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Terry Neal
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Talking Points Live
Terry Neal
washingtonpost.com Chief Political Correspondent

Thursday, June 12, 2003; 1:00 p.m ET

Is Sen. Hillary Clinton laying the groundwork for a future presidential run with the release of her new book? What do you make of the administration's assertions that it is only a matter a time before weapons of mass destruction are unearthed in Iraq? Will there be a retirement on the Supreme Court?

washingtonpost.com Chief Political Correspondent Terry Neal brings his Talking Points column live to field questions and comments on the political news of the day.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.



New Rochelle, N.Y.: Thanks for the latest column on WMD. Contrary to what the media reports -- that the public doesn't care if they are found or not -- they should care because NO ONE will ever believe this fool in the future. If the so-called liberal media was really liberal, they would be driving this story instead of airing Laci Peterson and anti-Hillary rants.

If the situation blows up in the UK, which I believe it will, do you feel Congress WILL be forced to have a full blown investigation instead of what Roberts/Warner proposed yesterday?

washingtonpost.com: Missing Weapons May Become Election Issue (Post, June 11)

Terry Neal: Hello everyone. It's good to be back Live Online. Let's chat...

I agree with you that the public cares--most of it anyway. But, as I wrote in my column yesterday, I believe the president is giving the president the benefit of the doubt for now. I think most people think if there are wmd, it may take a while to find them. Look, there are people out there who will be satisfied just with the fact that Saddam Hussein is gone. But the justification for this war--the first preemptive war in American history--was that Iraq had wmd and presented an imminent threat. If that turns out to not the case, then the president's truthfulness will come into question. And that is a serious matter whether people believe Hussein's ouster is a good enough justification or not. I don't believe events in the UK will necessarily dictate what happens here. Ultimately, the only way Congress will call for a full-blown investigation is if public opinion starts to turn. And there are still too many variables out there to say with certainty what's going to happen in that regard.

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Somewhere, USA: Over the last six years the Bushies been in office, (four years for Sr. and two for Junior) there were/are no jobs created. The job markets were/are in the negative. I'm surprised no one in the media picked this up.

OK, I understand the FCC just relaxed a rule to take away your/our freedom of speech.

Terry Neal: I don't agree with you. Most of what you know about what's happening in the economy you know because you read it in the media. There's been plenty of coverage of those facts. The question is, whom do you blame. Should the trends continue, that will be the question of the 2004 election, I believe.

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Alexandria, Va.: Bush's critics claim that: (1) Bush ignored evidence of Al Qaeda suicide attacks; and (2) Bush overreacted to evidence of Saddam WMD attacks.

Are these simultaneous claims a contradiction?

Terry Neal: No, not necessarily. I've heard lots of conjecture, but I don't know of any proof that Bush ignored evidence of the suicide attack. But even if he did, it would not necessarily be contradictory to assume that he overreacted in Iraq almost as a way to make up for that. I am in no way saying that is what happened, only that they are not necessarily contradictory.

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Boston, Mass.: Mr. Neal

Love your chats. Why don't we just admit this in the Iraq war. The administration was going to attack Iraq no matter what, and they were going to do it whether 9/11 happened or not. All they needed was a reason to present to the American people, and WMD represented the best reason, and differentiated it from other countries that we could attack.

Terry Neal: Well, you I believe that's a pretty serious allegation. And I think before people assume that, we should have all the facts. I made a strong case in my column yesterday that it smells fishy. But I think it's too early to reach the conclusion you reach with certainty. I mean, conceivably, wmd could be found in Iraq tomorrow. I don't pretend to know everything that was going on behind closed doors or about the president's motivations. But I do honestly believe that it is of grave importance that the administration either find wmd or find evidence that they were destroyed or moved out of the country. Before the war started, administration officials repeatedly asserted that they knew where the wmd were inside Iraq. So it seems unlikely that 500 tons of sarin, vx and mustard gas--materials that are difficult to destroy (they can't just be flushed down the toilet)--could not have disappeared overnight without a trace without the same specific sources of intelligence picking up on something.

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Boston, Mass.: In today's Post, the article reads Bush used outdated information regarding the Nigerian uranium claim. Hundreds of internet sites reported immediately after that the claim was forged. Why didn't the Bush and Blair administrations look deeper?.

washingtonpost.com: CIA Did Not Share Doubt on Iraq Data (Post, June 12)

Terry Neal: That is one of the questions that is not clear yet but must be answered. And there may be a simple explanation. But I don't think we've heard it yet.

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Montclair, N.J.: You may be reticent to do this, but in your political analyst's experience, what is a specific story line the WMD issue could take to become a blaring scandal. Does it require some damning leaked document from the inside, or does dragging on without finding anything start to make the administration's claims look hollow?

