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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Interviews With Zalmay Khalilzad, Seymour Hersh

Aired April 9, 2006 - 11:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: It's 11:00 a.m. in Washington, 8:00 a.m. in Los Angeles, 4:00 p.m. in London and 7:00 p.m. in Baghdad.
Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us for "Late Edition."

We'll get to my interview with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, in just a moment. First, though, let's get a quick check of what's in the news right now.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Fred.

Nearly four months after Iraq's parliamentary elections, efforts to form a unity government in Baghdad are at a stalemate, as the country faces a relentless insurgency and widespread sectarian violence.

With that troubling backdrop, the Bush administration is turning up the heat on Iraqi leaders.

Just a short while ago, I spoke with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, in Baghdad.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Ambassador Khalilzad, welcome back to "Late Edition." Always good to have you on our program.

You've got your hands full trying to help the Iraqis put together a national unity government, a government that would include the Shia, the Sunni, the Kurds.

Is there any light at the end of this tunnel? What's the latest?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: Well, what we have, Wolf, is that the parties representing the groups that you mentioned have come to an agreement on a program for a national unity government.

They have come to an agreement on the rules and procedures for decision-making, including the bylaws of the cabinet that the constitution calls for.

And they've also come to an agreement on institutions that need to be established or defined, those that existed for a national unity government.

But what they don't have yet and they are talking to each other today is with regard to people in particular positions such as prime minister. And the issue of prime minister is the one that's holding up things. The UIA, the United Iraqi Alliance had nominated Mr. Jaafari. Other parties have had objections to his nomination, and they're talking about a way out. They're doing that today, and hopefully they will solve that in the next day or two.

BLITZER: I know you've been working aggressively to try to help them put a new government together. You got some backup support in recent days from the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The British foreign Secretary Jack Straw came over. Still no government.

Here's what Democratic Senator John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, wrote in the "New York Times."

He said: "Iraqi politicians should be told that they have until May 15 to put together an effective unity government, or we will immediately withdraw our military. If Iraqis aren't willing to build a unity government in the five months since the election, they're probably not willing to build one at all. The civil war will only get worse and we will have no choice anyway but to leave."

What's your reaction to Kerry's suggestion that you have a flat May 15 deadline for them to get the job done?

KHALILZAD: Well, we would like them to get the job done sooner than May 15. And we will work with them to do that.

The Iraqi people would like to have a government of national unity, an effective government as soon as possible and their patience is running out. We, the international community would like them to do the same. We are pressing them continuously.

But at the same time I think it's very important for the American people and your viewers around the world to know that the Iraqis are doing this, putting a government of national unity for the first time. There is effort at provoking civil war by the terrorists. There are important issues in terms of different Iraqi groups, ethnic groups, sectarian groups to come together, debating and agreeing on fundamental issues.

We need to be patient, at the same time, to make sure that they don't get any government, but that they get a good government.

So I believe that they're on the right track. They're having some difficulties. We are pressing them. But eventually they will get it right. And it's very important that we stay with them. And I don't believe giving them a deadline for withdrawal of troops unless they form a government by May 15 is the right approach.

BLITZER: He goes on in that article, Senator Kerry, to say that "even if they do form a national unity government by May 15, the U.S. should pull out its troops by the end of this year because the Iraqis, by then, should be able to protect their own security." Is that smart?

KHALILZAD: Well, I believe that our strategy for helping them stand on their own feet as soon as possible is the right approach. And as the Iraqi capabilities increase, as the situation changes, the circumstances are likely to allow for our forces to reduce the number and change their mission, ultimately leading to a complete withdrawal.

But I believe that total withdrawal by the end of this year is unrealistic, given the size of our forces, given the circumstances right now in Iraq. That's an unrealistic timetable, in my view.

BLITZER: If they do form a national unity government over the next few days or weeks, what would be realistic by the end of this year in terms of the U.S. military presence in Iraq?

Right now it's about 130,000, 135,000 U.S. troops. What do you think would be realistic?

KHALILZAD: I think that there could be, still, I believe, a significant reduction in the number of U.S. forces in the aftermath of the formation of the unity government and other positive developments.

But I'd rather not get into the specific numbers. Those have to be a recommendation made by our military leaders. As you already know, the number of attacks on the U.S. forces by the insurgency is down.

Last month was the second lowest month since we have been here, in terms of the number of attacks. But the nature of the conflict is changing here, so we will want to wait and see what happens after the formation of the unity government and what our military planners recommend.

BLITZER: You mentioned earlier that one of the major sticking points in getting this new government together, if not the major sticking point, is the current Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

This is what he said the other day. He said, "There's concern among the Iraqi people that the democratic process is being threatened. The source of this is that some American figures have made statements that interfere with the results of the democratic process."

There were free and fair elections in Iraq. The ruling, the largest faction, the Shia faction decided, albeit by only one vote, that he should be their candidate and now there's all sorts of pressure to eliminate him as a political candidate, Ibrahim al- Jaafari.

Is he right when he says that the United States, maybe you, personally, are improperly interfering in domestic Iraqi politics?

KHALILZAD: No, that's not right. You know, in order to get a prime minister, there are two steps that are needed, based on the Iraqi constitution.

One is that the largest block should nominate someone. And that block is the United Iraqi Alliance and it's nominated Mr. Jaafari.

There is a second step that's required and that is that the Iraqi parliament must approve that. And given that that is likely to be a package agreement involving the presidency as well as the prime minister and the speaker, it is assumed that two-thirds agreement or support is required. And at this time, in the current parliament, no party has the majority, leave alone two-thirds. So for Mr. Jaafari to be the prime minister, other factions have also got to support him, and so far they have said they will not support him, and therefore you have this situation that I described before.

BLITZER: Is Iraq emerging almost like a new Lebanon to the degree that certain jobs go to certain religious or ethnic leaders in Iraq? The prime minister is going to have to be a Shia. The president presumably will be a Kurd. The speaker might be a Sunni. Sort of along the lines of, as you know, what's been going on in Lebanon all of these years. Is that a fair comparison?

KHALILZAD: I don't think it is, because in Lebanon, as you know, always, and the president was to be a Maronite and the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker a Shia. Here, I think that's not the case. The only determination is that the prime minister, based on the constitution, has to be nominated by the largest bloc.

I believe that if the Shia, which are the largest group in Iraq, stick together and vote for a single alliance or party, then one could predict that a Shia would be prime minister. And right now, given the ethnic and sectarian polarization, that is what has happened. But I believe over time, as Iraqis get along with each other, other issues, policy issues will become more important, and coalitions across ethnic and sectarian lines will develop.

But with regard to the presidency and the speaker, of course does not have to go to a Kurd or a Sunni as such. They can change, and there isn't an understanding, as been in Lebanon, that specific jobs will go to specific groups.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Just ahead, Ambassador Khalilzad talks about the Iraqi government's efforts to control the insurgency. Is Iraq, though, on the brink of civil war? Then a different perspective. The former top U.S. military commander, the central commander assesses the situation in Iraq. Is President Bush on the right course?

We'll ask retired Marine Corps General Tony Zinni. And later, is the U.S. planning to exercise the military option against a potentially nuclear-armed Iran? We'll talk with Pulitzer Prize- winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh about his latest explosive article in The New Yorker magazine. "Late Edition" continues after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." And we return now to my interview with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: I want to move on and talk about what some already say is a civil war. Hussein Ali Kamal, the Iraqi deputy interior minister, was quoted by the BBC as saying this over the weekend.

He said, "Iraq has actually been in an undeclared civil war for the past 12 months. On a daily basis, Shia, Sunni, Kurds and Christians are being killed, and the only undeclared thing is that a civil war has not been officially announced by the parties involved."

Ayad Allawi the other week was making a similar assertion, although he backed away from that a little bit, the former interim prime minister.

