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Iraq Questions: Warner and Durbin

November 15, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: And now for more of that Senate debate on where we stand in Iraq we turn to two lawmakers with opposing points of view. Republican John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Dick Durbin of Illinois, the assistant Democratic leader.

For the past several weeks, it seems like the president and the Senate have both, gentlemen, been engaged in discussions about what led us to the war in Iraq and also what happens next in the deputy prime minister’s discussion with Ray Suarez kind of captured some of that.

Sen. Durbin, what is your response to the very last thing that Ahmad Chalabi said, which was it was justified all along?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, I’m totally baffled by Mr. Chalabi’s presence in Washington, D.C. The victory tour that he’s been on over the past week — I mean, consider the facts: This man is a convicted bank embezzler, convicted of embezzling over $230 million in Jordan. He ran and fled to London so that they wouldn’t punish him.

We know that he gave us discredited and false information about the situation in Iraq before the invasion, two specifics — the mobile biological weapons labs that came out of his sources turned out to be a total fraud, an embarrassment to the administration and Secretary Powell, and this so-called “curveball” who turned out to be a brother of one of Chalabi’s aides has been totally discredited in terms of what he said about weapons of mass destruction.

Last year, with the direction our government, we raided Mr. Chalabi’s homes because we believed that he was passing secret information from the United States to the Iranians about a code we had broken to monitor their development of nuclear weapons.

Last week, the F.B.I. said Mr. Chalabi was under active investigation for that activity, and yet he still managed to make this victory tour to the vice president’s office, the secretary of state. I don’t understand it. I’m baffled by this man.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Sen. Warner what he thinks about it. Obviously, Sen. Durbin feels strongly. Do you think that Ahmad Chalabi should not have been welcomed with open arms in Washington this week?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: You know, we’re trying to foster democracy, and we’re succeeding, in Iraq. They have a legislature. The legislature’s designated him as deputy prime minister. And it seems to me, quite right that our country should listen to the deputy prime minister, particularly at this critical time in history, when we’re supporting the referendum, which just took place and the new elections.

And I say to my good friend, he met with the secretaries of defense and state, and I might add, Sen. Levin yesterday, and based on that, I felt that I would see him tomorrow.

So if Sen. Levin felt it was necessary to see him, I accepted that opportunity when he asked to see me.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Warner, obviously today the Senate began responding to what some of the public opinion polls have been showing, which is that Americans are getting a little weary of the war, are at least a little antsy about when a withdrawal will be occurring.

The nonbinding resolution you agreed to today would set not a timetable but a general target for 2006 as the beginning of a transition. Why not a timetable for withdrawal?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Well, first a bit of history here: There’s a lot of dissension here in Washington. And I personally believe when we can find common ground between the Democrats and Republicans we should do so, and that way to try to reassure and regain confidence in the people that we’re doing their business.

When the Democrats decide to put forward a resolution on Iraq, they gave it to me, I studied it. I also had prepared, at the direction of our leader Frist and others, a detailed resolution stating a different approach.

But then it occurred to me, that this was an opportunity to try and achieve a measure of bipartisanship and we succeeded. Today 79 Democrats and Republicans voted in favor of my amendment, and the amendment simply states our mission there, what we hope to achieve, and indicates in very clear language that our nation and our coalition partners have contributed a great deal in loss of life, loss of limb, billions of dollars each week, and it’s now time with the elections on December 15, for Iraq to step up and take charge of their own government in a stronger and better fashion.

I was just there six weeks ago. And the defense minister said he couldn’t even find the money to pay his troops. So we cannot tolerate that. And this resolution says that in detail, but carefully, I eliminated any reference to a timetable. It’s not in our interest. It would play into the hands of our adversaries, the terrorists, if we were to set a timetable.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Durbin, Sen. Frist, the majority leader, has been saying today that the Democratic version of this, which would have had a timetable, would be essentially cutting and running. Why no timetable?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, I tell you that I think this was a significant resolution, and I want to salute my colleague. We may disagree on a lot of things, but I think what he said is right.

There was a bipartisan statement today by the Senate. I thank him for his leadership in drawing us to that point, and that bipartisan statement said that it’s time for a change of our policy in Iraq.

