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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Interview With Dan Bartlett; Interview With Seymour Hersh

Aired January 16, 2005 - 12:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: It's noon in Washington, 9 a.m. in Los Angeles, 5 p.m. in London, 8 p.m. in Baghdad. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks for joining us for "LATE EDITION."
We'll get to my interview with the counselor to the president, Dan Bartlett, in just a few minutes. First let's get a quick check of what's in the news right now.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: For more than two centuries, the U.S. presidential inauguration has been cited as a celebration and a showcase of democracy.

On Thursday President Bush takes the oath of office for a second term, facing the challenges of Iraq, the war on terror and an ambitious domestic agenda.

Just a short while ago here in Washington, I spoke with the counselor to the president, Dan Bartlett, about the issues likely to dominate the president's second term in office.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Dan Bartlett, welcome back to "LATE EDITION." Thanks very much for joining us.

An exciting week for you...

DAN BARTLETT, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Yes.

BLITZER: ... with the inauguration of the president. We'll get to that shortly, but let's talk about Iraq.

Two weeks from today, these elections are supposed to take place. But by all accounts, there are still major areas of Iraq where people are too afraid to go out and vote.

How can you have an election when big chunks of the country are simply too insecure?

BARTLETT: Well, Wolf, we don't know exactly how that's going to come out when it comes to the security environment two weeks from now.

But what we do know, the fact there is going to be an election two weeks from today. An incredible achievement for the Iraqi people. People who were looking at this issue 18 months ago, if you would have told them you were going to have an election on January 30, 2005, in which the Iraqi people themselves can begin to put together a government that represents their interest, they would say that was not practical. Just like they said it wasn't practical to transfer sovereignty and the other big achievements we've already accomplished.

This is an important step for the Iraqi people. This step on January 30th will allow for the Iraqi people to elect an assembly. That assembly then will elect or appoint leadership. Then a constitutional process, in which the people will be able to vote in the constitutional process, comes forward. Then after that, we get to vote -- they get to vote on a permanent government a year from now.

So this is a critical first step.

The security environment is tough, no question about it, and we're going to do everything we can to help achieve the best possible scenario in order for as many people as possible to vote. But we do know millions of Iraqi people want to vote, and we're going to find ways to get them to the polls.

BLITZER: I'm sure a lot of the Sunni Iraqis would like to vote, but they're scared. They're scared because they think they could be killed even if they show up at a polling booth. The polling areas, the location of those places are still being kept secret for security reasons.

In The New York Times today, there was a flyer circulating: "Our apologies for not mentioning the names of all the candidates, but the security situation is bad and we have to keep them alive."

This sounds like an extraordinary election. I know it's the first time Iraq has had an election like this, but you don't even know where you're going to go vote, you don't even know who the candidates are.

BARTLETT: Well, you're right, it is an extraordinary election on many different accounts. And the fact that they're having one I think is a great success. The very type of security situations or concerns were raised in Afghanistan, and thankfully it went on without much of a disturbance.

Now, this could be a different situation. We're trying to plan to that effect. But as The New York Times goes on to report in that story, is that many Iraqis understand that you're not particularly voting for one specific candidate, but you're voting for a party, a constituency, a slate of people. So they understand the agenda and the backgrounds of the slate that is being put forward to vote on.

We will work to make sure we do everything to undermine or work around the terrorists' desires. But I think it does speak to the central issue here, and that is the terrorists understand how important Iraq's election process is, we understand it, and the Iraqi people understand it. But delaying elections, to suggest for some reason that if we just put it off for a month or two, that somehow that would change the climate, I think is a gross misunderstanding of the issue.

Violence begets violence, and if the terrorists think that they can run us off, or the terrorists think that they can make us delay elections, that will only embolden them, and that's the wrong course.

BLITZER: The fact that the U.S. military, the intelligence community, has ended, without a lot of fanfare, the search for weapons of mass destruction, which you well know was the main rationale for going to war against Saddam Hussein, what does that say to the American public?

BARTLETT: Well, as you know, Wolf, this is something that has been covered for quite some time. As we know, going into the war, not only the American government but many governments from around the world believed that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of weapons.

We thought he had them there. We knew that in 1991, we underestimated the problem when it came to Saddam Hussein. We thought he was behind schedule when it comes to nuclear weapons of mass destruction, but we found out that he was much closer than we thought.

And President Bush has appointed a bipartisan commission to look into this very issue, why did we not find WMD? Why did the intelligence say this? And we're going to get to the answers to that question.

But what we have learned, through both the David Kay report as well as the Charlie Duelfer report, is that Saddam Hussein was still a very dangerous man. He had the capabilities to produce weapons of mass destruction on a moment's notice. He had the funding. He was deceiving the world. We will find out probably more through the investigation of the oil-for-food program to see exactly how he was gaming the system, as Charlie Duelfer called it.

And that is an ingredient in that part of the world, that Saddam was a very dangerous man. It was the right decision then, and it was the right decision today.

BLITZER: But Europeans, other critics have suggested that he was contained, he was in a box. The U.S. had a no-fly zone in the north, a no-fly zone in the south. Sanctions were being imposed. He represented very marginally, at that moment in time, a threat to anyone other than his own people.

BARTLETT: Well, that might be easy to say for people who are not actually putting young lives at risk every day flying those no-fly zones. They're being shot at almost on a daily basis, U.S. pilots.

The fact of the matter is, because of his ties to terrorist organizations, those capabilities he had could be handed over to terrorist organizations without us ever knowing.

BLITZER: Let me interrupt... BARTLETT: He was a belligerent -- he was somebody who had acted on those, on his ambitions in the past, and it was the right decision to remove him.

BLITZER: So the president believes that the 1,300 American troops who have been killed in Iraq, the thousands of others who have been injured, the $100 billion, $200 billion, whatever it cost, all of that has been worth it?

BARTLETT: Absolutely.

And I think there is a report that came out this week from the National Intelligence Council that tried to forecast into the future for 20 years, to see what kind of potential world climate we would have.

And what they said is that what we've concluded from that is that the United States, with the influence we have in the world, must act to help promote liberty abroad so we can protect our interests, and it was absolutely the right thing to do.

BLITZER: Knowing what he knows today, everything he knows today, about no weapons of mass destruction stockpiles, would he have done exactly the same thing?

BARTLETT: Hypotheticals, knowing what you know then -- he believes the action is right today. He believes we removed a tyrant from power that was a dangerous personality to his own people, but a destabilizing force in a critical part of the world that has a direct security interest to the American people. It was the right decision.

BLITZER: That CIA report you referred to for the National Intelligence Council also said this, according to David Low, one of its leaders:

"Iraq provides terrorists now with a training ground, a recruitment ground, the opportunity for enhancing technical skills. There is even, under the best scenario over time, the likelihood that some of the jihadists, who are not killed there, will, in a sense, go home, wherever home is, and will therefore disperse to various other countries."

In other words, the suggestion is, in this intelligence assessment, looking ahead to the year 2020, that Iraq is emerging as the training ground as Afghanistan was in the '80s and '90s for al Qaeda and other terrorists.

BARTLETT: It's exactly the reason President Bush said that Iraq is now one of the central fronts in the war on terror. The enemy understands the stakes in Iraq. They understand that if we get it right there, if a democracy emerges in the heart of the Middle East, that will strike a critical blow to their efforts.

The fact of the matter is that you're right, thousands upon thousands of these jihadists were training in Afghanistan. They were also training in other parts of the world. They have come to Iraq to make that their central front and battle in the war on terror.

But to suggest that if we weren't engaged in the enemy, fighting this war on offense, that these people would go back to live quiet lives as a shopkeeper or something like that is a misunderstanding of the nature of the enemy we face.

So I think this is very consistent with what President Bush has said about the war in Iraq and the broader war on terror. We have to fight it on offense. We have to engage them. In the course of engaging an enemy, the enemy is going to fight back, and that's what we've seen. We've seen some very difficult fighting in Iraq, but it's for the right cause.

BLITZER: The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, who's going to be in this program in the next hour, has a new article in The New Yorker coming out today saying Iran is the next agenda item for the Bush administration, specifically some 13 sites where Iran is developing, he says, or at least the U.S. government believes, nuclear capability.

Is that a correct assessment, that you're looking at undermining Iran's potential for nuclear development?

