On MSNBC's Hardball Friday night, four weeks to the day after he devoted his show to trying to convince viewers that the Bush administration tried to make the American public believe Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks to sell the Iraq War (see earlier Newsbusters posting for details), Matthews again pushed this myth, claiming that "many, many times" between the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq invasion, "the case was made that we were going after them, the people that had attacked us. It was clear, it was emotional, it was strongly passionate." The Hardball host also proclaimed, "This isn't an argument. It's a fact," and referred to "a very aggressive campaign to connect 9/11 and Iraq." In wrapping up the segment, he even threw in the charge that the administration argued that an Iraq invasion would be a "cakewalk," which is debunked by direct quotes, featured farther down, from administration officials dating back to several months before the war started.
Matthews began the show discussing reports that a major al-Qaeda prisoner, named al-Libbi, made false confessions of links between Iraq and al-Qaeda as a result of torture in Egypt, confessions that were believed false by some in the Defense Intelligence Agency as early as February 2002, according to a memo Matthews quoted. Matthews treated the concepts of Iraq being linked to the al-Qaeda organization and Iraq being linked to the 9/11 attacks themselves as if they were synonymous, remarking, "Well, much of the administration's pre-war assertion about an Iraq-al-Qaeda connection -- in other words, a connection between the government in Iraq under Saddam Hussein and what happened to us on 9/11 -- was based on this fellow al-Libbi's account." During the show's teaser, Matthews asserted, "Tortured evidence: Who told us Iraq had a hand in 9/11? Turns out it was a tortured witness. Did America go to war on the testimony of a prisoner in pain?"
Matthews was joined by correspondent Andrea Mitchell, Hotline Editor-in-Chief Chuck Todd, and Weekly Standard writer Stephen Hayes. Hayes argued that at the time Bush cited al-Libbi's claims as evidence of a connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda, this may not have been an unreasonable claim to believe since even CIA director George Tenet's testifimony before the Senate in February 2003 made "precisely the same claims about al-Libbi that George Bush made in October 2002." Hayes wondered if the memo Matthews cited might have been merely an exception to the thinking of others in the intelligence community at the time. Notably, Matthews missed Hayes' pointed and queried, "So you believe al-Libbi?" to which Hayes responded that "I'm not saying that I believe al-Libbi. There were reasons to believe what he was telling us at the time," and cited that Libbi "gave us credible evidence about attacks on the U.S. embassy in Yemen."
Matthews later raised his contention, "But we went to war with Iraq largely on the grounds that they had a connection with 9/11 or they had a connection with the people-" prompting Hayes to challenge him: "Who said they had a connection with 9/11?" Matthews asserted, "Oh, many, many times in the course between the attack on us in 2001 and the attack we launched against Iraq in 2003, the case was made that we were going after them, the people that had attacked us. It was clear, it was emotional, it was strongly passionate."
Matthews again cited the quote from Cheney which the Hardball host took out of context on his November 12 show regarding the possibility that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague in April 2001. Matthews: "I've heard the Vice President innumerable times pointing to a meeting between Iraq and Mohammed Atta, the man who led the attack on 9/11. I heard it many, many times. I've seen the tape many, many times. This isn't an argument. It's a fact." Matthews also claimed, "the Vice President made a point aggressively, Stephen, to point to this meeting between Mohammed Atta and Iraqi intelligence. So it was a very aggressive campaign to connect 9/11 and Iraq."
Matthews again ignored the context of Cheney's public comments about the Atta/Prague story. Cheney was interviewed by Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press on three occasions between December 2001 and September 2002. Each time, Russert asked Cheney about the possibility of an Iraq-9/11 link, sometimes himself listing out the latest reports that linked Iraq and al-Qaeda as if to challenge Cheney to deny an Iraq link to 9/11. In the first interview, the one Matthews was referring to, Cheney discussed the alleged meeting as if it were not in doubt since it was relatively soon after Czech officials brought their claim to the world's attention. But during his subsequent appearances on the show in March and September of 2002, Cheney characterized the story as being in dispute. Since there was evidence that Atta had traveled to Prague in 2000 right before traveling to the U.S., in fact, flying directly from Prague to New Jersey in June 2000, it was not unreasonable to hold open the possibility of another trip in April 2001. Transcripts of these comments by Cheney appear farther down.
