HARDBALL For June 18, 2004 MSNBC June…
WILLIAMS: When we come back, the officer who oversaw interrogations at Abu Ghraib prison testified that he was under, quote, “intense pressure” to get information out of the prisoners, but how high up the chain of command did that pressure go? “USA Today’s” Tom Squitieri and John Fund of “The Wall Street Journal” will be here when HARDBALL returns.
WILLIAMS: We’re joined by Tom Squitieri, who is the national correspondent for “USA Today” and John Fund from “The Wall Street Journal.”
Gentlemen, let me ask you, as we step back just a little bit from what are now three killings of Americans in Saudi Arabia in the past 10 days, both the Bush administration and the John Kerry campaign are basically saying the same thing: We must be united in our resolve to find who is responsible and to destroy al Qaeda. But do these events change the political landscape in any way?
TOM SQUITIERI, “USA TODAY”: I think initially, Pete, they don’t, because it just shows that President Bush is right in saying the war against terrorism continues and they’re going to attack the people who want to bring democracy to the Middle East, that whole line of approach. But as the days go on and more Americans are killed, more allies are killed, and a huge country like Saudi Arabia starts veering towards major instability, that then become a political issue in the fall. Oil, a collapse of the government, perhaps, and then the question of Bush’s leadership rises up.
WILLIAMS: John, is it that dire, do you think?
JOHN FUND, WALL STREET JOURNAL: No. I actually think this Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal keeps getting pushed off of the front page, despite Tom’s excellent story today, because we constantly have evidence of what the terrorists are all about. We also had this week the incredible calculations and, you know, Machiavellian genius of these terrorists and how they flew the planes into the World Trade Center.
So I think that as much as the Abu Ghraib prison abuse story continues to build, the fact of the terrorists engaging in these kind of activities tell Americans, this is who our enemy is. We’re going to pay attention to that.
WILLIAMS: Well, you spoke of Tom’s excellent story today. Let’s talk about it. Tom, your story on the front page of “USA Today” says that an aide to Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, visited Abu Ghraib prison in November. What is the significance of that visit?
SQUITIERI: Well, first I want to say it was not just my story. It was a team of reporters at “USA Today.” We all worked hard on it. The significance of that visit underscores the fact that just weeks after President Bush put Condoleezza Rice in charge of Iraq, you may remember this furor in Rumsfeld’s shop when he learned of this. He was petulant and would not have a press conference at a NATO summit because of it, that she was dispatching at least one of her people to sort of get a firsthand look at how successful the interrogation techniques were working in Iraq.
Now, this is after General Miller had gone out to sort of Gitmo-ize, as they said, the operation, to try to — to draw out and suck out and squeeze out as much intelligence.
So you have somebody in the White House sending one of their staffers to the prison, which even though they were not responsible for the abuses, of course, nevertheless it is a focal point of what is going wrong side of the equation in Iraq.
WILLIAMS: And there’s no indication that this push for intelligence that you said led to the prison abuse, is there?
SQUITIERI: No. There isn’t. And we were — I think we were pretty clear about that in the story.
However, the issue, when you step back, Pete, is when you set a tone, we have to get the information. Go out and get that information. You can — you have to, at the same time, remind constantly people that you have to do it in a way that’s proper and legal and according to whatever conventions you’re going to follow.
Now, when it starts here and it goes down to the end of the food chain, those messages aren’t always delivered. But it’s also the atmosphere that’s present in the prison or anywhere else that can lead to these abuses.
WILLIAMS: Mr. Fund, I gather you think that not necessarily this story, but in general that the larger story is being overreported?
FUND: No. I think the Abu Ghraib prison abuse story is a real one. However, I think we need to put it into context. Part of it is the beheadings that we’re seeing, what the terrorists are really all about. Part of it is the incredible pressure that American troops are under as they saw their comrades being blown up. So it doesn’t excuse any of it, but I think we have to put in context, this is a dirty war. This is a war against an implacable foe that will use any method whatsoever to try to destroy our resolve. And I think the American people recognize, we have to bring these people justice at Abu Ghraib, but we also have to make sure that we don’t flinch before these terrorists, because that’s exactly what they want to do, drive us from the Middle East.
SQUITIERI: And Pete, I totally agree with John on that. I mean, the fact is that those people, some of those people in that prison and elsewhere did have information that was valuable, both to where, at that point where Saddam Hussein was hiding, to who may be funding the operations against the Americans and the allies. There was a possibility potential for good information in that prison. And if you talk to people, they say they did get some good information that was valuable. They won’t say what for the obvious reasons.
But you know, so I don’t disagree that there was information to be gotten. But there was intense pressure to get that information.
WILLIAMS: But is there any suggestion, Tom, as many — as some have said in the military, this was just a small group of people who were off on a tear on their own?
SQUITIERI: That suggestion has been made a lot, but if you look at the testimony that General Taguba has collected in sworn statements, it suggests that if they were doing this by themselves, it doesn’t suggest that they were just doing it by themselves, that they were encouraged by others and feeling like they were doing the thing that they were being told or asked to do.
FUND: Well, clearly, some of the worst abuses were done just because people wanted to humiliate these people. And I don’t think it was really about extracting information. I think it was about sadism. I think some of the tone that Tom mentions, though, did precipitate some things which shouldn’t have been done. So I think often what you saw in those pictures were the soldiers engaged in their own agenda late at night between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m. But a tone was set and it was wrong.
SQUITIERI: … I have one more quick thing. It’s not what’s it’s in the pictures was getting information. It was other things that were going on to get information out of them that have not been fully documented yet.
WILLIAMS: Gentlemen, thank you. Tom Squitieri from “USA Today” and John Fund from “The Wall Street Journal.”
Up next, will Ohio be this year’s Florida in the presidential election between George Bush and John Kerry? MSNBC’s Chris Jansing will be here with a report from Cleveland. You’re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.