BARTLETT: Mr. Hersh has written several articles about this administration that has been fundamentally inaccurate. And I think this one will fall in the same category.

We obviously have a concern about Iran. The entire world has a concern about Iran. That's why we've been working with our European allies to convince them not to develop a nuclear weapons program.

But I've seen excerpts of this story. I think it's riddled with inaccuracies. And I don't believe that some of the conclusions he's drawing are based on fact.

BLITZER: But are you looking to do whatever is necessary to destroy Iran's nuclear capability?

BARTLETT: President Bush has set forth a diplomatic initiative that he's made very clear to the entire world. We're working with our European allies to help convince the Iranian government to not pursue weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons. We'll continue to work through the IAEA protocol to do just that.

It's critical that the entire world focus on this issue. It is a threat that we have to take seriously, and we'll continue to work through the diplomatic initiatives that he set forth.

BLITZER: If diplomacy fails, though, is military action an option?

BARTLETT: Wolf, as you know, no president at any juncture in history has ever taken military options off the table. That is known. But what President Bush has shown that he believes we can emphasize the diplomatic initiatives that are under way right now.

BLITZER: The Middle East also has an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that you'd love to see get going once again.

Was it wise for Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, to suspend all contacts with the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas in the aftermath of that killing along the border between Gaza and Israel?

BARTLETT: Well, both parties understand that one of the critical aspects of any lasting peace is to address the security situation. And with the bombings, the most recent bombings, upwards of nine lives were lost, Israeli citizens, you're going to expect the government to take steps after that in the wake of such a horrific act on innocent civilians.

Mr. Abbas also knows, the new president of the Palestinian Authority, understands himself that the security situation is a critical element to a lasting peace. And the United States government and other nations around the world are going to work with the two parties to make the road map a reality and to make sure that we address these security concerns.

So we believe in the coming days and weeks and months that the two parties will be able to speak directly to the issue of security, and it's something that the new leadership of the Palestinian Authority must and will take seriously, and as well as Ariel Sharon.

BLITZER: Well, would you like to see Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas talking to each other to try to work together to jumpstart this peace process?

BARTLETT: And I think that will take place, according to everything I've read and seen, that that is going to take place under a certain period of time.

But both leaders are obligated first and foremost to address, when you have a crisis, when you lose innocent civilians -- and you can expect them to take immediate steps in that regard -- but both sides understand that a lasting peace must address the security situation.

BLITZER: So you want Mahmoud Abbas, as the president of the Palestinian Authority, to crack down on Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Al- Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the other groups, the militants, who would like to presumably undermine this dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israelis?

BARTLETT: Well, that position has been made very clear, that we need to consolidate the security forces under one leader, the president. He needs to take aggressive steps to stop the violence.

It's hard for people to try to negotiate the terms of a peace when their innocent civilians are being killed. Both parties understand that. The road map is in place. It can be implemented, but we have to address the violence.

The president believes that Mr. Abbas understands that. He knows that Prime Minister Sharon understand that he has to take steps as well, he has responsibilities as well in Israel, but we must address the violence.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Just ahead, more of my interview with the counselor to the president. Dan Bartlett will tell us why the president has effectively abandoned plans to push for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Then, election watch in Iraq. Can the polls be adequately protected? Two key U.S. senators standing by to weigh in.

We'll also talk with Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations about the violence plaguing his country as it prepares to vote.

"LATE EDITION" continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our Web question of the week asks this: What should be President Bush's priority in his second term -- terrorism, Iraq, Social Security or the economy?

You can vote. Go to cnn.com/lateedition. We'll have the results later in this program.

But up next...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know that if we don't address the problem now, it will only get worse with time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: ... more of my conversation with the counselor to the president, Dan Bartlett, about the next four years, as the president prepares for a second term.

You're watching "LATE EDITION," the last word in Sunday talk.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A new Time magazine poll released just today, showing Americans deeply split when it comes to whether the country is headed in the right or wrong direction.

Welcome back to "LATE EDITION." We return now to my interview with Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Let's talk about some domestic issues. Has the president, as he indicates in his interview in The Washington Post today, abandoned the notion of fighting for a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage in the United States? BARTLETT: Well, what the president was speaking to was some of the legislative realities in the United States Senate. As you know, it requires 67 votes in the United States Senate for a constitutional amendment to move forward. That's a very high bar.

What we learned through the debate last year is that many members of the Senate believe that the Defense of Marriage Act first must be overturned or challenged before we take the next step of a constitutional amendment.

This does not change President Bush's view about an amendment, the need for an amendment, and he'll continue to push for an amendment. But what he was speaking to was the legislative realities of the United States Senate and getting that 67 votes.

BLITZER: Well, when you say he'll continue to push for an amendment, it looks like that's not realistic, according to your own assessment right now. So he's not going to push it.

BARTLETT: Well, he'll continue to work to convince people and convince members of Congress that it is necessary now. He will spend political capital to do so.

It is an important part of what the president believes. He believes the institution of marriage being defined as between a man and a woman is important for our civil society. It's something we have recognized as government for hundreds and hundreds of years. And he will continue to express his views on that.

But what he was speaking to there was the actual vote count and getting 67 votes.

BLITZER: So unlike Social Security reform or tax simplification, it's unlikely, according to your political assessment of the mood on Capitol Hill right now, that this kind of amendment is going to get off the ground?

BARTLETT: Well, again, the United States Senate has made clear the issue about the Defense of Marriage Act. That's not going to stop the president from continuing to talk about why he thinks it needs to be addressed.

BLITZER: Let's talk about some other issues. Listen to what Senator Ted Kennedy -- he gave a speech here in Washington this week and spoke about what he condemned as this strategy of the White House. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

U.S. SENATOR EDWARD KENNEDY (D-MA): We have an administration that falsely hypes almost every issue as a crisis. They did it on Iraq, and they are doing it now on Social Security. They exploit the politics of fear and division.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Does the president believe that there is a crisis right now or a crisis in a decade or two decades or three decades when it comes to Social Security?

BARTLETT: Well, he believes the time is now.

And I'm sure Senator Kennedy didn't go out and give a speech in 1998, when President Clinton went to Georgetown University to give a speech where he called the Social Security issue a crisis in 1998.

So we have a situation here. We've had Democrats and Republicans recognize that there is a problem. This is not one of ideology. This is one of simple math. In 1950, there were 16 workers paying into the system for every retiree. Now, we have a situation where there's only three workers per retiree. In 2040, there will only be two workers per retiree.

We need a Social Security system that reflects the demands and the realities of this century. The Social Security system of the 20th century was incredibly successful, incredibly important to our nation and to our social commitment to America's seniors. We need to take the steps now to strengthen it for the future generations, and that's the issue on the table.

BLITZER: A lot of people are worried that the stock markets, the bond markets, they'll go up, they'll go down, they could lose their investments. Whereas if there is a steady 2 percent, 3 percent increase over the years, that that's at least a lot more reliable for their retirement down the road, this partial privatization that the president would like to see happen.

BARTLETT: Well, the one thing we do know is that under the status quo, they're going to get dramatic benefits cuts and/or dramatic tax increases. So it's the status quo that is the worst scenario now.

We do believe that a system could be put in place in which younger generations of workers can set aside in very safe ways part of their payroll tax that will allow for them to get a better rate of return than the government could ever provide. And there's many Americans, younger Americans, who want that opportunity.

BLITZER: That money, though, that 2 percent, 3 percent, 4 percent, whatever it is, the private privatization, those private accounts, what happens when that individual dies? Does that just go away or do the heirs to the individual get ahold of that money?

BARTLETT: Wolf, a lot of the people say that's one of the big problems with the Social Security system as it is today, is that you have people who die who are saving and paid into the system for a long time, and they're not able to pass that on to their children or their grandchildren.

And we believe that a part of the solution should be one that builds an ownership society, that gives people more control over their own assets, and able to take that nest egg and hand it over when they die, if they die at a young age, in their early fifties and they paid in, that ought to be able to go to their children and grandchildren. So we think that's an important part...

BLITZER: So that private account will pass on to the children or the estate.

