, this intelligence apparatus that's working that says, "Saddam is still there, and he'll come back." I think what inhibits intelligence for us is this realization that Saddam is still out there, and will deter the providing of intelligence to our forces. Very important.

BLITZER: All right. I want to bring General Shepperd in.

General Shepperd, you're listening to this conversation. The American public, as you well know, is very concerned, there seems to be one or two soldiers and Marines dying every day. Whether in hostile or non-hostile action, it doesn't seem to make a whole lot of difference to their families, obviously, when they're dead.

MAJ. GEN. DON SHEPPERD (RET.), U.S. AIR FORCE: Yes, our patience is being tested, Wolf.

Something's been lost in this whole translation. The president and the secretary of defense told us early on, after 9/11, that this was going to be a long, long war, in many places. Our patience, our treasure, our courage was going to be tested. And the courage and patience of the American people is really going to be tested in this Iraq situation.

I hope we have the patience to stay and do the things that we need to do, because it will not only be a gift to the Arab and the Muslim nations of the area, but it will be a gift to the security of the American people. So I hope we have the tenacity to do it.

BLITZER: General Shepperd, in your military experience that goes back decades, the fact that troops are dying, one or two a day since May 1st, since the president declared major combat operations over, what impact does that have on morale?

SHEPPERD: Well, of course it affects the morale of the troops. The people that are there are targets, but those troops are going to stay and do what they're told to do. They're also targets in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Our track record, where we have had the patience to stay, Germany, Japan, the Philippines, et cetera, is very, very good. Good things happen when the United States and its coalition allies stay. Bad things happen when we run, like Somalia.

Again, I hope we have the patience to stay, despite the effect on the morale.

BLITZER: General Joulwan, I want you to listen to what General Richard Sanchez -- he's the commander of coalition forces in Iraq -- said this week. It picks up on what General Christman said about Saddam Hussein, the role he might be playing, hovering over all of this. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GENERAL RICHARD SANCHEZ, COMMANDER OF COALITION FORCES IN IRAQ: In terms of a professional military, there's no question in my mind that there are former Saddam Fedayeen-trained soldiers that are out there, Special Republican Guard soldiers that are still out there, continuing with their offensive against us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: General Joulwan, what do you make of that?

JOULWAN: Well, first of all, with or without Saddam, the Fedayeen and outsiders are coming into the country. This is a real threat to our troops. Saddam plays a key role in all of that, if we can get him.

But whether he's alive or dead, his troops -- remember now, in three weeks we ended this phase of the war by taking Baghdad, but there are thousands of loyal soldiers to Saddam still there, and they're fighting on, and they're getting support from outside the country. We have to recognize that, in this stability phase of the operation.

And so I think our troops will be in danger. They need the robust rules of engagement to protect themselves. And we need to continue to search for Saddam Hussein.

BLITZER: You're saying they're getting support from outside the country?

JOULWAN: Yes.

BLITZER: From whom?

JOULWAN: Well, remember, in Afghanistan many soldiers loyal to the Taliban, loyal to this radical Islam fanaticism, came from outside the country.

JOULWAN: We're seeing the same thing...

BLITZER: They're still getting through the borders?

JOULWAN: Yes, yes. And, you know, this is part of the challenge. That's why this stabilization period is extremely important and extremely dangerous.

BLITZER: I want to put up on the screen some of the trouble spots in Iraq right now, because there's a triangle, as they call it, Baghdad, up in the north to, you can see it up there, toward Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's home town, out toward Ramadi on the west.

Let me read to you, General Christman, what "The Washington Post" wrote in an editorial: "The militants pose a clear strategic threat to the U.S. mission beyond the painful cost in lives they are exacting. The danger is that they will succeed in triggering a broader guerrilla war against U.S. troops, fed not just by loyalty to the Baath Party, but also by popular discontent with American occupation."

It sounds almost like there's a fear of Vietnam.

CHRISTMAN: I think we're going a little beyond our headlights, if you start talking about Vietnam, frankly, Wolf.

But, nevertheless, there is an important element here in terms of moving rapidly to stabilize that situation that's shown in the highlighted area. Those are Sunni areas. That's a Baathist stronghold. They are being supported by the Wahhabi sect from the Saudis and from Jordan and from Syria. Those need to be contained.

