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Transcript: Sens. McCain, Bayh on 'Fox News Sunday'

The following is an excerpt from "FOX News Sunday," May 9, 2004.

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST, FOX NEWS SUNDAY: Well, it's been quite a week with the Iraqi prison abuse scandal. The president apologized for what he called a "stain on our country's honor." And then on Friday, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said he takes responsibility for the problems.

Joining us now, two senators who questioned Rumsfeld and other top Pentagon officials: from Phoenix, Senator John McCain, and here in Washington, Senator Evan Bayh.

Gentlemen, welcome. Good to have you both with us.

Let's start with Friday's hearings. Senator McCain, were you satisfied with what you heard from Secretary Rumsfeld?

U.S. SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN, R-AZ: Well, I appreciated very much his apology and his assumption of responsibility. And I believe that Secretary Rumsfeld is a very honorable man.

No, I did not get answers to some fundamental, and perhaps, the fundamental aspect of this. And that is, what was the chain of command? What were the instructions given to the guards? Who was in charge of the interrogators? What's the role of these, quote, "private contractors"? And that way we can find out who is responsible and how far up the line the chain of command this goes.

Look, it's going to take a long time on investigations of individuals who have done terrible things. But these policy questions should be easily answered and should be made clear to the Congress and the American people as quickly as possible.

U.S. SENATOR EVAN BAYH, D-IN: What did you think of Mr. Rumsfeld's argument, Senator McCain, that there are some things that the Pentagon can't put out because they're in the middle of a criminal investigation?

MCCAIN: Well, as I said, on the individual cases, I understand that. Every citizen, no matter how terrible a crime they're accused of, has the constitutional rights and, in the case of the military, under the uniform code of military justice.

But I believe that's very separate from what were these instructions to these guards? Were they told to, quote, "soften up," unquote, these people? What were the interrogators saying? Who was in charge of them? The answer I got in the hearing was the authority was, quote, "shifting." I'm not sure what that means.

That way we can determine what level — this was either not countenanced or were individual acts of just lawlessness? And there are many additional questions. What level of training did these individuals receive? There's some that say they received training in how to treat prisoners of war according to Geneva Convention, and there's others who say they received none.

These are policy questions and responsibility questions that, frankly, don't have — that are unrelated, to some degree, to the investigations of individual abuses.

WALLACE: Senator Bayh, you were involved in one of the most dramatic moments of this hearing. Let's take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BAYH: Would it serve to demonstrate how seriously we take this situation, and therefore help to undo some of the damage to our reputation, if you were to step down?

RUMSFELD: That's possible.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: Senator, were you just asking the question or, in fact, do you think that Secretary Rumsfeld should step down to make a statement?

BAYH: I was asking the question, Chris, because there comes a time for all of us in public life, when even if we're not complicit in the problem that we're trying to correct, if our taking responsibility and stepping down would serve the nation well, then that's what you have to do.

I knew this had to be on his mind. I'm sure it's been on the president's mind. And, so, I asked the question, and he answered it very candidly and forthrightly.

WALLACE: As a senator, do you think we have reached that stage, that Secretary Rumsfeld has?

BAYH: No, Chris, I don't, and for the following reason, having thought about his response, I don't really think that his stepping down would placate those in the Arab world who have a problem with us at this point. And he's carrying out the president's policies. This is really a question about presidential leadership.

And I agree with everything John said about the breakdown of the chain of command and control and all of that. But there are broader questions here about the conduct of our Iraqi policy, and that all goes to the Oval Office. So, I don't think Donald Rumsfeld ought to be made a scapegoat for that.

Finally, I'd say, Chris, I suspect that if he does step down, it's going to be to try to alleviate any political problems the president has. And that's not an honorable way to do things. You don't throw a subordinate over the side just to save your own skin.

So as long as he's carrying out the president's policies, and the president is satisfied with his behavior, then it's for the president to keep him.

WALLACE: Senator McCain, same question to you. What do you think Secretary Rumsfeld should do? Should he step down, and who should decide?

MCCAIN: I think it's the president's decision, obviously, because that's the president's prerogative, and so, that would be his decision.

I think it would be very premature. I, as I said, I think Secretary Rumsfeld is an honorable man who has served his country for many, many years.

But we haven't begun to answer many of the questions that go back to our previous conversation there. And we can make a much better judgment after we have gotten a lot of the answers. But I certainly think it would be terribly premature to call for his resignation at this time.

WALLACE: Senator Bayh, Secretary Rumsfeld said that he first learned of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in mid-January of this year. But we've put together a different timeline that tells a different story, and I would like you to look at it, if you would, sir.

A report from the International Committee of the Red Cross says that they started briefing U.S. officials a year ago, in May 2003, about the mistreatment of prisoners. That same month, Amnesty International also warned U.S. officials about the abuse.