For all practical purposes -- and we saw another huge attack at a Shiite mosque in Baghdad on Friday -- for all practical purposes, though, is this already a civil war?

KHALILZAD: Well, there's no question, Wolf, that the terrorists, the Zarqawi group, would like to provoke a civil war. And in the aftermath of the attack on Samarra shrine, there has been increased sectarian tensions and conflicts. But I believe that the Iraqi leaders, such as Ayatollah Sistani and other leaders from Sunni community or others, do not want a civil war.

So there isn't organized groups, led by leaders who want to fight each other because of their sect or their ethnicity. Also, government institutions are holding together. They have not fragmented. And as I said before, all Iraqi leaders, across ethnic and sectarian lines, are saying that they want to work together.

They want to have a government of national unity. They are at the table, discussing the formation of a national unity government. So I do not believe that based on what I described, that I would agree to call Iraq in a state of civil war.

But increased sectarian tensions since Samarra, yes. Increased sectarian conflict? Yes. But a civil war? No, not at this time.

BLITZER: Here's how The New York Times wrote about the situation in Iraq in an editorial: "Iraq is becoming a country that America should be ashamed to support, let alone occupy. The nation as a whole is sliding closer to open civil war. In its capital, thugs kidnap and torture innocent civilians with impunity, then murder them for their religious beliefs.

"The rights of women are evaporating. The head of the government is the ally of a radical anti-American cleric, who leads a powerful private militia that is behind much of the sectarian terror. Unfortunately," The New York Times adds, "after three years of policy blunders in Iraq, Washington may no longer have the political or military capital to prevail."

Let's get to a couple of specifics in that assertion by The New York Times. The militias. They seem to be out of control, the Shiite militias, the Kurdish militias to a certain degree, the Peshmerga. What's going on with these militias, because they are certainly not part of a national Iraqi military?

KHALILZAD: Well, in order to build a successful society, militias have to come under control. There is a law that declares that militias should not exist.

There is a need for a program of decommissioning, demobilization and reintegration for the militias and other unauthorized military formations.

All communities that have unauthorized military forces, whether Shia, Sunni or others, their weapons, their militias have to be either taken away from them or integrated as individuals into the security forces or reintegrated into society at large.

We're discussing this with the government of Iraq. We're developing a plan for how to proceed. We had a similar experience in Afghanistan when I was ambassador there.

We developed what was called the demobilization, decommissioning and reintegration plan, DDR. We need the same thing for Iraq, that we can take to the international community and get their support for it as well.

Serious work, preparatory work is going on to produce a plan in the coming weeks.

BLITZER: A plan -- I just want to be precise on this -- a plan that would get rid of the Mehdi militia, which is one of the leading Shiite militias, a plan that would get rid of the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia?

Is that what you're saying?

KHALILZAD: Well, a plan that would do away with unauthorized militias, such as the (inaudible) Mehdi, Badr, some of the other unauthorized forces, the resistance forces, as they call themselves, the insurgents who are laying down their arms, force from all communities.

You have to do this in a balanced way because you don't want it to appear that you're taking weapons from the Shia while you're leaving weapons in the hands of the Sunnis. It has to be done in a balanced way.

Yes, ultimately, all militias, all unauthorized military formations have to be decommissioned, demobilized. And their individuals have to be reintegrated into the security forces or into the society at large.

BLITZER: We're almost out of time, Mr. Ambassador, but I want you to put your old academic hat on, before you became a top U.S. government official.

Francis Fukuyama, who is an intellectual, someone you know, wrote in "The Los Angeles Times" this.

He said this: "I believe that the neoconservative movement, with which I was associated, has become indelibly associated with the failed policy, and that unilateralism and coercive regime change cannot be the basis for an effective American foreign policy."

As you know in your earlier life, you were seen as a leading member of that neoconservative movement here in the United States. Do you have any regrets, looking back on how the United States got into this situation in Iraq?

Francis Fukuyama clearly does.

KHALILZAD: Well, I think others would have to look at the situation over time. I believe that Iraq, Afghanistan and the transformation of this region is the defining challenge of our time, the way that containing the Soviet Union was the defining challenge of the previous era.

For the success and security of the American people and the people around the world, this region needs to be normalized.

Of course, the use of force is the last resort. It cannot be the instrument for promoting the normalization and the longer-term transformation that's required in this part of the world. And in Iraq, we have started this transformation.

It has been a difficult transformation, but we are doing something that is very important. We're taking an authoritarian regime, turning it into a democratic regime, in a country that is multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian, that has never really truly been governed in a democratic manner; and at the same time, taking an economy that was socialist, turning it into a market economy.

But what happened in Iraq will affect the future of this region. Different people may have different views about whether we should have come in here or not, but I think, now that we're here, we have to do everything that we can to make sure that this country succeeds.

And I'm totally dedicated to the effort of helping Iraqis to make sure they have a national unity government, that they're put on the right trajectory for success, because their success will have a determining impact on the future of this region and the world. Failure is not an option.

BLITZER: Mr. Ambassador, you've been there for eight months. I know it probably feels a lot longer than that. Good luck to you. Be careful. And we'll continue these conversations down the road.

Thanks very much for joining us on "Late Edition."

KHALILZAD: Well, thank you. It's nice to be with you, Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And still ahead: The battle for peace in Iraq and around the world. We'll ask the former head of the U.S. military Central Command, retired U.S. Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, about his controversial blueprint and his hard-hitting new book that blasts the Bush administration.

Up next; a quick check of what's in the news right now, including deadly tornadoes that struck the southeastern part of the United States. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Iraq is now the central front on the war on terror. The war on terror is broader than Iraq, but Iraq is the key battlefield right now, and the enemy has made it so.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Although President Bush insists Iraq is part of the overall war on terror, his critics argue it was the U.S.-led invasion that turned the country into a magnet for terrorists. Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Joining us now, an early critic of the war in Iraq, the former head of the U.S. military's central command, retired U.S. Marine Corps General Tony Zinni. He's also the author of an important new book entitled, "The Battle for Peace, a Frontline Vision of America's Power and Purpose."

General Zinni, welcome to "Late Edition."

GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.), USMC: Thank you, Wolf. Good to be here.

BLITZER: You just heard the ambassador, the U.S. ambassador, Ambassador Khalilzad, see some light at the end of this tunnel. What do you see?

ZINNI: Well, unfortunately, I don't see it exactly the same way. I think we are in a dangerous position now, potentially full-scale civil war and loss of control. I think if this unity government can come together, but more than just come together, we can't just take a sigh of relief that they manage to announce that in a day or two.

They have to deal with some tough issues. You mentioned one, the militias, when you talked to the ambassador. But the issue of revenue sharing, of autonomy and what levels of autonomy will go down to the local areas, what will be held by the federal government, the role of Islam, they have many tough issues on their plate.

The forming of unity government has to be a momentum step, but they've got to get rapidly onto these. And at the same time we've got to enhance the quality of these security forces to help quell the violence out there. So the next couple months are going to be, I think, decision points. BLITZER: Because of revenge killings that we see going on, the insurgents, largely Sunni, they kill Shia, the Shia then they want revenge. This is a problem that could escalate the situation from this sectarian violence into a full-scale civil war.

ZINNI: We never got the trust and confidence of the vast majority of the people, and I think it's because we went in too light, overly optimistic in our planning assumptions. And we never captured them, and we allowed, because of a lack of control, law and order, to let all these snakes come out.

And now the people are wondering if we're going to stay or we're going to be by their side, do they have a government they can count on, and probably now they're leaning more toward their tribal leaders, the militia heads, their religious leaders for their safety and where they see the future. They're living in an environment of fear, apathy, or even support in some cases for some of these perpetrators of violence.

BLITZER: Here's what John Kerry wrote in The New York Times: "Iraqi politicians should be told that they have until May 15th to put together an effective unity government or we will immediately withdraw our military. If Iraq's leaders succeed in putting together a government, then we must agree on another deadline, a schedule for withdrawing America's combat forces by year's end."