BARTLETT: Well, we're working on the specific details, but that's one of the goals here, is to make sure to build an ownership society, where people have more control over their own lives, that you're able to pass on from one generation to the next.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about this inauguration. You know that the $40 million or so that has been set up to pay for the inauguration, there was an article in the Associated Press this week that said that that $40 million, instead of lavish balls and parties here in Washington, could pay for 200 armored Humvees, vaccinations and health care for 22 million tsunami children, a downpayment on the $412 billion U.S. deficit. You get the point. And some people are saying, "Don't spend all that money on the lavish party" -- it's probably too late now -- "but go ahead and give that money to more worthy causes."

What do you say to those critics of that suggestion?

BARTLETT: Well, one key fact they're leaving off is this was privately raised. This is not taxpayer dollars going to these balls.

BLITZER: And the president could say, "You know what? Forget about the parties. Give the money to good causes."

BARTLETT: Well, thankfully, in what we'd expect from the American people is that they're doing that anyways. If you look at the charitable donations that are happening with regard to the disaster of the tsunami victims being headed by Presidents Bush and Clinton, show that the outpouring of giving by the American people is there. That doesn't mean they can't also give to a private cause and allow there to be an inauguration.

Look, we've had inaugurations during the course of our history, during many different trying times. And it's a celebration of democracy. Whether it's Republican or Democrat, it's important that the country be able to come together at the end of the process, have an opportunity to celebrate the election of a president. It will be done in good taste. It will be done commensurate with the fact that we're a nation at war.

But we do believe it's important that through privately raised money, that we ought to go forward with inaugural festivities.

BLITZER: And this is the first inauguration since 9/11. So the tone will be different, you're saying, this second presidential inauguration for President Bush, than it was four years ago?

BARTLETT: I believe so. And the president will speak to that in his address on Thursday, when he'll talk about the great challenges we have as a country but the great opportunities we can seize as a country as well.

We are a nation at war. We have some very critical responsibilities to protect the peace, not only for us today but for future generations. We have a critical opportunity here also to confront some big challenges for the next generation when it comes to retirement, when it comes to other issues facing us. And he's going to talk about how we can seize that opportunity.

So this is an incredibly optimistic time for the president for the new term. And he's going to speak to the country, and to the world for that matter, on Thursday to those goals.

BLITZER: And he will reach out to Democrats and others who didn't vote for him, to try to bring them into the process?

BARTLETT: Absolutely. Absolutely.

BLITZER: What specifically...

BARTLETT: Well, the inauguration is an opportunity to say, "The election is over. Let's move forward and work." He understands his role as the president of the United States to be president for all the people, not red states and blue states and all that. That is to the past.

Now, he recognizes that some people won't let go of the past, but he's going to work as hard as he can to reach across party lines to try to come together to work on some of these big issues of the day.

And you'll see that in different areas. That's why he is not ruling out different proposals on Social Security. He wants everybody to be a part of the process. He has an obligation to do that, and he understands that.

BLITZER: Dan Bartlett, we'll be watching this week. Thanks very much for joining us.

BARTLETT: Thanks for having me.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Up next, a check of what's making news right now including the latest on the tsunami death toll.

Then what are the expectations for the president's second terms? Two key U.S. senators, Republican Mitch McConnell and Democrat Carl Levin, standing by to join me live.

More "LATE EDITION" right at the top of the hour.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

President Bush will begin his second term in office with stronger majorities on both sides of Capitol Hill. But will that translate into support on Iraq as well as on his domestic agenda?

Joining us now, two leading members of the United States Senate. Here in Washington, the Senate's second-ranking Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. And in Detroit, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin of Michigan.

Senators, welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

And, Senator McConnell, I'll begin with you. General Thomas Metz, who is one of the commanders on the ground in Iraq, said this week there were four provinces, key provinces, in Iraq out of the 18 where the security situation is so tenuous that now people, some people there won't be allowed to vote.

You're just back from Iraq. How tenuous is that security situation based on your eyewitness account?

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), KENTUCKY: I don't think he said they won't be allowed to vote. I think he...

BLITZER: He said, "It'll be so difficult to vote."

MCCONNELL: ... said it'd be difficult to vote.

BLITZER: It'll be so worrisome...

MCCONNELL: Yes.

BLITZER: ... so dangerous they might not be able to.

MCCONNELL: In 14 of the 18 provinces we expect a relatively normal election with robust turnouts.

In these four Sunni provinces, security is a problem. And we are working on trying to secure the voting places. We're giving the Iraqis an opportunity to vote in different locations rather than in their neighborhoods.

But I think, Wolf it is accurate to say that it will have an impact on turnout in four of the 18 provinces.

BLITZER: These four provinces, though, represent the most heavily populated parts of Iraq, including in and around Baghdad. Almost half of the population are in these four provinces, and most of the Sunni Iraqis, who represent about 20 percent of the overall Iraqi population.

There is concern that if the Sunnis can't participate and there is a disproportionate Shiite or Kurdish representation, all this might be for naught.

MCCONNELL: Well, as you know, they don't vote for individuals, they vote for slates. It's a proportional system. And on all the leading slates there are significant numbers of Sunnis high up on the slates, which almost guarantees that they will get significant representation through the election process. And then, of course, this is only a temporary government, Wolf, that will only exist for a year. It will be for the purpose of drafting a constitution.

There will be a number of Sunnis appointed to significant positions in that government, which will craft the constitution. And we'll have another election -- they'll have another election in October on the constitution and then the permanent government.

BLITZER: What do you think, Senator Levin? Is this going to work?

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN: Hopefully it will work. There's no certainty that it's going to work, but there's no other alternative.

No matter what one's position was or is relative to the way in which we moved into Iraq, the lack of international support, I think everybody now is in agreement on the next step, which is that there should be an election. We should do everything we can to make that election work.

And that's what the various countries in the neighborhood are hopefully going to do. They haven't quite yet stepped up to the real issue, which is to tell the Sunnis in Iraq that they, these neighboring countries, expect to recognize the result of the election.

Now, what they have done -- the Arab League this week said that they believe that the Sunnis should vote despite all of the challenges that you and Mitch have just outlined.

But nonetheless, it would be helpful if those Arab neighbors, particularly the Sunni neighbors in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, would state publicly that they expect to recognize the results of this election even though it will not be perfect and even though there will be some people who will not be able to vote because of security issues.

BLITZER: All right. You wanted to weigh in, Senator McConnell.

MCCONNELL: Yes, could I just make one point?

We met with the U.N. representative, who is Carlos Valenzuela, who is sort of their elections expert, who is in the country. He assured us that, in spite of the security problems, the turnout will meet the international standards. This will be a credible election. He's absolutely convinced of it.

BLITZER: Well, the U.N. itself is going to have a very limited number of observers. They're afraid to send in people because, unlike the situation with the Palestinian elections or the Afghan elections, U.N. and international monitors will basically be invisible because it's so dangerous.

MCCONNELL: Yes, but the point is this the U.N. elections expert, who's been over there for a lengthy period of time, who is involved in the procedures, who is aware of the security problem, Wolf, and he says this election will meet international standards.

BLITZER: All right. Let's move on.

One of the issues, Senator Levin, is the president insisting in this interview that appeared in The Washington Post today that he has really no regrets when it comes to the lack of weapons of mass destruction or accountability, if you will, for some of the failures in Iraq.

He said this, "We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 election. And the American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates and chose me, for which I'm grateful."

Do you accept that point?

LEVIN: Well, I think the American people obviously re-elected him. That doesn't mean that they agree with all of his policies relative to Iraq or all of the ways in which the Iraq war has been fought.

The disbanding of the Iraqi army was a tragic mistake. It never should have been disbanded. It was disbanded against the recommendation of some major groups, who recommended that we keep most of the Iraqi army in place.

The lack of planning for the aftermath was a terrific mistake. It was a tragic mistake. But obviously we now have to move on, and now we're there. No matter whether we were critical or not, the next step, we hope will work, and we've got to put all of our efforts into making that next step work and into supporting our troops no matter where people were on the issue of whether or not it was wise to go into Iraq with a lack of international support. All of us are very supportive now of supporting the troops, getting on with this election and making this work the best we possibly can.

BLITZER: Senator McConnell, Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker magazine has a new article coming out today, in effect, in which he says that the Bush administration is already looking at reconnaissance, other intelligence, surveillance at Iran's nuclear sites, some 13 sites in Iran, with the objective perhaps, if diplomacy fails, of using military force to take those sites out.