But the solution going forward, in my judgment, is not going to be military. The solution going forward will be a combination of economic stabilization and growth, plus a political transformation that we're seeing under way right now. Those are the keys.

BLITZER: All right. General Shepperd, I want you to wrap up this part on Iraq. And I think that General Christman makes an excellent point. The triangle area, Baghdad, Tikrit, out to the west to Ramadi, that's where the Sunni Muslims seem to be most loyal to Saddam Hussein.

But elsewhere in the country, in the north and in the south, the coalition forces seem to be making some remarkable progress in stabilizing the situation.

SHEPPERD: Yes, according to military officials, Wolf, the south and the north are basically permissive. It doesn't mean there can't be a shot every now and then, but you're not seeing the major, organized attacks that you're seeing in the Sunni triangle. We've got to figure out how to handle this Sunni triangle.

And, clearly, this is not Vietnam, it's not the guerrilla warfare where the guerrillas are supported by the populace. Most of the populace does not support them or Saddam Hussein.

We got to figure out how to handle the triangle to bring this to a successful close.

BLITZER: General Joulwan, let's move to another potential nightmare, potential nightmare for U.S. military forces, Liberia. The president seems to be on the verge of deploying a couple thousand maybe, maybe more, maybe fewer, troops to this war-torn country.

You used to be in charge of that area when you were the NATO commander of the European Command. Is this a good idea?

JOULWAN: Again, it depends what the clarity of the objective, what it is that you want that force to do. Will it be under a U.N. resolution? Will it be under U.S. command?

The European command, out of Stuttgart, is the one that will control it. We went in there in '96. Very difficult. We went in there under fire, and we evacuated 2,700, of which 400 were Americans.

BLITZER: You were NATO commander then?

JOULWAN: NATO is dual-hatted as the European commander, as well. It was very dicey, as one soldier told me. It was like the Wild West.

So it depends what the mission is. I truly think that probably it will be a U.N. mission. I would urge that the U.S. control it if we're going to send U.S. troops in there. But we're not there yet.

BLITZER: What about that, General Christman?

CHRISTMAN: I think that's probably right. In the first instance, in my judgment we probably should be assisting in some fashion. We do have the assets to do it. It's going to be another stretching of these armed forces, but we, after all, had over 70,000 Marines in Iraq, only 9,000 there right now, so there is a potential Marine contingent that can do this.

But the real issue, as George said, is what's the mission, and what's the transition to ECOWAS or some West African coalition to take over this mission downstream?

BLITZER: Are you nervous about this, General Shepperd?

SHEPPERD: Not nervous at all. I have some connection with Liberia. My parents lived there for several years, early in the '70s. And it's been a tough place since then, and two decades of civil war have really brought the country to its knees.

It's different this time. We have both sides wanting us in. We have a historical connection with the country. And it can be fairly small and fairly limited, if we do as General Joulwan and General Christman say, which is set the objectives and set the timetable.

We can cause good things to happen when America brings the right things at the right time to the right places. We need to get into sub-Saharan Africa to help.

BLITZER: Let me let you wrap it up, General Joulwan. Go ahead.

JOULWAN: In 1996, when we went in there, it was a combination of special operating forces which led the operation. The Marines joined them later, relieved them off the coast and took over the mission.

The key is that in Sierra Leone, right north of there, the British have troops. The French are also deeply involved, as are other European and allied nations in Africa.

I think there should be an attempt here to make this an international coalition. And the more we can do that, I think, the better we're going to be in not just stretching our troops too far, but getting others to share the burden.

BLITZER: Good advice from General Joulwan, as usual. Good advice from all of our generals. General Christman, General Shepperd, thanks to all of you for joining us.

Just ahead, a 30-year-old mystery. What really happened in the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty? We'll sort through some newly released classified information with two men who have been researching the incident for years.

LATE EDITION will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

This past week, the U.S. government declassified secrets about a long-time naval controversy, a 1967 attack by Israeli forces on the USS Liberty.

CNN's David Ensor got a look at the material and tells us what he found.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): By the time the Israeli air force and navy finished their attack on the USS Liberty in 1967, 34 Americans were dead, 171 injured, and the ship ready for the scrap heap.

The tapes in Hebrew of Israeli pilots and ground control and English transcripts now being made public by the U.S. National Security Agency shed new light on one of the most controversial mysteries in U.S. Navy history: Why did the Israelis attack an American surveillance ship that was monitoring communications in the Six Day War?

