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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Interview With Senators Hutchison, Levin; Interview With Congressmen Clyburn, Blunt

Aired November 19, 2006 - 11:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: It's 11 a.m. in Washington, 8 a.m. in Los Angeles, 7 p.m. in Baghdad, and 11 p.m. in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us for "Late Edition." We'll speak with senators Carl Levin and Kay Bailey Hutchison in just a moment. First, though, here's Fredricka Whitfield with a quick check of what's in the news right now. Hi, Fred.
(NEWS BREAK)

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Fred. President bush is calling for patience when it comes to the war in Iraq. But Democrats soon to be in control of the House and Senate are promising to push him hard for a plan to begin withdrawing or redeploying troops in a matter of months.

Among those leading the call for a phased withdrawal, the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin of Michigan. He's joining us from Detroit. Also joining us from Dallas is Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. Senators, welcome back to "Late Edition."

And Senator Levin, I'll start with you. You're suggesting, and several of your Democratic colleagues, that the United States should start pulling troops out of Iraq within the next four to six months. The U.S. military commander for the Middle East, General John Abizaid, was before your committee this week and said that's not necessarily a good idea. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GENERAL JOHN ABIZAID, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: At this stage in the campaign, we'll need flexibility to manage our force and to help manage the Iraqi force. Force caps and specific timetables limit that flexibility.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Senator Levin, why is he wrong and you're right?

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN: Well, he doesn't say that we're wrong, as a matter of fact. He talks about force caps and specific timetables. But we don't have a specific timetable for departure of all or even most of our troops. What we are saying is that to force the Iraqis to come to reality to take really what is going on in Iraq into consideration and to reach a political settlement, which is the only way to solve the problem in Iraq.

We must tell the Iraqis that we would begin, starting in four to six months, a phased reduction of our troops. Because if you don't do that, they're going to continue to have the false assumption that we are there in some kind of an open-ended way. And it is that assumption on their part which takes them off the hook.

We've got to put pressure on them. I hope the Baker commission puts pressure on them. And listen to one other thing that General Abizaid said in front of us. It is a short quote, but it has not been widely circulated, and it should be. He said, in opposition to more troops going into Iraq, he said that "I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future."

That is the logic behind our proposal that they be told that starting in four to six months, we begin a phased redeployment with a limited presence beyond that.

BLITZER: I'm going to get to that other side of the equation, bringing in more troops, which Senator John McCain, among others, Senator Lindsey Graham supports. But when you say four to six months, your critics are saying you are coming up with a specific timetable to begin phasing out the U.S. deployment. And they're saying this is an artificial timetable that's going to be counterproductive.

LEVIN: Well, the reason that it's essential we do that is to give the Iraqis the message that the open-ended commitment is over. It's not a precipitous plan. It gives the Iraqis an opportunity during the next four is six months to reach a political settlement.

It also is essential that if we're going to have an international conference, which I think many people want, including us, that was part of our Democratic proposal to include the regional countries, that that Democratic conference be given an opportunity to put some kind of political pieces together to help the Iraqis reach a political settlement to support the sovereignty of Iraq.

Four to six months gives them an opportunity to do that if there is an international conference. And one other thing, General Abizaid said that if in the next four to six months, the violence is not put -- if there's not an end put to the violence and if the militias are not put under control, then it is going to be irretrievable. So he himself used a four- to six-months timeframe.

BLITZER: Let me just bring in Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison in a second. But before I do, one quick follow-up, Senator Levin. If you start the withdrawal in four to six months, how long does it take to complete the withdrawal?

LEVIN: We don't have a complete withdrawal in any event. We have a limited presence at the end of whatever the withdrawal amount is because you're going to need people there for force protection. You're going to need people there to support the logistics of an Iraqi army. You may need people to stay on for training. You need a counter-terrorist small unit. So there's going to be some limited presence. But you don't want to be specific on that. You don't want to get lost in the minutiae here. You want to make the point to the Iraqis that, folks, you've got to take responsibility for your own country. We cannot do it for you. We've given you an opportunity.

BLITZER: Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, is there anything you just heard from Senator Levin with which you disagree?

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (R), TEXAS: Well, yes. I think he is making some good points, and everyone wants to push the Iraqis into finding a solution that is right for them. But I think the setting of the deadline is the problem. General Abizaid said that setting a deadline is not the right approach, and many other experts, including many Democratic senators, have said that is not the right approach, that it would encourage more insurgency. It would even put our troops in harm's way if we set a deadline.

BLITZER: Excuse me for interrupting, Senator. But he's saying start the withdrawal. Don't set a deadline for the completion of withdrawal but just start phasing out the troops in four to six months. Is that a deadline?

HUTCHISON: Yes, it is. It is saying that we are going to start bringing our troops out at a certain time, which tells the insurgents that we're on our way out. So you just have at it, and you go forward because America is going to leave, no matter what the circumstances are.

I think you have to put the solution first. You have to put the plan first before you start talking about our withdrawing troops. Even General Abizaid said, where we need our troops is in training the security forces, and it may even take more to do that.

But I think you have to put the cart before the horse. You've got to say, here is the solution that the Iraqis have agreed to. I, too, have called for a regionwide conference. I think we should bring other countries in that region into this mix because it's not good for any of them to have an eruption or a terrorist haven in Iraq.

BLITZER: Senator Hutchison, I know Senator's Levin, his argument, though, is -- and I'll repeat it, and then I'll let him respond -- his argument is that unless you put that kind of pressure on the government in Baghdad of Nouri al Maliki, they're not going to step up to the plate.

That's why he says, go ahead and start this withdrawal in four to six months. What do you say?

HUTCHISON: I think that's the wrong pressure point. I think putting pressure on them is to bring the other countries in, have a solution, put the pressure from other countries in the region on them to come up with a solution. Then you talk about the aftermath.

BLITZER: Senator Levin, you want to respond?

LEVIN: Sure. Unless you put pressure on those other countries as well, by their finally recognizing that the stability of Iraq is in their interest and we do not have an open-ended commitment anymore.

We've got to end that open-ended commitment and we've got to let those other countries know, at that international conference, that it's up to them to take on some responsibility here, too.

So the pressure of ending this open-ended commitment of American troops, which is what is currently the program of this administration: we're there as long as they need us; we're there as long as they want us -- that is what's got to end.

And it's the other countries in the region and the world that have got to be told that, as well as the Iraqi government.

BLITZER: On the other side, Senator Hutchison, as senator John McCain, Senator Lindsey Graham, both Republicans, who make it clear the United States has to deploy more, thousands of additional troops to Iraq; Senator McCain saying on Thursday -- well, let's play it.

Here it is, right now: "Without additional combat forces, we will not win this war."

Do you agree with Senators McCain and Graham, Senator Hutchison?

HUTCHISON: Yes. They asked General Abizaid that question. And General Abizaid said, we probably need more troops for training of the Iraqi security forces.

I have been one, in the past, who has said that I thought the troop protection issue would call for more troops, but I think, if we have a solution and the solution is agreed to by all the parties and we can go forward, then I think we have to let the generals decide where should the troops be and what is the number. I think the point is that we do need to put pressure on the countries surrounding this region. I have been saying that for a year. They have pretty much sat back. Some of them are friendly. Some of them are helpful with advice.

But I think it is time for the others in the region to start taking some responsibility for Iraq. I think we can have a good solution there, but it is in no one's interest, no one's interest, to have upheaval.

BLITZER: We're going to take a break. But I want Senator Levin to respond, first to Senators McCain and Graham, who say send in thousands of additional troops.

LEVIN: No. That gets us in deeper into Iraqi. That sends exactly the wrong message to the Iraqis, that somehow or other, there's a military solution.

Our military leaders say there is no military solution in Iraq. There's only a political solution in Iraq. We've got to force the Iraqis to reach that political solution. And as long as they think that we're there as long as they want us, it takes them off the hook in reaching it. So, no, not more troops; fewer troops, beginning in four to six months, to get an international conference, a time to reach some conclusions, to give the Iraqis an opportunity for four more months or six more months, to reach a political settlement.

But for heaven's sake, don't get deeper into Iraq. Start getting us out of Iraq.

BLITZER: We're going to continue this. Senators, stand by. I'm going to ask both of them if that international conference should include Syria and Iran.