How serious of a problem the nuclear weapons development program of Iran do you believe that problem is for the U.S.?

MCCONNELL: Well, I don't know what Seymour Hersh is going to write. Some of us have felt at various times it was fiction.

But with regard to Iran, it's a real problem, and the Bush administration, as we all know, has been criticized for not being -- for being too unilateral. Well, certainly with regard to Iran, they're working with the British and the French and the Germans to try to come up with a multilateral way to pressure the Iranians to do what we all hope they will do, which is to not go nuclear -- a multilateral approach. Is a nuclear Iran acceptable? No, but the best way to deal with it is on a multilateral basis, and us and all of our allies agree that a non-nuclear Iran is a desirable end.

BLITZER: And if that diplomacy fails?

MCCONNELL: Well, we're not going to speculate about it failing. We don't want it to fail. We're going to will work with our allies to make sure that it doesn't.

BLITZER: What's your bottom line when it comes to Iran, Senator Levin?

LEVIN: I agree with Senator McConnell, that the multilateral approach is the best way to go at it. You obviously don't eliminate any options should they ever become an imminent threat, but the multilateral approach is the right approach in Iran.

And this is what would have been the right approach in Iraq, as a matter of fact, and is the right approach with North Korea. We've got to work with our allies, particularly neighbors in the region, to try to contain these threats. That's what we are doing now relative to Iran. It's the right way to go.

And if there is an imminent threat which grows up later, then at that point you deal with that threat. But that is something we should try to avoid multilaterally.

BLITZER: I want to take a break, but Senator Levin, very quickly, should the president name a special envoy for the Israeli- Palestinian peace process?

LEVIN: It might be helpful for him to do so. I think that would show additional attention to that process, but I would leave that up to the next secretary of state to give advice to the president on that issue. But if you ask my instinct, I'd say, yes, it would probably be a good idea.

BLITZER: Senator McConnell, you've spent a lot of time dealing on this Israeli-Palestinian matter. What do you think?

MCCONNELL: I was there in November. I think both the Israelis and the Americans are optimistic that we're going to make progress. Whether an envoy helps that come about or not, I think I would leave that up to the president. But I'm optimistic that we're actually going to have some progress.

BLITZER: You like the new Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas?

MCCONNELL: Yes. I think everybody feels he is a credible person to deal with on the other side. We didn't have such a person when Arafat was still there.

BLITZER: All right. Senators, we're going to take a quick break. Much more to talk about with Senators McConnell and Levin. We'll also move on and talk about some domestic issues as well.

Later, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh tells us what he's learned about Iran being the United States' supposed next target in the war on terror. He'll join us live.

"LATE EDITION" will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're continuing our conversation with Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan.

We've got a new Time magazine poll out today on Social Security, whether Americans approve of the president's handling of Social Security issues: 40 percent approve; 49 percent disapprove; 11 percent say they don't know.

On the issue of whether Americans should be allowed to invest part of their Social Security taxes in private accounts, 44 percent favor the president's proposal; 47 percent oppose it; 9 percent don't know.

Country pretty split on those issues, as well. The president's got sort of an uphill struggle to convince the American public that the privatization, partial privatization of these plans is a good idea.

MCCONNELL: Well, the one thing, I don't know all the questions Time magazine asked, but I wonder if they asked younger people whether they thought Social Security would be there at all. And most of them don't think it will be there at all.

And also younger people are very, very excited about the possibility of having at least a small portion of the Social Security taxes that they already have to pay anyway go into a personal retirement account that they could control and that they could leave to their heirs.

That's not going to solve the problem of Social Security, as President Clinton pointed out in 1998. Social Security has an enormous problem, and it's a problem of too many elderly people, and that begins very quickly.

BLITZER: That sounds very attractive, Senator Levin, that you have these small private accounts that you could invest in with your own Social Security withholding tax over many years. If you were -- anyone were to die, let's say, at 65, before they could really take advantage of Social Security, at least that small, relatively small percentage of the Social Security taxes that you've contributed could go on to your heirs.

LEVIN: Well, privatizing Social Security introduces a crap shoot into the system. There will be winners, there will be losers. Social Security was intended to be an insurance guarantee that it will be there, those benefits that are guaranteed by the government will be there in full for everybody at the same level. That is the guarantee which we've kept. That's the guarantee we should keep.

To privatize part of Social Security the way the president proposes will require that there be some kind of funding to fill in the gap for the funds that do not flow into the Social Security system from those workers who use the private accounts.

What's going to make up that gap? The president has not said, and so far won't say, because it's something the American people I hope will not accept, which is an additional $1 trillion to $2 trillion of debt, which those same young people are going to have to pay off.

BLITZER: But, Senator Levin, if you do nothing, though, there is a serious problem in the not-too-distant future, is that right?

LEVIN: No, it's 30 years from now, we have full benefits paid. That's when the first time that we have a problem, starting about 2047. That is something we can plan for.

We did it in the early '80s, Wolf. In the early '80s, we saw 30 years ahead that there would be problems. We took action on a bipartisan basis to make changes in the system in terms of retirement age, in terms of COLAs, in terms of how much taxes you would pay up to what level of income.

We made changes in the mid-'80s in order to address a future problem. We have a future challenge here. We can address it without creating an element of risk and uncertainty and turning a Social Security system into a social insecurity system.

BLITZER: That seems like the problem is way down the road, if you accept what Senator Levin is saying, Senator McConnell.

MCCONNELL: Well, 2018, the Social Security system will start paying out more than it's taking in. The date that Carl mentioned is the date when our children start retiring. Do we want to deal with this problem now or deal with it later?

If we wait, if we wait, we're going to have draconian benefit cuts or outrageous tax increases, because of the huge number of elderly people we're going to have as the baby boomers begin to retire beginning in just a few years.

BLITZER: But the $2 trillion price tag for the partial privatization, that seems like a pretty high price tag.

MCCONNELL: Well, you have got a $10 trillion problem here. I mean, we can either begin to deal -- let's just put personal retirement accounts aside for a minute. What I hear some of our friends on the other side saying is, we don't have a problem. Let's deal with it (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Why should we wait until the end?

BLITZER: Let's let Senator Levin respond to that. Go ahead, Senator Levin.

LEVIN: Well, we should deal with it now. The way to deal with it is to protect Social Security and not to make it a crap shoot and not to turn it into something which is uncertain.

We have done that before, as I've indicated. But what Mitch leaves out in his 2018 comment is the fact that there is government bonds and treasury notes that are held by the Social Security Administration. It is a trust fund. Its very purpose was to be used when less money is coming in than is going out. That trust fund lasts until 2045. That is what should not be ignored by the American public.

And we'll make it worse if fewer funds go into the Social Security system during this period by the creation of these private accounts, will make that gap worse. It's got to be made up somehow. How does the president and the people who want to privatize Social Security want to make up that gap? Borrow more money. That's what we should not do. That is reckless policy.

BLITZER: I'm going to let Senator McConnell respond, briefly, because I have another question I want to ask.

MCCONNELL: Well, nobody is arguing we should privatize Social Security. That is a pejorative way of trying to demonize what the president is trying to do here.

Let's just put aside personal retirement accounts and ask Carl Levin and his Democratic colleagues, do they want to do anything about a crisis that President Clinton said in 1998 is upon us, or do we want to wait until the last minute? That's the challenge.

BLITZER: And I know Senator Levin has basically responded to that.

LEVIN: As I said, we should act now, we should do it on a bipartisan basis. We should make the kinds of changes to protect Social Security instead of privatizing part of it. The type of changes that we made in the mid-'80s on a bipartisan basis.

BLITZER: A quick question, Senator Levin, before I let you go. Michael Chertoff, nominated to be the new secretary of homeland security by the president, will you support this nomination?

LEVIN: I believe that he's a good man and that I plan to support him. There are some questions that need to be asked relative to certain comments which he made at an earlier confirmation hearing, but I know that he is a good man, and from all I know he will be confirmed.

BLITZER: Senator Levin, thanks very much for joining us.

And, Senator McConnell, thanks to you as well.

MCCONNELL: Thank you, Wolf. LEVIN: Good being with you and Mitch both.

