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PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT

President in Afghanistan; Interview with Dan Rather; Interview With Michael Hastings

Aired May 1, 2012 - 21:00   ET

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


PIERS MORGAN, CNN HOST: Tonight breaking news. President Obama's top secret Afghanistan trip. The troop withdrawal and what it means for Americans.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This time of war began in Afghanistan and this is where it will end.

MORGAN: Reaction to the president's speech live from Afghanistan.

Plus tough talk from Dan Rather. Never afraid to butt heads with presidents and dictators, even his network's bosses. Tonight he definitely won't be holding back. Dan Rather speaks his mind on President Obama, on reporters who he says need to grow a spine, and on the story that took him down.

Plus some Navy SEALs during the battle over bin Laden.

OBAMA: The United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda.

MORGAN: Why they charge the president with putting politics ahead of their safety.

And "Only in America." The real bin Laden battle. Why it's not about politics.

This is PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT.

Good evening. Our "Big Story" tonight breaking news. President Obama's surprise trip to Afghanistan and his speech to Americans on the one-year anniversary of the mission to take out Osama bin Laden.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: My fellow Americans, we've traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon. The Iraq war is over. The number of our troops in harm's way has been cut in half and more will soon be coming home. We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan while delivering justice to al Qaeda.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MORGAN: Plenty of expert reaction to this momentous day coming up soon. Plus my interview with a man who first reported from Afghanistan for CBS News in the '80s, Dan Rather, his candid thoughts on the president, on the race for the White House and on today's journalistic superstars.

And why some Navy SEALs charged that the White House is playing politics in the bin Laden battle.

We begin tonight with "Our Big Story." President Obama's secret trip to Afghanistan. Joining me to break down tonight's speech is CNN's Nick Paton Walsh in Kabul, and Wolf Blitzer in Washington, also General Mark Kimmitt, President George W. Bush's assistant secretary of state, and presidential historian, Douglas Brinkley.

I want to start with Nick who's in Kabul.

Nick, what is the mood in Kabul tonight? What is the reaction of the Afghani people to this announcement by the president?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: To be honest, it's hard to tell. I mean dawn has just broken. The entire trip occurring under the secrecy of darkness, something clearly the Obama administration was keen to exploit because of how dangerous it's been in Kabul recently.

But I can tell you, I mean, it was a wonderfully edifying speech, beautifully choreographed. All over in a number of hours. But it doesn't change the harsh reality on the ground here. It's been an awful past four months of rocky U.S.-Afghan, sign of a Taliban on the rise in many ways. Terrible attacks by Afghan men in army uniform against NATO personnel that have shaken the vital trust between Afghan and U.S. soldiers that is so badly needed at the transition of securities to happen successfully here.

So while, you know, it's possible to hear Barack Obama and feel that everything is on track that there is a plan and we can more or less relax and let things pan out as were previously organized, it doesn't really tally with the kind of harsh reality people have been going through in the past few months -- Piers.

MORGAN: Now an awful lot, it seems to me, is hinging on the Taliban cooperating in the way the president seems to suggest they may. But is there any real likelihood of that happening? I mean aren't the Taliban just waiting in the mountains for the American troops to pull out and just to get back to what they did before?

WALSH: You make a good point there, Piers. I mean that brings me to the part of the speech I found strange, actually, to be honest, in which Barack Obama appealed to the Taliban to begin negotiations, said they've been in talks with U.S. officials. That's something that happened a number of months ago in Qatar, one of the Gulf states, where U.S. officials met with Taliban representatives. But those talks, those beginning talks about talks, if you like, collapsed thereafter the last few disastrous months. The Taliban pulling out and U.S. and Afghan officials saying that those contacts have now ceased.

There are real concerns that there is really no peace process even to begin to talk about this (INAUDIBLE). I was curious to listen to Barack Obama talking about this path of reconciliation ahead. And I think there are many concerns that the Taliban is just buying its time. There is a popular saying here that while the Americans have an expensive watch, it's the Taliban who have the time -- Piers.

MORGAN: Yes. Indeed. Nick Paton Walsh, thank you very much.

Let's turn on to General Kimmitt. When you hear what the president was saying today, I was struck by the use of the phrase counterterrorism operation that people are now putting out today from Afghanistan. Hasn't that been what this has always been? I mean has it been a war in any conventional sense? And did America ever hope to win a war in Afghanistan? Or hasn't it really been a counterterrorist operation that will now continue with more emphasis on Afghan troops than American troops?