By August 2003, U.S. Administrator Paul Bremer was urging Rumsfeld and other officials to improve prison conditions. Secretary of State Powell reportedly raised the prisoner issue often in meetings with Rumsfeld.

And this February, the Red Cross sent the Bush administration a report saying that the abuses were tantamount to torture.

Senator Bayh, when you look at that timeline, what does this tell you about the magnitude, the nature of the prisoner abuse and the Pentagon's response to it?

BAYH: I think the latter question, Chris, is the critical one. Did they take these warnings seriously or not? Did they just dismiss the Red Cross as possibly another international organization? That's one thing. That would be disturbing in and of itself.

But what about Paul Bremer? What about Colin Powell? These are people, a part of their own team. Published reports indicate that Mr. Bremer repeatedly and vigorously said, "Look, we've got a problem here. And if we don't deal with it, it's not just going to be a problem of abusing these prisoners, it's going to be a broader political problem in Iraq and the Arab world." And, unfortunately, that's proven to be prophetic.

So who was in charge here? Who took these warnings seriously or not? They need to be held accountable. If that goes all the way to the secretary of defense, then there is some personal responsibility there that needs to be answered for.

WALLACE: How do you explain, and, obviously, you can't get in Secretary Rumsfeld's head, but how do you explain, when you see from the International Red Cross, from Administrator Bremer, from the secretary of state, these warnings over and over for months, for a year, how do you explain the failure to act?

BAYH: Chris, it's nothing but a guess, and my guess is that they took these warnings of the hand-wringing of people who don't understand how tough these situations are. And that if you're going to get information to protect our troops, you have to be, you know, tough and vigorous.

And it is, in some ways, a dilemma, because we are dealing with some bad people; they do have information that we need to get, but there's a line you can't cross: We don't torture people. And in this case, the degradation, the humiliation was not only wrong, it was just flagrantly stupid.

And so — but my guess is that they just sort of dismissed this as people who are idealistic and just too soft. And it's unfortunate because it's turned out to be a real calamity for the cause of both of our support, which is being successful in Iraq.

WALLACE: Senator McCain, I'd like you to turn to the conversation, and how do you explain the failure to respond over this period of time? And how do you also — I'm going to throw one another thing into the hopper. There have been suggestions that Secretary Rumsfeld sent a message down the chain of command after 9/11 that they were not going to strictly adhere to the Geneva Convention.

MCCAIN: Well, I think that's one of the points here. There's a blurring not only on Secretary Rumsfeld's part, but on the American people's part of the difference or similarity between Iraqi soldiers and terrorists. And I think that there was some blurring there that may have accounted for some of this.

And on that line, Chris, my friend Joe Lieberman mentioned that Al Qaida didn't apologize after the attacks of September 11th, and the people in Fallujah that killed and dismembered American citizens didn't apologize. But I want to point out also that America is defined by its greatness, its goodness, and one of those factors is defined by our treatment of our enemies. We cannot be equated with those people. That's why we're in Iraq, to bring them a better life, to bring them freedom and democracy in an open society.

So, as much as I respect the views that we got no apology, it was appropriate for the president and Secretary Rumsfeld and all of us in positions of authority to apologize for what happened.

WALLACE: How do you explain, Senator, the failure to respond for all those months, all of those warnings — the Red Cross, Administrator Bremer, secretary of state? How do you explain it?

MCCAIN: I don't, and that's the reason why we need additional hearings and additional information, except to say that many people believe that Saddam Hussein and his establishment were part of the terrorist, or would be part of a terrorist attack on the United States. And there was a certain blurring there.

But we need to find out, including about Guantanamo, as to what the allegations are there about mistreatment of prisoners there.

WALLACE: Senator McCain, let me just follow up on one point that you made. As you well know, some people are saying, "Let's not go overboard here. The treatment of prisoners all across the Middle East is far worse than what went on at Abu Ghraib, and you, perhaps, suffered much worse treatment during your five years in Vietnam." How do you respond to that?

MCCAIN: I respond by saying America's greatness is defined by the treatment of our enemies. And if we came to Iraq to install a regime, or just replace one authoritarian regime with another that's not quite so bad, it's not worth the sacrifice of over 700 American lives.

And we came there as a beacon of hope and liberty. And many of these kinds of words are being disparaged by many so-called "realists" now. But that's what America's all about. And if we treated prisoners the same way that — or to a lesser degree, but in a violation of the rules of war, and the clearly laid out Geneva Conventions, then we have to apologize, and we have to make sure that it never happened again.