Also, they'll weigh in on whether President Bush will be in for a rocky relationship with Capitol Hill once the Democrats assume control.

Then, the hunt for hostages in Iraq. We'll talk about that with the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaidaie: the killings, the kidnappings plaguing his country.

Also this: Is the United States preparing for a military strike against Iran?

The New Yorker Magazine's Seymour Hersh, standing by live to talk about his brand-new article and what he's learned.

And Coming up at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, for our North American viewers, right after "Late Edition," please be sure to catch "This Week at War" with John Roberts. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARD B. CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Some in our country may believe, in good faith, that retreating from Iraq would make America safer. Recent experience teaches the opposite lesson.

To get out before the job is done would convince the terrorists, once again, that free nations will change our policies, forsake our friends and abandon our interests whenever we are confronted with violence and blackmail.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking here in Washington on Friday.

Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

We're talking with the incoming Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin in Michigan, and Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.

Senator Hutchison, should this international conference on Iraq that you and Senator Levin support include Iran and Syria?

HUTCHISON: I think that depends on Iran and Syria. I think that, of course, Iran would have to agree to immediately stop making a nuclear weapon because that is a destabilizing force in the region.

And certainly, Syria would have to agree to stop aiding and abetting the insurgents and the terrorists that have showed up around the Middle East.

So I think it depends on their behavior. If they would be a positive force, I think, of course. But it does take prerequisites.

And Wolf, I want to also say, on Senator Levin's point, you can't set the deadline first. You have to have the plan first. The worst signal would be for troops to leave when you don't have the security forces trained and ready to take over for the troops that are there. That's the point that just has to be made.

BLITZER: All right, Senator Levin, I want to play for you an excerpt of what General Michael Hayden, the CIA director, told the Armed Services Committee this week on Iran. And then we'll pick up the conversation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN, CIA DIRECTOR: The Iranian hand appears to be powerful. And I would offer the view it appears to be growing. And Iranian ambitions in Iraq seem to be expanding.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Question: Do you think Iran and Syria should be part of this international conference that you want to see convene to deal with Iraq?

LEVIN: Yes, I think so. And not only do I think so; 40 senators thought so when we voted for that about six, seven months ago, that there should be an international conference.

I'll predict the Baker-Hamilton commission will propose an international conference. It has to include those countries, whether we like them or not. And we don't.

We're not going to be able to get the preconditions agreed to before the conference. I'd love to get those same preconditions that Senator Hutchison suggested agreed to before the conferences, but that's what these conferences are all about.

I think they want stability, probably, in Iraq. But the only way you're going to force action relative to Iraq is if those countries understand that we're not there for an unlimited purpose.

We've got to put the same kind of pressure on those countries, the international community, as we do on the Iraqi government, that our responsibility there is not open-ended. One other quick thing, though. When Senator Hutchison talks about you have to have a plan before you talk about troop reductions. They haven't been implemented. Remember the plan that as the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down? Remember that plan of two years ago?

We have not stood down as they have stood up. And the reason is that the Iraqis have not reached that political settlement. So the plans have been there. They've been violated. They haven't been complied with. The Iraqis had a plan a year ago that they were going to have a constitutional convention to consider changes in the constitution. That was supposed to have taken place six months ago. It never has taken place. We've got to act now in our own interest. We've got to force some decisions on the part of the Iraqis and on the part of the international community.

BLITZER: Senator Hutchison, do you wish that the president would have asked Donald Rumsfeld to resign before the election as opposed to the day after election? You might still be in the majority, some believe, if he had done so.

HUTCHISON: Well, I think the president didn't want to make it look political. Certainly he had been talking to Secretary Rumsfeld for a while, but he did not want it to be a disruption or look political in the arena.

But I would just go back to what Senator Levin just said, Wolf, and say the last thing that Iran and Syria are going to try to object to is our leaving. That plays right into their hands that we would tell them, hey, we're going to leave if you don't step up to the plate and start becoming a positive influence here. I would think you would have to have prerequisites to bring them in. If they did come in with the prerequisites met, then I think you would have a very good chance. But the pressure has to be put on them by their neighbors, not us.

BLITZER: Senator Levin, go ahead.

LEVIN: I would not put our planned phased reduction into their hands at all. I would notify the Iraqis and the neighbors that we're going to begin that phased reduction because I believe that is the pressure point on the Iraqis. That is the pressure point on the neighbors who do not want Iraq to disintegrate. They don't want instability in Iraq.

If they do want instability, then a conference isn't going to do any good. It's only if they do not see a disintegrated Iraq in their interest that an international conference does good.

BLITZER: Senator Levin, will you vote to confirm Robert Gates as the next defense secretary?

LEVIN: Depends on what his, how he answers questions, whether he's forthright or not at hearings. And those hopefully can take place this year so we can vote on his confirmation. I voted against him last time because I didn't think he was forthright relative to his role in Iran-Contra. I hope he is forthright. I hope he's independent and objective relative to Iraq. I hope he'll speak truth to power unlike too many other people in this administration. So it all depends on how he does at the hearings.

BLITZER: You voted against him when he was up for confirmation as the CIA director. He was confirmed.

LEVIN: But that was 15 years ago.

BLITZER: That was a long time ago.

LEVIN: A long time ago, and I want to take a fresh look and a fair look at it now.

BLITZER: All right, we've got to leave it right there. Senator Levin, congratulations to you. Good luck when you become the chairman of this powerful committee in the U.S. Senate. Senator Hutchison, thanks to you as well.

HUTCHISON: You're welcome.

BLITZER: And still ahead, Seymour Hersh on his new article in The New Yorker magazine on Iran's nuclear program. Standing by to speak with him live.

Also, what's a greater threat to Iraq, the insurgents and the terrorists, or the sectarian violence between Iraqis, Sunnis and Shia? We'll talk to the country's ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaidaie. That's coming up next.

But what's also coming up, a quick check of what's in the news right now, including the latest information we're getting on the violence and the kidnappings in Iraq. Stay with "Late Edition." We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition."

In Iraq, we're following disturbing reports of an additional kidnapping, this one of a high-ranking government official by masked gunmen.

Let's get right to the latest. Arwa Damon, standing by live in Baghdad. What do we know, Arwa?

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Ammar al-Saffar, who is the deputy health minister here, was kidnapped by gunman. He is a Shia, part of the prime minister's Dawa party, living on the outskirts of a predominantly Sunni area.

What we do know from the Iraqi police is that at least six vehicles, carrying 24 gunmen who were masquerading as Iraqi police and government officials, arrived at his home, stormed it, and kidnapped him.

Now, this is not the first time that an attempt has been made on his life. On June 9, 2004, a gunman opened fire on him. He did escape that attempt unharmed. Now, the violence here has taken quite a toll on Iraq's health care system. Officials estimate that some 800 employees and doctors have been killed in the violence.

And right now, the ministry has 31 of its employees still missing, believed to have been kidnapped.

BLITZER: Arwa Damon, reporting for us. Arwa, thanks very much for that.

Joining us now, here in Washington, Iraq's ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaidaie. Mr. Ambassador, thanks very much for coming in.

SAMIR SUMAIDAIE, IRAQI AMBASSADOR TO UNITED STATES: Thank you.

BLITZER: First of all, your reaction to what Arwa just reported, on the kidnapping of this high-ranking Iraqi cabinet minister.

SUMAIDAIE: Well, that underscores the challenges that each and every official of the Iraqi government is facing. Every day is a day of risk-taking, a day of danger. Yet the government goes on, and people go to their work. And it underscores the necessity to bring some control over the security situation.

BLITZER: As you know, five Western contractors were kidnapped the other day, four of them Americans, one Austrian.

What's the latest information that you're getting?

Do you know who holds these Western contractors right now?

SUMAIDAIE: I don't have any detailed information on individual cases, Wolf. I try to keep track of the general political situation. So I'm not the right person to ask.

BLITZER: But in terms of the general situation, is it fair to conclude that the escalating violence, whether from the insurgents and the terrorists or what seems to be an even greater threat to Iraq's stability, the sectarian violence, the civil war, as some are already calling it, that that is getting worse?

SUMAIDAIE: Well, things are not good. Let's take a good look at the situation. This is, and has always been, the aim of the insurgents, the aim of the Al Qaida people and the Saddamists who wanted to destabilize Iraq and wanted to start a civil war.