Is he right that there should be a deadline May 15 for a government? And even if they form a new government by the end of the year, U.S. military forces basically should be out of there?

ZINNI: I think obviously I would not be in favor of public deadlines, because I think for all sorts of reasons that people play around the deadlines, those that don't have our best interests at heart. But I do think privately the pressure ought to be ratcheted up.

We made a mistake in not understanding that after our invasion there would have to be a period of occupation. As a matter of fact, friends of mine who were planners in the workup were told not to use that word. But that's denying reality. We had to have a period, much like we had in Japan and Germany at the end of World War II, where we controlled things. We, I would hope, with help from the international community and others.

But we believed that the Iraqi people could take this upon themselves right away. We did it without the kind of, again, law and order and control in there. And we see the end result. And now our ability to influence the turn of events and influence the political leaders who have been elected is almost non-existent.

BLITZER: You blame Rumsfeld in large measure for this lack of planning. Here's what he said on Thursday. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD RUMSFELD, UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: We've unearthed the mass graves of Saddam Hussein, and he's been placed on trial. The Iraqi people have defied terrorist threats and successfully had two elections and a referendum on a new constitution, each time with still larger turnouts. More than 250,000 Iraqi security forces have now been trained and equipped and are on the job providing security for the Iraqi people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: If you listen to some of his briefings, it sounds that things are really going smoothly in Iraq.

ZINNI: Yes. And if you're a reporter out there, and you try to go out and find those good news and get those stories, you're likely to be killed, injured or kidnapped. So the environment doesn't quite bear out the kinds of statistics or the implication from those statistics.

I'm sure there are good things happening, especially down at the level where our troops, our young officers, are trying to make a difference in a village or in a province. But we haven't institutionalized these things. We haven't connected to the people. We haven't, as I said before, built this faith and trust in our system and the way to go out there. And I think the mistakes from the beginning continue to haunt us now.

BLITZER: The mistake that you write about is he wanted to do it, Rumsfeld, basically on the cheap with a minimal amount of forces. He thought things would fall into place after Saddam was overthrown.

ZINNI: Exactly. That was one problem. The other problem was the idea that we could beam in exiles from the outside who in reality had no credibility on the ground. And that was widely known out there that this would happen. We made a series of bad decisions. Bad decisions in terms of disbanding the army, letting the de- Baathification go too far, not having a process of reconciliation.

BLITZER: And you write in the book he was repeatedly warned in advance by various experts, be ready for this kind of post-invasion occupation, and he seemed to ignore that advice. Is that what you're saying?

ZINNI: That's what I'm saying. Because I believe the civilian leadership in the Pentagon ignored the advice. This advice was not just coming from me, these warnings, but other former commanders, the U.S. Central command, other military leaders, General Shinseki and others. Those that were familiar and knew from history what an occupation and a reconstruction of a country would take.

BLITZER: And I just want to interrupt you because, throughout the '90s when you were the head of the U.S. military's Central Command, which is in charge of this whole region, the Persian Gulf, the Middle East -- that's your area of expertise -- you had all sorts of war plans, all sorts of theories all sorts of games about how the U.S. would go into Iraq and you came up with a drastically different conclusion than what this Pentagon came up with. ZINNI: Absolutely. And I would say that conclusion was a process that went on for a decade, ever since the end of the first Gulf War, by several commanders before me. Basically, I inherited their work, and it continued to evolve, but in a much different direction than was taken.

BLITZER: Because during the Clinton administration, there were contingency plans for taking over Iraq and getting rid of Saddam Hussein that you concluded required a whole lot more troops than what eventually was used.

ZINNI: Absolutely. Significantly more.

BLITZER: What would it have required from your estimate?

ZINNI: Well, our plans looked more between 380 to 500,000 troops.

BLITZER: And about 150,000 to 200,000 went in.

ZINNI: Went in. And I was involved in this planning going back when I commanded the Marine forces and central command, was the deputy commander of U.S. central command, and the commander. So this is six or seven years.

BLITZER: Here's what I never understood. And maybe you can explain this. Because I covered the first Gulf War. To liberate Kuwait, a much smaller country than Iraq, the U.S. deployed a half a million troops in the Persian Gulf theater, as it's called. Why was it assumed that the U.S. would need less to liberate a country like Iraq, with 28 million people, as opposed to a few million people in a small country like Kuwait?

ZINNI: Well, I don't know. I mean, I think that the idea that you could control that country in the aftermath with those few troops was flawed.

Now the troops you needed to defeat the Republican Guard and go to Baghdad, I don't think we ever felt since the mid-'90s that would be difficult, or take an inordinate amount of time, or need excessive troops. It was all the focus on the aftermath. When you pull the plug on an authoritarian regime, who's in charge? Who makes the paydays? Who develops the economy? Who keeps law and order? Who controls the borders? You know, on and on and on. Who runs the facilities? And I've seen too many times in my experience, in Somalia and in the planning for the Balkans and elsewhere, that the military gets stuck with this in the end.

BLITZER: Here's what you write in the book, "The Battle for Peace." "Our current war in Iraq may be turning into a repetition of Vietnam. The military out there goes from operation to operation. Our leaders in Washington assure us we are powering ahead from success to success. Yet our young 19- and 20-year-old soldiers are now asking hard questions. I can win any battle, but am I winning this war? I've heard these questions before in Vietnam. The answer there was no. My answer for Iraq is, I don't know. Nobody can tell our soldiers whether they're winning or not, but the parallels are disturbing."

You lived through Vietnam. You're living through Iraq right now. Is this turning out to be another Vietnam?

ZINNI: Well, I would say there are major differences between this and Vietnam, but unfortunately, there are some things that look the same, that are in parallel. I see almost every newscast report, every newspaper, the report of some young colonel or lieutenant colonel that's out there that effectively is connecting at that local level. His frustration is that it's only at the local level, it's not institutionalized, and it's temporary. When he leaves, will another unit come in? Will it follow up on what he has done? And the frustrations I hear from the young NCOs and officers is, you know, we don't do anything on the ground that is sustained and that is maintained and run at a larger level or supported from that larger level.

BLITZER: Have these young men and women, the Americans, the troops, the soldiers, the Marines, the men and women you love, have they died in vain, 2,400 or so? ZINNI: Well, you know, I had an experience in Somalia when the first Marine was killed, when we were there. And I thought to myself, it doesn't matter where or under what conditions you lose a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine. That individual, he or she is a hero. It doesn't matter if the casualty came from raising that flag on Iwo Jima or on the back street of some remote place that we're involved in due to some maybe very difficult to understand political decisions. The action on the ground, the heroism, and the courage, and the dedication, patriotism of those individual soldiers that are out there fighting is not diminished by the circumstances that cause their casualty.

BLITZER: But you believe they should have never been put in harm's way in Iraq to begin with. There were other options open for containing Saddam Hussein.

ZINNI: I believe that Iraq was not the primary -- not the priority. It was way down there. We had other business to do to help stabilize this part of the world and protect our interests. We had to deal with the issues in Afghanistan, reconstructing that country, getting rid of the Taliban, defeating Al Qaida. The Middle East peace process was in shambles and was probably the most important issue, at least psychologically, in the region. Our relationships in the region needed to be worked and improved. We had Iran emerging as probably the major hegemonic threat in the region. And on and on and on. And there were more significant problems.

It was clear to me that once you entered Iraq, you moved it to the top. And the president just said in the piece before that, it has become the top issue and priority.

BLITZER: Let me get your thoughts on a new article that is coming out just today, and we're going to be speaking with the author, Seymour Hersh, in the "New Yorker" magazine. I know you've been looking at it. Among other things, referring to Iran and its potential nuclear weapons development. He raises the possibility, quoting one source, as suggesting that the only way the U.S. might be able to destroy Iran's nuclear capability would be to use a tactical nuclear bomb or multiple nuclear bombs to do so. What do you make of this conclusion that one of the sources has?

