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Update: Troubled Transition

April 20, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now to two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee: Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, and Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island.

Senator Reed, after today’s hearing, how do you feel about the course the administration is pursuing in Iraq right now?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, there are more questions unanswered than answered in today’s hearing. We first don’t know what the new government of Iraq will look like. And we’re just a few weeks away from that new government. I think the administration has been less than forthcoming on the status of security troops, Iraqi troops. They did not perform well.

I think Secretary Wolfowitz trying to convince everyone that this is just a small band of diehards from the Baathist regime when in fact there is growing resentment, significant resentment of the occupation, our presence there.

So we have so many unanswered questions, not about two or three years ago, not about why we’re there. But what are we going to do to stabilize the situation, protect American lives and get on with the development of a stable government in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Sessions, do you agree there are a lot of unanswered questions tonight?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Well, I don’t agree with Senator Reed’s characterization of the hearing at all. I think things went well, he answered the questions comprehensibly as did General Myers, as did Mr. Grossman. They were available for hours; they sat there and answered every question that came to them.

And I think there are a number of things that we don’t know. We don’t know exactly how this new government will come about but they explained in quite a good bit of detail what we could expect, that the U.N. is working there, and I think that we — they’re very firm in saying that the deadline of June 30 should be met, and that we would begin the transformation to an Iraqi government that would be in charge of leading the Iraqi police, which would give them more of a sense of ownership of their own country’s defense.

I think that would be good because I believe like Senator Reed, that we need to do a better job of bringing those police on and I think a great deal of effort is going into that, particularly by sending General Petraeus there to make sure it happens.

JIM LEHRER: Just for the record, Mr. Grossman is an official of the State Department. General Myers of course is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Well, Senator Reed, going back to your point and now you heard what Senator Sessions just said, are you concerned about whether or not we should even hand over sovereignty to the Iraqis on July 1?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, that date has become unavoidable. One can question the wisdom of picking a date like that almost arbitrarily. But in the minds of most Iraqis, they’re going to assume they’re sovereign on July 1. The real question is will it make any difference? Is the date relevant? We are still going to be the dominant security force in the country.

As Chairman Warner was pointing out, if we have a military force that can override and overrule the sovereign entity, that question is sovereignty in my mind and probably in the minds of the Iraqi people. The question is not just sovereignty; it’s legitimacy. And there are real questions on July 1 whether the majority of the Iraqis will perceive that government as legitimate.

And I respectfully disagree, at least on one point with my colleague, Senator Sessions. I asked Secretary Wolfowitz and General Myers when they were going to send a supplemental appropriations bill up. Most people can see that we need about $50 billion to finish this year and get into the next year in terms of funding our efforts there. And they just categorically refuse to respond and say when if ever.

JIM LEHRER: What about that, Senator Sessions, did that concern you?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I don’t think there is any understanding now of what kind of supplemental may be needed. We had an $87 billion supplemental. When the time comes and additional funds are needed, I think it will be requested but I hope we’ll be able to go some time before another supplemental is requested.

JIM LEHRER: But what about the additional point that Senator Reed made quoting from our clip of Senator Warner, his concern over who is really going to be running things — sovereignty goes to a form of the Iraqi government, whatever it is, but the military force remains in the hands of the United States. Do you think that’s going to work?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Well, it’s not quite like that, but the United States military will remain there. There is not ever been one suggestion that we would be leaving on June 30 when the transition occurs. But they will be able to defend themselves and will be able to fight against attacks that come against the people of Iraq.

That’s understood under the U.N. Resolution. The 1511, I believe it is, says that, of the U.N. force for which the United States is the leader will be the primary security force there. So they have that authority until new government, new constitution, and new elections a year or so away, occur.

JIM LEHRER: So you don’t share Senator Warner’s confusion, or as he said, potential conflict of interest over these two separate roles?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Well, I think the senator raising a good point. He is saying that by saying that we are doing complete sovereignty or suggesting that, it may mislead the Iraqi people and cause some confusion there. I think he raised a good point. It was something well worth discussing. Senator Levin and others discussed that also.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Reed, what about Senator Kennedy’s point quoting from or citing Bob Woodward’s book about the $750 million that was allegedly diverted from Afghanistan funds towards planning or getting ready to take action in Iraq? What is your thought about that?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, there might be a legal justification for it. It goes to the intent of the original legislation, but I think there are two important points to be made. First, as Senator Kennedy points out, at that moment, we were applying maximum pressure to the situation in Afghanistan, and the presumption for those of us who were voted for the money, was that all that money would go to Afghanistan to do things directly related to subduing Osama bin Laden and ending finally and totally the Taliban regime.