BLITZER: And they have. They succeeded in it.

SUMAIDAIE: I would not say they've succeeded. They're coming close to it. They have pushed the system to the limit. And a lot of people are intimidated. A lot of people are threatened. A lot of people are losing their lives.

We have to be clear. The enemy, the prime enemy, is these types, Al Qaida and the Saddamists, who want to turn... BLITZER: Well, what about the death squads, the Shiite death squads, the Sunni death squads, the militias that seem to be bringing this country to a boiling point?

SUMAIDAIE: That's correct. But they -- I believe the prime enemy, the primary cause, the prime mover is the Al Qaida and the Saddamists.

The death squads, the militias have to be dissolved in order to defeat the prime enemy. The prime enemy still is the Baathists, Saddamists, and the Al Qaida.

But in order to defeat that enemy, we have to get control of our security forces. We have to disband the militias and we have to restore calm to the relationship between people.

BLITZER: But what we heard from the leaders of the CIA and the DIA, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, during their testimony before the Senate Armed Services committee this week, that this threat of this sectarian violence spilling over into an all-out civil war seems to be a much greater threat to Iraq than the insurgents, the foreign fighters or the Saddam loyalists.

SUMAIDAIE: Right now it looks like that. And I agree that we have to get that under control.

There are political as well as security means to do that. But, again, in order to do that, we need to get control of our security forces. We've got to make sure that police masquerading -- criminals masquerading as policemen -- that has to be stopped.

Without doing that -- all these kidnappings are done by people dressed up as police. We have to stop that. Once we stop that; we stop these activities by people masquerading as policemen, then we are beginning to get to grips with the situation.

BLITZER: Let me play a sound bite from the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, General Michael Maples, speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee this week to back up what we've just been talking about. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LT. GEN. MICHAEL MAPLES, DIA DIRECTOR: Shia militias are a growing impediment to stability. The Ministry of Interior and the police are heavily infiltrated and militias often operate under the protection or approval of Iraqi police to attack suspected Sunni insurgents and Sunni civilians.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Can you disagree with him on that?

SUMAIDAIE: I don't disagree. And that's why I believe that the key to solving the security problem, the key, is to make sure that the police forces are reformed and cleaned up. BLITZER: Here's the problem that a lot of Americans see, that your prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, while his heart may be in the right place, he doesn't have the guts to stand up to some of those Shiite militia, the Mahdi militia, specifically, and those who he relies on to a certain degree for his political base in the Iraqi parliament.

SUMAIDAIE: I think Mr. Maliki is a very brave man. Not only his heart is in the right place, but he's also got the right ideas. And he's got to be supported in implementing them.

He wants to do a two-track approach to the militia problem: one on the political and economic side and one on the security side.

He's got to be supported. People here talk, always, about numbers of policemen trained, how much money is being spent on training. It's not so much training. It's the screening. It's the motivation. It is the vetting that we have to do.

BLITZER: Here's what a lot of Americans would like to see...

SUMAIDAIE: The government needs help with that.

BLITZER: U.S. officials would like to see him arrest Muqtada al- Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric. They say he's the source of so much problem in Iraq, right now, and he's not part of the solution.

SUMAIDAIE: Well, before you come to the point where you arrest a person with a bloc in parliament of 30 members of parliament, you've got to deal with the situation in a different way.

You've got, first, to get control of your own police forces. And that is the key to solving the other problems.

BLITZER: Here's what Henry Kissinger said, this morning, on the BBC: "If you mean by "military victory" an Iraqi government that can be established and whose writ runs across the whole country, that gets the civil war under control and sectarian violence under control in a time period that the political processes of the democracies will support, I don't believe that is possible."

SUMAIDAIE: I still believe that is possible. And I think a lot of people in Iraq, the members of the government and the members of the policy council for national security all believe that the situation is retrievable. It's doable.

But we need to have support of the right kind. And now we have a lot of pressure on us not only from our regional neighbors who are interfering but pressures from our own friends.

BLITZER: Should the U.S. start withdrawing its troops from Iraq in the next four to six months, as Senator Carl Levin is proposing?

SUMAIDAIE: I think that sends the wrong signal. I think what the right signal is that we will never allow an Al Qaida state to be established in Iraq or a state that is Taliban-like or a base for terrorism.

That is bad for Iraq. That's bad for the United States. Everything has to be done in order to prevent that.

BLITZER: We have to leave it there, Ambassador. Thanks very much for coming in.

SUMAIDAIE: Thank you.

BLITZER: You have your hands full in Iraq.

Still to come, here on "Late Edition," the neocons. We'll speak with three prominent neoconservatives who pushed hard for the war in Iraq and may now be having some second thoughts about how it has been waged.

But just ahead: Is President Bush preparing for military action against Iran before he leaves office in two years?

Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh talks about his new article in the New Yorker Magazine, entitled "The Next Act." And don't forget, coming up for our North American viewers, right after "Late Edition," 1:00 p.m. Eastern, it's "This Week at War" with John Roberts. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." The Bush administration maintains it's focusing on diplomacy to try to resolve its differences with Iran, but will the power shift on Capitol Hill effectively kill any plans the White House might have for possible military action against Iran?

Joining us now, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker magazine tells what he's learned in a new article. Sy Hersh, thanks very much for coming in.

SEYMOUR HERSH, "THE NEW YORKER": Glad to be here.

BLITZER: The article is entitled "The Next Act." The subtitle: "Is a damaged administration less likely to attack Iran or more?" Here's the question. What's the answer?

HERSH: Oh, well, nobody can predict the future, but the idea that somehow there's going to be comity and everything is going to be wonderful because Democrats have control of the Congress, tenuous as it may be, is just not what I'm finding. What I'm finding is that the guys who want to be very tough towards Iran, led by Mr. Cheney, the vice president, are still going to be very tough. That doesn't mean it will happen, but it does mean that there's not going to be much give, certainly in the negotiations as they now exist.

BLITZER: So, basically, your bottom line is that you think a U.S. military strike against Iran is now more likely or less likely?

HERSH: No. It's always not been a question of what I think. It's a question of what the facts are. Right now...

BLITZER: Based on the reporting that you've done, what do you think?

HERSH: I don't think it's changed that much. I think it's always been a strong possibility.

BLITZER: So the election really hasn't had an impact on military options over the next two years as far as dealing with Iran's nuclear threat?

HERSH: In terms of what the vice is president and some of the people in his office think, no. But of course, there's other bigger pictures. I would certainly say that because there's a Democratic Congress and because of problems with Iraq are so immense, the argument is whether or not you can go to Iran and talk to Iran and get them to help you in Iraq. If you do that with negotiation or whether you by being tough can you improve the situation. There's sort of a different argument now.

BLITZER: But don't you agree -- I mean, a lot of people have suggested that the vice president's influence has certainly been curtailed as a result of the political setback that Republicans and the president suffered, that others in the administration may have a different point of view, including the incoming, if he's confirmed, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a former CIA director, that their influence might be more significant.

HERSH: I would never underestimate Mr. Cheney. I think he's very, very bright, very competent. And I think he's got very strong opinions that so far prevailed. You saw the clip earlier you produced that you ran about what he's saying about Iraq. There's not much of a second thought being given to the White House.

BLITZER: How close, based on your reporting, is Iran to actually building a -- having a nuclear weapon?

HERSH: Far away.

BLITZER: When you say far away, be precise.

HERSH: There's a new report that's the CIA, new assessment. And the CIA, by the way, has really become, under Mr. Hayden, it's getting much more vital. They've done a very good analysis of the Israeli war in Lebanon that hasn't been made public yet. They've done a new analysis that may be part of a national intelligence estimate soon.

BLITZER: You're talking about General Michael Hayden, the new CIA director.

HERSH: Yeah. Well, the stuff coming out of there, from what I gather, is really much more to the point.

BLITZER: So what's the conclusion as far as how much time the world has before Iran actually has a bomb? HERSH: The new study didn't say that. What it said is that we do a lot of very good things. We have tremendous people in the field, tremendous capability. We can do things that I don't write about and nobody should write about. We do very good technical things, and we can't find, the new assessment says we could not find, the CIA says there's no evidence that Iran is doing anything that puts them close to a bomb. There's no secret program of significant bomb making.