ZINNI: Well, first of all, I know nothing about that or about that planning. I do know from my time at Centcom that any military plan involving Iran is going to be very difficult. We should not fool ourselves to think it will just be a strike and then it will be over. The Iranians will retaliate, and they have many possibilities in an area where there are many vulnerabilities, from our troop positions to the oil and gas in the region that can be interrupted, to attacks on Israel, to the conduct of terrorism. There are a number of actions they can take in response to that.

So when we take military action in that case, we're going to have to be prepared to in effect go all the way, whatever that means. And I don't think we should kid ourselves that this can be simply ended by one strike. A nuclear-armed Iran is extremely dangerous. And I hope we don't come to that position. There is a way, I believe, this can be stopped. And I believe that if the international community would stand fast, the Russians and the Chinese would stay with us, I think that kind of pressure, the fear of being isolated and condemned as a rogue state could have the effect that we need to halt the program.

BLITZER: Here's what Sy Hersh writes, and I'm going to be speaking with him on this program in the next hour. "One of the military's initial option plans as presented to the White House by the Pentagon this winter calls for the use of a bunker buster tactical nuclear weapon such as the B61-11 against underground nuclear sites."

Forget about whether or not that's true or not true. But is it feasible? Would that do the job, to use a tactical nuclear bomb to try to destroy Iran's nuclear program?

ZINNI: Well, I think the considerations that have to be taken into account is not just a matter of whether technically and tactically it accomplishes something like that. What are the broader ramifications? Will this incite some sort of reaction as not only -- or be perceived as an unprovoked attack, another one, even though obviously it's against a threat we perceive very strongly? Will there be a reaction to it? Will it generate regional issues and problems that make it more difficult?

I think those sort of strategic calculations have to come into all this. I'm not saying that there isn't a military action that will become necessary at some point. I do believe we're far away from that, as the president has said. But I believe, and this I feel strongly about, when you take that military action, you have to ask the question, and then what? Because you're going to have a series of those "and then whats" down the road.

BLITZER: General Zinni, thanks very much for joining us.

ZINNI: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: General Zinni is the author of the book "The Battle for Peace: A Frontline Vision of America's Power and Purpose." Appreciate it very much.

ZINNI: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And coming up next, in case you missed it, our highlights from the other Sunday morning talk shows here in the United States. But first, this.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER (voice-over): Yo-Yo Ma. What's his story? The famed cellist was the star attraction at a congressional hearing this week. Ma, who helps organize international tours of musicians from around the world, appeared on Capitol Hill to urge lawmakers to simplify the U.S. visa process, which he said severely cripples efforts to bring artists to the United States.

Ma, who performs solo recitals as well as with orchestras, studied at New York's Juilliard School of Music and is a graduate of Harvard University. The virtuoso musician has also recorded more than 50 albums and won 13 Grammys.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And now, in case you missed it, let's check some of the highlights from the other Sunday morning talk shows here in the United States.

On "Fox News Sunday," the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, said it's time for the White House to clear the air about its handling of intelligence leaks.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

U.S. SENATOR ARLEN SPECTER (R) PA: I think that it is necessary for the president and the vice president to tell the American people exactly what happened.

Brett, I think, too often we jump to conclusions before we know what all of the facts are. And I'm not about to condemn or criticize anybody. But I do say that there's been enough of a showing here with what's been filed of record in court that the president of the United States owes a specific explanation to the American people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: On NBC's "Meet the Press," two veteran members of Congress offered two very different views on the issue of illegal immigration.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ (D-IL): They're part of the fabric of our society and they're necessary to the economic well-being of our country. So let's include them.

I agree enforcement is key and security is key. But let's do it comprehensively. Let's have a holistic approach.

REP. J.D. HAYWORTH (R-AZ): The fact is, the 14th Amendment was passed and ratified by the states to guarantee citizenship for freed slaves, not the children of foreigners. And we need to take a realistic look at the notion of birthright citizenship.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: On NBC's "This Week," the House majority leader, John Boehner had this assessment of where his party stands, heading into this year's congressional elections.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH) MAJORITY LEADER: We've had a rough year -- there's no question about it -- over the last 12 months.

And it really goes back to the difficulty in Iraq, the problems with Hurricane Katrina response. Tom DeLay's troubles have cast a shadow on all of our work.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, HOST, THIS WEEK: Better that he's gone?

BOEHNER: We've had a tough time. I'm not going to deny it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: On CBS's "Face the Nation," the General Motors chairman and CEO Richard Wagoner addressed the possibility of a U.S. government bail-out for the financially troubled carmaker.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARD WAGONER, CEO, GENERAL MOTORS: Some of the other ideas that have come forth, bail-outs, bankruptcies; these are not good ideas. They aren't good for our consumers. They aren't good for the people that count on us for our contributions to the economy. They're not the right thing for our business.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Highlights from the other Sunday morning talk shows here in the United States. Those highlights on "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.

Don't forget our Web question of the week: "Which issue concerns you most right now? Immigration, homeland security, the economy, or Iraq?"

You can cast your vote. Go to CNN.com/lateedition. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This is "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF STATE: As Iran changes its relationship with the rest of the international community, I think you're going to see more and more states reassessing their relationships with Iran.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Eye on a nuclear Iran. Is the U.S. preparing for a military strike against Iraq's next-door neighbor? Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh talks about what he uncovered.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So long as I think I'm doing the right thing, and so long as we can win, I'm going to leave our kids there because it's necessary for the security of this country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: In the face of dismal poll numbers and growing unease among the U.S. public, President Bush vows victory in Iraq. His 2004 Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry, weighs in on the war, intelligence leaks and his party's prospects for victory in this year's congressional elections.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JON KYL (R), ARIZONA: It is not enough merely to secure the border, though that should be our number one goal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And the Republican view on the immigration battle and more from Arizona Senator Jon Kyl.

Welcome back. We'll speak with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh in just a moment. First, though, let's get a quick check of what's making news right now.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Fred. Three years ago today, Saddam Hussein's regime fell to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But the country's so-called Freedom Day, as it's called today in Iraq, hasn't been free of violence. Our Aneesh Raman is joining us now live from Baghdad with the latest. Aneesh?

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, good afternoon. It was the singular image that really for the world proved a dictatorship had ended. Three years ago today, as you mentioned, a group of Iraqis with the help of U.S. troops tearing down that towering statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square not far from where I stand. Just moments after the statue fell, decades of pent-up anger erupted.

They began beating the statue with their shoes, and there was a moment of newfound hope. I was there in that square, Wolf, yesterday with a man, Salman Ali (ph), a Shiite who was there at the time. And he said Iraqis are more concerned with what is happening in the country today, rather than what happened three years ago. The uncertainty here as sectarian violence grips Iraq. Just yesterday, the U.S. military announced that in Ramadi, west of the capital, insurgents launched the biggest assault on a main government building there that they had seen in weeks. Ramadi sees near-daily attacks. This one had insurgents attacking the building from several directions.

The U.S. military responded in-kind with an arsenal of its own, was able to defend the structure. Dramatic video from there, but it also comes amid a time when there is a power vacuum in the country. There is violence, as you see the aftermath of the attacks today that killed four. And many are wondering when the government will form. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, telling you last hour that a prime minister could be named in the coming days. Iraqis will say they'll wait and see. Wolf?

BLITZER: Aneesh, thank you very much for that. Aneesh Raman, our man in Baghdad. With the U.S. and Iranian governments refusing to back down on the issue of Iran's nuclear program, is the Bush administration seriously considering a preemptive military strike?

