This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson", Jan. 28, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He tortured Iraqis. We discovered mass graves of thousands of men and women and children. He had torture rooms for somebody who spoke out against him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: It’s safe to say Saddam Hussein was no champion of human rights (search), but one watchdog group says taking Saddam out is too little too late. Heather Nauert is here with that story. You would think these people would be happy.

HEATHER NAUERT, CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Well, they say the world is a better place because Saddam Hussein is gone, but they don't necessarily like the way the U.S. and its allies went about it. Here's what we're talking about. In its annual report, the group Human Rights Watch argues that the U.S. should have intervened in Iraq long ago when mass killings were actually taking place, not now. The group claims that it's unfair for coalition leaders to now characterize the war as a humanitarian intervention, because they say there was no ongoing or imminent mass killings taking place in Iraq today or rather when the war just started.

Of course, this report has raised more than a few eyebrows. Joining me in Washington is Nile Gardener of the Heritage Foundation for today's big question. Is human rights intervention a legitimate reason for war -- Nile?

NILE GARDENER, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: Yes, I think it is. I think in Iraq we saw the combination of both humanitarian concerns with national security issues. I think that President Bush and also Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain both emphasized the humanitarian aspects, the necessity of getting rid of a brutal tyrant who was brutalizing his own population. I think this point was made time and time again before the outbreak of war.

NAUERT: Could they have made that argument any harder? Could they have sold that argument any more than they did? Instead of the No. 1 issue being weapons of mass destruction and the No. 2 issue being the fact that Saddam Hussein was bad guy who killed thousands, hundreds of thousands of his own people? Or would these groups say this stuff anyway no matter how hard the administration had sold it?

GARDENER: I think if you look carefully at all of the key speeches made by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, they all went into great detail about the brutality of the Iraqi regime and why it was morally necessary to remove this dictatorship from power. I think it's extraordinary that we have here one of the world's leading human rights organizations effectively saying that the Iraqi people would better off under Saddam Hussein than they are now living in a liberated Iraq. I think this is an appalling report by Human Rights Watch. It totally undermines the organization's credibility.

NAUERT: Human Rights Watch takes a very literal interpretation of a humanitarian crisis. They actually say in the report that something along the lines of mass murder must actually be taking place or about to take place in order to qualify as a humanitarian crisis. Under their interpretation, would it be fair to call the situation in Iraq a crisis?

GARDENER: Absolutely. The Saddam Hussein regime removed a quarter of a million people -- they brutally murdered 250,000 people. I think that's a big enough reason to intervene in Iraq to liberate the people of Iraq.

NAUERT: But just playing devil's advocate for a second, because they say if the US really wanted to do something, the US, other countries could have stepped in long before, like when Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds. Why didn't the U.S. do anything then, that's what they say?

GARDENER: I think that's a valid point. I think there's a strong argument that the United states, the international community should have done more at the time. And perhaps there is a very powerful case for military intervention as early as 1988. However, I think the United States, Great Britain, placed its faith in the United Nations, the U.N. Security Council and passed no less than 17 resolutions calling for Iraqi disarmament. However, Saddam Hussein simply ignored the will of the United Nations. It was, therefore, necessary in the interests of both national security and out of humanitarian concern, for the U.S., and the UK and the coalition of the willing to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

NAUERT: OK, now, quickly, is there anything good in your view in this report?

GARDENER: I think this is an extremely misguided report. It is driven above all by a hatred of U.S. foreign policy and the Bush administration. I think it's a political polemic rather than a serious human rights analysis.

NAUERT: All right, so nothing good there I guess in your view. All right, Nile Gardener from the Heritage Foundation. Thanks so much.

GIBSON: The Iraqi secret service still executing people the day before Baghdad fell. Why would Human Rights Watch ignore that? Thanks Heather.

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