BLITZER: And please, to our viewers, don't forget our Web question of the week: What should be President Bush's priority in the second term? Should it be terrorism, Iraq, Social Security or the economy? You can vote right now. Go to cnn.com/lateedition.

And please stay tuned to CNN day and night for the most reliable news about your security.

Coming up on "LATE EDITION," we'll get insight from three experts on keeping the first post-9/11 presidential inauguration safe.

"LATE EDITION" will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get to some of your e-mail.

Nancy in Arizona writes this: "President Bush's plan for Social Security will not solve the problem. Private accounts will not make Social Security any better off unless there is a dramatic cut in benefits. It's time for the president to be honest with the American people."

Scott in New Jersey writes, "I give President Bush credit for addressing the problems of Social Security now rather than pushing off until later. We can save the program now before it reaches a hole that's too big to ever get out of."

Remember, we always welcome your comments. Our e-mail address, lateedition@cnn.com.

Up next, our conversation with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Seymour Hersh. We'll talk about his explosive new article in the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine, just coming out today, regarding the United States, Iran and the war on terror.

And later, what will President Bush say and what should he say in his inauguration speech this coming Thursday? We'll get special insight from two former presidential speechwriters.

"LATE EDITION" continues right at the top of the hour.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

And in just a moment, we'll hear from the Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Seymour Hersh about some potentially explosive information he's uncovered regarding U.S. plans for Iran.

We'll get to that. First, though, a quick check of what's in the news right now.

(NEWSBREAK) BLITZER: President Bush says the United States must constantly review its plans on the war against terrorism and, quote, "never lose our will."

For a look at where that war on terrorism could turn next, we're joined by award-winning journalist Seymour Hersh. He has a powerful new article out in this new issue of The New Yorker magazine.

Sy Hersh, thanks very much for joining us.

SEYMOUR HERSH, THE NEW YORKER: Glad to be here.

BLITZER: One of the things you write is this: "The administration has been conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran at least since last summer. Much of the focus is on the accumulation of intelligence and targeting information on Iranian nuclear, chemical and missile sites, both declared and suspected.

"The goal is to identify and isolate three dozens and perhaps more such targets that could be destroyed by precision strikes and short-term commando raids."

That sounds like the U.S. is getting ready to take out these sites.

HERSH: Well, they're planning. Obviously, that's clear. There's extensive planning, much more than we know.

BLITZER: But there's one thing to have contingency plans on the shelf. As you know that, the Pentagon does that for everything. But there's another thing to think that these plans are really about to be used.

HERSH: The problem -- you know, if my story works, it won't happen. I think that's one of the reasons some of the people on the inside talk to me. But right now...

BLITZER: Explain what you mean by that.

HERSH: Well, the president and Cheney and Rumsfeld, the top three people, think that the election has given them a mandate to continue the war on terrorism. And this government doesn't look at the war as one big picture. They're all separate. The war in Iraq is different from the war in Iran and the war maybe against Syria and the war against global terrorism. They're all separate war zones.

And so, the planning for Iran is going ahead even though Iraq is a mess and may still be a mess. That's separate and that's very interesting.

I think they really think there's a chance to do something in Iran perhaps by summer, to get the intelligence on the sites. The last thing this government wants to do is to bomb or stray for missile, attack the wrong targets against. We don't want another WMD flap. We want to be sure we have the right information.

So I think it's systems go. I think that the guys on the inside really want to do this.

BLITZER: When you say the guys on the inside, the civilian leadership or the military leadership?

HERSH: We call them neocons, the neoconservatives, the civilian leadership. We're talking about people in the Pentagon, not only Rumsfeld, but Wolfowitz and Doug Feith, the undersecretary for policy -- the sort of war hawks that we talk about in connection with the war in Iraq.

The next step is Iran. It's definitely there. They're definitely planning. This is more than just contingency planning. There also is contingency planning, which of course is prudent and necessary for a major ground assault.

This is a series of aerial attacks they're talking about. But they need the intelligence first. We're getting help, as you know I write, from the Pakistanis on this, who worked very closely with Iran a decade ago.

BLITZER: So you're suggesting that by this coming summer, which is not that far away, if the diplomacy were to fail to convince the Iranian government to stop building some sort of nuclear bomb, you think the U.S. could launch commando strikes or aerial strikes?

HERSH: There are people who've talked to me inside the government whose information has been reliable to me. Obviously, you know, I've been doing alternative history for three years. They've been very reliable in the past. They say, look, this is on, this is going to happen. It's not contingent on Iraq; Iraq's separate. And we're also, as you know, escalating our efforts in the global war on terrorism around the world. We're trying to do more.

BLITZER: So what you're saying, this would be a limited strike, an airstrike. It wouldn't be occupying Iran or trying to regime- change, anything along those lines?

HERSH: There is a thought by some of the people, the civilian leadership, that a series of controlled attacks, very accurate, not with too much collateral damage -- you're not going to hit major targets in Tehran where you can hurt a lot of innocents -- you're going to hit missile targets, weapons targets. If that happens, there's the thought that, you know, Iran is predominantly -- it's not Muslim. Most of the people are Persian -- not Arabs, rather. They're all Muslims.

BLITZER: They're all Muslims.

HERSH: They're all Muslims, but not Arabs. There's a thought that the secular basis of which makes up much of the population in Iran would maybe rally against the religious leadership. There is that thought, yes, of course.

BLITZER: But there is another thought that says they would rally around the patriotic Iranian nationalism and say, "We're being attacked by the United States." HERSH: But if you bring that to the table, as people say to me when it comes to meetings about this issue, if you don't drink the KoolAid, you can't go to meetings. In other words, if those people who would argue that nationalism is more powerful than anything else in Iran, that no matter how much the rank-and-file and the young people don't like the mullahs or the religious leadership, if we attack anything there, the result will be more anti-Americanism.

But that isn't a message anybody wants to hear. This is a government that, as you know -- we've talked about this before -- they only listen to what they want to hear.

BLITZER: You write this. Let me read another excerpt on the article:

"The war on terrorism would be expanded and effectively placed under the Pentagon's control. The president assigned a series of findings and executive orders authorizing secret commando groups and other special forces units to conduct covert operations against suspected terrorist targets in as many as 10 nations in the Middle East and South Asia."

What's the point here?

HERSH: Well, there's nothing wrong with the idea of going after terrorists where they are. I mean, the point is let's go hit them where they are.

The only issue here is the president has given the assignment for this mission primarily to the Pentagon. It's sort of a great victory for Donald Rumsfeld, a bureaucratic victory. Since the summer of 2002, he's been advocating, "Let me run this war, not the CIA. We can do it better. We'll send our boys in. We don't have to tell their local military commanders. We don't have to tell the ambassadors. We don't have to tell the CIA station chiefs in various countries. Let's go in and work with the bad guys and see what we can find out."

BLITZER: I asked on this program in the last hour Dan Bartlett, the White House counselor, to comment on your article. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARTLETT: I've seen excerpts of this story. I think it's riddled with inaccuracies. And I don't believe that some of the conclusions he's drawing are based on fact.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And I noticed when I read your article in The New Yorker, you said that they didn't comment. When you went seeking comment from the White House, you got no comment from them.

HERSH: We sent a long, detailed -- The New Yorker, as you know, is very careful in checking stories and also getting comment. We sent a long list of about 16 queries to the government, I think Wednesday, and got no response.

And so, that's not really -- you know, I wish he would just assure us all that control of future covert operations abroad will not be solely in the hands of the Pentagon and the CIA will also have a role.

What I'm also writing in this article is that the CIA has been sort of downgraded totally by this administration. The White House doesn't like them, they don't trust them. It's amazing to say that...

BLITZER: Even though Porter Goss is the CIA director?

HERSH: Oh, my. Poor Porter Goss, he doesn't know what he got into, you know. Porter Goss has been -- basically he's been committing sort of ordered executions. He's been -- you know, people have been fired, they've been resigning.

I write again that the real target of the recent turmoil there was not the operations people, you know, the guys that go abroad and run operations. They're really a bunch of guys in the intelligence directorate, analysts, who the White House doesn't like. I quote somebody as saying certain analysts there are seen as apostates, as opposed to being true believers.

