Has Bad Iraq Intel Cost President Bush His Credibility?

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This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, July 14, 2003, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: The administration has been circling the wagons, defending the president's handling of intelligence on Iraq.

Ed Gillespie (search) is a senior Republican National Committee (search) adviser and will be soon elected as chairman of the RNC, a soon as next week's summer meeting. That is today's big question. Will President Bush face a credibility problem in 2004, Mr. Gillespie?

ED GILLESPIE, RNC SENIOR ADVISOR: No, John. He doesn't face a credibility problem at all. The president says what he means and he means what he says. He's acknowledged, as the White House acknowledged over a week ago that the British House of Commons came to the conclusion that the British intelligence relative to the uranium in Africa was an ill-founded report. At the time that [President Bush] said it, it was the accurate information. It turned out later to be not the case or at least not to meet the standard that the White House would set for presidential speeches. But the British still stand by their assessment. The British intelligence agency still stands by the assessment.

If you take this sentence out, the policy remains the same. The fact is that Saddam Hussein's regime was developing weapons of mass destruction programs, that is not only the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence and the British intelligence, it was the conclusion of the United Nations, it was a conclusion that even the French shared. Former President Clinton, that was his assessment as well. The Democratic presidential candidates have no policy to deal with this. When confronted with that fact, what is their policy? And this is a distraction because they don't want to talk about national security policy because they don't have one to keep Americans more secure.

GIBSON: But, Ed, as casualties mount and that pains Americans, and they look back and say, “Why did we do this,” do you see the Democrats gaining some sort of wedge by being able to say, “Look, the president wasn't completely honest with the American people about why we went to this war?”

GILLESPIE: But he was completely honest with the American people and the American people understand that. The American people are more patient than the Democratic presidential candidates are, relative to accomplishing the goals here of a regime change in Iraq, relative to ensuring that a dictator like Saddam Hussein doesn't have the capacity to develop weapons of mass destruction and doesn't have the potential to deploy them or use them against the United States. I think the American people appreciate that sound policy when it comes to our national security. And the Democrats, again, John, I ask you, you ought to ask them what are they for? What is their policy to protect Americans and make us more secure in an age of global war against terror? And they don't really have an answer to that.

They have a lot of criticism of the president. We know they don't like the president. We know many of them were opposed to the war in the first place. They were opposed to regime change. Some who were not opposed to it seem to have changed their positions. But we don't know what they're for in terms of how they would deal with a situation like this, were they to be entrusted with our national security.

GIBSON: Ed, is your organization, Republican National Committee, actually hoping that one of these hard, left, anti-war candidates, a Howard Dean (search), or it's getting to be more and more a description of maybe John Kerry (search) or Dick Gephardt (search), that they become the candidate? You think you have an easier time with a Howard Dean than somebody else?

GILLESPIE: Well, John, you know, give Howard Dean credit. He at least was against the regime change in the first place and a lot of the other candidates have moved his way since he's gained some ground and gained some traction with hard-core anti-war activists in the Democratic caucuses in Iowa and the Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire. But, look, regardless of whether it's Dean, or Kerry, or Gephardt or whoever the Democrats select as their nominee, we still don't know what their national security policy is. And I guess that's the point I'm trying to make here today. We know where this administration stands relative to confronting a dictator who is developing a weapons of mass destruction program, where there's universal agreement on that, and they acted to protect the American security interests here.

We don't know, frankly, what these Democratic candidates would do in that situation. You get the impression, sometimes when you hear them, listen to them, that their policy is to cross their fingers and hope for the best. I'm not sure that that is going to make Americans feel more secure. So, to answer your question, I guess I would say that I can't tell you who the best one would be. None of them really concerns me. I think whoever emerges from the Democratic primary process would be a viable nominee. They have a big party on their side as well. Until we know their policies are, until they put forward a policy relative to Iraq or national security in general, I really can't answer.

GIBSON: Would you be surprised if a Democratic candidate said, “We were against the war in Iraq. We shouldn't have done it and we would be better off if Saddam Hussein were still in power?”

GILLESPIE: Dean has come pretty close to saying that. You know, that's a little bit of paraphrasing. But, again, that's the question. If you take this sentence out, set aside these 16 words, concede that having learned now what we know today, which was not known at the time of the speech, take that sentence out. Does that change? Does that mean you are now opposed to removing Saddam Hussein from power, that you would rather have Saddam Hussein there, developing, by all accounts — including as I said the French, the United nations, former President Clinton, the British, other countries — by all accounts developing a weapons of mass destruction program? Is that your policy, that you think that that is in the interest of the United States to have Saddam Hussein there today, pursuing that course? I think that's their answer. And that concerns me. That should concern all Americans.

GIBSON: Ed Gillespie, expected to be elected as the chairman of the Republican National Committee next week. Ed, thank you very much. Appreciate you coming on today.

GILLESPIE: Thank you for having me, John.

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