BLITZER: The Israelis have a different assessment.

HERSH: Absolutely.

BLITZER: They think the Iranians may be within a year of getting to the threshold of having a point of no return, if you will, from having a bomb. When I was there in July, I had briefings. That's what they suggested.

HERSH: They've been saying that, as you know, for five or ten years, one year. The fact is, the Israelis have come up with new human intelligence. I write about this in the article. Sort of the counter-CIA assessment. They've come up with an agent inside Iran. They have more than one.

And this agent is, who's been reliable, so the Israelis claim in the past, who now says the Iranians are secretly working on making an actual trigger for a bomb. Even though they may not have any specific -- we don't have any specific evidence of a facility where they're doing this work, the Israelis say, yes, they are. They're getting ready to start detonating a weapon.

And once they get the fissile material, the enriched material. Now, that information is being handled pretty much by the White House and various offices in the Pentagon. And the CIA isn't getting a good look at the Israeli intelligence. It's the old word, stovepiping. It's the president and the vice president. It's pretty much being kept in the White House.

BLITZER: They'd like to get more access to this Israeli agent, is that what you're saying?

HERSH: Well, of course the people in the CIA want to know who he is. They want to know, obviously. But they certainly want to know what other evidence does he have of actual making a warhead. This is the internecine war, fight that's going on, the same fight, by the way, we had before Iraq.

BLITZER: In the new article, which I read last night, "The Next Act," there's a paragraph that jumped out at me, and I'll read it to you: "In the past six months, Israel and the United States have also been working together in support of a Kurdish resistance group known as the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan. The group has been conducting cross-border forays into Iran, I was told by a government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon civilian leadership, as part of an effort to explore alternative means of applying pressure on Iran."

Tell our viewers what this means.

HERSH: Well, we've been running covert -- we're involved with the Israelis. They're the main point men for this particular -- it's called the PJACK (ph). And they've been going across the border, whacking away, fighting. There's been a lot of cross-border stuff. I think the idea is -- one idea we'd like to do is get regime change. We still would like that idea. That's getting less and less possible.

But we're putting a lot of pressure along the whole northern front, Baluchistan, the Azeri border. We're doing a lot of pressure to try and destabilize the regime. At least let the regime know we're there. And these operations are continuing to go on. Congress has not been briefed about it. I write about that too. It's all being done under the guise of military activity.

BLITZER: So if it's a military action as opposed to a CIA covert intelligence operation, you're saying the leaders of the intelligence committees or members of Congress, the leadership don't have to be briefed.

HERSH: This is going to be one of Gates' new issues. Thank God Gates, he has a lot of expertise...

BLITZER: Robert Gates, the incoming Defense Secretary, if he's approved.

HERSH: If he's approved, he'll have to look at what Rumsfeld has done in terms of covert operations.

BLITZER: In your article, you note that the Israelis are denying the suggestion they're working with Kurds in Iran.

HERSH: Absolutely.

BLITZER: All right. The White House is also issuing a tough statement on you. We got it even before your article came out: "Seymour Hersh is unfortunately continuing his series of inaccuracy- riddled articles about the Bush administration with another error- filled piece about the administration's policy toward Iran. The White House is not going to dignify the work of an author who has viciously degraded our troops, and whose articles consistently rely on outright falsehoods to justify his own radical views."

First of all, you want to respond to that White House...

HERSH: They've been saying that for years, even after the Abu Ghraib story and all those other stories. They've been saying it story after story. It's the same: We don't dignify this. That's just part of the game.

BLITZER: They're referring to a speech that you gave at McGill University October 30, which was widely reported on the Internet. Among other things -- and we'll get a chance -- the McGill Daily, the student newspaper there, had some quotes from you. I'll read a couple, and you tell me if they're accurate: " 'In Vietnam, our soldiers came back, and they were reviled as baby killers, in shame and humiliation,' he said. "It isn't happening now, but I will tell you, there has never been an American army as violent and murderous as our army has been in Iraq.' "

HERSH: You know, I've always done one thing. In my career, I've always said responsibility must go to the top. I've always written that. I've always been writing, from the days I did My Lai, saying the kids who do the shooting are as much victims as the people they have to kill.

We're in a very, very violent war now. The number of casualties are enormous. There's no question about it. But the idea that I would say, suggest that our soldiers are murders is ridiculous. I didn't say that. And if you're going to rely on a college version, the editor of the paper has also called me to apologize, because it was...

BLITZER: So that's a distortion.

HERSH: Well, it's just inevitable in a college newspaper report, but the point is that there is a serious point. This is say very violent war. But to blame the soldiers is ridiculous. You've got to put blame where it belongs. You've got to hold the highest people to the highest possible standards. That's what I've always done as a journalist.

BLITZER: I'll read two other quotes, and you tell me if these are accurate or not accurate: "The bad news is that there are 816 days left in the reign of King George II of America. The good news? When we wake up tomorrow morning, there will be one less day."

And then this: "In Washington, you can't expect any rationality. I don't know if he's in Iraq because God told him to, because his father didn't do it, or because it's the next step in his 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program."

HERSH: Alas, I did say that. I do sometimes get funny. And maybe it's inappropriate, but the bottom line is that I think George Bush as a lame-duck president next year is going to have an opportunity to do some of those things, whether there are Democrats there or not that he's always wanted to do.

Whether that's going to get tough in Iraq -- Iran, rather, or not, we have to see. Nobody can predict the future. But being tough and taking a military step is still very much on the table in this government.

BLITZER: We'll leave it right there. Seymour Hersh. He's got a new article in The New Yorker magazine, "The Next Act." We'll have you back.

HERSH: Sure.

BLITZER: Thanks for coming in.

HERSH: Bye-bye. BLITZER: And still ahead, is Iran helping a deteriorating atmosphere in Iraq? We'll assess where things stand with both countries, what the United States should do, with three prominent neoconservatives. They're standing by. You're watching "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.

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BLITZER: Let's get some of your e-mail that you send in. Ed in Virginia writes, "If we want to win in Iraq, the U.S. needs to negotiate with Iraq's neighbors. That way, our troops can keep the militias in check while still going after the dangerous insurgents left in the country."

And Walter in Washington State writes, "I think imposing a deadline for our troops to withdraw is easier and more practical than expecting the Iraqis to suit our deadline. It's about time for the Bush administration to withdraw our troops before the violence gets worse."

We always welcome your comments. Our e-mail address, lateedition@ cnn.com.

And there's much more ahead on "Late Edition," including the potential impact of the midterm election results on the U.S. mission in Iraq. We'll discuss that and more with three prominent neoconservatives who may be having some second thoughts about the way the war in Iraq has been waged.

And we'll discuss Iraq as well as look ahead to the next moves in the new U.S. Congress with the incoming House Majority Whip James Clyburn and the incoming House Minority Whip Roy Blunt. We'll be right back.

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BLITZER: This is "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), MAJORITY LEADER: Republicans in the Congress want to win in Iraq.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER-ELECT: I am a person who is committed to ending this war.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER (voice over): Iraq dominates the debate in Congress, as new leadership takes over in the House and Senate. But will a Democratic majority mean a shift in foreign and domestic policy for the American people?

We'll ask two leaders of the new Congress. The whips: Democrat James Clyburn and Republican Roy Blunt.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARD B. CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: America is going to complete our mission. We're going to get it done right and then we'll bring our troops home with victory.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER (voice over): And 3 1/2 years after the war in Iraq began, we'll take a look back at the mistakes made by the Bush administration and a look ahead to the prospects for victory with three influential neoconservative advocates of the initial invasion: former assistant defense secretary Kenneth Adelman; former Bush speechwriter, David Frum and Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute.

ANNOUNCER: Live from CNN in Washington, this is "Late Edition: with Wolf Blitzer.

BLITZER: Welcome back. We'll talk about what's ahead for the U.S. Congress with the incoming House majority whip, James Clyburn, and the incoming minority whip, Roy Blunt, in just a moment. First, here is Fredricka Whitfield with a quick check of what's in the news right now. Fred?

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: All right, Fred, thanks very much.

Political drama in the U.S. Congress this week: the handover of power to Democrats; the blame game for their defeat among Republicans; a power struggle inside the Democratic leadership; and continuing upheaval over Iraq.