On the tape, recorded by a nearby American surveillance aircraft, you hear the Israeli ground controller talking to rescue helicopter pilots sent in after the initial Israeli attack.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): For your info, it is apparently an Arab ship.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Roger.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): It is an Egyptian supply ship.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Roger.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

ENSOR: Miami judge, Jay Cristol, who pried the tapes out of the NSA, says they show the attack was a tragic accident in time of war, that the Israelis mistook the ship for an Egyptian one.

JAY CRISTOL, AUTHOR: I don't think there's any question that anyone who reads these tapes would be absolutely convinced that there was the fog of war out there.

ENSOR: Later on the tape, the Israelis sound confused and concerned. Ground control orders the chopper pilots to look for survivors and check their nationality.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): If they speak Arabic, Egyptians, you're taking them to al-Arish (ph). If they speak English, non-Egyptians, you're taking them to Lod (ph). Is that clear?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Roger.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

JAMES BAMFORD, AUTHOR: Here the transcripts are saying, well, you know, there may be people speaking English on this ship. Why would you say that if it's an Egyptian ship carrying horses?

ENSOR: To James Bamford, author of "A History of the NSA," the tapes suggest the Israelis may have deliberately attacked the U.S. spy ship, perhaps fearing, for some reason still not known, that it was spying on them.

On the tape, after the rescue helicopter pilot tells ground control he see an American flag on the ship, he gets an order in return.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): They request that you make another pass and check once again whether it is really an American flag.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

ENSOR: The comment suggests the Israelis were surprised at word of a U.S. flag. But it also runs counter to what Israeli fighter pilots and torpedo boat crews have always insisted, that they could not see an American flag.

BAMFORD: Clearly, the flag was there. Because the intercepts show that the helicopter pilots saw it immediately before they ever even got up to the ship.

ENSOR: That flag now hangs in the U.S. Cryptology Museum in Fort Meade, Maryland, adjacent to NSA headquarters, which released the tapes and transcripts.

CRISTOL: I think that this is probably the most important link in the evidence that ought to bring closure to this matter.

ENSOR: Several surviving members of the Liberty crew argue that, far from putting the matter to rest, the tapes only underline the continuing need for a full public U.S. investigation. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A simple investigation. That's all they have to do. Find out what happened, if anybody did anything wrong, punish them.

ENSOR: In a letter to Cristol, the NSA said, contrary to rumors, there was no U.S. submarine in the area watching, and the Liberty itself got no recordings that are relevant. So this latest edition to the public record may be the last.

Israeli embassy spokesman Marc Regev (ph) said the tapes are, quote, "further evidence that the Liberty incident was a terrible and tragic case of mistaken identity."

David Ensor, CNN Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now are the two authors featured in that report. In Miami is Jay Cristol, the author of the book, "The Liberty Incident." Here in Washington, James Bamford. He's the author of two books on the supersecret National Security Agency, "Body of Secrets" and "The Puzzle Palace."

Gentlemen, welcome to LATE EDITION.

James Bamford, let me begin with you. You heard Jay Cristol in that report say this ends it once and for all. It was the fog of war. The Israelis made an honest mistake.

BAMFORD: Well, it certainly doesn't end it. The only thing I think that will end it if the U.S. government for the first time conducts a real investigation into what really happened.

The people who actually saw this report long ago are the director of central intelligence and the director of the National Security Agency. And both of them are convinced this was deliberate.

BLITZER: Those names are, the specific people you are talking about?

BAMFORD: Yes, Richard Helms was director of the CIA at the time. And he just says in his book that just came out a few months ago that the CIA's board finding was that there could be no doubt that the Israelis knew exactly what they were doing in attacking the Liberty. And the director of NSA, General Marshall Carter, said there was no other answer than this was deliberate. And that coincides with what most of -- virtually all the crew, the captain of the ship and most of the intelligence community says.

BLITZER: Judge Cristol, what do you say about that?

CRISTOL: Well, I think that Mr. Bamford is giving you hearsay. There have been 10 official investigations, five of them by Congress. They all came to the same conclusion that it was a tragic case of mistaken identity. Most of those investigations can be seen in their original form of the reports on my Web site, thelibertyincident.com. As to the CIA and Mr. Bamford's comments about what Mr. Helms may have written in a book 30 years later, the official position of the CIA is that it was not made as malice against the United States and was a mistake.