BLITZER: Yesterday, 10 years for Charles Graner, the U.S. Army specialist, now private, demoted, 10 years in prison for his role as the alleged ringleader, now the convicted ringleader I suspect, of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

You broke most of that early on. You were one of the first who broke a lot of that news. What do you think?

HERSH: Well, you know, there's nothing wrong with prosecuting a guy who did the heinous things he did. But where are the officers? So far, we've had eight people involved, three or four have pled guilty, a couple more trials are pending. Not one officer has been cited for anything.

This stuff went on inside that prison for three, four months before a kid inside blew the whistle. And in his trial, Graner tried desperately to get certain officers to testify, and all of them pled the Fifth or at least whatever the military equivalent of the Fifth Amendment; they refused to testify.

And the whole missing link in this is, what -- you know, when we send kids to fight war, the officers are in loco parentis...

BLITZER: Most of these people were reservists, these soldiers.

HERSH: And GIs. The officers are in charge. They're, as I say, in loco parentis. They're there to protect the kids from themselves. And they did not. Where were the officers in this?

BLITZER: So what's your bottom line? I mean, you think higher- ups should also pay a price for that scandal, for the abuse of the detainees at Abu Ghraib? HERSH: I think what's come out since the Abu Ghraib stories that we talked about in May and June here, what's come out in the last six months has been a devastating indictment of the leadership of this government.

It's come out, it's been in Afghanistan, it's been in Guantanamo, we had it in the hearings on the attorney general-to-be. The whole pantheon of allegations goes way beyond Abu Ghraib and leads to -- the only conclusion is there was a systemic understanding that we were going to look the other way at the top in this government about what really went on in the field.

So Graner is guilty. But I assure you, if there was a lot of videotape made available of incidents in military prisons in the last three years around the world, we'd find an awful lot of scenes not as bad, but pretty bad.

BLITZER: We'll leave it right there.

Sy Hersh, thanks very much for coming on the program.

HERSH: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: And coming up, pre-election violence in Iraq. What lies down the road? I'll speak live with Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations. That's coming up.

Also ahead, drafting the message. We'll preview President Bush's inauguration address with two former White House speechwriters.

And later, keeping watch on Inauguration Day. We'll explore the ins and outs of high security here in Washington. A panel of law enforcement experts joins us.

"LATE EDITION" will continue right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

Deadly attacks in Iraq aren't derailing preparation for the January 30th elections two weeks exactly from today. But even some Iraqi officials are suggesting that delaying the vote or at least making some special allowance for the violence might be necessary.

Joining us now from New York is Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Samir Al-Sumaidaie.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

SAMIR AL-SUMAIDAIE, IRAQ'S AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS: Thank you.

BLITZER: You wrote in The Washington Post at the end of December that "to hold elections under current circumstances, when a sizable part of the country is not secure, just for the sake of voting, would produce a disproportionate and nonrepresentative national assembly. Far from stabilizing the country, this could be a recipe for a greater rebellion."

Since then, you've reconsidered. What's your current assessment on the need to go forward with these elections in two weeks?

AL-SUMAIDAIE: No, I have not really reconsidered. I still think that there is a risk, that the national assembly will not be totally representative.

However, I have argued in the same op-ed that government policy of holding the elections on time and not postponing it is the right policy. Because I believe, to postpone it substantially would lead to the claim of victory by the terrorists, which is something which we should not allow.

Also, Iraqi government is committed by the political process and by the timeline imposed by Security Council Resolution 1546 to hold the elections on this date.

BLITZER: How can people hold elections in a country where, A, you don't know who the candidates are because they're afraid to announce their candidates because of the security situation and, B, you're not even sure where these polling booths are going to be because they could become targets if the insurgents find out where they might be?

It sounds like an unusual way, to put it mildly, to go into elections.

AL-SUMAIDAIE: Well, this is a generalization. In the majority of the areas of Iraq, this situation is going to be quite normal. Elections will take place in conditions which are fairly normal.

There are some areas, as the prime minister called it, "pockets," there are some areas in which security difficulties are very clear, and we acknowledge that.

But rather than hold up the election for the whole of the country, we at least allow the majority of the Iraqis to participate and exercise their right.

BLITZER: When he says "pockets," the Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, and you just referred to that, those pockets are pretty significant: four provinces, but a huge chunk of the Iraqi population lives in those four provinces out of 18, maybe as many as half of the population of Iraq, and that the Sunnis, in particular, most of them, Sunni Muslims, like yourself, live in those four provinces.

AL-SUMAIDAIE: Well, it's by no means half of the population. It could be 20 percent, 25 percent. It's not very clear.

But even in those areas, people are really wanting to participate, but the intimidation and the terrorism that's being practiced by terrorists is preventing them. The government is doing everything possible to make it easy or possible for them to take part. However, there are 14 provinces in which people are eager and ready to exercise their right. And we must not deprive them of this opportunity.

You know, we are in a contest of wills. Either the will to build a democracy will prevail or the will of the terrorists. And we are absolutely determined, the majority of Iraqis are determined, that terrorists will not prevail.

BLITZER: Listen to what one average Iraqi told our reporters and producers on the ground in Iraq this past week about the elections. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I have to think 100 times before going out. I'm scared because of the explosions that might happen. There's nothing here that can protect us, and life is precious. I won't go to vote because I'm scared.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That sounds like it's not just that one woman but there are plenty of Iraqis who feel like that.

AL-SUMAIDAIE: Well, I have every sympathy with this lady. And I have every sympathy with any victim of terrorism, anyone who is being intimidated or threatened.

But I come back and say that on January the 30th, you will see very large numbers of Iraqis defying the terrorists and going to vote.

BLITZER: Will the United Nations play a significant role in setting the stage, creating the framework for this election in two weeks?

AL-SUMAIDAIE: Well, they already have. I mean, they have been acting as advisers to the independent national commission on elections. They are still there, helping and advising. And they are still guiding the Iraqi people through this complicated process.

BLITZER: But, Mr. Ambassador, there's such a limited number of U.N. personnel on the ground. And there will be very few international observers who will be in Iraq either.

AL-SUMAIDAIE: Well, unlike East Timor, for example, in which they manage the process, in our case they are not managing the process. They are helping. They are acting as consultants. And the Iraqi national commission for elections is managing the process.

BLITZER: How concerned are you, specifically as a Sunni, that the Sunnis will feel left out from this election?

AL-SUMAIDAIE: First of all, I don't see myself as a Sunni. I see myself as an Iraqi. And my concerns are the same as all Iraqis. There will be a lot of people who want to play on this sectarian divide but Iraqis have shown the world two things. First, it's their resilience in the face of tremendous risk. And the second thing is they will not buy into this sectarian division. They are not interested in that.

BLITZER: So you don't fear that the country could split up into a Sunni section, a Shiite section or a Kurdish section?

AL-SUMAIDAIE: I don't think there is any appetite for that in any part of Iraq. Neither the Sunnis nor the Shias nor the people who are mixed through mixed marriages -- you know, we have tribes which are part Sunni, part Shia -- there is no appetite for that whatsoever. And I have confidence that the Iraqis will stick together.

BLITZER: What was your reaction, both personal as well as a representative of the Iraqi interim government, to the conviction and sentencing of U.S. Army Specialist Charles Graner to 10 years in prison for his role in the abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib?

AL-SUMAIDAIE: Well, it sends the right signal. It confirms that this is not U.S. policy, and it makes it clear that such behavior is not acceptable and should not be tolerated. So I support that.

BLITZER: Ambassador Samir Al-Sumaidaie, thanks very much for joining us, and good luck to you. Good luck to all the people of Iraq...

AL-SUMAIDAIE: Thank you.

BLITZER: ... as they go to the polls in two weeks. Let's hope it works...

AL-SUMAIDAIE: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: ... and safe and secure.

AL-SUMAIDAIE: Thank you very much, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Up next, a check of what's making news right now, including the Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's campaign progress. We have new information.

Then, what will the pros be listening for when the president of the United States gives his inaugural address on Thursday? We'll ask two former White House speechwriters.

Stay with "LATE EDITION." We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is my solemn pledge: I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: President Bush in his first inaugural address four years ago. He now faces a new challenge of explaining his vision to the country and to the world in his second inaugural address.

Our next guests fully understand the difficulty and the mechanics of that challenge. In New York, Michael Waldman, he was director of speechwriting in the Clinton White House. Here in Washington, the author and former Bush speechwriter, David Frum.