Joining us now, two men with front row seats in these history- making events. Congressman James Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina, is the majority whip-elect, the third most powerful post in the Democratic leadership in the new House of Representatives. He joins us from Jackson, Mississippi.

And with us here in Washington, Congressman Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri. He is the current majority whip in the Congress. He'll be the minority whip when the new Congress convenes in January.

To the whips, thanks to both of you for joining us. Good to have you.

And Congressman Clyburn, let me start with you. Nancy Pelosi -- a lot of Democrats are really irritated. They think she made a major blunder by getting involved in this battle for the new House majority leader, the battle between John Murtha and Steny Hoyer.

Steny Hoyer, the man she opposed, was easily elected. The New York Times writing this: "Nancy Pelosi has managed to severely scar her leadership even before taking up the gavel as the new speaker of the House.. she put herself in a lose-lose position by trying to force a badly tarnished ally, Representative John Murtha, on the incoming Democratic Congress as the majority leader."

This was a huge blunder on her part. I assume you'll acknowledge that.

REP. JAMES CLYBURN (D), SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, I don't know if I'd call it a blunder in her part. The fact of the matter is, I think all of us know that these inside -- the party's fights, you have them all the time.

If I remember correctly, right after Newt Gingrich took over, back in 1994, I think he favored Bob Walker to be whip, who lost out to Tom DeLay. And it was all over and then people move on.

So these things happened when you have this kind of change to take place. But Nancy Pelosi is very loyal to her friends. And that is a positive, it seems to me, in this business.

BLITZER: But don't you think...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: If she was going to support Congressman Murtha and make a big fight out of this, instead of quietly asking him to step aside, she should have had a better count and know that she was going to win. Because by losing, and losing decisively, it, sort of, underscored her inability to get the job done, as one of her first major missions.

CLYBURN: I don't think so. Once again, this is intra-party stuff. When we start acting as Democrats, trying to push our agenda, come January, I think that that's when Nancy Pelosi will demonstrate her real mettle. And I look forward to being very successful with her.

So I would not put too much into what may happen inside the party. These are personal relationships that people have, for whatever reason. Some, they go become a long way. Some develop out on the campaign trail. And that makes it a little bit different. And so I would not put too much in this if I were people looking in.

BLITZER: All right, Congressman Blunt, here's how Nancy Pelosi explained, in part, her decision. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PELOSI: I believe the biggest ethical challenge facing our country is the war in Iraq. For all the reasons that you know, that you don't need me to go into, it must be stopped. And I thought that Mr. Murtha's elevation to a leadership position would serve that purpose.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The war in Iraq is a huge issue. And it certainly dominated the elections and was, at least in large part, with the result you're going to be the minority whip as opposed to the majority whip.

REP. ROY BLUNT (R), MISSOURI: I like the majority whip a lot better. And of course, we're going to do everything we can to see if we can make the case to the country, in the next two years, that, in the competition of ideas, our ideas are better.

And one of these ideas is going to be how we deal with this war on Islamic totalitarianism in Iraq and Afghanistan, wherever it is. And there are no easy solutions.

I think the upcoming speaker wants to have an easy solution here. I don't believe there is one. I don't think that Jack Murtha's solution...

BLITZER: Well, do you have a solution?

BLUNT: As a matter of fact, I just said there are no easy solutions.

BLITZER: But you don't have a specific plan yourself?

BLUNT: Well, actually the Congress ought to be looking carefully to do everything we can to help the administration implement a plan. The Congress is not going to have a plan that effectively works, that solves this problem. We need to be a partner in that plan.

BLITZER: But what a lot of voters were complaining is that the Republican majority in the Senate and the House, they didn't do much in terms of oversight and serve as a check and balance, if you will, on what administration was doing.

Looking back over the past six years, when you report in majority, should you have done more, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, into looking into the U.S. going to war in Iraq?

BLUNT: Well, I think our response to 9/11, nobody faults much of that. Nobody faults the early entry into Afghanistan.

How we got into Iraq, there is a debate about that, but I don't think there's the same level of debate about the reality that we are there now.

We have to be very realistic about our foreign policy goals, whether we can achieve them or not, how we set them, how we're moving along the way.

When Jim Clyburn and I were in Iraq together on Memorial Day, we saw a lot of troublesome things. And one for, I think, both of us, certainly for me, is the Iraqis themselves ultimately have to want Iraq to be an independent Democratic country.

We need to see more of that from them every day. And our military men and women there are working hard to try to help make that happen.

BLITZER: Congressman Clyburn, are you among those Democrats who want the U.S. to start pulling out of Iraq within four to six months?

CLYBURN: I'm one of those Democrats. I agree with Nancy Pelosi that the Iraqi war is something that we have got to focus on very, very keenly.

But I also believe that we ought not get out in front of this Iraqi Study Group. James Baker and Lee Hamilton, I think, are coming forward in a matter of days with some ideas, some of which, I think, ought to be codified.

And I believe that we ought to make sure that we don't have the administration off doing one thing with the study group and Congress off doing something else. We ought to wait and see what's in that report. And then we ought to act in concert to get it done.

That's the way I think we ought to move forward. Because that study group is a very extensive, bipartisan study group that all of us have got faith and confidence in.

BLITZER: Congressman Blunt, these leaders of this study group that Congress Clyburn is talking about, the former secretary of state James Baker, the former congressman Lee Hamilton, a man you know quite well, A Democrat. There are five Democrats on this panel, five Republicans on this panel.

They've already done what the Bush administration is refusing to do. They've started talking directly with high-ranking Iranian and Syrian leaders in order to prepare their report.

Is this a good idea?

Should the U.S. be bringing Iran and Syria into this process to try to find a solution in Iraq?

BLUNT: Well, I think we ought to have the right kind of discussions with Iran and Syria. But the worst thing that can happen in Iraq is if we let the future of Iraq be determined by the Syrians, by the Iranians or by the Saudis.

They may be very well in a conflict, internally, that they're going to have to solve themselves. But one of the things that we can do is insist that that happen.

Maybe that involves discussions with the Syrians and the Iranians. Maybe it doesn't. But what would be a big mistake is to let those neighboring countries come in and have undue influence on what happens for the people of Iraq.

BLITZER: Another challenge, Congressman Clyburn, that the new speaker is going to be facing, who's going to be the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee? I'll read to you from an editorial in Friday's Los Angeles Times: "The Intelligence Committee deserves a chairman who is respected by Democrats and Republicans in Congress and by the White House, and who is free of distracting questions about past personal conduct. Jane Harman fits that description far more than Alcee Hastings." Who apparently is the choice of Nancy Pelosi. Jane Harman's the ranking member right now. What do you think? Who should be the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee?

CLYBURN: The chairman the House Intelligence Committee should be whoever the new speaker, Nancy Pelosi, would like for it to be. I don't know why anybody is saying that, you know, that Alcee Hastings is the choice. I don't know what her choice is.

But I do know this. I know what the rules are regarding this committee. I know that time has expired for the current ranking member. And for her to stay would require a waiver of the rules. And I do believe that we ought to be very careful how we start out our new administration or new power with granting a whole lot of waivers.

There are a lot of people on that committee. We don't even know what the composition of the committee is going to be. Because the committee starts out brand new in every Congress. So Nancy Pelosi will be naming the members of that committee, and then she will be making the determination as to who should chair it.

Now, for us to say now, we know exactly who that's going to be, there are other members on that committee that's got a lot of ability. I know that Sylvestre Reyes is on there. I know that Anna Eshoo is on there. Personally, I like and respect Alcee Hastings. And I do not agree with the fact that just because he would move to chair, would be something different from being a member of the committee. I don't think the chair's got any more -- I'm sorry?

BLITZER: I was going to let Congressman Blunt -- I'm going to take a break, but I just want him to respond. Do you have a problem with Alcee Hastings being chairman of the House Intelligence Committee? He was a federal judge who was impeached, as you well know.

BLUNT: I think he was impeached for bribery or influence- peddling or something that would, as nice a man as he is, you would think would be a disqualifying factor. That's really a decision that Nancy Pelosi's going to have to make. Jack Murtha, now potentially Alcee Hastings. I think a tough way to start out if you are trying to establish the kind of standards that Americans want to see coming from the Congress and from Washington.