The National Security Agency, this week, on Monday, declassified page 64 of its 1981 report. That's also on the NSA Web site and my Web site. And they made a startling statement -- or I should say they made public a startling statement. That statement is that they ruled out any theory that the attack on the Liberty was made by the Israelis with knowledge that it was a U.S. ship.

BLITZER: All right, let me put that up on the screen, Mr. Bamford. In 1981, U.S. cryptologic history report that was declassified only in recent days says this: "While these reports revealed some confusion on the parts of the pilots," the Israeli pilots, "concerning the nationality of the ship, they tended to rule out any thesis that the Israel navy and air force deliberately attacked a ship they knew to be American."

BAMFORD: Well, unlike what Judge Cristol has to say, there was no investigation of this incident. Investigations are the kind that take place after the attack on the USS Cole off Yemen and the attack on the U.S. embassies in East Africa where FBI agents went there, conducted investigations, interviewed people, looked at documents. Not one investigator has ever, in over 35 years, gone to Israel and asked one question or looked at one document.

BLITZER: All right, let me ask Judge Cristol to respond.

Is that true?

CRISTOL: No, that's not true. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence sent people to Israel. But the original report, which is on the Web site, the U.S. Navy court of inquiry has published 727 or 728 pages, 150-some pages of testimony of crew members and other people that were involved.

Mr. Bamford's suggestion that there never was a real investigation didn't seem to -- I should say, seemed to satisfy eight U.S. presidents who have all concurred with the position that the incident was a tragic mistake.

And as recently as October of last year, President George Bush issued a White House letter saying there is no reason for any further investigation. And prior to that, President Bush's father's White House and President Clinton's White House each sent me letters on White House stationary confirming that they believe the attack a tragic mistake and no need for a further investigation. They're on my Web site.

BLITZER: All right, let me bring back Mr. Bamford.

Mr. Bamford, if you listen to the Israeli pilots in the declassified audiotapes that were released by the NSA this week, they do suggest that they thought they were going after an Egyptian vessel. BAMFORD: Well, they weren't the -- the helicopter pilots weren't the people that shot at it. It was the fighter pilots and the members of the torpedo boats that fired five torpedoes at the ship. Those are the people that need to be questioned, not the helicopter pilots. They came up after the incident.

And the helicopter pilots said -- one of the first things they said was, "There's the American flag. We see the American flag." If they saw the American flag, then why didn't the torpedo boat sailors and also the pilots on the Israeli fighter jets?

And in comment to Mr. Cristol's allegations, there has never been an investigation of this. There never has. And the reason is because the Israeli lobby, which echoes basically what Judge Cristol says, has put enormous pressure on the government not to look into this.

BLITZER: Well, what about the issue of the flag, Judge Cristol? If the pilots saw the -- helicopter pilots saw the flag, why not the torpedo ships and the fighter jets?

CRISTOL: I've covered that rather extensively in, I believe it's Chapter 7 of my book on friendly fire. And there's a substantial difference between a hovering helicopter a few feet away from a ship and an attacking jet moving close to 600 miles an hour or a torpedo boat more than a mile away when the ship was covered in smoke.

But as to Mr. Bamford's comment about the Israeli fighter pilots and torpedo boats, I have published in my book the Israeli air force tapes, which were released first to Thames Television and later to me, which dovetail exactly with the NSA tapes which were released this week.

BLITZER: What about that?

BAMFORD: Well, you know, the person who knew more about this than anybody else was the deputy director of the National Security Agency, Dr. Louis Tordella (ph), who is basically a legend at NSA. He read the Israeli explanation of this. He read every single document, he heard every one of these tapes, he read every single report that's ever come out on this. And his -- and this is included in the documents that were released -- his comment was, this is a nice whitewash, a nice whitewash.

That was the comment of the person who knew most about this than anybody else.

BLITZER: You want to respond, Judge Cristol?

CRISTOL: Yes, sir, that's in the NSA 1981 report. And what Mr. Tordella (ph) was commenting upon was the fact that the Israelis, in their investigation before the examining judge, were considering court-martialing a certain Commander Luntz (ph) who had removed the Liberty wedge from the combat display table in Haifa. And he was made a party to the investigation.