Joining us now, the investigative journalist, the Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh. His article, "The Iran Plans," appears in the new issue of The New Yorker magazine. Sy Hersh, welcome back to "Late Edition."

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

BLITZER: Here's, among other things, what you write in the article: "A government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon said that Bush was 'absolutely convinced that Iran is going to get the bomb' if it is not stopped. He said that the president believes that he must do 'what no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do,' and that 'saving Iran is going to be his legacy.' " So what's your bottom line? Do you believe, based on the reporting you did for this article, that the president of the United States is now aggressively plotting military action, a preemptive strike against Iran?

HERSH: The word I hear is messianic. He thinks, as I wrote, that he's the only one now who will have the courage to do it. He's politically free. I don't think he's overwhelmingly concerned about the '06 elections, congressional elections. I think he really thinks he has a chance, and this is going to be his mission.

BLITZER: So your sources have concluded basically that the diplomatic option as it's going forward is not necessarily going to work?

HERSH: That's the fear. The fear is that we're back to the pre- Iraqi invasion game when we went through the U.N. exercise. The fear is that the White House, there's some people in the White House who aren't really, no matter what happens diplomatically, they don't believe Iran's going to give up its ambitions. BLITZER: The rhetoric coming from the president and the vice president, Dick Cheney, has been very serious. I want you to listen to these excerpts of what the president and vice president recently said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: The threat from Iran is, of course, their stated objective to destroy our strong ally, Israel. That's a threat. A serious threat. It's a threat to world peace. It's a threat in essence to a strong alliance. I made it clear -- I'll make clear again -- that we will use military might to protect our ally, Israel.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The United States is keeping all options on the table in addressing the irresponsible conduct of the regime. And we join other nations in sending that regime a clear message: We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Well, what do you think? Given the enormous military headaches the United States now has in Iraq, does the U.S. military have the wherewithal to launch another preemptive strike, this time against Iran?

HERSH: Oh, sure. We have plenty of air power. We can do it. We have great precision bombings. There's been a lot of planning going on. It's more than planning, it's operational planning. It's beyond contingency planning. There's serious, specific plans. Nobody's made a decision yet. There hasn't been a warning order or an execute order. But the planning's gotten much more intense and much more focused.

I can't tell you. Nobody can say what's going to happen in the future. But I can just tell you there are people in the Pentagon and people, our allies, the allies involved with us diplomatically, the French, the Germans and the Brits, who don't really know what the president is thinking.

BLITZER: Here's the most explosive item in your new article in The New Yorker magazine. And I'll read it: "The lack of reliable intelligence leaves military planners, given the goal of totally destroying the sites," the nuclear sites in Iran, "little choice but to consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons. 'Every other option, in the view of the nuclear weaponeers, would leave a gap,' the former senior intelligence official said. 'Decisive' is the key word of the Air Force's planning. It's a tough decision, but we made it in Japan."

Now, this is an explosive charge, an explosive revelation, if true, that the United States is seriously considering using a tactical nuclear bomb or bombs to destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities.

HERSH: What you just read says this. If you're giving the White House a series of options, and the option is to get rid of an underground facility -- the facility I'm talking about is Natanz, 75 feet under hard rock -- if you want to tell the White House one sure way of getting it in a range of options is nuclear, what happened in this case is they gave that option, the JCS, the joint chiefs.

And then, of course, nobody in their right mind would want to use a nuclear weapon in the Middle East, because it would be, my God, totally chaotic. When the JCS, the joint chiefs, and the planners wanted to walk back that option, what happened is about three or four weeks ago, the White House, people in the White House, in the Oval Office, the vice president's office, said, no, let's keep it in the plan.

That doesn't mean it's going to happen. They refuse to take it out. And what I'm writing here is that if this isn't removed -- and I say this very seriously. I've been around this town for 40 years -- some senior officers are prepared to resign. They're that upset about the fact that this plan is kept in. Again, let me make the point, you're giving a range of options early in the planning. To be sure of getting rid of it, you give that option.

BLITZER: Your point being, or at least the points of some experts, that a conventional bomb, even a bunker-busting conventional bomb, would not be big enough to go that deep under the ground to assure the destruction of Iran's capabilities. Is that why you would need, theoretically, a nuclear bomb?

HERSH: What I write about is this, and, you know, it's a 7,000- word article, so it's easy to -- it's hard to summarize in a sentence. We learned in the, three decades ago during the Cold War that we saw a lot of digging outside of Russia.

We didn't know what it was. It turned out to be an underground contingency of government facilities, 75 feet underground, hard rock.

And at that time, our planners -- if you want to have an all-out war with the Russians and decapitate, destroy the leadership, the only sure way, they said, 30 years ago, was nukes.

So when they looked at the underground facility in Iran -- as I said, this place, the main place is 75 hard feet underground, the only way you can tell the White House for sure, folks, you have to use a tac nuke.

But that isn't what they were -- they were just giving the range. But it's the fact that the White House wouldn't let it go that has got the JCS in an uproar.

BLITZER: And you're saying that some senior military officers are prepared to resign?

HERSH: I'm saying that, if this isn't walked back and if the president isn't told that you cannot do it -- and once the chairman of the joint chiefs or some senior members of the military say to the president, let's get this nuclear option off the table, it will be taken off. He will not defy the military in a formal report. Unless something specific is told to the White House that you've got to drop this dream of a nuclear option -- and that's exactly the issue I'm talking about -- people have said to me that they would resign.

BLITZER: Do you want to name names?

HERSH: Are you kidding?

BLITZER: I'm giving you the opportunity.

HERSH: No. You know why? Because this is a punitive government right now. This is a government that pretty much has its back against the wall, as you've been saying all morning, in Iraq.

And in the military -- you know, one thing about our military is they're very loyal to the president, but they're getting to the edge. They're getting to the edge with not only Rumsfeld but also with Cheney and the president.

BLITZER: The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, was asked earlier today about this nuclear option, if you will, to deal with Iran's potential nuclear program.

Listen to what Jack Straw said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: It suggests that plans are indeed under way by the Americans, if necessary, to hit various facilities in Iran.

JACK STRAW, BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY: The idea of a nuclear strike on Iran is completely nuts.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He didn't mince any words: "completely nuts" in his words. You want to react to that? HERSH: Well, what he didn't say -- he didn't deny that there's serious planning about the military strike is the point. I mean, he's absolutely right about a nuclear option, but there is serious planning for a conventional war.

BLITZER: Here are some of the comments we've gotten from top Pentagon officials, reacting to your article in the New Yorker.

Larry DiRita, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs: "We will not, other than to remind people that Sy Hersh has a single anonymous source who is not in government, and both Hersh and the source have made fantastic, unverified, and wrong allegations before."

You want to react to Larry DiRita?

HERSH: I think the last time that he was talking about was when I wrote about Abu Ghraib. I think the phrase they used in the Pentagon -- I was throwing "crap against the wall to see what will stick" at that point, when I first began to report that there were serious abuses in Abu Ghraib two years ago.

BLITZER: Another Pentagon spokesman, Brian Whitman says this in reaction to your article, and I'll read it: "The United States government has been very clear about its approach to dealing with Iran. The president and the State Department are working diligently with the international community to include organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations to address diplomatically the troublesome activities of the Iranian government.

Whitman goes on to say, "This reporter" -- referring to you -- "has a solid and well-earned reputation for making dramatic assertions based on thinly sourced, unverifiable anonymous sources. It should be noted that Mr. Hersh never sought any comment, clarification or interviews with responsible and knowledgeable officials of the Defense Department."

HERSH: The New Yorker sent a long, detailed memorandum to the Pentagon on Tuesday. I e-mailed other people in the government, getting no response, other responsible high-level officials, not getting a response.

And all I can tell you is that the response was given -- a very churlish response was given to us on Thursday night or Friday that didn't respond, as he doesn't, to the issue.

