Matthews Debates Fleischer Again -- But Without Fleischer Present

As NewsBusters previously reported, Chris Matthews and Ari Fleischer had quite a debate Wednesday evening wherein the "Hardball" host acted like a shameless Democrat operative and the former White House press secretary behaved with grace and aplomb as he wiped the floor with his poorly-matched opponent.

Matthews must have realized how foolish he looked, for on Thursday he continued his debate with Fleischer, but curiously didn't invite Ari back to defend himself:

I didn`t catch something he said right at the end of his appearance just as I was thanking him for coming on. I didn`t hear it until I watched the 7:00 o`clock edition last night. But a lot of people caught it when it first aired and didn`t like it.

At issue was the following statement by Fleischer (video embedded below the fold along with full transcript):

But after September 11, having been hit once, how could we take a chance that Saddam might not strike again?

Having almost 24 hours to think about this question, Matthews took issue:

"We could not take the chance that Saddam Hussein might strike again."

Well, the problem with that statement is that Saddam Hussein didn`t attack the United States on 9/11. A lot of people were led to believe he did by statements coming directly from President Bush and Vice President Cheney and that made the case for them, got them to back the war, a kind of "Remember Pearl Harbor" kind of thing.

And in fact, in addition to all that talk about nuclear threat from Saddam and all that mushroom cloud talk, this was the gut deal maker, the big, nasty, powerful untruth that led so many middle-of-the road Americans to buy the Bush case for war, that Saddam Hussein had attacked us on 9/11 and we had to stop him from attacking us again. Three quarters of the American people bought that untruth.

Ari told me this afternoon that this is not what he meant last night on HARDBALL. He didn`t mean that Saddam Hussein attacked us on 9/11 but instead that Saddam had attacked other countries before and could attack us.

That explanation wasn't good enough for Matthews who decided to bring on David Corn from "Mother Jones" and former assistant secretary of defense Frank Gaffney to discuss it. Strangely, he treated them both with far more respect and courtesy than he accorded Fleischer the night before:

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Still fighting the war.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews. Leading off: It never stops. Last night on HARDBALL, I had a pretty good tiff with former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer. We both gave it a good effort, and I hope he comes back.

That said, I didn`t catch something he said right at the end of his appearance just as I was thanking him for coming on. I didn`t hear it until I watched the 7:00 o`clock edition last night. But a lot of people caught it when it first aired and didn`t like it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS: Ari, agree to disagree.

ARI FLEISCHER, FORMER BUSH WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... and I believe this still today. And of course, you and I disagree with it. But after September 11, having been hit once, how could we take a chance that Saddam might not strike again? And that`s the threat that has been removed, and I think we`re all safer with that threat being removed.

MATTHEWS: OK. And I am glad-

FLEISCHER: And I`m proud to take that argument.

MATTHEWS: ... that we no longer have an administration that uses that kind of argument. Thank you very much, Ari Fleischer.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS: "We could not take the chance that Saddam Hussein might strike again."

Well, the problem with that statement is that Saddam Hussein didn`t attack the United States on 9/11. A lot of people were led to believe he did by statements coming directly from President Bush and Vice President Cheney and that made the case for them, got them to back the war, a kind of "Remember Pearl Harbor" kind of thing.

And in fact, in addition to all that talk about nuclear threat from Saddam and all that mushroom cloud talk, this was the gut deal maker, the big, nasty, powerful untruth that led so many middle-of-the road Americans to buy the Bush case for war, that Saddam Hussein had attacked us on 9/11 and we had to stop him from attacking us again. Three quarters of the American people bought that untruth.

Ari told me this afternoon that this is not what he meant last night on HARDBALL. He didn`t mean that Saddam Hussein attacked us on 9/11 but instead that Saddam had attacked other countries before and could attack us.

That said, we`re going to listen to the message that was coming out of the White House back when it mattered, back in the run-up to war and even after we invaded. Let`s start with Vice President Dick Cheney telling the story of how the leader of 9/11, Mohammed Atta, supposedly coordinated the 9/11 attack with Saddam Hussein.

And last night, you heard President Bush`s spokesman say it again, that they didn`t want Saddam Hussein to attack us again. We`re going at that right this minute.

Then tonight`s main event, Bill Cosby on the power and importance of President Barack Obama to change America. What can he do, and what can others -- what do they have to do themselves?

We begin tonight with David Corn of "Mother Jones" magazine and former assistance defense secretary Frank Gaffney, who`s with the Center for Security Policy.

Frank, let me talk to you about last night and what happened here when Ari Fleischer made that statement, which he later adjusted and said he didn`t mean it exactly the way it came across, that Saddam Hussein had to be prevented from attacking again and that`s why we went to war with Iraq. Your thoughts?