After Hayes argued that looking into the possibility of an Iraq-al-Qaeda link made sense since even the Clinton administration had linked the two in an indictment against bin Laden, Matthews wrapped up the segment by reiterating that the way America got into the Iraq War "had to do with WMD, it had to do with charges of a connection to 9/11, which were made obliquely and sometimes directly. And it also has to do with the claim that it was going to be no war once we got there. Remember that one? It was going to be a cakewalk."
As to the accusation that the administration claimed an Iraq invasion would be a "cakewalk," several prominent administration officials directly denied that invading Iraq would be a "cakewalk" in the months leading up to the war, as detailed below. Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers all voiced disagreement with suggestions that the invasion would be a "cakewalk." Cheney was a notable exception who, when asked by Russert, did not directly deny it would be a "cakewalk" and gave the most optimistic prediction that "I don't think it would be that tough a fight," and " we would prevail and we would achieve our objective." But even Cheney added that "You always want to plan for the worst, though," and acknowledged that "we clearly would have to stay for a long time" to help the Iraqis "until there was a peaceful stability present." At any rate, Cheney's more optimistic prediction stood in contrast with the other administration officials who were more cautious about making optimistic predictions. Notably, Bill Clinton optimistically argued the war would be "over in a flash" in a speech in March 2003, while liberal commentator Paul Begala asserted to former defense advisor Kenneth Adelman on CNN's Crossfire in April 2002, "I actually agree with you that it would be a cakewalk."
Below are more complete transcripts of these quotes, followed by transcripts of Cheney's quotes on the Mohammed Atta/Prague story from Meet the Press, followed by a transcript of relevant portions from the Friday December 9 Hardball:
From the September 8, 2002 Meet the Press:
Tim Russert: "We have just a minute in this segment. Will militarily this be a cakewalk? Two, how long would we be there and how much would it cost?"
Dick Cheney: "First of all, no decision's been made yet to launch a military operation. Clearly, we are contemplating that possibility. I'm confident that if it became necessary, if the President felt that this was the right course of action so that he instructed the military to undertake this, that the U.S. military would be enormously effective in this circumstance. And I don't think it would be that tough a fight. That is, I don't think there's any question that we would prevail and we would achieve our objective. You always want to plan for the worst, though. And, clearly, we would do that.
"In terms of how long we would be there, if we were to get involved like this, as I mentioned the other day in my speech at the VFW, we clearly would have to stay for a long time, in terms of making sure we stood up a new government and helped the Iraqi people decide how they want to govern themselves until there was a peaceful stability present so that it was no longer a threat to its neighbors and things were secure."
From a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on September 26, 2002:
Colin Powell: "This would be a daunting military operation. I don't accept the premise that it's going to be a cakewalk. No sensible military officer would go into any operation thinking it's going to be a cakewalk.
"And so I think it was useful of them to put down their perspective. And you can be sure that my colleagues in the Pentagon and those who took over for me when I retired and left the uniform understand what will be required if asked to do this. But I don't think one of them would say that it is an impossible mission or that difficult, really, if you put your mind to it and you put the resources to it.
"We have to be mindful of the 'day after' scenario that's, we've been talking about. And it will probably require a fairly significant commitment of troops to manage and occupy Iraq until such time as you can turn it over. That, I think, is a daunting problem, as well. And you can be sure that their concerns, their reservations and their points of view are being considered. And I have respect for their points of view."
From a Defense Department Briefing on December 17, 2002:
Question: "We keep hearing from some military analysts, military experts that war with Iraq might be a cakewalk, that in fact they might, the Iraqi forces might fold very quickly. How does that square with your assessment of how war with Iraq might go?"
Donald Rumsfeld: "Well, Dick Myers and I have both responded from this podium that that's, in our view, not the way to look at this situation. First of all, any war is a dangerous thing, and it puts people's lives at risk.
"And second, I think that it is very difficult to have good knowledge as to exactly how Iraqi forces will behave. A part of it will depend on a whole series of things, in the event they were to evolve and occur, that could affect their behavior favorably or unfavorably. And since those things we can't predict, first of all, we don't know what the President will decide or what anyone else will decide, if there will be a use of force. But if there were to be such a decision, it's not knowable in what the context might be. And that would affect, one would think, how Iraqi forces would behave.
"We do know that in a matter of hours some 60, 70, 80,000, not hours, maybe days, it was two or three days, dropped their weapons and surrendered very quickly in the Desert Storm. What would happen this time is an entirely open question. Do you want to answer that?"
General Richard Myers, Joint Chiefs Chairman: "I would just say there's nobody involved in the military planning, to include the secretary or any of the senior leadership in this building, I think, that you'll find, that would say that this sort of endeavor, if we were asked to do it, would be a cakewalk. I mean, it's just not how we characterize it."