The question: Is there serious military planning going on? And all of this talk doesn't evade the issue. The answer is yes and they're not actually denying it.

BLITZER: Here's the other explosive item in your piece, and I'll read it: "The Bush administration, while publicly advocating diplomacy in order to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, has increased clandestine activities inside Iraq and intensified planning for a possible major air attack. Current and former American military and intelligence officials said that Air Force planning groups are drawing up lists of targets, and teams of American combat troops have been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data and to establish contact with anti- government ethnic-minority groups."

Bottom line, what you're saying here is that there are American forces, clandestinely, already inside of Iran.

HERSH: That's what I'm saying.

BLITZER: You want to elaborate on that?

HERSH: Well, I'll tell you one thing that very interesting to me about it. They're not special force; they're regular military. And that's part of the Rumsfeld notion that all military guys are potentially special forces. And I think it's fraught with danger. But they're there.

And we're not saying any more specifically about where they are or what they're doing. Nobody wants to see anybody get hurt. But they are there and the American public should know it because, I assure you, the Iranian government knows it.

BLITZER: The official U.S. intelligence estimate is the Iranians are still years away from developing a nuclear bomb.

The Israelis are much more concerned. They think it's -- perhaps this year could be a decisive turning point in whether they go forward with it.

What is your bottom-line assessment, based on the reporting you've done? How close are the Iranians to actually building a bomb?

HERSH: You know, the point is, we don't know. It's not tomorrow. I've heard up to as long as ten years. And as you know, the official estimate, intelligence estimate of the government that was published -- leaked last year or obtained by The Washington Post said eight to ten years. And that's the best guess.

Here's the real, critical point. The critical point, it seems to me, is that we're not talking. This president is not talking to the Iranians. They are trying very hard to make contact, I can assure you of that, in many different forms.

And he's not talking. And there's no public pressure on the White House to start bilateral talks. And that's what amazes everybody.

When I was in Vienna, seeing officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the one thing they all said is everybody knows Iran is trying to do something. They're cheating. They're not near. There's plenty of time. And instead of talking about bombing, let's talk about talking.

Let's see if we can do something to begin a bilateral conversation. And it's amazing to me, not only that the president doesn't but there's no pressure on him from Congress or anybody else.

BLITZER: One final question before I let you go: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran: A lot of people think the guy is nuts. What do you think, based on all the reporting you've done?

HERSH: He certainly was a very rough customer. He was in the special operations force of the revolutionary guards in the '80s. He's been linked to a lot of very bad stuff, including assassination plotting abroad.

The real issue is who in control. And there's a lot of debate about it. Most people believe the supreme Leader, Khamenei, still has enough of the force and power.

But again, it's very nerve-wracking that we keep on pushing people that are volatile. They're not crazy. This is not Saddam Hussein. They're not going to sit there and let something happen. They're going to do something in response.

BLITZER: Sy Hersh has an explosive new article, as I said, in the New Yorker magazine.

Sy, thanks very much for joining us.

HERSH: Glad for having me.

BLITZER: And just ahead: Should the U.S. begin withdrawing its troops from Iraq this year?

I'll speak with President Bush's 2004 Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry, about his three-part plan for the U.S. mission there.

Then: a supporter of the president's plan to stay the course in Iraq. We'll hear from the Republican Senator Jon Kyl. "Late Edition" continues after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: He fell short of defeating President Bush in the 2004 presidential campaign, but Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry is still challenging the White House on a wide range of issues, especially the war in Iraq.

I spoke with Senator Kerry in "The Situation Room" on Thursday. We met in his Capitol Hill office. I began by asking him about the news that Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was apparently authorized by the president himself to leak classified information on Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Well, it's incredible. I mean, it means, first of all -- if it's true -- it means that there is no accountability in this administration. The buck doesn't stop anywhere. It means you have a president of the United States who stood up in front of Americans and said, gee, we have to find out who did this. We're going to have an investigation. If I find the person, I'll fire him. And so he's been looking for himself for two years. It's stunning, and ...

BLITZER: The document didn't say that the president authorized Libby to leak the name of Valerie Plame, the CIA operative, only to leak information in the NIE, the national intelligence estimate. Unclear which information in the NIE, although it's presumed involving former Ambassador Joe Wilson's trip to Niger.

KERRY: Right. But to the best of my knowledge, it's part of the same effort to discredit Joe Wilson and to credit illegitimate arguments for going to war in Iraq. And the fact is that the bottom line remains that if the president of the United States is authorizing for political purposes the release of classified information, you have a very serious issue.

BLITZER: So how serious of an issue is it? There's already one motion to censure the president that Senator Russ Feingold has put forward because of the domestic warrantless wiretaps. KERRY: Well, this would certainty be item number two on that list, if it is true, as I said. I mean, I don't know all the facts, but I know what the court papers allege to have said, and if the court papers are accurate, then that is something that the Congress would have to take a very hard look at. BLITZER: As you know, a lot of Republicans, including the former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, are saying if the Democrats take the majority in the Senate and/or the House, the first thing they're going to try to do is impeach this president.

KERRY: The first thing that the Democrats are going to try to do is put this country back on track and get a policy in Iraq that doesn't have our young kids being killed because of a bunch of Iraqi politicians won't come together, and we're not involved enough to get them to.

And we will do the things necessary to put this country on a track, not a political track like we have today, but one that deals with health care, with jobs, with the budget deficit and the real concerns of the American people. One thing I know we know how to do is govern, and I think this country needs governance of its best quality.

BLITZER: Is impeachment an option out there?

KERRY: Look, I don't even want to -- that's a road that's all political, all Washington, all process. What Americans want right now is for us to deal with the issues they're concerned about. And number one, they are appropriately concerned about young Americans who are putting their lives on the line in Iraq for a policy that doesn't work.

It is inexcusable that five months or four months-plus after an election, they don't have a government. They're sitting around arguing with each other. And every day you've got kids coming back to Bethesda and to Walter Reed Hospital without their arms or limbs, with serious disabilities because of this policy of the president's. His policy is wrong. We need to be tough with the Iraqis. We need to say you've got until May 15 to put a government together, and if you don't put it together, our troops are leaving.

BLITZER: I want to get to Iraq in a moment, but let's just wind up on this censure. Senator Feingold's got this motion out there. Senator Leahy, the ranking member on the judiciary committee, said the other day, he said this: "Our witnesses today will address whether censure is an appropriate sanction for the violations," the warrantless wiretapping. "I am inclined," he said, "to believe that it is."

Are you inclined to believe that the behavior of the president, authorizing the warrantless wiretaps, the surveillance, is appropriate for censure?

KERRY: Yes.

BLITZER: So you would support Senator Feingold on that? KERRY: I'm inclined to believe it, and I think the hearings are appropriate, and I would be prepared to vote for it, if there shows the appropriate linkage of what they've done to the requirements of the law. I believe it is, and I believe it is appropriate. BLITZER: Let's talk...

KERRY: ... But we have to have it properly vetted through the committee, and I think it's appropriate to do that. But I think it's more than appropriate to be having this discussion and that debate, and it ought to be deeper than that.

Wolf, you've got a war that's being prosecuted by a secretary of defense who's been wrong at almost every step of the way, but there's no accountability. It's like a FEMA director, Mr. Brown, who wasn't prepared for Katrina. You have Mr. Wolfowitz, who leaves the Pentagon after designing the war, and he's promoted up. You have intelligence that was faulty, but you give the Medal of Freedom to the director of the CIA.

There is no accountability in this administration, and the Libby, Scooter Libby, the Scooter Libby evidence with respect to leaking is just one more example of the lack of accountability in this administration.

BLITZER: Here's what you wrote in The New York Times this week. You wrote, "Iraqi politicians should be told that they have until May 15 to put together an effective unity government or we will immediately withdraw our military."