Welcome to both of you.

David, I'll start with you. How does this president Bush prepare for this kind of inaugural address?

DAVID FRUM, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL SPEECHWRITER: Well, they've been thinking about this inside the Bush White House for a long, long time.

And it begins with his -- his old speechwriter, Michael Gerson, who's now being promoted to counsel to the president, but Michael Gerson would have begun months ago making notes to himself on pads and thinking it through and talking outloud, as he does, and then working with groups of people, constantly communicating with the president.

The president probably would not have turned his mind to it until after he actually gotten himself re-elected. But there would have been a lot of effort that would go into defining some big themes and communicating them.

BLITZER: So, you suspect right now that speech is done and it's ready to go?

FRUM: Oh, for sure. They are practicing -- the president will probably practice. There may be tinkering and revision as they stumble across things in practice that don't sound as good when you actually say them outloud as maybe they did in your head. But I think it's largely finished.

BLITZER: Michael Waldman, you wrote a fascinating book, and I'll put the book jacket up on the screen, "My Fellow Americans: The Most Important Speeches of America's Presidents, from George Washington to George W. Bush."

This is an important speech, a second inaugural. How important is it?

MICHAEL WALDMAN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL SPEECHWRITER: Well, it's important in part because when you deliver it, when you're president, you know that it's one of the only things that absolutely will be looked at by historians.

But most presidential inaugurals are not very good. The ones that are well-remembered were ones that summoned up and acted on a crisis, whether Roosevelt or Lincoln. And almost all second inaugurals are actually quite bad. And again, Lincoln and Roosevelt, those were memorable because the crisis was still going on that the first inaugural dealt with.

In President Bush's case, his first inaugural was well-written, but it didn't really say very much. He didn't have much to say at that point. Of course, right now there's a lot more dramatic things going on in the world, in Iraq, and he's setting out an agenda for the second term that's far more dramatic, in a way, and more radical than his first term.

BLITZER: Correct me if I'm wrong, Michael. You helped draft President Clinton's second inaugural, is that right?

WALDMAN: I did, and the first inaugural.

BLITZER: All right, so what was so bad about his second inaugural address?

WALDMAN: Well, it wasn't bad. But it was typical in that he had just won re-election. The big problem he talked about, the challenge in the first inaugural, was the deficit and turning the economy around. And by the second inaugural, that had happened.

These speeches work best when they are part of a real, concrete political program, fighting for something to put before the country, not just words carved on the wall of the presidential library.

BLITZER: David Frum wrote a book after he left the White House entitled "The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush." There's the cover of the book right there.

But there is a challenge. This is the first inaugural since 9/11, first inaugural since the war in Iraq. The United States is at war right now. So, there's a challenge that the president has.

FRUM: Well, from a speech-making point of view there's an opportunity to do something really good and powerful.

I think I completely agree with everything Mike might just said. And I think there's a real -- you know, President Bush's first inaugural is very much large generalities, gorgeous rhetoric. You look back on it, it's not clear what it means.

The great inaugural addresses, the two of Lincolns' and Roosevelt's first two, they can be summed up in a sentence. They actually had a clear -- the president went up there to say something, not to be gorgeous, but to say something.

And what I'm hoping that President Bush will do is he will stand up there and -- there are questions that Americans have about this second term and not -- this is not a policy address, he's not here to "here's my health program, here's my Social Security program, here's my foreign program." That's not what this is for, but to say, "Here is what we will stand for." "We're in the middle of a very serious war in Iraq, a more serious war than we anticipated. There are great challenges from Iran and other hostile places in the Middle East. Here's what I will do," or, "Here are the principles by which I will be guided. And, Americans, you can be reassured by that."

BLITZER: Michael, you've reviewed all of these presidential speeches. But when you draft a speech, do you think about a line, a phrase, like John F. Kennedy in 1961, in his inaugural, "Ask not what the country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

Is there a -- you're always thinking about coming up with some phrase like that in these historic speeches?

WALDMAN: Well, you do think about that, but that can be paralyzing.

You often get people -- and I think President Bush doesn't do this, but ever since John F. Kennedy's inaugural, everybody wants to sound like Kennedy or like Ted Sorenson, who wrote it with him, with these beautiful reversible raincoat sentences or, as I used to say, Charlie the Tuna sentences. We don't want tunas with good taste, we want tunas that taste good.

And I think that if you over-rely on that, it's not nearly as effective, as David said, as knowing what it is you want to say.

When FDR spoke, the line that really made an impact on people was not saying, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," but when he said that if the Congress wouldn't give him what he wanted and pass the first 100 days of the New Deal, he would try to ask for, in effect, executive authority.

The power of that speech, the confidence that flowed from it, was not just from the rhetoric but, as David Frum said, from the actions he was seeking.

BLITZER: This week, we heard the president say that he sort of regrets a couple of the well-known comments, soundbytes that he had from the first term, including these two highly publicized remarks he made. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

BUSH: There are some who feel like that, you know, the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is, bring 'em on. We got the force necessary to deal with the security situation.

BUSH: I want justice. And there's an old poster out west, as I recall, that said, "Wanted, dead or alive."

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

BLITZER: This past week he told Barbara Walters, you know what, maybe he wasn't so smart to talk in that bombastic fashion along the lines that he did. What do you make of that?

FRUM: Well, it's self-critical, which is good, good for a president, good for anybody. The president speaks millions of words, and they're heard, and not all of them are well-chosen.

I don't know that he has anything really to regret in the "dead or alive" comment. The thing to regret is that Osama is not caught, either dead or alive.

The first comment was something, I suspect, the second it was out of his mouth he realized he had said something...

BLITZER: Bring 'em on.

FRUM: ... that was probably not a wise thing to say. Because even if they had been cut to pieces by American weaponry in the first seconds of the combat, as they were, you don't want to look like you're eager for war and bloodshed.

BLITZER: What do you think, Michael?

WALDMAN: I agree.

But I do think that the trap, the potential pitfall for him in this, is not only in foreign policy and defense area, but domestically. He is going to the country right now with what is, in effect, a phasing-out, a privatization, of Social Security, which is, of course, the biggest and most popular program in the federal government.

And he has been going out and saying it's a crisis, it's a crisis. He said to a young man last week, well, when you retire it's going to be bankrupt. And a lot of actuaries and people in his own administration say that isn't true.

So, on the one hand, he obviously wants to turn up the heat and make it seem like a big crisis. But on the other hand, he could find himself in a very high-profile setting saying things that he's going to have to eat not too far into the future.

BLITZER: One final question for you, David. We went back and took a look at CNN-Gallup polls, going back to second-term inaugurals, job approval ratings for various presidents. Take a look at this.

Right now, Bush in our CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll is at 52 percent. When Clinton was re-elected, '97, it was at 62 percent. Reagan in '85, 62 percent. Nixon in '73 was down to 51 percent. Johnson, Lyndon Johnson, '65, 71 percent approval rating. Eisenhower, 73 percent approval rating.

The fact that he's relatively low, only 52, 53 percent in the new Time magazine poll, that's a further challenge for him right now.

FRUM: Well, but it's not really a surprise. I mean, he is, of all of the second-termers, he is the one who is arriving at the beginning of the second term with the most to do. Many of those previous second-termers basically retired on Inaugural Day of their second term.

The point of running for re-election -- this is true even for the great Ronald Reagan -- the point of running for re-election was largely to confirm and put a political seal on what had been accomplished in the first term. And after that they were on defense for the rest.

This president is in an unprecedented situation. He has a war to win. He has a huge second-term domestic agenda. That is not common. And it's controversial. So of course -- but 51 percent, that's enough.

BLITZER: Fifty-two.

FRUM: Even better.

BLITZER: David Frum, thanks very much for joining us.

FRUM: Thank you.

BLITZER: Michael Waldman, thanks to you.

WALDMAN: Thank you.

BLITZER: And once again to our viewers who are interested in presidential speeches, he's got a terrific book, "My Fellow Americans: The Most Important Speeches of America's Presidents, from George Washington to George W. Bush."

Up next, from writing the speech to protecting the president, we'll go behind the scenes with a panel of security experts.