FRANK GAFFNEY, FMR ASST. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, I think it`s important that you read it back, Chris, because he didn`t say attack us again, so I think Ari was right in his characterization of it as Saddam Hussein could not be allowed to attack again wherever, including, as he had repeatedly promised to do in exacting revenge against the United States for the humiliation that we inflicted upon him in Desert Storm.

And as you and I have talked, sometimes with David, sometimes without him, in the past, we know on the basis of the investigation that was conducted inside Iraq after the place was liberated that he had plans to put chemical and biological agent in aerosol sprayers and perfume sprayers for shipment to the United States and Europe. That`s the kind of terrorist threat that I think President Bush was right in preemptively stopping and removing Saddam Hussein.

MATTHEWS: The polling that took place before we attacked, conducted by "Time" and CNN, showed that 72 percent of the American people, nearly three quarters, believed it was likely that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attack on us 9/11. How do you think they got that idea, that somehow going to war with Iraq was getting even for 9/11?

GAFFNEY: Well, as I said, he kept saying that he was going to try to get even against us for Desert Storm, so it wouldn`t be unreasonable for people to conclude maybe that that`s what he was doing. There`s also circumstantial evidence, not proven by any means, but nonetheless some pretty compelling circumstantial evidence of Saddam Hussein`s Iraq being involved with the people who perpetrated both the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and even the Oklahoma City bombing.

So the American people, I think, are not stupid. I think that they were looking at a threat environment in which a guy like Saddam Hussein, who was repeatedly talking about exacting revenge against the United States, who was trying to shoot down our aircraft, who was actively supporting terrorism around the world, was a guy that you don`t want to have an opportunity to act on his threats. That may be what they were concluding.

MATTHEWS: OK. Well, before we hear from David Corn, let`s show right now the compilation we have of clips by -- comments made on the record, on the air by President Bush and by Vice President Dick Cheney about Iraq and its role in 9/11. Let`s take a look at them, beginning with Vice President Dick Cheney on "Meet the Press" talking a meeting he described between 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague, a meeting which the 9/11 commission said never took place.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It`s been pretty well confirmed that he did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in Czechoslovakia.

GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He`s a threat because he is dealing with al Qaeda.

Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda.

Used to be that we could think that you could contain a person like Saddam Hussein, that oceans would protect us from his type of terror. September the 11th should say to the American people that we`re now a battlefield.

The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: David Corn, how did the American people get the overwhelming belief that Saddam Hussein had attacked us on 9/11, that he was involved very directly and personally -- personally -- in the attack on us on 9/11, and therefore, the war in Iraq was retribution?

DAVID CORN, "MOTHER JONES": Well, they listened to statements like those. Dick Cheney said "pretty well confirmed" the report that Mohammed Atta, the 9/11 ringleader, had met with Iraqi intelligence, an officer, in Prague. And at the time he made -- we know -- you cited the 9/11 commission to say that never happened, and that study came out years later. At the time that he made those statements, the CIA and the FBI had already debunked those reports, or at least cast tremendous amount of skepticism on it. Rather than being pretty well confirmed, they were dubious, at best.

MATTHEWS: You mean even by December of `01.

CORN: Yes. And he kept saying it up to and even after the invasion. He repeated that at least a half dozen times, if not more so, while his own intelligence community was saying, This is not true.

And what`s also doubly specious about this is even if Mohammed Atta had met with any one officer of the Iraqi intelligence service, what would it mean? Maybe absolutely nothing. Maybe the Iraqis wanted to keep dibs - - or keep tabs on al Qaeda. That would have made sense for their own purposes. It didn`t mean any plot. So he took an event that didn`t happen and put an evil connotation around it and sold it on "Meet the Press" and elsewhere to the American public.

Again, when Bush said, as we just saw, that Iraq is dealing with al Qaeda, and the present tense, intelligence analysts at the time were saying, Really, there`s not a strong case to be made for this. Bush also said at one point in time that Iraq had given training in poison and chemical weaponry to al Qaeda.

MATTHEWS: OK.

CORN: And that wasn`t true, either.

MATTHEWS: Well, the fact of the matter, all the polls show, going over those years from the time of 9/11, Frank Gaffney, all the way up until the invasion of Iraq -- or the liberation of Iraq, as you call it -- the American polled showed over and over again that people believed that the actual people in the airplanes that attacked us in those suicide raids on 9/11 were Iraqis. How did they get that idea? I would contend that the record here suggests that their leaders told them so. You disagree.

GAFFNEY: Well...

MATTHEWS: You disagree, right?

GAFFNEY: Yes, I do disagree. And certainly, none of the clips that you just broadcast said that. And on this question about who Mohammed Atta met in Prague and who he didn`t meet with -- look, I mean, I find it charming that David Corn would say maybe they were just getting together to keep tabs on one another, if they got together. And there were intelligence reports. Ultimately the CIA and DIA I think concluded that they were not persuasive, but there were intelligence reports...