They ultimately decided that what he had done in the stress of the combat situation, and under the facts, did not justify his court- martial and decided not to court-martial him. Just like just a few weeks ago, we decided not to court-martial the pilots that killed our six Canadian friends.

And that's the exact comment that Mr. Tordella (ph) was making. Read it. It's on the web -- NSA site and my site.

BAMFORD: A nice whitewash. It says just what it says. It was a nice whitewash. And that was a fact. Israel never punished one person from this entire incident.

BLITZER: I guess Judge Cristol and others make the point that the Hebrew language linguists who work for the NSA who were listening in on the conversations of the Israeli pilots who were engaged in the operation, they came away, at least according to Judge Cristol, and concluded this was the fog of war, this was an accident.

BAMFORD: Well, the linguists didn't come to any conclusion. All they were doing was translating this. So we probably -- I think days or weeks after the event. The Liberty had no Hebrew linguists on it at the time.

The point is, after the reports were compiled, after everything was looked at, both the director of NSA, the deputy director of NSA and the director of the CIA all came to the same conclusion: It was a deliberate act, and there should have been an investigation.

Richard Helms (ph), the director of the CIA, told me just less than a year ago that this thing needed to be looked into. It was never looked into because of the pressure put on the White House...

BLITZER: All right.

BAMFORD: ... and that it looked like deliberate to him.

BLITZER: I'm going to let you get the last word, Judge Cristol, but I'll read what Richard Helms (ph) wrote in his book, "A Look Over My Shoulder."

He wrote this, he said, "It was no accident. I had no role in the board of inquiry that followed or the CIA board's finding that there could be no doubt that the Israelis knew exactly what they were doing in attacking the Liberty. I have yet to understand why it was felt necessary to attack this ship or who ordered the attack."

Judge Cristol, go ahead.

CRISTOL: Well, I would dispute Mr. Bamford's statement about his source. Marvin Nawicky (ph) mentioned in his book who he said told him that the tapes thought -- showed that the attack was intentional. Mr. Nawicky (ph) denied that. He wrote a letter to the "Wall Street Journal," which was published, in which he said -- Mr. Bamford said just the opposite of what I told them.

He also authorized me to publish his letter to Mr. Bamford, which is in my book and which is on the Web site. You can see it there under Nawicky (ph) Papers, where he says, "Dear Jim," and he goes on to say, "Some people think this was intentional. It was not. I totally disagree. It was a tragic, gross error."

BLITZER: All right. Very briefly, go ahead.

BAMFORD: Well, Richard Helms (ph) knows more about this than anybody that Judge Cristol happens to be talking about. And his comment was that it was deliberate, and it needs to be investigated.

BLITZER: What was the motive -- if it was deliberate, what was the motivation?

BAMFORD: Well, that's the big question. Since we never had an investigator ever go to Israel and ask a single question or look at a single document, nobody knows.

The deputy director of NSA, Lou Tordella (ph), said, "I believe the attack might have been ordered by some senior commander on the Sinai peninsula who wrongly suspected thought the Liberty was monitoring his activities." That's from the deputy director of the National Security Agency. You know, I can't do any better than that. That's what they felt at NSA, and that's what they believed.

BLITZER: Do you have a problem, Judge Cristol, with another formal investigation to take place at this point?

CRISTOL: It is 36 years later. Many of the people who were involved are deceased. Memories change over 36 years. Some of the people, for example, who testified under oath five days after the event now have a different memory than what they testified to under oath 36 years ago.

I agree with President Bush, his father, President Clinton, and five other presidents that the matter was thoroughly investigated. That's what they say in their letters. And there is no need for a further investigation.

And at this stage, I believe Secretary Rumsfeld said also some time last year that now this belongs to historians, and that it's nothing further to be considered by...

(CROSSTALK)

BAMFORD: These are the same people that want to keep it covered up.

BLITZER: And both of you are historians, so both of you will continue investigations.

Jim Bamford, thanks for joining us.

Judge Cristol, thank you to you, as well.

BAMFORD: Thanks, Wolf.

CRISTOL: Thank you, Wolf. A pleasure to be here. BLITZER: Thank you very much.