GEN. MARK KIMMITT (RET.), FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE FOR POLITICAL-MILITARY AFFAIRS: Well, not really. It certainly was not a conventional war, but there were two distinct operations going on in Afghanistan. One was a counterterrorism operation led by our high end and special operations forces. But there was also a counterinsurgency, those insurgents primarily the Taliban, who were trying to fight and who continue to fight, as Nick said, against the established government inside of Kabul. But those are two different fights and in many ways fought by two different sets of forces.

MORGAN: Right, but America hasn't won a war in Afghanistan any more than the Russians did. Have they?

KIMMITT: No, they really haven't. And that's what surprised me so much in this very, very triumphalist speech that was given. There's still a lot of hard work. Now I was glad to see that the president told that to the troops. If he didn't tell it to the nation, that there's still a lot of hard work that needs to be done. As Nick points out, the situation on the ground still as problematic. And I was just saddened to see how this entire strategic partnership agreement and the anniversary of the killing of bin Laden has been tied so much into the politics in the political season that we're seeing.

MORGAN: I mean, isn't it a problem for the president that it is the one year anniversary of the death of bin Laden but he also is a few months away from the election. Anything that he does or says right now is deemed electioneering. Whereas I feel quite strongly that if you look at it dispassionately, it took a pretty big decision that day a year ago. And if it had gone wrong, then a lot of people would have been banging for his blood.

So isn't he entitled to remind the American people that it was a pretty successful mission, that it got rid of a pretty awful man?

KIMMITT: But he didn't do it. The troops on the ground did it. He made the decision. And you're absolutely right. He would have borne the responsibility if it had gone wrong. But I thought there was a wonderful editorial today in the -- in the "Wall Street Journal" that talked about presidents before who were quick to use the pronoun of I when things went wrong but not I when things went right.

The only time a good leader takes responsibilities is when things go wrong. When things go right, as this did, you give the credit to the troops. You give credit to the SEALs. You give credit to Admiral McRaven who ran this operation because they were at the sticky end of the spear. And if this had gone wrong, it wasn't a political problem. It would have been a life and death problem that they had.

So yes, bin Laden is dead. The world is a better place because of it. But as Senator McCain said, heroes don't brag. And there's just a little bit too much bragging going on for my personal taste here.

MORGAN: Let me turn to Doug Brinkley. Presidential historian, university professor of history. What is the historical significance of the president's visit to Afghanistan tonight and the speech he's made outlining the future there?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, I think it's very important. It's his third visit to Afghanistan. And it's his first since bin Laden's been killed. Remember, this was our national objective. Get bin Laden. We got him. But we have to -- everybody was talking about the politics of all this. Remember, NATO is meeting in Chicago in late May. And you have to have some kind of framework, a strategic partnership between Afghanistan and the United States.

So if it wasn't this day, it would have had to have been in the next few days. And I think President Obama gave a very strong speech. Imagine if you've been serving in Afghanistan for years, I don't think it was triumphalist, I think he was telling us we've done a good job. We've decimated a lot of al Qaeda. But there's still rocky times ahead.

How important this document will be in history, the strategic partnership signed between President Karzai and President Obama only time will tell. But it was a good move to make as we head into the summer where we're going to be bringing home about 25,000 more U.S. troops.

MORGAN: Yes, let's take another listen to a clip from the president's speech tonight, because I agree. I don't think it was overtly triumphalist. Let's listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it's time to renew America. An America where our children live free from fear and have the skills to claim their dreams. A united America of grit and resilience. Where sunlight glistens off soaring new towers in downtown Manhattan and we build our future as one people, as one nation.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MORGAN: Let's turn to Wolf Blitzer now.

Wolf, the president has taken another flack from this rivals who's saying look, he's making capital out of bin Laden's death and so on. But isn't it the reality as I said earlier that if you're in an election year, a few months from election, anything he does or says can be deemed electioneering.

Isn't it perfectly justified for him on the anniversary of bin Laden's death after the order that he gave and the SEALs' successful mission that he should remind people of what happened? And I didn't think he struck too triumphalistic and noble. What did you think?

WOLF BLITZER, ANCHOR, CNN'S THE SITUATION ROOM: No, he didn't get into, you know, a lot of politic -- political talk if you will in this 10-minute address he gave to the nation from the Bagram Air Base. He mentioned this is the first anniversary of the killing of bin Laden and he said that the U.S. is well on the way to destroying, defeating, crushing al Qaeda. I'm paraphrasing what he had to say.