From a speech in New York City, as shown on Fox News Sunday on March 16, 2003
Bill Clinton: "This war is going to be over in a flash, so we can wait to do that. You can always kill somebody next week. You can't bring them back next week, so-"
Below are transcripts from NBC's Meet the Press that show Cheney's comments on the Mohammed Atta/Prague story, including the questions asked by host Tim Russert that prompted Cheney's responses:
From the December 9, 2001 Meet the Press:
Tim Russert: "Let me turn to Iraq. When you were last on this program, September 16, five days after the attack on our country, I asked you whether there was any evidence that Iraq was involved in the attack and you said no. Since that time, a couple articles have appeared which I want to get you to react to. The first: 'The Czech interior minister said today that an Iraqi intelligence officer met with Mohammed Atta, one of the ringleaders of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, just five months before the synchronized hijackings and mass killings were carried out.' And this from James Woolsey, former CIA director: 'We know that at Salman Pak, on the southern edge of Baghdad, five different eyewitnesses -- three Iraqi defectors and two American U.N. inspectors have said, and now there are aerial photographs to show it, a Boeing 707 that was used for training of hijackers, including non-Iraqi hijackers trained very secretly to take over airplanes with knives.' And we have photographs. As you can see that little white speck, and there it is, the plane on the ground in Iraq used to train non-Iraqi hijackers. Do you still believe there's no evidence that Iraq was involved in September 11?"
Dick Cheney: "Well, what we now have that's developed since you and I last talked, Tim, of course, was that report that, it's been pretty well confirmed that he did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in Czechoslovakia last April, several months before the attack. Now, what the purpose of that was, what transpired between them, we simply don't know at this point, but that's clearly an avenue that we want to pursue."
From the March 24, 2002 Meet the Press:
Russert: "Iraq's Saddam Hussein. When we spoke on September 16, five days after the tragic day of September 11, I asked you if any evidence of linkage between Saddam Hussein and Iraq and al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. At the time you said no. There's an article in The New Yorker magazine by Jeffrey Goldberg which connects Iraq and Saddam Hussein with al-Qaeda. What can you tell me about it?"
Cheney: "I've read the article. It's a devastating article I thought. Specifically, its description of what happened in 1988 when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurds in northern Iraq, against some his own people. I was aware that he had used chemical weapons against the Kurds. That's been general knowledge, but what the article is very good at is pointing it out in depth that he may have struck, if the article's correct, as many as 200 towns and villages over a 17-month period of time and killed upwards of 100,000 Iraqis.
"What's even more depressing is the apparent medical legacy that's left of continuing increased rates of infertility, birth defects, rates of liver cancer among children, etc., as a result of these attacks. It demonstrates conclusively what a lot of us have said is, that this is a man who is a great danger to the region of the world, especially if he's able to acquire nuclear weapons.
"With respect to the connections to al-Qaeda, we haven't been able to pin down any connection there. I read this report with interest after our interview last fall. We discovered, and it's since been public, the allegation that one of the lead hijackers, Mohammed Atta, had, in fact, met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague, but we've not been able yet from our perspective to nail down a close tie between the al-Qaeda organization and Saddam Hussein. We'll continue to look for it."
From the September 8, 2002 Meet the Press:
Russert: "One year ago when you were on Meet the Press just five days after September 11, I asked you a specific question about Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Let's watch:"
Russert on the September 16, 2001 Meet the Press: "Do we have any evidence linking Saddam Hussein or Iraqis to this operation?"
Russert then asked on the September 8, 2002 show: "Has anything changed, in your mind?"
Cheney: "Well, I want to be very careful about how I say this. I'm not here today to make a specific allegation that Iraq was somehow responsible for 9/11. I can't say that. On the other hand, since we did that interview, new information has come to light. And we spent time looking at that relationship between Iraq, on the one hand, and the al-Qaeda organization on the other. And there has been reporting that suggests that there have been a number of contacts over the years. We've seen in connection with the hijackers, of course, Mohammed Atta, who was the lead hijacker, did apparently travel to Prague on a number of occassions. And on at least one occasion, we have reporting that places him in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official a few months before the attack on the World Trade Center. The debates about, you know, was he there or wasn't he there, again, it's the intelligence business."
Russert: "What does the CIA say about that? Is it credible?"
Cheney: "It's credible. But, you know, I think a way to put it would be it's unconfirmed at this point."