BLITZER: Congressman Clyburn, do you have a problem with Alcee Hastings having been an impeached federal judge?

CLYBURN: I just said, remember, he was impeached for something that he was found not guilty for in a court of law. And so a lot of times, we have to look at the court of law being much less political than what was going on in the Congress. We are a political body. So the question is, whether or not there are facts or whether or not there are politics involved in all of this.

So I do have respect for him. I like him very much. He's been a personal friend since my college days, and I very well would support him if that's what Nancy would like to happen. BLITZER: All right, gentlemen, stand by. We're going to take a quick break. We'll have much more with the incoming Congressional whips later.

I'll talk to some of the original architects of the U.S. war in Iraq, the so-called neocons. Ken Adelman, David Frum, Michael Rubin. Has their support for the war wavered? And what's down the road for Iraq and Iran?

Plus our highlights from the other Sunday morning talk shows here in the United States, including Senator John McCain on what to do next in Iraq.

And for our North American viewers, at the top of the hour, right after "Late Edition," the only comprehensive look at events in Iraq and updates from our correspondents in Baghdad and Tehran, "This Week at War" with John Roberts. That's coming up right after "Late Edition."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." Our two guests will have the job of counting the votes and whipping up support when the new Congress convenes. The House Majority Whip-Elect James Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina, and the House Minority Whip-Elect Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri. He's the current majority whip. But not much longer.

Congressman Blunt, let me read to you what a columnist in The Washington Post, Eugene Robinson, wrote the other day: "The Republican party put up three high-profile black candidates to try to weaken the bond between the Democratic Party and African Americans, and all three got slammed by the voters, big-time. After a week of reflection, maybe Ken Blackwell, Lynn Swann and Michael Steele have come to understand that they were never intended to be viable candidates. From the start, they were more like cannon fodder."

What do you say to Eugene Robinson?

BLUNT: Well, I just don't think that's right at all. I think they were three great candidates. I think all of them had their own set of circumstances in their own race. All running in challenging states. You know, Ohio this year. Maryland, always.

BLITZER: Pennsylvania.

BLUNT: Pennsylvania, a big challenge with an incumbent governor. You could find all kind of candidates that had similar problems. We need to continue to reach out to all Americans to try to make them an inclusive part of our discussion in our party, and we're doing that.

I'm glad we had those candidates. They were all good candidates. Right here, we got to watch the Maryland Senate race, and Michael Steele was out there, talking about ideas, providing a real alternative in a state where no Republicans won, not just him. BLITZER: By all account, Congressman Clyburn, Michael Steele in Maryland came out a winner even though he lost this race. Are you worried that the Republican Party's making inroads and reaching out to African Americans?

CLYBURN: No, I'm not worried about that at all. I think that Roy is exactly right. This is all about ideas and ideals. And I think that you have to look at a Republican Party that can't quite make up his mind as to what he wants to do. They reach out or put up candidates in three states. And then they allow the kind of TV ads to run against Harold Ford that ran down there. Those were the most despicable ads that I have seen since I have been in public life.

And then they ran, a lot of the debates, especially in the House races, oh, if you elect the Democrats, you're going to have John Conyers chairing Judiciary. You're going to have Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco liberal, as speaker of the House. And you're going to have Charlie Rangel chairing Ways and Means. They don't share our values.

What is it about Charlie Rangel and John Conyers' values that are different from American values? Both these men served in our military. Charlie Rangel wounded in the Korean war. Come back and served their state. I think those kind of things ought not be in politics anymore.

But what I am happy about...

BLITZER: All right, hold on one second, Congressman Clyburn. I want Congressman Blunt to respond, because that's a serious charge, this notion that the ads Republicans ran against Harold Ford, Jr., in Tennessee and the suggestion that these incoming potential chairmen who are African American, the charge that there was an element of racism here is a serious accusation against Republicans.

BLUNT: Well, it might have been, except my friend Jim mentioned in the middle of that list, he gave Nancy Pelosi, who is not an African American. That was a discussion about ideas. Regarding the Tennessee...

BLITZER: Do you repudiate the ads that were run in Tennessee to Harold Ford, Jr.?

BLUNT: You know, if they were offensive to Harold, if they were offensive to African Americans, I do.

BLITZER: Were they offensive to you?

BLUNT: I didn't see them. But Harold Ford and I...

BLITZER: You didn't see the one about the Playboy party?

BLUNT: I never saw the ad. I heard about it. Never saw it. I don't know whether it was -- what it was intended to do, but I don't know that it did anything that was helpful in either campaign. Harold Ford and I cosponsored the Charitable Giving Act together. People are going to be able to give to charities easier this year and in the future because he and I work together. We came to Congress the same time.

He's an incredibly bright, incredibly talented, capable guy. I do think that the new Senator from Tennessee was more reflective of where the voters have been for several years now in Tennessee elections.

BLITZER: Even though Harold Ford Jr. lost, like Michael Steele in Maryland, I think he also, and a lot of people think he came out a winner. Listen to how Senator John McCain, Congressman Clyburn, summarized what he thought was the result of this election. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

U.S. SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZONA: The election was not an affirmation of the other party's program. Try as hard as I could, I couldn't find much evidence that my Democratic friends were offering anything that resembled a coherent platform or principle leadership on the critical issues that confront us today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, you want to respond to someone who is -- clearly wants to be president of the United States in two years?

CLYBURN: Well, let me say this. First of all, we laid out a plan that we call Six for '06. We talked about electing Democrats and getting for the first time in ten years an increase in the minimum wage. That was a substantive plan, and that's what we're going to do.

We talked about making college education or any post-secondary education more affordable for all American children. We talk cutting interest rates on student loans from 8.4 percent down to 4.2, making college tuition tax-deductible. That's the way you grow the middle class. That was a proposal.

We talked about energy, a new energy policy in this country that would make us energy-independent within ten years. And we're -- talked about homegrown and American-owned alternatives to oil. Ethanol, butanol, other biodiesel stuff (ph), hydrogen cells, increasing our expenditures in research. Now that was a program. So I don't know where Mr. McCain was while all of this was going on, but the American people got turned on to it and voted for it.

BLITZER: We've got to leave it right there, unfortunately, because we're out time. The two whips, Congressman Clyburn, thanks very much for coming in. Congressman Blunt, thanks to you as well. Let me congratulate both of you on being elected this week.

Coming up, how early supporters of the war in Iraq are questioning how it's been waged and what to do now. I'll talk to some of the president's early neoconservative allies: Ken Adelman, David Frum and Michael Rubin. they're standing by live.

But up next, a quick check of what's in the news right now, including today's abduction of Iraq's deputy health minister. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We'll succeed unless we quit.

BUSH: The Maliki government's going to make it unless the coalition leaves before they have a chance to make it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: President Bush in Vietnam this weekend, reassuring Australian Prime Minister John Howard that the United States and its allies will get the job done in Iraq.

Joining us now, some of the Washington insiders, the so-called neoconservatives who supported the president early on in his Iraq policy.

In Richmond, Virginia, Ken Adelman, former assistant secretary of defense; here in Washington, David Frum, former speechwriter to the president; and Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute. He spent nearly two years in Iraq as a senior political adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Gentlemen, thanks very much for coming in. And I want to set up this discussion with all three of you by going back, first of all, to what you were all saying before the war in Iraq got started.

Ken Adelman, I'll start with you. I remember very vividly, when you were interviewed by me here on CNN in December of 2001, December 10, 2001, shortly after 9/11, you said, "I don't believe that we need the kind of tremendous coalition that we had before... the Iraqi army is way lower -- one-third of what it was before, and I think it would be a cakewalk."

And then you amplified that, two months later, February 13, 2002, in an op-ed in The Washington Post: "I believe demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be cakewalk."

You remember that, I'm sure, very vividly as well. The toppling of Saddam Hussein did turn out to be, relatively speaking, a cakewalk. But everything that's happened ever since certainly did not.

KEN ADELMAN, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: That is right. And it was probably an ill-advised phrase, to tell you the truth, Wolf. But it was a lot easier than any of us expected. And a lot of the disastrous things that we anticipated in the war to topple Saddam Hussein, did not result, because our military was so much better and the Iraqi military was so much worse than we ever expected. So that was not the problem.