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: At the time that Cheney said that...

GAFFNEY: ... ultimately, David, there were -- there were...

CORN: At the time that Cheney said that...

GAFFNEY: ... judgments made...

CORN: ... they were not pretty well confirmed. They were not confirmed when he said they were.

GAFFNEY: May I finish?

CORN: That`s a lie to the American public, Frank.

GAFFNEY: May I finish?

CORN: Is it not?

GAFFNEY: May I finish?

CORN: Yes.

GAFFNEY: At the time, there were reports that were confirming it, there were reports that were disputing it. I think Dick Cheney...

CORN: That`s not true!

GAFFNEY: ... was reflecting -- absolutely true.

CORN: No!

GAFFNEY: The point -- you said so yourself. The point is that when you look, Chris, at what Dick Cheney, what George Bush, what Don Rumsfeld, what all of the other people -- who you are still kicking around, to my astonishment -- were saying at the time was, We are in a dangerous world. We are indeed a battlefield. The idea they can`t hit us here is no longer true, that people wish to hurt us here is now beyond doubt. And the question was, was Saddam Hussein one of those people? I believe he was. I`m delighted that he is no longer in business, and I think the evidence that I`ve just suggested...

(CROSSTALK)

GAFFNEY: ... American people...

MATTHEWS: OK...

GAFFNEY: ... should be glad that he`s not in business any longer.

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s just quote the 9/11 commission. "We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States." Frank, do you at this moment in time, in March of 2009, do you challenge that?

GAFFNEY: I do. I believe that there is evidence that they were collaborating on all kinds of things. Whether we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt or to the satisfaction of that partisan -- or bipartisan, as you wish -- commission, I believe is an open question.

CORN: You know...

GAFFNEY: But here`s the point. Just hear me out.

CORN: No, no.

GAFFNEY: Please David...

CORN: Facts are the point.

GAFFNEY: Chris, just hear me out, please.

CORN: Facts are the point, not just what you believe.

GAFFNEY: Just hear me out. My point is...

CORN: Give us the facts.

GAFFNEY: I`ll defer to you in a moment. The point is that we don`t have omniscience about the world, most especially about secret terrorist organizations and police states. We have a lot of evidence that these guys were meeting, they were organizing something. They were sharing technology. They were sharing intelligence.

CORN: No. But there you go again, Frank.

GAFFNEY: We have lots of evidence of that.

CORN: No, no, no! We don`t!

GAFFNEY: The question, What were they doing about it? We don`t know. And I think...

CORN: Frank, Frank, Frank...

GAFFNEY: ... to reach the conclusion that they were just keeping tabs on each other is ridiculous, David!

CORN: Frank...

GAFFNEY: It`s ridiculous.

CORN: Frank, how do you breathe if you never pause?

MATTHEWS: I don`t pause because you`ll jump in and interrupt me. That`s why.

CORN: We don`t have good evidence. We have no solid evidence.

GAFFNEY: We have ample...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: OK, let me ask the rules of engagement. I just want to set the rules of engagement here. If we don`t know that 9/11 -- or Iraq had anything to do with 9/11, if we don`t know that, and you say it`s an open case, and we never were able to prove that he had nuclear weapons, do you go to war against another country with the loss of lives and treasure, of thousands of American lives and unlimited number of Iraqis dead -- do you do something like that, do you go to war with another country when you don`t have your case made? You admit it`s an open case.

GAFFNEY: But that`s...

MATTHEWS: I want to know the rules of engagement here. When you do you go to war, Frank?

GAFFNEY: Well, in this case, I said to you, in the immediate aftermath of 3,000 Americans being slaughtered by people, some of whom had, in fact, collaborative relationships with Iraqi intelligence.

CORN: There we go again. Who?

GAFFNEY: You take -- you take...

CORN: Who? Who had a collaborative...

GAFFNEY: You take preemptive action...

CORN: Frank, stop right there and tell me...

GAFFNEY: ... to prevent the kinds of attacks...

CORN: ... who had a relationship!

GAFFNEY: ... the kinds of attacks that we now know Saddam Hussein clearly had in mind with chemical and biological agents.

CORN: That`s the problem!

MATTHEWS: Why didn`t this evidence reach the bipartisan Iraqi -- why didn`t the committee...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Why didn`t the committee -- why didn`t the 9/11 commission have this information, if it exists?

GAFFNEY: I believe they may have had access to it and they went with the judgment of the intelligence community that it wasn`t clear-cut. It wasn`t dispositive. But it`s not the same thing as...

CORN: So this is -- this is...

GAFFNEY: ... that there`s no evidence. That`s simply not true.