And, again, to state the obvious, Chris, these young men and women are superb. They're wonderful. They're magnificent. Pat Tillman, I will celebrate his life and mourn his death for as long as I live. And their reputations are besmirched by this. And that's really one of — that and the effect on the Arab world are the two terrible aspects of this, which argues for immediate disclosure of these pictures, immediate disclosure of everything, and move on.

WALLACE: Senator McCain, just one quick follow-up.

MCCAIN: Sure.

WALLACE: Obviously, because of all your years as a POW yourself, when you see abuse by American guards of other prisoners, do you take it personally?

MCCAIN: No. I have to — that was long ago and far away. I have to act in a way that's not personal, but what I think is in the best interests of the country.

BAYH: Chris, I just want to say that John is exactly right on this, and the tragedy of this is, it goes directly to the heart of how we hope to win the war against terror and what we're hoping to accomplish in Iraq. And that is that we are morally superior to our adversaries. We don't kill women and children. We don't torture people. We stand for freedom. We stand for honor and decency.

Ultimately, that is how we win the war against terror, by offering people in that part of the world an alternative to suicidal terror. That's how we capture the hearts and minds of the Iraqis. And this directly undermines what we hope to accomplish in that regard. That's why it's so serious.

WALLACE: Senator Bayh, some people have suggested tearing down Abu Ghraib prison. How serious is the damage that you feel has been done to the U.S. effort in Iraq? And, both at a symbolic and a substantive level, what needs to be done?

BAYH: Well, tearing down the prison would be symbolic. It was a center for torture under Saddam Hussein. Unfortunately these latest incidents create some problems during our tenure. So, if that would help to convince Iraqis that we're going to do away with that and move on, then OK.

But really it's the behavior, not just the facility, that's important here. And we have to convince them that we don't tolerate this, move aggressively to deal with those who were involved, so that we can prove to them and the rest of the world that we are better than what these pictures indicate.

And as I was just saying, Chris, this is very severe, because if we're going to win the war against terrorism and win the battle in Iraq, it's not going to be by the power of our arms alone. It's going to be by the power and the persuasiveness of our ideas. And this incident goes directly to the heart of that, and that's why we have to take it seriously, because the potential damage is grave.

WALLACE: You know, both of you have made it clear it would be premature for Secretary Rumsfeld to step down. On the other hand, Vice President Cheney, as we mentioned at the top of the broadcast, said, "Get off his back."

It seems that you both feel that there's a need for more answers. What do you think of the vice president saying, get off his back? Should you get off his back, or should you just stay on his back?

BAYH: Well, I took that as the final word in some of this leaking coming out of the White House, where you had sources close to this person or that person criticizing Secretary Rumsfeld. I assume this is their way of having the final word, and that they're not going to call for his resignation.

But it goes to the broader question again, Chris. This is an issue of presidential leadership and national policy, and that is at the president's doorstep, not just the secretary of defense's doorstep.

Some of us who feel very strongly that we need to be successful in Iraq and have supported this effort feel that we've begun to become bogged down, that we've lost momentum, that we need to try and create new momentum behind our efforts.

And that's what I want to see us focus on, going forward. Deal with this issue, absolutely, because it has the potential to be a big problem. It already is a big problem.

But in addition to that, step back and say, what do we need to do to transition to an Iraqi problem? How do we find legitimate leaders in Iraq who can rally Iraqis to fight and die for the cause of freedom? Because it's ultimately not enough that the Pat Tillmans of the world and the other brave Americans who are willing to fight and die for freedom in Iraq. We need Iraqis and Iraqi leaders who can fight and die for that cause as well.

WALLACE: And let me finish with you, if I can, Senator McCain. What do you think of the vice president's comments? Do you think that you, the Senate, the country should get off Secretary Rumsfeld's back?

MCCAIN: Well, I think the vice president's correct in the respect that just aiming unwarranted criticism at the secretary of defense is clearly what he was talking about.

But I certainly believe that Vice President Cheney in no way meant that the Congress shouldn't carry out its responsibilities. It's not a privilege that we have. It's our responsibilities to find out what happened, to examine this whole process that led us to this shameful moment in America's history, and to make sure that actions are taken quickly so that we can move forward and achieve the things that Evan was just talking about.

Look, one thing I know about scandals: They go on and on and on until the American people feel they have a full and complete picture of what happened. And to hold back these pictures, or to hold back the videos and only show them to members of Congress or something like that, first, is foolish, because they'll leak out, but second of all, it is sending the wrong signal. All the information concerning this situation should be brought out completely, aired, ventilated. And the American people and perhaps people in the Arab world need to be convinced that we are never going to allow such a thing to happen again.

WALLACE: Senator McCain, Senator Bayh, thank you both very much for coming in and talking with us today. We appreciate it.

BAYH: Thank you, Chris.