The problem arose, obviously, after the fall of the statue on April 9, 2003. And it is a big question and a legitimate question, Wolf, whether the problem had to arise or whether a series of mistakes -- allowing the looting, dismissing the top echelon of the Iraqi army, dismissing the top echelon of the civil service, on and on and on -- whether all of that resulted in the insurgency that actually didn't start until the end -- or toward the end, the third quarter of the end of 2003.

So that is a legitimate question to ask, whether all of this would have happened had we done it right.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to get to that in a second.

David Frum, you were the speechwriter, among those contributing to the president's State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, when he said these words.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world by seeking weapons of mass destruction. These regimes pose a grave and growing danger.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Do you regret contributing to that "axis of evil" phrase?

DAVID FRUM, FORMER BUSH SPEECHWRITER: I think everything the president said there was perfectly true. Unfortunately, it remains true in 2006. And if I have regrets, I think the only regret I would say is, when the president said he would not allow the world's most dangerous regimes to require the world's most deadliest weapons, I anticipated -- I think a lot of people anticipated a swifter and more decisive response to prevent it.

Four years later, North Korea and Iran continue, remain very dangerous regimes.

BLITZER: Two of the three axis of evil.

FRUM: And they continue to advance toward these terribly deadly weapons. At least Americans don't have to worry about deadly weapons in the hands of Iraq, which is something that the United States did have to worry about from 1980 until 2003.

BLITZER: But when you were drafting that speech, in your wildest imagination, did you ever imagine that, four years later -- it's almost four years since he delivered that State of the Union address -- the United States would be bogged down in Iraq the way it is today?

FRUM: I didn't imagine that. But I also would have not imagined that, even with Iraq being as difficult as it has been, that there would have been so little action on these other threats that the president mentioned.

BLITZER: North Korea and...

FRUM: North Korea and Iran.

BLITZER: Is that in part because the United States has been preoccupied with Iraq?

FRUM: I don't think it had to be true.

BLITZER: But it's a matter of fact.

FRUM: I think that, when people say that, they say, well, look, there are only so many resources that the U.S. government has got. I don't think that the resources that are being used in Iraq are the same resources you would need to prevent the nuclearization of...

BLITZER; But if the U.S. is going to go to war, militarily, against Iran and North Korea, you've got to have troops from some place.

FRUM: But I don't think anyone ever anticipated a ground invasion of either Iran or North Korea or any...

BLITZER: People envisioned air strikes.

FRUM: As a last resort. But what they imagined a long time before that was a serious attempt to weaken the power of the Iranian regime, through all kind of techniques that remain available to the United States.

BLITZER: Here's what you wrote on September 9, Michael Rubin, in the Weekly Standard Magazine -- September 9, 2002, before the war.

"The United States can't bog down in protracted warfare in Baghdad unless a significant number of Iraqi troops are willing to fight us there... they may not be. In 1991, it's worth remembering, the Iraqi military collapsed and fled a mere 100 hours into the ground war... there's good reason to believe that the risk of taking on Saddam Hussein is -- thankfully -- far lower than the skeptics would have us believe."

MICHAEL RUBIN, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: And I still stand by that. What we're looking at is not the Iraqi army. A lot of people were talking -- I remember Time Magazine spoke about how the invasion of Iraq would become -- the actual invasion of Iraq would become another Nasiriyah.

People, at the same time, said that Afghanistan would become "Vietnam with snow." The fact of the matter is, we got to Baghdad in three weeks and Saddam's statue came tumbling down.

We then fumbled the honeymoon period. We were greeted with flowers and chocolates. We bungled it.

BLITZER: And a lot of people were saying, getting rid of Saddam was the easy part. What happens afterwards is going to be a nightmare.

And a lot of the Bush administration officials seem to have neglected that advice that they were getting from some of the early -- from the first Bush administration, the president's father's administration, the Brent Scowcroft, the James Bakers.

They were suggesting, you know what, this is not going to be simply a matter of getting rid of Saddam. Then you've got to figure out what to do next.

RUBIN: Well, actually, I just looked up an interview with Ed Djerejian, who's the director of the James Baker Center. And what he said is he believed it would take two to three months to put Iraq back on its feet. That was the advice which many of the so-called State Department Arabists were giving us as well.

What we most estimated is the goodwill of the Iranians. When we struck a deal -- when Zalmay Khalilzad struck a deal with the Iranians for non-interference before the war, we trusted them. That was our mistake. And it would be a mistake to, again, put our national security in the trust of Iran's words.

BLITZER: So you're blaming Iran for a lot of the current instability in Iraq?

RUBIN: I most certainly am. And frankly, a lot of Iranian journalists do that as well, when they highlight the broken deals which the Revolutionary Guard has made.

And a lot of people forget, we have an ambassador in Iraq; Iran has an ambassador in Iraq, but Iran's ambassador isn't from the diplomatic corps; he's from the Revolutionary Guard corps' elite unit, charged with export of revolution.

BLITZER: Ken Adelman, you caused a stir, on the Vanity Fair Web site, on November 3, just before the election, when these words were printed: "I just presumed that what I considered to be the most competent national-security team since Truman was indeed going to be competent. They turned out to be among the most incompetent teams in the post-war era. Not only did each of them, individually, have enormous flaws, but together they were deadly, dysfunctional."

You're referring, specifically, to the president, the vice president, the national security adviser, the secretary of defense, the top leaders of the Bush administration.

ADELMAN: Well, I think, when you look at the record, Wolf, it's a record that has a lot of mistakes. You can't read a book without, you know, realizing that.

George Packer's book, "The Assassin's Gate," Michael Gordon and Bernie Trainor's book on "Cobra II," Bob Woodward's book on "State of Denial," Tom Ricks's book, "Fiasco" -- they all have different episodes but the same sad, story.

And you have to ask yourself, how did this happen? And all them attempt, and all of them are serious works and all of them full of facts and figures and episodes. And to tell you the truth, it just breaks your heart.

BLITZER: Does it break your heart, David Frum, to see how this situation unfolded?

Because in the Vanity Fair quotes that were released -- the whole article has not yet been published, but in the quotes -- I'll read one of them from you, and you'll tell me if this is accurate: "I always believed, as a speechwriter that if you could persuade the president to commit himself to certain words, he would feel himself committed to the idea that underlay those words."

And the big shock to me has been that, although the president said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas. And that is the root of, maybe, everything.

FRUM: Yes, that is an accurate quote.

BLITZER: It is accurate?

FRUM: Yes. And it reflects a lot of what I've been saying for the past year and a half.

When the president gives these speeches, every speech is the result of a battle for the president's heart and mind, as has famously been said about the speech-making process.

So different people try to persuade the president to say different kinds of things. And he considers and deliberates. And George Bush committed himself to a series of propositions.

One, he was going to stop Iran and North Korea from acquiring these terrible weapons. And two, that in Iraq, he was going to put his trust in the future of Iraq in a democratic process.

Instead, what happened in Iraq, for example, was the United States became an occupying power almost immediately.

That even before the invasion of Iraq, the decision was made not to have any kind of an Iraqi face on the future government, on the next government of Iraq, because...

BLITZER: Was that Paul Bremer who made that decision, who was the provisional authority representative, the proconsul, as some people say he was? Or was that a decision made by Rumsfeld or Cheney?

FRUM: Paul Bremer was the result of it. But the reason there was a proconsul was because a decision was made not to have an Iraqi provisional government. And that came about because the administration fought itself to a standstill. I mean, there were people who -- there were a number of Iraqis, each of whom had patrons in the administration.

BLITZER: A lot of people would say, that was, Michael Rubin, a huge blunder. You were there. You worked for Paul Bremer. Who came up with that idea of a U.S. military occupation as opposed to trying to let the Iraqis take charge?

RUBIN: Well, I'd second what David said, that that decision, Paul Bremer was the result of that decision. What there was was a debate within the administration about, you have the Iraqi opposition. You had, I believe it was seven key figures. And the question was whether to allow them to become a provisional government. They had already been self-selected through a number of conferences. Or whether there would be some sort of American presence first.

The real debate in Washington was whether we would have more influence before liberation or after liberation. And ultimately, it was the National Security Council, the national security adviser which made the decision to go with an American occupation presence.

BLITZER: That was Condoleezza Rice?