Below is a transcript of relevant portions of the Friday December 9 Hardball:
Chris Matthews, in opening teaser: "Tortured evidence: Who told us Iraq had a hand in 9/11? Turns out it was a tortured witness. Did America go to war on the testimony of a prisoner in pain? Let's play Hardball."
Matthews, opening the show: "Good evening. I'm Chris Matthews. All week long, we've been focusing on how to end the war in Iraq, and we'll talk about it later in this show, and the latest on the CIA leak case. But first, news about how we got into this war. We now know the Bush administration based its case for war on bad intelligence, and polls show most Americans believe we were deliberately misled into war. Today, the New York Times reported that a pre-war claim of a connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda was based on information possibly coerced from a prisoner the United States handed to Egypt for interrogation. The Bush administration is losing in the public debate on the case for war and the treatment of prisoners, so why did the Bush administration use a prisoner's claim which turned out to be false as a major part of its case to go to war? Let's go to NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell. Well, the question is to you, did we use evidence gathered from a tortured witness to go to war?"
Mitchell began her report, "The short answer is yes," before elaborating further on the story.
Matthews then continued: "Well, much of the administration's pre-war assertion about an Iraq-al-Qaeda connection -- in other words, a connection between the government in Iraq under Saddam Hussein and what happened to us on 9/11 -- was based on this fellow al-Libbi's account. President Bush spoke of an Iraq-al-Qaeda link in October of 2002. That's before he went to war. Let's listen to what the President said."
George W. Bush, dated October 2002: "We've learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb-making, in poisons and deadly gases."
Matthews: "Well, that was the President. A Defense Intelligence Agency report from February  was skeptical of the claims. The report said, quote, as you see it on the television right now, 'It is more likely this individual is intentionally misleading the debriefers.' So there we have it, Andrea. We have the President's claim which was made after the Defense Intelligence Agency said, 'Don't trust this guy's testimony. It was done under coercion.'"
Matthews brought in Chuck Todd and Stephen Hayes for the segment, and at about 7:09 EDT he asked Hayes: "So let me go to Stephen Hayes with this. Do you agree with this, that this may, undermines the President's latest offensive. He's out there speaking again on Monday in Philadelphia making the case that we can win this war. Does it hurt his case to be having it reported that the case made to go in is terribly flawed?"
Stephen Hayes, Weekly Standard: "No, I hope, I hope they continue to make the case. I hope they make it aggressively. I mean, I think if you go back and you look at some of the quotes that you used at the beginning part of the segment, you talk about the February 2002 memo that was declassified by Carl Levin, suggesting that [al-Libbi], who may not have been credible, at least that's what the DIA thought, I'd like to see the memos from February 2002 forward to the beginning of the war. I mean, certainly, it seems to me that Carl Levin may have gone in and simply picked out one example of what the DIA was saying. The question was, 'Was it a consistent stream of reporting?' And I think we get a clue that it was not when you look at George Tenet's February 2003 unclassified testimony before the Senate in which he makes precisely the same claims about al-Libbi that George Bush made in October of 2002. So I think it's very disingenuous to suggest that the President was somehow lying about this when you had the director of Central Intelligence, the head of the U.S. intelligence community, making exactly the same claim in unclassified testimony some three, four months later."
Matthews: "So you believe al-Libbi?"
Hayes: "No, I don't necessarily, I'm not saying that I believe al-Libbi. There were reasons to believe what he was telling us at the time. For one thing, he gave us credible evidence about attacks on the U.S. embassy in Yemen. For another, this was not the only report about Iraq, al-Qaeda, weapons, chemical or biological weapons-"
Matthews: "What was the other connection? I've always wondered about this Prague meeting that people say never occurred because Mohammed Atta was in the United States at the time of that supposed meeting in Prague with the intelligence official from Saddam. Is there any hard evidence that's not disputed right now, Stephen, that shows a connection between the government we attacked in 2003 and the people that attacked us in 2001?"
Hayes: "Yeah, I think there is hard evidence."
Hayes: "In fact, it was on the front page of the New York Times on June 25, 2004. Reporter Tom Schencker described a memo in which the Iraqi intelligence service talked about its 'relationship,' quote, unquote, with Saddam Hussein's regime. Now, that may not be enough for Carl Levin, it may not be enough for Jay Rockefeller, who are still claiming that there was no relationship whatsoever, that the two had nothing to do with one another. Well, the Iraqi intelligence service documents, at least that one, tells something of a different story. As a journalist-"
Matthews: "It told a connection between Iraq and 9/11?"