Coming up, we'll take a look at what's on the cover of this week's major news magazines, and our LATE EDITION Final Round, plus a quick check of the headlines.

LATE EDITION will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION.

Let's take a quick look at what's on the cover of this week's major news magazines.

"Time" magazine asks this, "Untruth and consequences: How flawed was the case for going to war against Saddam?"

"Newsweek" explores, "The shadow of Saddam Hussein over the new Iraq."

And "U.S. News and World Report" looks at "100 years of flight: The maturation of aviation since the Wright brothers."

Coming up, our Final Round.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome to our Final Round. Joining me, Donna Brazile, the Democratic strategist, Michelle Cottle of "The New Republic," Jonah Goldberg of the "National Review Online" and Stephen Hayes of "The Weekly Standard."

Questions persist about whether President Bush misled the country about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, specifically a piece of supposedly false information that he cited in his State of the Union address.

Today on this program, the president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, defended the administration's case for a war.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICE: It is unfortunate that this one sentence, this 16 words, remained in the State of the Union. But this in no way has any effect on the president's larger case about Iraqi efforts to reconstitute the nuclear program.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Stephen, are these 16 words in the president's State of the Union address being overblown?

STEPHEN HAYES, WEEKLY STANDARD: Yes, you know, I think yes and no is the safe answer. On the one hand, she's right. It's one sentence in one speech. It's part of a broad case. Made several compelling arguments in favor of taking out Saddam Hussein.

On the other hand, the administration's inability to sort of explain how the sentence got in there and what the repercussions are is troubling.

BLITZER: Michelle, overblown?

MICHELLE COTTLE, NEW REPUBLIC: Well, you know, also she made it sound like there's evidence out there that they haven't shared with us yet. They either need to show us that evidence or shut up about it, because it continues to make them look defensive, or like they just had no idea what they were doing.

BLITZER: There is no doubt this has been mishandled by the administration.

JONAH GOLDBERG, NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE: No, I think that's right. And you know, I think this whole controversy has been exaggerated, but you can only exaggerate things that are true, and so I do think there is a kernel of truth of criticism to it.

But there is a lot of revisionist history. And the idea that somehow President Bush's case for war and all the Democrats who voted for the war hinged at all on those 16 words is just factually not true.

BLITZER: But it did hinge on a lot of intelligence. And some experts, including Dr. Brzezinski on this program earlier, suggesting, well, there may have been no weapons of mass destruction.

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: And it's a serious issue. Look, I think the administration need a road map so they can all, you know, get to one decision on what happened and how it got in his speech the first place.

But until that happens, this is a serious issue, and I think the administration must address it and level with the American people.

BLITZER: A new "Newsweek" poll out this weekend suggests growing public concern about the WMD controversy.

When asked if the Bush administration misled the public to build support for war, look at this, 38 percent of you say yes, 53 percent said no.

Asked whether the administration misinterpreted or misanalyzed intelligence reports, 45 percent said yes, 41 percent said no.

Michelle, is this a sign of potential trouble for the Bush administration?

COTTLE: Not unless that first set of numbers gets worse. I mean, basically the American public trusts Bush. So if they think that he made an honest mistake with the intelligence, that's going to be one thing.

But if it looks like, more and more, that he misled people and is still kind of fudging the issue and not accepting responsibility, this could undercut his image as kind of a straight-shooting, very important, non-Clinton kind of guy.

BLITZER: What do you think, Stephen?

HAYES: Yes, actually, I agree completely with Michelle. I mean, that 38 percent is not much higher than what poll watchers traditionally think of as the sort of Bush-hating crowd or the hard- core Democratic crowd. As long as it stays in that 38 percent range and doesn't creep much above 40, I think he's all right. Once it gets higher, he's in trouble.

BLITZER: Does the president have a political problem?

BRAZILE: Oh, I believe he does. I also think he is vulnerable, and clearly what the poll reflects is that the American people are growing very uncomfortable with our stay in Iraq and also our post- Iraqi operation, the post-war operation.

BLITZER: Jonah, what must the White House do right now to end this?

GOLDBERG: Find a lot of barrels of anthrax and aflatoxin (ph) and all sorts of other things and maybe a good nuclear program. And I'm very serious about that. If we find WMD, this whole thing goes away tomorrow.