RUBIN: That was Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley.

BLITZER: The deputy national security adviser...

RUBIN: At the time, yes.

BLITZER: ... who's now the national security adviser. And Condoleezza Rice, of course, is the secretary of state now.

RUBIN: That was the compromise that came out of interagency debate, when again, as David said, the State Department, the Pentagon and the others fought themselves to a standstill.

BLITZER: And you think that was a blunder?

RUBIN: I do believe it is one the greatest blunders we have made. The Coalition Provisional Authority and Paul Bremer did a lot of good, but nothing they accomplished which was good couldn't have been accomplished without an immediate transfer of sovereignty. And the fact that we labelled ourselves an occupying power, unlike in Bosnia, unlike in Kosovo and elsewhere, really put -- it justified all the insurgent rhetoric against us. And it turned our allies from those creating a democracy into collaborators.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to take a quick break. A lot more to talk about. The neoconservatives, we're going to ask them some more questions. What went wrong? What went right? What did go right? And what should the U.S. be doing next?

And this note for our North American viewers, right at the top of the hour, John Roberts looks at the war, the impact on the whole region, talks to analysts and our correspondents. "This Week at War" coming up right after "Late Edition."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We're talking about the way ahead in Iraq with three prominent neoconservatives who are not necessarily all that happy with the way the Bush administration has waged the war in Iraq: former Assistant Defense Secretary Ken Adelman, former Bush speechwriter David Frum and Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute.

Ken, I'll start with you. The Iraq Study Group. Ten members of this group, which has been meeting since last April, their mission is designed to come up with a new strategy, some new ideas. Supposedly going to release their plan next month.

Let's take a look at who these ten members are. On the Republican side, five Republicans, James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger, Edwin Meese, Sandra Day O'Connor and former Senator Alan Simpson. On the Democratic side, five members. Former Congressman Lee Hamilton, the co-chairman, Vernon Jordan, Leon Panetta, William Perry and Chuck Robb, the former U.S. Senator. I see ten very influential, prominent guys, but I don't see one conservative, neoconservative, Ken Adelman. What do you make of that?

ADELMAN: Nothing, to tell you the truth. I'm not a neoconservative. I was always a conservative. While the neoconservatives, I guess, were Trotskyites in campaigning in some nefarious manner in 1964, I was campaigning for Barry Goldwater. So I think it doesn't matter all that much. It's an academic exercise. Because I am conservative and all that. But I think it's a very good group, and I'm interested in what they have to say.

BLITZER: Are you concerned, though, about the membership of this Iraq study group, David Frum, given their histories, the so-called realist as opposed to the neoconservative, the idealist school of thought?

FRUM: I think it is -- I'm with Ken. I'm not sure how helpful any of those terms are. And what I'm more concerned about with the Iraq study group is the answers are already baked. That they're not studying at all.

That there is a decision been made to try to negotiate a grand deal with the Iranians and the Syrians by which they would help the United States exit from Iraq in return for the United States overlooking their activities. And if that's the plan, that's not a good plan.

BLITZER: Is that a good idea?

RUBIN: I don't believe it's a good idea. First of all, it's not a new idea.

BLITZER: To bring in the regional powers, including Iran and Syria and to start a dialogue. The Iraq study group of James Baker and Lee Hamilton, they're already doing what Bush administration refuses to do. They've been meeting with high-ranking Iranian and Syrian officials.

RUBIN: Actually, the Bush administration doesn't refuse to do it. On May 31st, Condoleezza Rice offered to have direct talks with Iran in the context... BLITZER: But they laid out certain conditions?

RUBIN: The only condition was that Iran suspend uranium enrichment during the duration of the talks.

BLITZER: But Baker-Hamilton didn't ask for that suspension.

RUBIN: But you know what? Four days later, Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, got up in response to Condoleezza Rice's offer and said, why don't you just admit that you've lost? Why don't you just admit that you are weak and your razor is blunt?

That was Iran's response. Now, we trusted Iran in 2003, when Zalmay Khalilzad met with the Iranian ambassador, and the revolutionary guard didn't keep the word. The problem with negotiating with Iran is that the question of which Iran you are negotiating with? The diplomats or the people that actually hold power, which are the revolutionary guard?

BLITZER: Ken Adelman, we're almost out of time, but I want your quick thoughts, all three of you before we go. Iran, should the U.S. bomb Iran's nuclear facilities anytime soon?

ADELMAN: No.

BLITZER: That's a pretty quick thought. What do you think, David?

FRUM: The United States does not have to do it soon. But the United States -- because there are a lot of intermediary steps. What is worrying is that the United States seems to have moved away even from the very idea of a coercive diplomacy of any kind. And that what United States, I think, is in most serious danger of doing is overlooking the fact that, right now, there are American troops who are under attack from Iranian weapons and from troop, guerrillas trained by Iranian trainers, and that is an outrage, and the United States ought to be taking a hard line on that.

BLITZER: Here's what Joshua, your colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, writes in the Los Angeles Times today: "We must bomb Iran. It has been four years since that country's secret nuclear program was brought to light. And the path of diplomacy and sanctions has led nowhere. It is now clear that neither Moscow nor Beijing will ever agree to tough sanctions. What's more, even if they were to do so, it would not stop Iran, which is a country on a mission."

Very quickly, what do you think?

RUBIN: I disagree. It's a last resort. What we should be doing is making the Iranian government more accountable to the people, trying to replicate what we did in Poland in 1981 with the Gdansk labor movement. We have the opportunity to do that in Iran, but the more as we debate as if it's only a dichotomy between engagement and military action, the more we squander our opportunity to take advantage of other opportunities. BLITZER: I want to thank all of you for joining us. Ken Adelman, David Frum, Michael Rubin, an excellent discussion. We'll continue this down the road.

And coming up, our "in case you missed it" feature brings you highlights of the other Sunday morning talk shows here in the United States. "Late Edition" will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's take a look at what's on the cover of this week's major newsmagazines here in the United States. Time magazine has "The Pope Confronts Islam." Newsweek explores growing up with autism. And U.S. News & World Report looks at "Taking Care of Mom and Dad."

Up next, "Late Edition's" Sunday morning talk show roundup. And for our North American viewers, at the top of the hour, "This Week at War." We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And now, in case you missed it, let's check some of the highlights from the other Sunday morning talk shows here in the United States. Discussion focused on the new Congress and the way forward in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

U.S. SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZONA: You've got to ask yourself some questions. One, are we winning? And I think the answer is no. The other is, what are the consequences of defeat? I just pointed out the widening war, greater chaos in the region, other countries drawn in, emboldening and strengthening of Iraq.

Can we still win? Yes, I believe we can. It'll be tough, but we need to do it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES WEBB, U.S. SENATOR-ELECT, D-VIRGINIA: We need to talk to Iran and Syria. I think it was a great mistake not to as this moves forward, and that's one thing I've been encouraged to hear from former Secretary of State Baker, that you need to talk to your enemies as well as your friends. You don't have to give up anything in terms of, you know, national concerns to be talking to them. But it's impossible to resolve the situation now without talking to them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

U.S. REP. CHARLES RANGEL, D-NEW YORK: A draft doesn't necessarily mean that everyone drafted will have to serve in the military. I think at a time when national security is so important, having our young people commit themselves to a couple of years in service to this great republic, whether it's our seaports, our airports, in schools, in hospitals and at the end of that, to provide some educational benefits, it's the best thing for our young people and the best thing for our country. I will be introducing that bill as soon as we start the new session.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH, R-GA, FORMER U.S. HOUSE SPEAKER: When you look at number of Democrats who won in place like North Carolina, Indiana, Arizona, campaigning as centrist or blue dog or conservative depending on where they were Democrats, there's the potential that with the right policies and the right choices, that you could consistently have floor control for the conservatives in a bipartisan coalition, even though you have a very liberal Democrat as speaker.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Highlights from the other Sunday morning talk shows here on "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk. And that's your "Late Edition" for this Sunday, November 19. Please be sure to join us next Sunday and every Sunday for two hours, at 11 a.m. Eastern, for the last word in Sunday talk.

Remember, we're in the "Situation Room" Monday through Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. Eastern, another hour at 7 p.m. Eastern. Until then, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. "This Week at War" with John Roberts starts right now.

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