But that wasn't the major thrust of the speech. The major thrust of the speech was outlining a game plan, a framework, if you will, for getting out of Afghanistan. And, you know, he sort of downplayed the reality, the harsh reality that it's not happening next month. It's not happening next year.

Two and a half more years, the United States is going to have to maintain tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan at a cost of tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars. Only at the end of 2014, 2 1/2 half years from now will all U.S. troops be out of Afghanistan. But then he outlined a 10-year framework, details to be negotiated during which the U.S. will have some sort of military and economic role in Afghanistan.

So it's a lot -- a lot of work and even though 20,000 or 25,000 more troops will be out this year, the U.S. will still have well over 60,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan in a very hostile, warlike environment. And there will be a lot of casualties, unfortunately, in the process.

MORGAN: A senior member of the Senate Armed -- Services Committee has said today, "Clearly this trip is campaign related. We've seen recently that President Obama has visited college campuses in attempt to win back the support of that age group since he lost it over the last three years. Similarly this trip to Afghanistan is an attempt to shore up his national security credentials because he spent the past three years gutting our military."

Let me turn to you, Doug Brinkley, I mean is that a fair criticism of the president, do you think, that he's just -- really this is just cheap politics?

BRINKLEY: No, it's cheap politics. And we have to pull together more as a country than looking at every single thing our commander-in- chief does and seeing it through a political lens. Our whole country has been trying to make some kind of progress in Afghanistan. We're all kind of anxious to go home. And I think the president did a very strong job today. It's dangerous. I mean, remember mission accomplished with George W. Bush. And, you know, it backfired on him. But you don't see a banner behind President Obama. He didn't come in wearing a fighter, you know, pilot uniform.

He simply is trying to get some kind of exit strategy going. And also, remember, just weeks ago we were dealing with Qurans being burned. We were dealing with massacres of civilians in Afghanistan to have one or a week here where we can see that progress has been made in Kabul, I think it's a good thing.

MORGAN: Wolf, let me turn to you. What was your reaction to that quote there from the Senate Armed Services Committee member?

BLITZER: Well, that was over the top. The United States is still spending about $700 billion a year, $800 billion a year, on U.S. Defense expenditures. The Pentagon's budget has gone up every single year since the president took office. I don't see how you can say he's gutted the U.S. military.

This president has been very, very strong to the point that a lot of liberal Democrats, I should be, Piers, they've been very concerned about the president's strategy in Afghanistan. They've been concerned about the president's continued robust military expenditures. The budget that goes to the Pentagon. So this notion of gutting the military is way too far.

MORGAN: General Kimmitt, let me just leave you with some statistics and give you the final word here, 3,860 days, 1,834 Americans killed, over 15,000 Americans wounded, 11,864 civilians killed, $443 billion spent. Was it worth it?

KIMMITT: Well, was it worth it? We don't know yet. I mean the fact is if we leave Afghanistan in a better situation going forward, if it is no longer a safe haven for terrorism and it is no longer an emerging threat to the people of the United States of America -- and let's also recognize that if we have got to maintain a war against terrorism, fight against terrorism, global war on terrorism for years to come.

Because it is important that we killed one man. But we didn't kill an idea. And I believe that we shouldn't rest thinking that it's over. We've got work to do in Afghanistan. We've got to work to make sure that this disease of terrorism, these threats to America, we maintain vigilance for years to come.

MORGAN: General Kimmitt, Doug Brinkley, Wolf Blitzer, Nick Paton Walsh, thank you all very much indeed.

You're looking at live pictures of the White House. The president's on his way back. Next, more on our big story. A man who first reported from Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, the great CBS newsman, Dan Rather.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: One year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal that I set to defeat al Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild is now within our reach.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAN RATHER, HOST, "DAN RATHER REPORTS" HDNET: I'm standing on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. A border that is now closed to most everyone except refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion. These Afghan clothes I'm wearing were part of an operation to sneak me and the CBS News film crew into Afghanistan.

The operation succeeded. So far as we can tell, we are the only full television crew to get inside Afghanistan in recent months.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN: That was Dan Rather in Afghanistan reporting for CBS News back in the 1980s. Now the host of "Dan Rather Reports" on HDNet. And He has a new book, the aptly titled, Rather Outspoken," and joins me now for more on our "Big Story."

Welcome, Mr. Outspoken.

(LAUGHTER)

MORGAN: Fantastic, fantastic costume, I believe, you're wearing there, Dan. And what do you see -- very timely to have you here on the day that President Obama flies to Afghanistan and made the speech that he made. Has America really got more out of this whole conflict in Afghanistan than the Soviets did?