Hayes: "No, between Iraq and al-Qaeda."
Matthews: "To what effect?"
Hayes: "We don't know to what effect. And that, I think, Chris, is actually the key question. My question is, 'Why are journalists so uncurious about this?'"
Matthews: "But we went to war with Iraq largely on the grounds that they had a connection with 9/11 or they had a connection with the people-"
Hayes: "Who said they had a connection with 9/11?"
Matthews: "Oh, many, many times in the course between the attack on us in 2001 and the attack we launched against Iraq in 2003, the case was made that we were going after 'them,' the people that had attacked us. It was clear, it was emotional, it was strongly passionate."
Hayes: "No, I just disagree with the way you're characterizing it."
Matthews: "Oh, of course it was."
Hayes: "No, absolutely not. In fact, when the President-
Matthews: "Most of American people believed at that time, let me tell you-"
Hayes: "When the President was asked about that, he said specifically, 'We don't have evidence that demonstrates that Saddam Hussein was behind the attacks on 9/11.' Condi Rice said the same thing publicly."
Matthews: "Well, why does polling show that people believed that Iraqis were on the plane that attacked us 9/11? Who put that information out there?"
Hayes: "That people believed that, that people believed that is different than that they made the affirmative case. I think what the administration said was that they were, they basically saw things differently after September 11th, and that the threshold of threats was unacceptable after that point."
Matthews: "Well, check me on this, Todd, because I've heard the Vice President innumerable times pointing to a meeting between Iraq and Mohammed Atta, the man who led the attack on 9/11. I heard it many, many times. I've seen the tape many, many times. This isn't an argument. It's a fact."
Chuck Todd, The Hotline: "There were two cases. The public case, I mean, the administration didn't mind the fact that the public happened to blur together al-Qaeda and Iraq. That was, you know, they never did anything, you know, and so that technicalities, you can argue on technicalities that they didn't make the case that there was some sort of linkage between Iraq and 9/11, but they certainly didn't mind if the public thought the same thing. Look, the other way to look at this is, assuming the best motives-"
Matthews: "By the way, to bolster that point, the Vice President made a point aggressively, Stephen, to point to this meeting between Mohammed Atta and Iraqi intelligence. So it was a very aggressive campaign to connect 9/11 and Iraq."
Hayes: "And he said that, and he said that when? He said that in December of 2001, which is, I think, the quote you're referring to, where he said it was confirmed. At the time, if you look at the front page of the New York Times in the days surrounding the Vice President's claim, the New York Times was actually reporting the same thing."
Matthews: "Did he ever correct it?
Hayes: "They were raising questions-"
Matthews: "Did he ever correct that?"
Todd: "It was the byline, and I'm trying to remember who was in the byline in that New York Times-"
Hayes: "Confirmed, but, I think what he said was-"
Matthews: "'We now know-'"
Hayes: "-'credible, but not confirmed.'"
Matthews: "Right. Did he ever correct that, Stephen?"
Hayes: "I don't know. I don't know that he did."
Todd: "Look, Chris, even if we look, let's assume the best possible light here, they were looking from the time, you know, I was just doing some old reading of Karen Hughes' book, 'Ten Minutes from Normal,' and it was immediately, even in the hours and the days, they were looking for evidence that there was a connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq. It was never looking at it the other way, which is sometimes when you're prosecuting a case, you're defending a case, you're trying to disprove a theory and make sure all the evidence is overwhelming so that your theory is correct rather than the other way around, which is, you're sort of, you're hoping that your theory's correct, so you find any bit of evidence that makes your theory more correct."
Hayes: "No, but there was a reason that they were looking for evidence that connected Saddam and al-Qaeda, and one of the reasons was that this was evidence that the Clinton administration had talked about, and talked about repeatedly throughout the late 1990s. In the unsealed indictment of Osama bin Laden, spring of 1998, the Clinton administration actually made an affirmative case that Osama bin Laden and the government of Iraq had worked cooperatively on, quote, 'weapons development.' That stuff matters."
Matthews: "Okay, we're going to have to, Steve, I'm sorry to interrupt. We're going to have to come back with Stephen, Stephen Hayes and Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell just in a moment. We're going to talk. This is the question: How we got in this war. It had to do with WMD, it had to do with charges of a connection to 9/11, which were made obliquely and sometimes directly. And it also has to do with the claim that it was going to be no war once we got there. Remember that one? It was going to be a cakewalk."