Transcript: Rep. Dennis Hastert on Fox News Sunday

The following is a transcribed excerpt from Fox News Sunday, July 20, 2003.

TONY SNOW, FOX NEWS: The White House on Friday launched a counteroffensive against critics who have accused the president of doctoring intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons program.

The administration declassified the key findings of the CIA's National Intelligence Estimate about the situation in Iraq. Among the findings, Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons, as well as missiles with ranges in excess of U.N. restrictions, and that there is compelling evidence that Saddam Hussein is reconstituting a uranium- enrichment effort for Baghdad's nuclear weapons program.

The document also included a dissenting note from State Department intelligence experts who acknowledged Saddam's interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, but included a sentence describing as "highly dubious" allegations that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium from Africa.

Joining us to talk about this and more is the speaker of the House, Representative Dennis Hastert.

Mr. Speaker...

REP. DENNIS HASTERT, (R-ILL.): Good morning.

SNOW: ... you've been listening to this battle over 16 words. What do you make of it?

HASTERT: Well, first of all, I always say let's step back and look at the big picture. You know, our life, the American people's life has changed in this country since 9/11. You know, we saw two planes go into the World Trade Tower. I was looking out my window in the Capitol, and we saw smoke go across the Mall when the plane went into the Pentagon, and subsequently the plane that went down in Pennsylvania that was aimed for the Capitol itself.

So, you know, our thought about terror always being in the Middle East or terror happening in Northern Ireland disappeared. And I remember the Congress and Dick Gephardt and others and myself standing side by side and we said, you know, we're not going to let this happen to this country again.

So that set the stage. The president came up four or five days after 9/11 and he made an address to the Congress. And he basically laid out and said, "Look it, you know, this is a war on terror. It's not going to be over in two weeks or three weeks. It's not going to be over in months. It's going to take years to do this."

And that's exactly what we see, it's going to take years.


HASTERT: The information that we bring together -- we've been in Al Qaida -- against Al Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan. And we made an assessment that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It was the same assessment that caused 16 resolutions to come out of the U.N. in 12 years, the same assessment that President Clinton used to bomb Iraq. And, you know, we had to make that decision and move forward, and we did.

You know, intelligence comes from a lot of different sources. We get intelligence from the Britons and from Australia and from others of our allies. We get our own. You have to bring all that together and make the best assessment that you can.

SNOW: OK, you mentioned September 11th. The president has told many people, including me personally, that Saddam had nothing to do with September 11th. Do you agree with that?

HASTERT: Well, as far as we know.

SNOW: OK. Now, let's go back to the 16 words. It is pretty clear that there was some skepticism about reports that Saddam was trying to get uranium from Africa. Opinion was divided on this.

Should the sentence have been in the State of the Union address?

HASTERT: Well, you know what, that was a decision that was made by the speechwriters and by the folks in the White House.

We do know, though, that Iraq did have uranium from Niger. That was yellow cake, and it had been bought over a series of years. As a matter of fact, there's tons of it today stored away in these compounds.

And was it plausible? Was there a possibility? Did the news -- did both the British account and our intelligence indicate that that was happening? My understanding of it was yes.

SNOW: So the sentence is true?

HASTERT: I'm saying the indications that that was happening was, at that time, true.

SNOW: All right, so you don't believe that the president in any way, shape or form, or anybody working for him, was trying to manipulate intelligence in order to strengthen the case, bolster the case against Saddam?

HASTERT: As I said before, we take intelligence from a lot of sources. I understand, in a discussion I had with Tony Blair and others in that discussion that they take sources, too, from other countries. They had corroborating sources that they didn't tell us from other allies.

So, you know, there was an indication, both from the Brits and our intelligence, that something was going on.

SNOW: All right, let me -- let's face the Democratic charges. Senator Carl Levin has been pretty outspoken on this. I want to show you a quote where Senator Levin...

HASTERT: Because he -- is he running for president?

SNOW: No, he's not running for president.