RATHER: That's yet to be determined. I don't think the parallel with the Soviets yet holds up. The Soviets left in defeat. As of right now, the war on Afghanistan is a stalemate. One might want to say a stalemate at best as far as the U.S. is concerned. But the plan that President Obama laid out tonight, that will determine whether it remains a stalemate, whether we succeed in the basic mission, or whether it's a failure.

MORGAN: When you look at President Obama's foreign policies since he became president, are you impressed by the way that he has conducted it?

RATHER: I am, I am personally impressed. And furthermore, I think most of the American people, a majority, are impressed. He hasn't done it perfectly, but let's face it. He's ended one war. The Iraq war. He got -- he didn't get -- U.S. military people got but on his watch he got Osama bin Laden.

We've also made rather great strides in trying to stabilize the situation of China. It hangs in the balance right now. But I think he gets an A on foreign policy. However, one must note, American elections are very rarely decided on foreign policy. It's about the economy and jobs. That would be the determining factor.

I think President Obama may be helped by what he's done in foreign policy particularly the getting of Obama on his watch. Again -- always wants to emphasize he didn't do it, the troops did it.

MORGAN: I mean that is true, and I would be the first to salute the troops. My -- half my family are in the armed forces. They've toured in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, I do feel it slightly churlish for people to criticize President Obama simply reminding people that actually he did take that order because had it gone wrong, as I said earlier, all hell would have broken loose.

RATHER: Absolutely, as president.

MORGAN: I mean the Republicans would have made his life totally untenable.

RATHER: Well, I don't consider it partisan, the statement to say that many of the same people who are now saying don't smack the ball on the end zone, don't moonwalking the end zone, are the same people who were applauding President Bush when he went aboard an aircraft carrier far prematurely to declare a victory in Iraq.

But look, it's going to be part and parcel to the presidential campaign. But I do think that President Obama, whether you agree with him or not, whether you intend to vote for him or not, you have to give him credit. On his watch he made the decision. He made the call. Risky call. And as former president, Jimmy Carter, can tell you, if it had gone badly he would have suffered a consequence --

MORGAN: It talked to President Carter about what happened with him --

RATHER: Yes.

MORGAN: -- in the (INAUDIBLE) hostages. It came down to failed helicopters and awful luck and all the rest of it. And on such moments, presidential reputations and the nation's reputations can hinge. These are huge decisions that these guys have to take. And I just think, you know, it's not really about politics. I remember when bin Laden was killed. Very, very well. Because I'd flown in from England. I had been covering the royal wedding for CNN. And it was the next day. Got to New York and suddenly everyone was texting me saying turn on CNN. I turned it on. Bin laden is dead.

And not just America, the world was celebrating. And if it had gone wrong, the world would have seen a humiliated American president.

RATHER: Absolutely. And probably one who would not be re- elected.

MORGAN: See, I think kick the presidents when they get it wrong, and my goodness, we've all kicked President Obama. But isn't it just weird that in the modern political world with the rhetoric as it is that he can't even get credit for something so straightforward?

RATHER: Well, it's also a reminder in the great sweep of history that it's very hard to judge presidential decisions, presidential administrations at the time. It takes a period of past the presidency to really put it in context. An example would be President Eisenhower who because he ended the war in Korea was criticized in some quarters for doing so. He became a two-term elected president.

It wasn't the only thing that got him elected. It was an important thing that got him elected. But I quite agree. Whether a president is Republican or Democrat, we need to remind ourselves what a difficult job it is. And making a call when your advisers, the majority of your advisers, and this was a case where President Obama said, I don't think this is the time to go. To say we're going to go, make the call.

Again, give the troops all the credit they deserve. But he does deserve some credit. And I think he will get some from the American people.

MORGAN: I mean it's not just an American thing. I mean Winston Churchill was kicked out of office after the Second World War.

RATHER: It's history.

MORGAN: Unbelievably. But again it came back to where you said, which is very interesting. The -- in the end it was about the economic conditions in Britain. You know, there was so much disaffection when people came home and they found that there was no money and there's no prosperity. And they thought, wow. You know? Let's get rid of this guy. He's obviously taken his eye off the ball while winning the war.

And similarly you can see with President Obama, the economy is still in a rough state. Come November he's up against a guy, almost certainly Mitt Romney, who is very smart with business, very smart on the economy and financial matters. He's got a fight on his hands, doesn't he?