We’ve got to make it clear in this administration, 2006 is a year of significant transition, not just another weary year in this war in Iraq; secondly, that the Iraqis have a responsibility here, a responsibility to protect themselves and to build a political coalition that can defeat insurgency and the resolution is explicit: The president is going to be held accountable, report to Congress every 90 days, in terms of progress we made.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Durbin, I want to ask you about that reporting to Congress every 90 days. It might surprise people to know that Congress hasn’t been receiving ongoing reports like this on the war. Why not? And what difference will this make?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, unfortunately — and I won’t speak to the senator’s — Sen. Warner’s committee — but unfortunately too many committees in Congress are not accepting their responsibility of oversight, not holding the president accountable, the secretary of defense accountable.

It’s a rare occurrence to see them up here, and I think we need to see them more, and I think the fact the American people are troubled by the progress in this war, or the lack of progress in this war, really calls on this administration to be held more accountable.

This bipartisan resolution or amendment, I should say, that we passed today, really breaks new ground, and it says we’re going to have a new policy. The status quo, staying the course, is not acceptable.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Warner, as Ray Suarez mentioned to Ahmad Chalabi, 2006 is just a couple of months away. Are you convinced, from what you know, that Iraq is ready, that the are troops ready, that this is actually more than a pie-in-the-sky resolution?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: This is by no means a pie in the sky. This is a stiff message from the Congress, and it really in many ways supports what the president has been saying, and indeed he has issued to our committee and the committees of the Congress many, many, many reports. But this one broadens the base of facts and the contents of those reports in future every 90 days.

Now, I’m firmly of the belief that it’s necessary and we have done it in this resolution to send the strongest message, bipartisan, forward looking, and addressing the critical nature of the next six months. When this situation, unless we pull together, Iraq working with the coalition partners, and particularly the United States and Great Britain — unless they shore up their government with a new one — replacing the old one — and take charge of the affairs of their people and their military and show the determination to regain full sovereignty, then we could face indeed a civil war. And we do not want that to happen. We’ve generously given of life, limb, and our money and our support. We do not want to see a civil war develop.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Durbin, you have said the decision to go to war in Iraq was a colossal error in judgment. Do you feel like you’re getting the information, the accurate information you need now to make a decision as a U.S. Senator about whether the error continues or whether we’ve turned a corner or whether — what went before matters any more for the future?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Some of the information Sen. Warner and I receive is classified and can’t be discussed, but just a few weeks ago one piece of classified information was disclosed when Generals Casey and Abizaid told a meeting of your committee that only one battalion was prepared to stand and fight independently. That’s a long way from 160,000 American troops currently risking their lives in Iraq at this moment.

We have a long way to go, with half of the people unemployed, with electricity service not even at the level of the day of our invasion, with oil production still way behind.

There’s a lot of progress that needs to be made before Iraq is stable, but we need an honest plan for success in Iraq, and I think the vote today said to the president, we need to change the course.

GWEN IFILL: The president, Sen. Durbin, if I stay with you for a moment, has been saying that Democrats in particular have been rewriting history and retelling the story to suit their own cold feet, as it were right now. What’s your response to that?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I think the president’s statements are wrong and inaccurate. The fact of the matter is I was on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Statements being made by members of the administration about things like aluminum tubes and nuclear weapons went far beyond what we were hearing behind closed doors in that Senate Intelligence Committee room. And I couldn’t say anything publicly.

The fact of the matter is, misleading information was coming from the administration. Whether or not it was intentional or otherwise, the Senate Intelligence Committee will decide but to say that we have the same level of intelligence data as the President of the United States is just plain wrong.

He receives a daily intelligence brief from the director of the CIA. We don’t have access to that kind of information. There’s much more intelligence information available to the president as it should be, as commander in chief.

GWEN IFILL: And, Sen. Warner, on that same point, is history being rewritten in your opinion by the critics of the president, especially at a time when public opinion is sliding away from him?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Well, we should always, in this country, debate the past when it’s appropriate to do so. And I don’t criticize those who have views different than mine. I supported the president. Indeed, I supported President Clinton when he likewise said it’s time for a regime change in Iraq. And he was deeply concerned about it.

So we have consistently been trying to bring about a measure of democracy in Iraq. And I think there’s been a considerable amount of success. But the next six months requires us to put aside this fighting and squabbling over the past. Debate it sometime, fine, but not inject it into what we must be viewed worldwide, not only in Iraq, but worldwide, as standing steadfast with the Iraqi people, and particularly this new government, in trying to bring about a measure of democracy in that country and avoiding civil war.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. John Warner, Sen. Richard Durbin, thank you both very much.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Thank you.

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Thank you.