What if it takes them a little bit longer to do it? This is a historic, dramatic moment in Iraq. They're trying to forge an alliance between Sunni, Shia, and Kurd. It's clearly not an easy matter for them, given some of the historic ethnic tensions.

KERRY: But there's been almost no legitimate, major diplomatic effort to get them to do it over the last months. You know, a quick visit of the secretary of state, with all due respect, is not real, sustained and deeply engaged diplomacy. You remember Henry Kissinger and shuttle diplomacy. You remember Jim Baker and his amazing Herculean efforts to try to piece together a legitimate coalition.

Where is that kind of engagement by the president and highest officials to bring the Iraqi ...

BLITZER: They do have the U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, he's working tirelessly to try to do that.

KERRY: But an ambassador is not. I have great respect for Ambassador Khalilzad. He is very good. I've visited with him there. He's doing his utmost, but it takes more than an ambassador in Baghdad to make this happen.

It takes a president, a vice president, secretary of state, working with the surrounding neighbors, working with the Arab League, working with the United Nations. That's why I've suggested you must have a Dayton Accords-like conference that brings people together in order to put that diplomacy on the table.

But secondly, and this is very important, the Iraqis have only responded to deadlines. It took a deadline for the transfer of the provisional government. They didn't like it, but they did it.

It took a deadline for first election, a deadline for the referendum on the constitution, a deadline for the last election. And they must be given a deadline, and it has to be serious. No young American soldier should be killed or lose limb or gain a major disability because Iraqi politicians can't seize this moment of democracy.

BLITZER: In that same New York Times article, you said even if they do put together a new government by the middle of May, which is not an easy challenge, obviously, but let's say they do. By the end of this year, you say the U.S. should pull out of Iraq.

When we spoke here in the Senate on November 17, this is what you said to me, and I'll read it to you. You said, "You set out a timetable not for withdrawal, but for success, that allows you to withdraw." You've had a change of heart since then.

KERRY: Because the situation on the ground has changed since then, and what I did say at the same time that I said we need a timetable, I said I believe we could have most of the troops out by the end of this year.

Now, the key is that back then, most people thought we were fighting the jihadists, the foreign jihadists on the ground. That has now completely transformed, and it is not the jihadists who present the greatest threat. It is a civil war that presents the greatest threat.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Still ahead, Senator Kerry talks about the lessons he learned during the 2004 presidential campaign and what he would do differently if he decides to run in 2008. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

I spoke with Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry in "The Situation Room" on Thursday. Here's part two of my interview.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: You think there is a civil war right now?

KERRY: There is a low-grade civil war. It has not yet burst out into a full-fledged civil war, but it is such. I mean, the former Prime Minister Allawi called it a civil war.

It is sufficient that the problem is now, principally, Shia and Sunni. And the only solution, according to our own generals -- General Casey said this can not be solved militarily; it must be solved politically.

I believe, over the next eight months, we have the ability to do that. And our troops have done their job.

BLITZER: So you are basically aligned now, for all practice purposes, with Democratic Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania, who similarly called for a withdrawal, redeploying U.S. forces, as he says, over the horizon; get them out of Iraq. He says that footprint, that U.S. military footprint is part of the problem right now.

KERRY: Yes, I think John Murtha and I agree on more than we disagree on. And I admire his leadership on this and I think it's been terrific.

The difference is I've set a date by which I believe we ought to have the two events happen. And I want this international conference. John has talked mostly about the troops and the redeployment.

But we agree on an over-the-horizon presence. We agree that we can fight Al Qaida more effectively with an over-the-horizon presence. We agree that we will strengthen America's security by getting our troops out of Iraq and being in a better position to deal with Iran, a better position to deal with Russia and what's happening in the backtracking of democracy, a better position to deal with North Korea, that is not even paying attention to the six-party talks, while we're bogged down in Iraq. The bottom line is, Wolf, our current policy and our presence in Iraq is hurting American national security, not helping it. It is setting us back in a world, not moving us forward. And it is hurting the armed forces themselves in their readiness and morale. We can do a better job.

BLITZER: When the president spoke in Annapolis at the U.S. Naval Academy last November, he said: "Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would vindicate the terrorist tactics of beheadings and suicide bombings and mass murder and invite new attacks on America."

And he's repeated that ever since, basically, if the terrorists believe the insurgents that the U.S. is forced to withdraw from Iraq, they will take advantage of this and simply go forward and create a terror haven in that part of the world.

KERRY: The president is as wrong about that pronouncement as he has been about almost every pronouncement he's made about Iraq. And the fact is the president is trying to play to the fear of Americans.

The threat in Iraq is not the foreign jihadist terrorists that we should be fighting in parts of Afghanistan and elsewhere. They will be taken care of by the Iraqis. The Iraqis don't want foreign terrorists on their land.

The problem here is a civil struggle between Shia and Sunni. And the president keeps confusing it to Americans by saying exactly what you've just quoted, when the real fight is how do you resolve the differences between Shia and Sunni so that you can build a real democracy. Our troops can't do that.

BLITZER: The Democrats -- clearly, the Republicans have problems with the public opinion polls. The president certainly has low job approval numbers.

This question was asked recently in our CNN poll: Do Democrats in Congress have a clear plan for Iraq? Twenty-five percent said yes; 68 percent said no, in part because, I think, a lot of people think the Democrats are all over the place when it comes to Iraq.

KERRY: Well, I have a clear plan for Iraq, period, a clear plan.

BLITZER: And that's the one that was outlined the other day. Are you running for president again?

KERRY: I honestly don't know yet. It is too early. I am working mostly on the 2006 races. I've been supporting over 135 candidates around the country. I've been in 33 states. Many of them have nothing to do with presidential politics but they have everything to do with building a broader Democratic base in the country.

That's what I think we have to do is win seats in the House and Senate. And I'm determined to try to help do it.

BLITZER: In our CNN/USA Today Gallup poll among registered Democrats, we asked who were their favorite choices for the 2008 presidential nomination.

Senator Clinton gets 39 percent; Senator Kerry, 15; Al Gore, 13; John Edwards, 12. What would be different between a John Kerry run -- another John Kerry run -- and a Hillary Clinton run?

BLITZER: She hasn't announced that she's running, but a lot of people think she will.

KERRY: First of all, I'm not going to get into a race that doesn't exist, that's premature. That's just not worth your time or mine.

BLITZER: Well, Senator Biden, who's running, he says that he brings a lot more to the table in terms of his experience than Senator Clinton.

KERRY: Well, when and if I decide that I'm going to be a candidate, I'll tell you, but I'll tell you this, I came within 60,000 votes, I won 10 million more votes than Bill Clinton did for re- election, and we exceeded our goals in every precinct in America. We won a lot of seats in legislatures and elsewhere around the country. I'm proud of the campaign.

We made some mistakes. I take responsibility for them. I know that if I ran again, I've learned a lot, I won't repeat those mistakes. I think I know how to win, but it is way too early to be getting into a head-to-head analysis and I'm just not going to do that. BLITZER: One of your former supporters was quoted in The Boston Globe, your hometown newspaper, saying this, John Wertheim of the New Mexico Democratic Party, chairman: "I do sense that there is a feeling in the party that he," referring to John Kerry, "has had his chance, and that we need to move on to someone new. We need a real breath of fresh air, a new voice for the party." I'm sure you've heard that same criticism.

KERRY: Well, some people have that feeling, and they are entitled to that feeling, and I respect that feeling. And I will listen carefully to people. As I said, I haven't made up my mind, but I'm confident in my ability to be able to win if I make a decision to run based on the lessons learned in the race I ran last time.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: John Kerry speaking with me in "The Situation Room" last Thursday. When we return, we'll get a different perspective. Arizona Republican Senator John Kyl. He's standing by live. Among other things, we'll talk about the huge battle under way over illegal immigration in the United States. My interview with John Kyl coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." Joining us now from Phoenix to talk about Iraq, Iran, the immigration battle, lots more, the Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl. He's a key member of the Senate judiciary committee. Senator Kyl, welcome back to "Late Edition."