CORN: This is the neo-conservative conspiracy theory!

GAFFNEY: It`s not the neo-conservative conspiracy theory!

CORN: The intelligence community...

(CROSSTALK)

GAFFNEY: It`s been published in books. It`s been published in magazines. take a look at them.

CORN: Yes, Laurie Mylroie wrote a book that`s been widely debunked and derided. Mike Isikoff and I took it apart in our own book. Yes, there are books out there, books out there saying a lot of things, Frank. Doesn`t make it so.

GAFFNEY: Look at Douglas Feith`s book...

CORN: When Dick Cheney...

GAFFNEY: ... which documents end to end...

CORN: Oh, Douglas Feith is another fellow...

GAFFNEY: ... what the president had...

CORN: ... with a great track record on this.

GAFFNEY: Well, he happens to have been there in the midst of it and had the documents that you`re disputing.

CORN: Yes. He was there. He was in the middle of this...

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: Listen, you say that it`s...

(CROSSTALK)

GAFFNEY: He was working with the evidence that was available.

CORN: Let`s go back to what the president said days before he invaded Iraq. He said the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was beyond doubt. He didn`t say, We don`t know, maybe yes, maybe no, we can`t take a chance. He said it was beyond doubt.

GAFFNEY: It was.

CORN: That`s not even what you`re saying now.

GAFFNEY: It was, David.

CORN: So is that not misleading to the American public...

GAFFNEY: It was beyond doubt.

CORN: ... to say that we have intelligence that is rock solid?

GAFFNEY: It was beyond doubt at the time, and that was the view of all your Democratic friends, and by the way...

CORN: No. Half the Democrats...

GAFFNEY: ... intelligence services all over the world.

CORN: ... in the House voted against it. Half the Democrats in the House...

(CROSSTALK)

GAFFNEY: ... including the most prominent Democrats voted for it on the basis of exactly the same intelligence, starting with Hillary Clinton...

CORN: So now you`re going to...

GAFFNEY: ... starting with Joe Biden, starting with John Kerry.

CORN: You`re going to justify your actions...

GAFFNEY: No!

CORN: ... by Democratic mistakes being in line with your mistakes?

GAFFNEY: No, no. What I`m saying...

CORN: This was not...

GAFFNEY: ... is when you say this was...

CORN: There were people inside the intelligence...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: OK, I have to draw...

GAFFNEY: ... when you say this was wrong, that`s not true. It was -- it was...

MATTHEWS: OK, let me ask you this...

GAFFNEY: ... beyond a doubt to the minds of Democrats as well as Republicans at the time.

MATTHEWS: OK. Let me ask...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Can I ask you both -- I have to separate you for a second and ask you this question about what we learned. What did we learn in the case for war as it was made? Did we learn that it was made fairly and appropriately and we went to war for good cause and we made no mistakes, or did we learn that we rushed to war based upon a false apprehension on the part of the American people who believed there was some connection, as they did in the polling, between Iraq and 9/11, and a mistake, if you will, or a reckless case that there was nuclear weapons in the hands or about to be in the hands of Saddam Hussein and that was a justification for war?

Did we learn anything, or Frank, were we right to go to war and we did it right? Because I want the know what we`ve learned from this. It`s in the past. We can`t change it. What did we learn, Frank?

GAFFNEY: I think we did the right thing, and I think what we have unfortunately taken away from this experience is that we`re going to let everybody get their hands on these weapons of mass destruction, most immediately Iran, and then deal with it after they start probably using it. I think that`s a terrible lesson and the wrong one to have learned.

MATTHEWS: David, what did we learn?

CORN: The lesson is not to take at face value over-the-top, hyperbolic claims about what threats are. We had -- you know, Saddam Hussein was a potential threat. He wasn`t the dire threat that George W. Bush and others portrayed him to be. And in all this talk about, It`s great that Barack Obama has not inherited a world with Saddam Hussein in it, he also has not inherited a world with a 100,000 Iraqis who`ve been killed in the course of this time, you know, 3,000, 4,000 Americans and tens of thousands of casualties.

So it`s not such a simple equation when Ari Fleischer last night or Frank now says, Isn`t it great that Saddam Hussein is not here? It is great he`s not here. He was a lousy SOB. But the cost was high in blood and treasure, and not just our blood.

MATTHEWS: OK. I think we`ve got to know...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I think the history hasn`t been written here, and I want to see more history written on this. I don`t think Doug Feith`s the last word on this, nor are we.

GAFFNEY: But it`s an important word.

MATTHEWS: Thank you, David Corn. Thank you -- well, unfortunately, people like him had their way. Thank you, Frank Gaffney.

GAFFNEY: Thank God.

MATTHEWS: Thank you, David Corn.

MSNBC Hardball David Corn Frank Gaffney Ari Fleischer
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