SNOW: He's one of the few who's not.


SNOW: But Senator Levin has been pretty outspoken about this. He said, "The statement that Iraq was attempting to acquire African uranium was not an inadvertent mistake. It was negotiated between CIA and National Security Council officials, and it was highly misleading."

Your response?

HASTERT: I would say that he's making an assumption, a presumption. We have to look at the best intelligence we have, both ours and others', and try to inform what we can, the American people, and make decisions based upon that information.

HASTERT: You know, intelligence is not an exact science. Before 9/11, we had a hard time just figuring out what was going, because our foreign intelligence was decimated. The human intelligence was decimated in the 10 years before. We had to build it up.

SNOW: OK, you -- I've heard this a lot, decimated the human intelligence. Can you qualify or give us a general characterization about how badly it was decimated during those times?

HASTERT: Well, basically, that administration, the previous administration, said that they didn't want anybody involved in intelligence that had some dubious past. Well, I'll tell you, if you're going to get people back into the back streets of Baghdad or Cairo or anyplace else, you're going to have to have somebody that can function there. And so those sources went away.

We've spent the last four years, or three and a half years, trying to build up credible intelligence sources so we can get people to get the human intelligence that we need.

SNOW: What was the impact of losing that human intelligence?

HASTERT: Oh, the impact is that you had to rely on satellite intelligence or signet, you know, what you pick up in telephone calls or, you know, over the radio or, you know, that type of intelligence. So it's a listening intelligence. There wasn't any real human-contact intelligence.

I'm not an intelligence expert, but I do get the briefings, and I do work with our chairman of intelligence, so I can tell you that much.

SNOW: Do you think that the critiques of the intelligence are going to lead our intelligence experts to be more cautious or to take chances in trying to connect the dots?

HASTERT: Listen, I think any time that you put people's lives at risk, you need to be very, very careful and very cautious. I'm a kind of a cautious person. That's my nature. So I would hope we are cautious and that we do have corroborating evidence and help when we make those decisions.

But my understanding is the breadth and the width of the intelligence that was coming forward indicated that there were those types of things going on.

SNOW: All right, you have a lot of Democratic candidates saying that the president either wasn't coming clean or wasn't telling the truth. John Kerry has a refrain now where he says the president needs to tell the truth. What's your reaction?

HASTERT: Well, you know, come on. We've got a lot of -- you said, I always say there's a lot of prancing ponies of politics over on the other side of the rotunda and maybe one or two on ours. But, you know, they want to be president. They want his job.

And so it's their job from here on out -- and I see, you'll see a lot of this -- is to try to hurt the credibility of the president, to throw mud and see what sticks.

And so these people, John Kerry and others that made those same decisions based on intelligence in 1998 and 1999, and they're on the record, all of a sudden this intelligence isn't good anymore when the president makes a decision.

SNOW: Let's talk about the situation in Iraq. American troops continue to be under fire. Do you think Congress ought to be appropriating more money for defense and more money to get troops over there?

HASTERT: We had a supplemental this spring, about $85 billion, most of it going just for our troops, to get the troops there, to get troops back, and to make sure that they were sustained for 120 days of combat.

If we need to be there longer to make sure that we get the clean- up done that we have to and to keep the peace for a period of time, then we're going to do that. But that's the call of the generals and the Defense Department.

Right now they're not asking for more money and they're not asking for more men.

SNOW: You don't think -- I mean, we're about 80 days into it, so there are 40 days left in that window. Surely you think...


HASTERT: Well, the window was for 120 days when we're talking about enough money for full combat.

SNOW: Right.

HASTERT: Combat was over in four weeks. So that really changes it. We have more of a mop-up situation, especially in the triangle up in northwest of Baghdad. And it's going to take a little time and some real science to get that done.

SNOW: Paul Wolfowitz has promised billions of dollars in reconstruction aid. He did it on a trip this week. It hadn't been appropriated yet. Is Congress ready to move on that?