The second point, I think it illustrates, is the lack of candor in terms of expenditures, in terms of reports: the lack of candor coming from the Department of Defense. It would have been much better if they had come up here and clearly briefed us, told us the consequences, laid it out because that way not only would we know but the public would know. I think that’s one of the aspects of this issue that illustrates this persistent lack of candor.

JIM LEHRER: Persistent lack of candor, Senator Sessions?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I don’t agree with that at all. I hate to keep hearing those words. This is a political season and I know we are into it but I believe Secretary Wolfowitz and Secretary Rumsfeld and General Myers have been open and honest with us. The president has told us this is going to be a long struggle against terrorism, and in fact we have made great progress. Pakistan has chosen to eliminate terrorism and go against terrorism and be our ally. Afghanistan has been liberated. The Taliban removed, al-Qaida has fled. Iraq and Saddam Hussein has been overthrown and he has been pulled out of his hole. Libya has turned against terrorism. We’ve made a lot of progress in the last few months. It’s because of courageous leadership by the president really.

JIM LEHRER: What about the specific issue of $750 million?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I think the secretary answered that very carefully. He said that every dime of that that was spent was spent in consistent with the law and the authority he had been given. Maybe the senator would like to have had more information about it and perhaps he should have gotten more information about it. But I do believe it was a legal expenditure as he explained in detail.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Reed, on this subject in a more general way, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said today based on her reading of the Woodward book that, “The war against Iraq was conceived in secret, planned in secret and may have been at least partly financed in secret.” Has she got it right?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, I haven’t read the Woodward book but my experience suggests that much of this was done in secret. These revelations — not only the Woodward book but the O’Neill book and the Clarke book believe suggest that there was much deliberate planning going on and there was no indication, at least to me, when I asked questions in the fall of 2002, that that type of planning was going on.

So I think there was very much of a secretive approach to this effort, whether it encompassed financing I don’t know, but frankly in terms of the planning, in terms of the decision, it seems to have been made in a very small circle and not communicated effectively or in a timely way certainly to decision makers.

JIM LEHRER: You think it should have been?

SEN. JACK REED: Oh, I think so. I think it would have helped us do several things. One make better judgments about policy, but second, it would have given us the opportunity to ask questions about the follow-on to the attack — what plans we had for the new Iraqi government. All those post hostility issues that are now causing us tremendous dilemmas here in Washington. What about security troops — how long will they be there? All of that debate was I think swept away because of the very secretive approach to planning and developing their plans for the conflict.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Senator Sessions?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: No, I don’t agree with that.

JIM LEHRER: Y’all haven’t agreed on anything yet. Go ahead.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: As much as Senator Reed is overstating this. It’s just not accurate to say things were done in secret. We had secret briefing after secret briefing right in this building right here. We had hearing….

JIM LEHRER: Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: No, the full Senate.

JIM LEHRER: The full Senate.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: And we had debate for weeks and months on the floor of the Senate — speeches by the president leading up to any decision to use military action in Iraq. There was no secret that the pressure was building on Saddam Hussein. The only question was: was he going to yield and allow and show proof that he destroyed his weapons of mass destruction? And he refused to do so and that’s what led to this war.

Everybody had access to the intelligence data. There was no misleading. If anything, as Dr. Kay said who led the search over there for weapons of mass destruction, he said if anything, the president was misled when he was told by CIA that it existed. But, you know, we acted on the best intelligence we had and president did also. And frankly, I’ve always felt there are a number of reasons to remove Saddam Hussein. One is the first Gulf War never ended. We were dropping bombs on him. He was shooting at our airplanes we were spending billions of dollars to contain him. The embargo that was endorsed by the U.N. was breaking down dramatically and soon he would have been there with all that oil money building his weapons of mass destruction and threatening once again the Middle East.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Reed, how do you feel about that?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, again, I think there was episodes where the full intelligence was not revealed. I recall listening to Vice President Cheney on Meet the Press talking about Saddam developing nuclear weapons. And that later was found to be unsubstantiated. So I don’t believe we had the kind of intelligent insight that we needed.

Frankly if the CIA failed the president, then the president should have taken very severe and very prompt action to change situation of the CIA — either dismiss Mr. Tenet or make fundamental changes. None of that has happened.

So my sense is that this process of secrecy which characterized the administration not just in this run-up but in other areas is something that interferes with our ability to discharge our responsibilities under the Constitution and also it contributes to some of the difficulties we have today. We would have been better prepared if we had had an open debate on Iraq about the post-occupation. I can recall where they refused to even send General Garner up here to talk to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, thank you both very much.

SEN. JACK REED: Thank you.