RATHER: Well, he certainly has a fight on his hands. Listen, I have said to some criticism I don't think as of this moment, check with me again during the summer and the fall that President Obama is even money re-elected. However, how things go in Afghanistan may affect his chances. At least marginally.

Let's just remind ourselves. Tonight I thought the president delivered excellent, eloquent rhetoric. But that rhetoric is going to come hard against the reality on the ground. The current Afghan government is corrupt to the core. And besides that, it's ineffective. The opium traffic which supports finances, a lot of Taliban, runs unchecked. And many of the Muslim leaders in Afghanistan preach the gospel these Americans are infidel invaders and we can't take their money and dump them out.

Those -- that's part of the reality. Plus the fact that the Taliban, not al Qaeda per se, but the Taliban controls at this moment a great deal of the countryside of Afghanistan. That's the reality. So the president's rhetoric tonight comes hard up against that reality.

MORGAN: Yes, I agree with that. Let's take a short break. Come back, Dan, and talk about your extraordinary career. The book is riveting. And not least of which the circumstances, starting your departure from CBS, which I want to get into it when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RATHER: What is the most important thing you want the American people to understand at this important juncture of history?

SADDAM HUSSEIN, FORMER IRAQI PRESIDENT (Through Translator): First, convey to them that the people of Iraq are not the enemy of the American people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN: Dan Rather interviewing Saddam Hussein for CBS News in 2003. His new book is "Rather Outspoken." And Dan is back with me now.

Fascinating, Dan, watching you with Saddam. I mean you've interviewed so many extraordinary characters over the years. Covered so many stories from the civil rights movement to JFK's assassination, Vietnam, 9/11. When you look back at it, when you finished the book and shut the page, which of all the stories was the one that had the most personal connection for you?

RATHER: I would say covering Dr. Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights Movement, which was my first big assignment for CBS News. I did it for two years. And covering Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement changed me as a person and changed me as a pro.

I grew up in a segregated society in Texas. It was not Alabama or Mississippi. But if I had to pick one story, that would be it, if I didn't choose 9/11. Perhaps because 9/11 is so recent. But, you know, I think about 9/11 every day.

MORGAN: Do you really?

RATHER: I do.

MORGAN: What do you think?

RATHER: I get angry. I get in grief about it. That's not too strong a word. Again, perhaps because it happened more recently. But I think it's more than that. It just was this tremendous hammer to the heart which I don't think I'll ever forget. I can't think of a day that's gone by that I don't this about it.

MORGAN: Has America recovered yet, do you think? Will it ever properly recover from that day? RATHER: Well, my personal opinion is we have not fully recovered. It resonates. It echoes through this day. Will we ever? Ever is a long, long time. But I don't think with the current generation of Americans and young people who were of memory age, I don't think it will fade, at least until all of us are gone.

MORGAN: When you look at the response by America, going to war in Iraq, what happened in Afghanistan, we've discussed, the economic collapse and so on, maybe as a result of everyone going out and trying to spend to raise spirits. Who knows about the mind-set collectively that happened. But the results were two pretty messy wars and a terrible financial crisis through the early part of the new century.

Do you think American responded the right way?

RATHER: I don't in this regard -- again, my personal opinion -- I think the sort of taking the emphasis off Iraq after the initial success and placing it on Afghanistan. We had that emphasis on Afghanistan. We had initial success. Taking the emphasis off Afghanistan and putting it on to Iraq, I think history's going to judge this as a strategic blunder of historic proportions.

So in that sense, the move into Iraq, when we did it, how we did it, the rationale for doing was a great mistake. And we paid dearly for it. I do agree what you suggested. I think that 9/11, because it resulted in us taking on not one but two wars, with all the bloodshed and our monetary treasure, has affected our economy deeply. It's going to take a long time to get out of it.

MORGAN: Let's turn to CBS. You were there nearly a quarter century. You were the face of CBS. I remember watching you late at night in Britain live. We used to get it on the satellite channel which started in the mid-'90s. And you were such a sort of comforting voice of authority.

RATHER: Thank you.

MORGAN: And calm reporting and accuracy. It must to this day, and it seems like it does from the book -- it must be so distressing to you, as a journalist foremost of great integrity, that you had to leave under the cloud that you left under.

RATHER: You know, it's interesting, Piers. That was true in the first -- when it was happening and in the first few months, maybe the first year. But I'm so far past that now. I'm at peace. I'm working with HD Net, doing what I think is the best sustained work of my career. Couldn't be happier. I'm not angry about anything now.