Terry Neal: I am reticent to speak in hypotheticals. But I will say generally that I think for it to become a full-blown scandal, there's going to need to be more than just a failure to find wmd. I think there's going to have to be some sort of evidence that the administration intentionally misled the country and the world for some other purpose. I think many people will view a failure to find wmd simply as proof that Hussein was really good at hiding them.

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Knoxville, Tenn.: It seems Republicans can dish it out but can't take it. Every time a Whitewater investigation couldn't find anything on the Clinton's the Republicans merely started another investigation (RTC then Fiske then Starr then Ray). But now when questions should be asked about how the Cheney/Bush administration lied and falsified evidence to trick the US into war Sen. Roberts and the rest say we don't need public hearings, that it is all political. I hope the conservative press will find the a backbone among themselves to not cover-up as usual for the Cheney/Bush/Perle/Wolfiwitz/Powell/Rice administration.

Terry Neal: Well, look, partisan politics values predictability over consistency. That's why Republicans are now defensive and resisting an investigation on wmd, while Democrats are eager to see it. Democrats are, to some extent, acting in what they perceive to be their self-interest on this issue, just as Republicans did in the 1980s with Whitewater, Travelgate, etc. Both parties are guilty of this, and I think fortunately the public sees right through it. That cynicism about Washington is part of the reason why President Clinton's popularity remained high during the Lewinsky scandal--many people questioned the partisan motives of his opponents. Similarly, people are giving Bush the benefit of the doubt for now on this wmd issue--because they question the motives of his opponents.

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Baltimore, Md.: About the article today concerning the CIA and the forged documents regarding the nuclear weapons program, this is not new. The information that these documents had been forged was, to use one of Secretary Rumsfeld's phrases, a "known known," at least last fall.

Why is there an article about this today? Granted, people want to know about the intelligence or lack thereof concerning WMD, but this article seems to be laying the groundwork for blaming the CIA.

If Tenet is dismissed, then Bush can say, "I was relying on intelligence from the CIA," not, "I don't care what the intelligence said, Karl Rove and I decided to manipulate public opinion in order to justify war."

Terry Neal: No, what's new about this story is the fact that the CIA allegedly did not share the results of its investigation with the administration. Whether this perspective holds up, I don't know. But we have seen in recent days and weeks, more and more comments from administration officials pointing out that they relied on information about wmd from George Tenet and his folks at the CIA. Meanwhile, there have been numerous leaks from within the CIA from officials saying the administration ignored evidence presented that contradicted their objectives. It will be fascinating to see how it plays out.

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Independence, Mo.: Good morning Terry. I was pleased to see your piece on the WMD issue. This is indeed a situation that will have to turn more fluid before the public requires more accountability. That said, the administration seems to be truly on the defensive answering the question daily now almost in advance of anything being asked.

I think the trickle of stuff like we see in the piece Walter Pincus has today on the CIA and the "sloppy" handling of central pieces of evidence are the kind of things that will likely keep this issue alive.

For God sakes, when you go to war over intelligence information and are taking a "first strike" posture, I think most agree it demands a higher not lesser level of accountability.

What is at stake her is not simply the reputation of this President and his administration, but the reputation of the American people. I think we as Americans deserve answers.

Terry Neal: I think we do as well. I believe until the day the war began, the burden of proof was on Saddam Hussein to prove that he had destroyed weapons of mass destruction. But by starting a preemptive war before the inspection process had fully played out, the burden of proof turned to the United States to prove that Iraq did have those weapons. And I don't think the standard is all that high, at least for most Americans. I think most people--not all, but most--in this country would be satisfied with a few molecules of vx or sarin, or shred of evidence that such weapons were destroyed. We've seen neither yet. But I believe just as strongly that it is still too early to declare that there are no wmd. Let's let the process play out and then step back and evaluate.

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New York, N.Y.: Can you imagine, just for a second, what Republicans would be saying if a Democratic President misinterpreted intelligence or misused intelligence leading up to a war? There would already be impeachment hearings. And the Republicans are saying that any questions are political?

Terry Neal: I agree. Totally. But on the other hand, Democrats would probably already be holding impeachment hearings as well if they actually had some power in Washington to make it happen.

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Brunswick, Maine: Do you think the effort by Republicans, in Texas and in D.C., to enlist the Homeland Security Department in their pursuit of absconding Texas Democrats will develop into anything? Why or why not? Thanks.

Terry Neal: I don't know. It sure is a curious story. But unless more damning details come out about what happened, I doubt it will develop into anything much larger. Although it involved important GOP officials in Washington, I think most people in the country, those who have actually heard about it, still see it as a quirky Texas story.

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Terry Neal: Well, folks. As usual, it's been lots of fun. But I've got to run. Thanks for all the great questions. I'll chat with you again soon!

Terry

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