Interviewing General David Petraeus for Wednesday's NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams insisted he admit “al Qaeda in Iraq wasn't around” on 9/11, demanded to know “how are we so sure all of these insurgents can be labeled al-Qaeda?” and derided Petraeus's admission that he's not sure if the war has made Americans safer: “I heard a commentator on television say, 'Can you imagine Eisenhower saying the same thing?'” That unnamed commentator: Williams's corporate colleague, Chris Matthews.
Williams challenged Petraeus: “Over the last two days of testimony, you mentioned al-Qaeda by our count 160 times. Now, for a lot of Americans, al-Qaeda, that's the guys who flew those planes into the buildings in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania. Explain what you mean because al-Qaeda in Iraq wasn't around that day.” When Petraeus answered that “they're the organization that has carried out the most horrific, most damaging terrorist actions in Iraq with just barbaric casualties,” Williams pressed Petraeus over “all these insurgents, how can you be so sure in a war without uniforms or membership cards, the claim by the critics is it fuzzes it up, it makes it a convenient, unified argument....How are we so sure all of these insurgents can be labeled al-Qaeda?” Williams ended by recalling how “moments after you responded to a question that you weren't sure that the war in Iraq had made Americans safer, I heard a commentator on television say, 'Can you imagine Eisenhower saying the same thing?'”
That “commentator on television” would be MSNBC's own liberal Chris Matthews. As Mark Finkelstein reported in a NewsBusters posting about Monday's Hardball:
Cut to a clip of Gen. Petraeus responding to a question from Sen. John Warner (R-Va.)
SEN. JOHN WARNER: Are you able to say at this time if we continue what you have laid before the Congress here as a strategy, do you feel that that is making America safer?
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Sir, I believe this is indeed the best course of action to achieve our objectives in Iraq.
WARNER: Does that make America safer?
PETRAEUS: Sir, I don't know, actually. I've not sat down and sorted out in my own mind. What I have focused on and been riveted on is how to accomplish the mission of the Multi-National Force-Iraq.
Matthews went apoplectic.
MATTHEWS: This must be a first, an American field commander who can't say whether the sacrifices he's asking of his troops every day and night are worth it to their country. Did General Washington not know the answer in the American Revolution? Did General Eisenhower not know the answer in World War II? What are we doing in Iraq if the very man commanding the war doesn't know if it's doing us any good in terms of our national security? This is the real news of the [pronounced with contempt] so-called Petraeus Report. The General who won't tell how long it will take us to achieve the mission in Iraq can't tell us whether achieving that mission -- should it ever be achieved -- is worth it.
The MRC's Brad Wilmouth corrected the closed-captioning against the video to provide this transcript of the Williams interview with Petraeus, conducted at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, as edited to air on the September 12 NBC Nightly News:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: He's a four-star Army General and a Ph.D. from Princeton. He's a patriot, presiding over a tough slog of a war, but delivering a pretty steadfast message here this week. Petraeus insisted to us today he is realistic about this fight.
GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS: I'm no longer an optimist or a pessimist about Iraq. I think it's time just to be a realist, and it's just very, very hard.
WILLIAMS: How does this end with a more peaceful Iraq? And your answer in part was, cement walls, blast walls. And we've seen them over there, and we've seen what they've done to neighborhoods. Is that tragic, in part, to you that the answer has to include cement?
PETRAEUS: It is tragic. It is in part tragic, but it is also the result of a realistic appraisal of the situation.
WILLIAMS: Over the last two days of testimony, you mentioned al-Qaeda by our count 160 times. Now, for a lot of Americans, al-Qaeda, that's the guys who flew those planes into the buildings in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania. Explain what you mean because al-Qaeda in Iraq wasn't around that day.
PETRAEUS: No, al-Qaeda Iraq is part of the greater al-Qaeda movement. It receives direction and communications and even really leadership. You know, I didn't mention that to try to tie this into the global war on terror. I mentioned it because they are the wolf closest to the sled, if you will. They're the organization that has carried out the most horrific, most damaging terrorist actions in Iraq with just barbaric casualties.
WILLIAMS: All these insurgents, how can you be so sure in a war without uniforms or membership cards, the claim by the critics is it fuzzes it up, it makes it a convenient, unified argument.
PETRAEUS: Well, it's not a unified force, and I have not tried to make that case. What we have had is a situation in which there are insurgents who have been loose confederation with al-Qaeda at various times.
WILLIAMS: I guess what I'm trying to understand is, at the start of the war, when I was flying in a Chinook with General Downing, that helicopter was shot at by a farmer. He wasn't even yet known as an insurgent. We didn't know we had insurgents yet. It was too early in the invasion. But when did that happen? And how are we so sure all of these insurgents can be labeled al-Qaeda?
PETRAEUS: Well, we do not label them all al-Qaeda, and I have tried very hard not to imply that or to state that. There clearly are Sunni Arab insurgents, again, resistance fighters, rejectionists, various labels, if you will, that are independent of al-Qaeda.
WILLIAMS: Angry Iraqis.
PETRAEUS: Angry Iraqis. They just don't like the situation in which they've found themselves. They feel, again, particularly Sunni Arabs, of course, used to run the country and they don't. And they know they're probably not going to again.
WILLIAMS: Moments after you responded to a question that you weren't sure that the war in Iraq had made Americans safer, I heard a commentator on television say, "Can you imagine Eisenhower saying the same thing?"
PETRAEUS: What I was getting at there was there were a number of questions that were about topics well beyond Iraq. What I was trying to get at is I'm the MNFI commander, I'm the commander in Iraq, we have hugely important interests in Iraq. It's a very, very significant, important endeavor.