There's no resentment at all. I'm at peace about it. I can take the attitude, listen, when you're a pro and you play the game at or near the top, you're going to have your good days and your bad days. You're going to see rain and fire and sunny days and starry nights. That's just the way things go.

I did write about it in the book. It's less than a fourth of the book, because I wanted to get between hard covers my side of the story and anybody who's interested in how big time news operations work, how they really work.

MORGAN: It's absolutely gripping to read. I've worked for big companies. I've been through a not dissimilar thing myself, actually, earlier in my career. I want to play a clip of your apology on air and get your reaction to this after we play it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RATHER: The failure of CBS News to do just that, to properly fully scrutinize the documents and their source, led to our airing the documents when we should not have done so. It was a mistake. CBS News deeply regrets it. Also I want to say personally and directly, I'm sorry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN: This all surrounded memos critical of George W. Bush's service as an officer in Texas Air National Guard. When you look back on the whole thing, knowing everything you now know, is there anything you would have done differently, with the great benefit of hindsight?

RATHER: Well, we don't have the great benefit of hindsight. What I think about -- this is the way I think about it. We reported a true story. Many questions about George Bush was he AWOL, absent without leave? Did he desert, because he disappeared for a year. If you're an American soldier or airman in Afghanistan today and you walk off the base for even a couple of days, you have to be accountable and you have to pay consequences.

We reported a true story. That's the reason I'm no longer at CBS News. Those who found the story uncomfortable for their partisan political purposes attacked us at what they knew to be the weakest point, which was this the documents. Now we can argue until the cows come home about the documents.

MORGAN: Do you believe to this day those documents were genuine?

RATHER: I do. I believed at the time or I wouldn't put them on. I believed ever since and I believe it to this day. I would remark that the longer we go and nobody comes forward with proof that the documents were not what they report to be, the more I believe it.

Now, it's fair to say, well Dan, we don't think -- I don't think that you proved the documents. But we're off in the weeds now. In the big picture, what was our job? Our job was to get as close to the truth as we possibly could do. That we did.

We reported a true story. Everything in the documents checked out. It's true. These questions about how did he get in? He got in because of his father's privilege and place. How did he manage to disappear for a year and not be accountable? Again, it's because of his father's time and place.

These are unpleasant truths. I have no joy in saying it. But for a commander in chief with that kind of record, it's fair to raise the questions. And that's what we did. It's fair to say we also paid the price.

MORGAN: Have you ever had any conversation with President Bush since that?

RATHER: Once. After that, I was at the White House for a briefing for reporters. And I asked him a couple of questions and he answered the questions. And then afterward, he said to me, I hope you'd be happy retired in Austin, which was -- Texas being my home.

I had no intention to retire in Austin. I have a passion for my work and I plunged myself back into doing work. But that's the only conversation I've had with him since.

MORGAN: We asked CBS is they wanted to make a comment. They chose not to. But it is another fascinating part of the book. You're here and you're still reporting as well as you always did.

Let's take another break, come back, I want to talk to you about modern journalism and journalists. I think you have a few fairly spiky views about the young breed which I want to explore with you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MORGAN: Back with my special guest Dan Rather. Dan, you, over your time as a reporter, spanned over 11 presidents. Who was the best? Who was the one if you could choose one guy to lead your country?

RATHER: Dwight Eisenhower would probably be my choice. We're very fortunate in this country that we've never had a really evil president. I know some would argue Richard Nixon. I don't make that argument. Although he was the only president who had to resign as an unindicted co-conspirator from a widespread criminal conspiracy.

But I'd have to say Ike. He was -- he had been seasoned by the war, being a college president. And his two terms as president were not without their faults and flaws. But overall on the main, you have to pick one, I think it's Ike.

MORGAN: When you covered the Civil Rights Movement, did you ever imagine in your lifetime there would be a black president?

RATHER: Not only did I not imagine it, we used to sit around in the shank of the evening over an adult beverage talking about civil rights. I remember very clearly saying in my lifetime, there may be an African-American elected mayor of Atlanta, but there'll never be an African-American congressman from the state of Georgia.

And somebody said what about president? I said maybe my great grandson's time. And even more recently, as recently as the 1990s, even the early 2000s, when someone would suggest we might have a person of color as president, I said to myself I don't think you know the country very well. I'd have to say that I was wrong about it.

MORGAN: Amazing, and great that you were. I want to play you a clip from an interview you did with George Bush Sr. I'll come to explain why after this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you have a question --

RATHER: I do have one.

BUSH: Please.