HASTERT: Well, I think construction needs to come from a couple of sources. One of the sources needs to be from our coalition partners and other partners around the world that weren't part of this war. And I think that will be forthcoming. And I think the United Nations has to -- should have a role in this reconstruction.

Also, you're looking at billions of dollars in oil revenues. And when you talk about reconstructing, the war didn't destruct Baghdad and Iraq. I mean, this was a pretty clean war. There was a minimum of loss of life on both sides of that force. You know, the streets and bridges weren't blown up. They didn't blow up the oil fields. It was a pretty clean situation.

What's happening today is the infrastructure had been neglected for 30 years. Saddam Hussein put all his money and all his revenues into palaces and into guns and didn't put it into the infrastructure of the country.

So what is being rebuilt is getting the country back at least to a level so that they can operate. There is a lot of revenue coming out of Iraqi oil that ought to go into that, as well.

And so I think the United States dollars, although there'll be some, should be at a minimum, and there ought to be help from around the world...

SNOW: Use the oil money.

HASTERT: ... and oil money.

SNOW: All right. Should the president seek congressional authorization before sending troops to Liberia?

HASTERT: Well, I talked to the vice president about this and talked to the president briefly.

HASTERT: I think we need to be cautious before we put troops, insert them, for any period of time into Liberia.

But I understand, and from my discussions, what they're trying to do is being able to use our troops to help insert the western forces of Africa, including troops from Nigeria. Now, that could be done, probably, with a minimum risk. I have to...

SNOW: But should Congress authorize before that happens?

HASTERT: I think we have authorized before, and this is a peacekeeping mission that the U.N. has asked us to get into. I think that's a presidential decision.

But I also want to say that I ask caution before we get too heavily involved in Liberia.

SNOW: North Korea: There is a report now that the North Koreans may have a concealed site where they're enriching plutonium, weapons- grade plutonium, the presumption being that's for nuclear weapons.

Under the threat of preemption, or under the doctrine of preemption, should the United States not be ready to strike?

HASTERT: Well, you know, I think we have different levels of readiness all the time. We do have troops in Seoul and on the border. We have a nuclear capability. We have planes off the shore, in Japan.

But I think that there is another issue there, and the issue is that, you know, North Korea is sustained to a large degree by food and energy from China. They couldn't, they can't survive without that. They're also sustained to some degree from help from Russia. South Korea has a real interest in that. We have an interest. The Japanese have a crucial interest in that.

So we need to have a multilateral understanding and a multilateral engagement with North Korea. It shouldn't be just our responsibility, because everybody has a stake in what happens in North Korea.

SNOW: Yes, but you've got these five states with interests. You've got one that may have nuclear weapons, he's got missiles, he's already fired them over Japan.

The question is, if nobody else acts, will it be incumbent on the U.S.?

HASTERT: Well, I'm saying that it's incumbent that everybody acts. And I think everybody has a very, very crucial interest in it, and I think they will.

SNOW: OK, final question. There was a bizarre little said-to (ph) on the Hill the other day. Bill Thomas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, called the cops to evict Democrats from a meeting room. My question is, wasn't that embarrassing?

HASTERT: Well, you know what, sometimes -- and you have to look at the whole story. There was a walkout by the Democrats. They went into this library. They invited the press in. They slowed down the process. This was a bipartisan bill. They claim that they didn't know what was in it. The fact that the base bill was on the Internet and our computer since last December. You know, it's a charade, and it's some of the things that happen in Congress.

You know, here's my personal feeling about this. People in this country elect members of Congress to go do work, you know, and not play games. And I think a lot of that behavior on some folks' part, on both sides of the aisle, smacked of third-grade behavior. Now...

SNOW: Including calling the cops?

HASTERT: Well, I'm just saying, there's name-calling, posturing. You know, it's also the chairman's responsibility to keep order, so I'm not ascribing blame anywhere. But there was a lot of juvenile behavior there. People ought to grow up.

SNOW: All right. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, thanks for joining us.

HASTERT: My pleasure.