I want to talk about the collapse of this immigration deal that seemed only 24 hours earlier to be resolved in the U.S. Senate, but then it went down in flames. Was it because of the president's strong call for a guest-worker program, something I believe you don't support?

KYL: Well, first of all, I do support a guest-worker program. What I don't support is the notion that the people who are here illegally should have a pathway to citizenship or that the temporary worker program should actually allow for permanent residence in the United States. But the answer to your...

BLITZER: Because, well, let me interrupt for a second. Because that legislation, the compromise that McCain, Kennedy and Senator Hagel had worked out with Senator Mel Martinez did allow that guest- worker program to eventually, over many years, lead toward citizenship.

KYL: That's right, and my view is that people who have broken our law, come into the country illegally, have every right participate in a temporary-worker program, but that there is no need to say to them, we're going to make you citizens of the United States of America. And that for the future, a temporary-worker program that might be useful to supply labor needs in our country, when they exist, should be exactly that, temporary, so that when the work is not available for them, you haven't turned them into permanent legal residents and thereby created a situation where you have foreign workers here but no job for them.

So those are a couple of the fundamental disagreements I have with the underlying legislation. But to get back to your question, the reason that the legislation failed was on process, not substance. The Democratic leader had refused for over a week to allow any amendments to be voted on, on the floor of the Senate.

And Republican colleagues, both who supported the compromise legislation of which you speak and those of us who opposed it, agreed that, at a minimum, we ought to have a chance to offer and vote on amendments. And that right having been denied to us by the rules of the Senate that the minority leader invoked caused the Republican senators to say this is not a fair process. We want everybody to have a right to offer amendments and get them voted on, and we're not going to close off debate on the bill until that occurs.

BLITZER: Here is how the president explains his stance on this guest-worker provision. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: I recognize that there are people here, working hard for jobs Americans won't do, and a guest-worker provision that is not amnesty.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Do you believe, since under his version and under the compromised version in the Senate it would eventually lead toward citizenship, that a guest-worker program is a euphemism, basically, for amnesty?

KYL: Well, people can characterize it however they want to, but let me give you a specific illustration, and draw your own conclusion. Work that Americans won't do. Right now, we can't get enough folks to build houses here in Phoenix, Arizona, but I've seen many times when a good American citizen carpenter can't find a job in the housing industry because there's a recession and a high level of unemployment and no work to be found.

It seems to me that when we need foreign workers we should invite them in with a temporary permit, but we should not term them into legal, permanent residents or citizens because there may well come a time -- indeed, there will be a time -- when there is no job available for them. In fact, Americans can't find a job in that particular industry. So I don't think it's correct to say that they're only here coming for jobs that Americans won't do. Right now, there are jobs available. In the future, there may not be.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about this other big story that erupted in Washington this week. The assertion by Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice president's former chief of staff, who's been indicted on perjury, lying charges, that the president himself, through the vice president, authorized him to pass along classified information to Judith Miller, who had been a reporter at The New York Times, to try to rebut the assertions by the former U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson involving Iraq and its alleged enriched uranium program.

Do you have a problem with the president supposedly making that kind of decision to leak to reporters at a time when he was railing against such leaks?

KYL: Well, first let me offer an observation about your question. I don't think the president, I don't think there's any evidence that the president told the vice president to go leak information to the press. What I understand the evidence to say is that the president wanted to get all of the information out about the national intelligence estimate, that the Wilson piece that appeared in the newspaper provided some of but not all of the information, and created a distorted picture.

And so they recognized that they need to get some of the information declassified so that the full picture could emerge, but that the president did not say to Dick Cheney or anybody else, I want you to go leak to the newspaper. But it seems to me that there were misjudgments all the way around here, Wolf, to get to kind of the more basic question.

Wilson, who was sent on a CIA mission, should never have gone public with half of the story.

Then, with half of the story out there, the administration had a problem: how do we get the full story out there? The better way to do it, obviously, would be to declassify the material and have all of the press be given that material.

But finally, I don't think that anyone has suggested that the president did anything illegal. He obviously has authority to declassify material if he thinks it's in the national interest. And he clearly felt it was in the national interest to ensure that the American public got the full story, not just half of the story that Joe Wilson put out.

BLITZER: The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- a committee on which you serve, Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania -- he said earlier today that he would like to hear directly from the president and the vice president exactly what they did authorize as far as information involving Joe Wilson is concerned.

Would you support that recommendation by Senator Specter?

KYL: Well, if you could get it out of the investigation that's going on, the so-called Fitzpatrick investigation -- I think right now you've got grand jury; you've got indictment. And I would be very wary of trying to mix the two together.

But at some point, it is important. And as I said, I think there were a lot of misjudgments here. The first misjudgment was a person on a CIA mission, for political purposes, apparently, only telling half the story and distorting it.

Then, the administration had no choice but to try to get the rest of the story out. I think there was a better way to do that, however.

BLITZER: At this point, though, what Joe Wilson was writing in the New York Times, based on everything you know and all of the information that has come forward, he was right and the president, in those 16 words in the State of the Union address, when he spoke about British intelligence believing that Saddam Hussein was trying to get enriched uranium from Niger, that the president was wrong.

Is that your bottom line?

KYL: No, it's exactly the opposite of that. The president was absolutely correct in what he said. It was correct then and it's still correct today. British intelligence still maintains that they had the evidence that that is exactly what the Iraqis were trying to obtain from Niger.

BLITZER: But U.S. intelligence came up with an 180-degree different conclusion, even in advance of the State of the Union address.

KYL: No, Wolf, the U.S. intelligence could not confirm or deny.

The British intelligence had the information and the president referred, in the State of the Union speech, not to U.S. intelligence but to British intelligence. So what he said was correct. Now, the fact that we could not independently confirm that doesn't make the British intelligence wrong. And they still stand by the intelligence.

BLITZER: Well, there's a lengthy piece -- you probably didn't see it -- in today's Washington Post, saying that, days before the president's State of the Union address, the National Intelligence Council, a high-level intelligence policy group, did conclude that they couldn't support, they couldn't back up the British intelligence version.

KYL: No, that's exactly right. I served on the Intelligence Committee during this point of time and I know what happened there. And it's exactly as I said. We could not confirm it independently, just exactly as you said.

That doesn't mean that the British intelligence was wrong. As a matter of fact, I tend to believe that it was correct, that Iraqis did go to Niger; they did try to open up a relationship to acquire that yellow cake. Nothing ever came of that.

The intelligence reported it was correct and it was wrong for Joe Wilson to leave that out of his report. He acknowledged that orally when he came back and reported about his trip, but he never said it in the article that he wrote.

And so it was important that information that told the rest of the story be gotten out to the public. And that's what, I gather, the rest of the information was that the president authorized to be declassified.

BLITZER: Senator Kyl, unfortunately we have to leave it there. But thanks for joining us.

KYL: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And we'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER (voice over): Meredith Vieira: What's her story? The broadcast journalist, game show host and television personality is taking over the helm of NBC's "Today Show" in the fall.

She'll succeed the current "Today Show" anchor and reigning morning news queen, Katie Couric. Vieira, now on ABC's "The View," announced the decision herself before NBC's official announcement.

Vieira, who also hosts "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," spent more than a decade as a correspondent with CBS News and won several awards, including five Emmys, for her work on "60 Minutes."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here are the results of our Web question of the week: "Which issue concerns you the most right now?" Take a look at the percentages. Remember, though, this is not, repeat not, a scientific poll.

That's all the time we have for this "Late Edition." Thanks very much for joining us. Remember, we're on "Late Edition" every Sunday, 11:00 a.m. Eastern, for the last word in Sunday talk. 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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