RATHER: You said that if you had known -- you said if you had know this was an arms for hostages swap, then you would have opposed it. You also said that you did --

BUSH: May I answer that?

RATHER: That wasn't a question. It was a statement. Let me ask the question if I may first.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN: Here's my question for you: could you imagine that ever happening today? Could any reporter -- would any reporter have the guts to do it, but could any reporter do that now to a president? Be that inquisitive, that interrogatory?

RATHER: Frankly, I don't think any reporter could do it today. I don't like talking terms of guts. I know plenty of reporters who have a lot of courage and a lot of guts. But in the current environment, anyone who wanted to keep their job as an anchor person and lead correspondent I don't think could afford to do that kind of pressing, aggressive interview.

And indeed, it was controversial at the time. But that was in the 1980s. Vice President Bush was running for president. He had been involved in Iran Contra, but he didn't want to admit it. And I was pressing him.

By the way, in later years, he admitted that what he'd said in the interview was not true. But in answer to your question, I don't think it could be done today, no.

MORGAN: What do you think of the standards of modern journalism, taking into account all the commercial pressures, the fact that newsprint sales are crashing all over the world, the move online, the Internet explosion, bloggers and so on. When you take an overview, what do you think of modern journalism standards?

RATHER: Well, American journalism is in crisis, in my opinion. There are a lot of reasons for that, but not the least is what's happened to the business of journalism as well the practice. There's been the corporatization, the politicalization, and the trivialization of the news.

By the way, I do not exempt myself from this criticism. In many ways, we in journalism have lost our spine. We lost our grit and gut. And again, I include myself in that criticism.

I see some signs that it is getting somewhat better. But as I outlined in "Rather Outspoken," we now have situations where now no more than six, and possibly as few as four major global corporations control about 80 percent or more of our true national circulation.

Now in very big business, forgive my phrasing if you must -- very big business is in bed with big government in Washington, whether it be Republican or Democratic. And that effects what you see and hear and read in the news. That's not a good situation for us.

Because you and I know that a free press, an independent, fiercely independent press, when necessary, is the red beating heart of democracy. And we begin to diminish the standards -- you have this political and business influence. It's not healthy.

Whether you consider yourself a conservative or a progressive or liberal, it's not good for the country.

MORGAN: Well, I agree. Look, it's been a pleasure to talk to you as always. Dan, please come back whenever you like. It's always fascinating to listen to you about news, about journalism. And you were very much the beating heart of American journalism for a quarter century and will continue to be so for much longer to come.

So thank you.

RATHER: Thank you very much, Piers.

MORGAN: Coming up, more on tonight's big story, President Obama's top secret Afghanistan trip and the political battle over bin Laden's death.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MORGAN: Back to our Big Story tonight. President Obama today from his surprise trip to Afghanistan. It comes one year after U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden. The president says our mission is being fulfilled in the war torn country.

But is it? With me now is Michael Hastings, correspondent for Buzzfeed and "Rolling Stone" contributor. He's also the author of "The Operators: the Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan."

Well, pretty pressing title there, Michael. What do you make of the president's speech today? Is this the end of anything or even the beginning of the end of anything? Or is really just an attempt to try and extricate America without too much embarrassment?

MICHAEL HASTINGS, "ROLLING STONE": Well, Piers, first, can I just say how cool it is to be following Dan Rather on television? Great interview. I mean, that is cool, man.

Some sobering thoughts he had about journalism. OK, so the president's speech today in Kabul, obviously the timing, May 1st, the anniversary of bin Laden -- what I would like to just point out is that so much of modern warfare, especially in the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a public relations war. It's to convince the United States, our citizens, that we actually won or were on the verge of winning.

So the timing of this, from my read on it, is to almost get the Afghanistan war out of the way as an issue, to sort of say, look, we're coming home. The tide of war is receding. It's a line the president has said before. And then hopefully that it doesn't flair up as a campaign issue later on.

But it was significant. This is the first major speech the president has given on Afghanistan in almost a year.

MORGAN: I want to play a clip from Mitt Romney today talking about this on going dispute over whether Barack Obama in that campaign ad is politicizing the death of bin Laden. Let's watch this and I'll come to you afterwards.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think it's totally appropriate for the president to express to the American people the view that he has -- that he had an important role in taking out Osama bin Laden. I think politicizing it was -- and trying to draw distinction between himself and myself was an inappropriate use of the very important event that brought America together, which was the elimination of Osama bin Laden.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN: Mitt Romney today. I had a pretty lively dispute with Jonah Goldberg last night about this, because I didn't think it was unreasonable of the Democrats to remind people that Mitt Romney had gone on the record, during the debate about the hunt for bin Laden, saying he didn't really think it was worth our expense to go after one guy. Now, admittedly, it came in the context of wider comments about the general cost of the war in Afghanistan and so on.