"LATE EDITION" will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

Joining us now, three men who fully understand how big a job it is to protect the president of the United States. Joe Petro was a Secret Service agent for President Ronald Reagan. He's the author of a new book on his experience, "Standing Next to History: An Agent's Life Inside the Secret Service." John Miller is counterterrorism bureau chief for the Los Angeles Police Department, former correspondent for ABC News. And Terrance Gainer is chief of the United States Capitol Police.

Gentlemen, thanks very much for joining us.

Chief, let me begin with you. The story in Time magazine, the new issue coming out now, deep concern, they say, for three limos -- there are a lot of limos that are going to be going up the streets here in Washington in the next few days -- each carrying 12 or more compressed gas cylinders to create what they call a full fuel air explosion by venting flammable gas into a confined space, then igniting it, in effect creating a big bomb using limos. Have you heard about this?

TERRANCE GAINER, CHIEF OF U.S. CAPITOL POLICE: A lot of that's old news to us. Part of the reason, with that type of information, part of the reason that we've expanded the closed area around the Capitol and parade is for things like that. And even this summer, when we instituted some of the roadside safety checkpoints in Washington, it was for fear for improvised explosive devices.

So it's not new information.

BLITZER: The Secret Service is in overall charge of securing. This is a national security event, the inauguration of the president.

In your day, I suspect there was concern about lone gunmen, crazy people trying to kill a president. The terrorism fear is relatively new. Is that right?

JOSEPH PETRO, FORMER SECRET SERVICE AGENT: Well, I'm not sure I agree with that. Certainly for the Secret Service's history from the very beginning in 1901, the concern was the lone assassin because that's really all that we faced.

But really, the concern started in 1983 after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. I think you started seeing barricades put around the White House. We began thinking seriously about the threat that terrorism presented to the Secret Service and to the president and began, really 20 years ago, to begin instituting procedures to prevent a terrorist attack against the president. And I think with the advent of 9/11, that's even intensified.

BLITZER: When the Secret Service takes charge -- and I'll bring John Miller into this conversation -- of an event like this, how do they deal with local law enforcement in Los Angeles, specifically, which is where you are?

JOHN MILLER, FORMER ABC CORRESPONDENT: Well, we have a long- standing, very good relationship with the Secret Service. And it's all in the planning. If the president is going to stop in Los Angeles to have a sandwich, there is weeks of planning that goes into that. And that involves the California highway patrol, the LAPD. Our bomb squad gets involved with their EOD people. It's all very intricate.

The good thing is, for a city like L.A., Chicago, especially New York, the president comes through often enough so that this is a dance we've all done before. We know the basic drill. We certainly know the protocols. The local Secret Service people know us. We know the people on the president's detail. It's usually pretty smooth.

BLITZER: Chief Gainer, I've covered a lot of inaugurations here in Washington. I've never seen security this tight. You're in charge of Capitol Hill police. Is there any precedent to what you're doing right now?

GAINER: Sure. I think the last couple of State of the Union addresses after 9/11... BLITZER: But as far as an inaugural is concerned?

GAINER: No. If you compare this inaugural to the last, there is a lot more. But there's been a gradual and continual build-up since 9/11 in all the large events.

And like John said, we work very well together. This is not the first time we've all worked together. And there's a lot of people here pulling this thing off.

BLITZER: How do you balance protecting the president, Joe, which is the mission of the Secret Service, at least this particular mission, with the opportunity for the president to walk up Pennsylvania Avenue? Let's say he wants to walk from Capitol Hill to the White House, as Jimmy Carter did. How do you get security -- it must be a nightmare for your agents.

PETRO: Well, it doesn't make it easy.

Certainly, we all remember President Carter was the first president in modern history to walk from the Capitol all the way up to the White House.

It really is a matter of planning and preparation and perimeters and making all of the right preparations, working with the Metropolitan Police Department, using resources.

It often comes down to, really, individuals, individual post standers, whether that's an agent or a policeman, out on the street. They're the ones -- sort of just like in sports, the fundamentals are what make a difference between winning and losing. Those agents and policemen out on the streets really do make the difference.

BLITZER: John Miller, among other things, you've studied al Qaeda a great deal in your career. You're one of the few journalists that actually interviewed Osama bin Laden.

Is this the kind of target, on Inauguration Day, that you suspect al Qaeda would want to make a big splash, if you will?

MILLER: Well, I think the inauguration, in particular, for its symbolic value, as well as the opportunity for a direct attack on the president, the administration, on the seat of government in Washington, is an extremely attractive target. I think, if you talk to Terry Gainer or Joe, that's why you see so much more security this time than anytime before in history.

But -- and this is the big but -- you don't have to attack the inauguration or the president to attack the inaugural. As we learned in the Eric Robert Rudolph bombing of the Atlanta Olympics, he didn't have to attack one of the games in progress or an athlete. He set off a bomb in a park area and stole the story from the Olympics to terrorism.

You could launch a terrorist attack -- and I'm not saying anything that the terrorists haven't considered; they've done this before. You can launch a terrorist attack on the day or during the time of the inauguration in New York or Chicago or L.A. or Washington, some other part of Washington, D.C., that is not secured during that event and still steal the day in terms of publicity and focus, steal the message to a large extent.

And that's one of the things that people in my jobs and other cities are considering on that day for its symbolic target value. We have to have the posture that we're all a potential target.

BLITZER: That's pretty chilling, Chief Gainer. It's a good point. Let me let you weigh in on that.

GAINER: I think he's absolutely correct. The possibility of al Qaeda or terrorists doing something big on the 9/11 scale I really think is slim and remote, given what Homeland Security, the FBI and the local departments have done.

But the ability to just walk up to a checkpoint and cause some havoc there is a problem. We have concentric circles of security that gets tighter and tighter and tighter as you get toward a particular venue, and I think it's well protected.

BLITZER: What about from the Secret Service perspective, Joe?

PETRO: Well, Wolf, I think there's one thing we haven't talked about, and that's the general public. I think since 9/11 -- I live in New York City, and the population of New York City has become much more attentive to what's around them, and they're beginning to report suspicious activities much more often.

I think we have to also depend on the general public, and I think we can, that they will have their eyes and ears open, and if they see something suspicion, they'll report it immediately to the law enforcement.

BLITZER: Is that happening out in Los Angeles in the real world, though, John?

PETRO: It does, and it ebbs and flows. We have a terrorist threat hotline here that -- it's a toll-free number. People know it. We advertise it.

But when we go up to orange or when there's a sector-specific security threat that receives a lot of attention, that line rings more. And that shows that the public's level of awareness goes up with the cues that they get from us, from the FBI, from Homeland Security.

BLITZER: Chief Gainer, are you ready?

GAINER: Absolutely, we are. We started going ready for this inaugural just days after the last one, where we looked at the after- action report. I've had people assigned to this full-time for about the last six months. I think I've been getting ready for something like this my entire 36-law-enforcement-year career. But the great thing is in Washington, in particular, everybody works very, very well. And the network across the nation to share intelligence between the Capitol Police and the Metro, as far way as L.A., works very well. We're familiar with what's required, and I think the public's expectation of what they require of us is higher.

BLITZER: Joe, one final question to you. Are you confident the left hand of the U.S. government is sharing the appropriate information with the right hand of the U.S. government?

PETRO: Oh, I think they are. I'm in the private sector now, but I've seen a tremendous improvement in sharing information not just between the agencies of government but with the private sector itself. And most of the infrastructure's out in the private sector, so that's an important part of this ingredient. And I think there's been a tremendous improvement in that over the last three or four years, for sure.

BLITZER: All right. Joe Petro, thanks very much for joining us.

Chief Gainer, thanks to you as well.

John Miller, always a pleasure.

Let's hope for a safe, very quiet, but historic, inauguration on Thursday.

MILLER: Amen.

BLITZER: And please stay tuned to CNN day and night for the most reliable news about your security.

Up next, the results of our Web question of the week: What should be President Bush's priority in his second term? We'll give you the results when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here are the results of our Web question of the week. Take a look at this. Remember, though, it's not -- repeat, not -- a scientific poll.

And that's your "LATE EDITION" for Sunday, January 16th. Please be sure to join me next Sunday and every Sunday at noon eastern for the last word in Sunday talk.

I'm here Monday through Friday as well.

Until then, thanks very much for joining us. 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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