And I agree with all this stuff about the numbers. The only other thing I would add is that this shows that this sort of death-by- the-thousand-cuts strategy of the Democratic Party of constantly undermining Bush's credibility is starting to work.

BLITZER: Democrats are stepping up their criticism of the president, not only on the weapons of mass destruction issue, but on the situation in post-war Iraq.

Today, the Massachusetts senator and the Democratic presidential hopeful, John Kerry, suggested to me on this program the president's actions regarding Iraq could be a decisive factor in next year's election.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY: I think the American people have a right to ask the question of whether or not we are safer today than we were three years ago. It is the single question which determines the future and how we proceed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Sounds like John Kerry may be taking a page from Ronald Reagan's play book in 1980 when he asked, "Are you better off than you were four years ago," during the course of the Jimmy Carter administration.

John Kerry, beginning to ask, "Are you better off security-wise now than you were three years ago?"

GOLDBERG: Yes, and I think it's a perfectly legitimate question to ask in a Democratic campaign. The problem is that I don't think it works for him all that well. We haven't had a serious terrorist attack since 9/11.

At the same time, Kerry and other Democrats criticize Bush for being too heavy-handed on civil liberties and being too aggressive on foreign policy. I don't understand how you can make those criticisms and the same time say that Bush hasn't done enough to keep us safe.

BLITZER: Donna?

BRAZILE: Well, I think the better question is, are we better prepared than we were before September 11th? And I think the answer would be no.

If you ask our governors and you ask mayors and first responders, they haven't been given all the resources they need to protect our borders and to begin to give our cities the equipment to, you know, respond to a bio-terrorist attack.

GOLDBERG: But they have more resources than they did prior to September 11th.

BRAZILE: But not enough.

BLITZER: Stephen?

HAYES: Well, if John Kerry is right, and that is indeed the decisive factor in 2004, Democrats lose. I mean, I've never seen a poll that suggests that people are clamoring for Democrats to make them feel safer.

I mean -- and I don't -- I find it hard to imagine anybody saying, "I don't feel safe. I need Dennis Kucinich."

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: But they may say that they need John Kerry.

HAYES: I doubt it.

BLITZER: Michelle?

COTTLE: It's a harder question for people to answer themselves, because it's going to depend a lot on what they see the Democrats talking about.

The Democrats can make Donna's case that we should have been spending more on homeland security, whereas Bush is going to make the case of, "Well, we got rid of Saddam Hussein." You know whether or not you're better off economically, so Reagan's question was very simple. This one's a little more complicated.

BLITZER: All right, we're going to take a quick break. When we come back, will the U.S. Senate be chanting "Jerry, Jerry"?

(LAUGHTER)

The Final Round will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to our Final Round. Liberals appear to be flexing their muscle once again inside the Democratic Party. The 2 million-member liberal group moveon.org is the party's fastest growing political action group. This to the dismay of the more centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which has been on the defensive lately.

Donna, what does all this mean for the Democrats in 2004?

BRAZILE: Well, first of all, I think it's healthy right now that the liberal wing, left wing, progressive wing, whatever wing you want to call them, they're vocal. They're viable. They're energizing the party.

But also, the right wing, the centrist ring, is also a very credible wing. And of course, I think, like before, when Bill Clinton was able to bring the party together, the left wing, the right wing and the middle wing, I think the next nominee will be able to bring all our...

BLITZER: Are Republicans, Jonah, salivating at the notion that liberals are, once again, going to take over the Democratic Party?

GOLDBERG: This is great news, and this is actually a fight that goes way back. My old boss, Ben Wattenberg (ph), founded the Coalition for a Democratic Majority in order to win back all the people who left the part when McGovern was running it.

And this is -- the further to the left the Democratic Party moves, the better it is for the Republican Party, not necessarily the better it is for conservatives, and actually the better it is for the Clintons, because they want to come in and use the same strategy they used in '92 in 2008.

BLITZER: It always comes back to the Clintons, no matter what we're talking about.

GOLDBERG: It's their party. Their party.

BLITZER: Donna, go ahead. Donna -- actually Michelle. Excuse me.

COTTLE: You know, we're early in the process. And always in the primaries, you're dealing with the wings of the party. I mean, do we remember how much pandering there was to the right wing of the Republican Party the last time around? This is just what happens.

They work it all out. And by the time we get to the generals, it's not quite so stressful.