But was it unfair of Barack Obama to capitalize? He is a politician, his election year. He did order the hit on bin Laden. It was successful. And Mitt Romney was on the record saying, I don't think it the cost is worth it.

HASTINGS: No, no, I think that was totally fair game. Clearly the campaign in Chicago decided they're going to make the bin Laden, the bin Laden raid a centerpiece of the campaign. I think there is a danger of overplaying that hand. I really think letting the record speak for itself, with the president's actions and his decisions and how it went down, will probably serve them better later on, rather than to get into this politicized debate over -- politicized debate over the politicization of the bin Laden raid.

But I don't think it's inappropriate especially to draw a contrast with your opponent, when Romney won't even state his own Afghanistan policy.

MORGAN: Yeah. I thought it was pretty fair enough, while, you know, reserving the right to criticize Obama for all sorts of other things. I thought in this one, he pretty well got it right.

Let's talk about the Navy SEALS. You wrote a piece suggested the Navy SEALS, some of them anyway, feel increasingly irritated that Barack Obama isn't giving them enough credit for doing the job, and actually taking a bit too much credit for the decision to do it.

HASTINGS: See, this is -- this is where I think actually the backlash could come from. Not necessarily from the Romney campaign, as he the -- it's very hard to criticize the president's decision if you're his political opponent. But there are members within the special forces community, within the SEALS community who have expressed their anger, sort of resentment about how the White House, the administration, has handled the publicity surrounding the bin Laden raid.

And there was this fascinating editorial in the "Wall Street Journal" a few months ago by a former Navy SEAL where he basically said the president and his advisers are putting SEALS lives at risk. So I think we should look for that as a recurring issue as the campaign comes -- continues.

MORGAN: Yeah. Michael Hastings, got to leave it there,, but thank you very much indeed for joining me.

HASTINGS: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

MORGAN: Coming up next, Only in America, the president's order to kill Osama bin Laden and the accusations he's politicizing it, I give my verdict.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MORGAN: For tonight's Only in America, what is the point of being president? Yes, you get to live in a nice big White House. You get to fly in the world's best plane, helicopter, and armored car, and be escorted by the world's longest and most secure cavalcade.

And yes, you get to attend lots of fancy dinners with the likes of George Clooney. If you're really lucky, Kim Kardashian. But ultimately, the real point of being the leader of the United States of America is that you take big, important decisions that have a huge effect at home and around the world.

It's a massive job, with many moments of incredible pressure and huge responsibility. The consequences of being voted to the highest office in the land can be devastating. Presidents have been assassinated, impeached and exposed to all matter of danger, humiliation, attack and challenges.

Their every decision is ravaged by the world's media, poured over, dissected, debated and often ridiculed. It takes a pretty strong, courageous character to ride this storm of scrutiny. And America's been blessed with many such men over the years.

On Friday, April the 29th, 2011, at 8:20 AM, Barack Obama took the biggest decision of his presidency. He gave the order to send a team of Navy SEALS into Pakistan to capture, and if necessary kill Osama bin Laden. Had the mission gone wrong, President Obama would now be facing a landslide defeat in the election in November.

But it went right. Bin Laden, the man who ordered the worst terrorist atrocity in American history on 9/11, was shot dead and the nation celebrated. Today on the anniversary of that fateful day, President Obama flew to Afghanistan to see U.S. troops and lay out the plan for the future of that troubled country.

He's being criticized for exploiting bin Laden's death for political motives. But should he be? President Obama staked everything on that order last April, determined to bring bin Laden to justice, as he promised to do. The fact he was successful was a great relief to the country and a great credit to the heroic SEALS who carried out the job for him.

No one relishes more than me the prospect of a robust political debate in the coming months. This country's greatness is founded on its appetite for a frank and full exchange of views amongst its politicians. I can't wait for the rough and tumble of the battle for the White House come November.

But today, surely, here's a chance to put partisan politics to one side and to pay tribute again to the president on a bold decision, and especially to the SEALS on a brilliant, successful operation. And most importantly, to celebrate the fact that thanks to their collective actions, America is now a safer place than it was on April the 28th, 2011.

That's all for us tonight. "AC 360" starts now.