BLITZER: That's a good point.

HAYES: Yes, I think that is a good point. And the debate is always healthy, and everybody always says that.

I think liberals are going to need to be careful here, because they now are -- they're reminding me of that little angry guy on the back of pickup trucks taking out his frustration on a Ford or Chevy sticker.

This isn't political argument. This is just angry ranting. And the DNC ad this week on President Bush with this Niger charge is a good example of it. They open the ad with a lie, the Democrats do. So I think they need to careful not to overreach.

BLITZER: Well, they just took out the first few words of those 16 words.

HAYES: Yes, well, they said -- they also said that President Bush claimed that Iraq was an imminent threat, which in fact he claimed the opposite. Made the argument several times.

So they need to be careful not to overreach.

BLITZER: Let's wrap it up with this. He was one of the Democratic Party's, of course, most revered figures. And this week, a 1947 diary of President Harry Truman was released with some startling entries, particularly his comments about American Jews.

Truman wrote this: "The Jews have no sense of proportion, nor do they have any judgment on world affairs. The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated, as long as the Jews get special treatment."

Jonah, are you surprised by this?

GOLDBERG: Oh, a little surprised, although this joins a long list of weird comments presidents have made in private.

I do think that, to put in context, he got visited by, was it, is it, Morgenthau, the former treasury secretary, who was a Jew, who was pleading the case for the Jews. And so he reacted to this.

GOLDBERG: My sense is, he would have written the same thing if an Estonian had come in and pled the case for the Estonians.

BLITZER: What about that, Donna?

BRAZILE: I was surprised too, given the fact that Truman was a champ and one of the founders of -- at least he helped to found the state of Israel. So, I would hope that these statements would be put in the proper context.

BLITZER: Michelle?

COTTLE: You know, I don't understand, we expect such a kind of purity from the private words of our politicians. I would hate to hear everything LBJ said about the African-American community. You know, that does not overshadow what he did with the civil rights movement.

BLITZER: Stephen?

HAYES: Well, I think it's outrageous. I mean, I think there are generational differences, certainly, but I don't expect we'll find these in the private papers of President Clinton or President Bush, I mean, and thank goodness!

COTTLE: There's a time issue, though. That's 1947 versus 1992.

HAYES: Sure, there's a generational issue, but it's pretty outrageous nonetheless.

BLITZER: He was, as Donna correctly points out, instrumental in becoming the first world leader to recognize the state of Israel in 1948.

The talk show host Jerry Springer is a step closer to running for the U.S. Senate from his home state of Ohio. He's already filed papers for a possible run. He's airing a pre-campaign ad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JERRY SPRINGER, TALK SHOW HOST: There really is a snobbery now coming out of Washington, I think. It's partly the government, it's partly the media. But the truth is, the powers that be look down on middle America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Is America ready for Jerry Springer, Donna?

BRAZILE: I hope the people of Ohio are ready for Jerry Springer, because they're the ones who will have to select Jerry Springer.

BLITZER: He's not your candidate?

GOLDBERG: He's not my candidate. And in this infomercial he goes after me by name quite a bit for comments I made on this show.

The fact is, the guy's a fraud. He claims to be representing Joe Taxpayer. Last time I checked, Joe Taxpayer wasn't a pimp who slept with his sister.

BLITZER: Michelle?

COTTLE: You're going to get the worst parts of celebrity, because of his tacky show, but not the great parts, because he's not this larger-than-life figure like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

BLITZER: You're not going to vote for him?

HAYES: No. He's not middle America. He's whack-job America.

(LAUGHTER)

Or let's-not-take-ourselves-too-seriously America.

BLITZER: You'll have a chance to inspect that when you're in Ohio for a big event in August.

HAYES: I think I will.

BLITZER: That would be your wedding.

HAYES: I'll look for him.

BLITZER: You'll be investigating that. Maybe you can do some work in between the wedding ceremony and the...

BRAZILE: And before Jonah goes to Ohio he'll need a focus group or advance person.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Thanks to all of our Final Round for joining us.

Be sure to join me next Sunday, every Sunday of course, at noon Eastern for the last word in Sunday talk.

I'll be here Monday through Friday, twice a day, at noon and 5:00 p.m. Eastern.

Until then, thanks very much for watching. Enjoy the rest of your weekend. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com



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