Interviewing Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman on Meet the Press, David Gregory allowed Mehlman's false claims to go unchallenged, and Gregory himself suggested that if Sen. Joseph Lieberman won re-election, it could "expose the Democratic Party as divided and weak."
In interviewing Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman on the August 13 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, guest host and NBC News chief White House correspondent David Gregory allowed Mehlman's false claims to go unchallenged. Additionally, Gregory himself suggested that if Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (CT) -- currently an independent candidate for Senate after losing the Democratic primary -- wins re-election, it could "expose the Democratic Party as divided and weak."
Mehlman: Democrats "oppose efforts to surveil" terrorists
Mehlman asserted that Democrats "oppose efforts to surveil the enemy." When Gregory later asked him to comment on "the Bush record on national security," Mehlman questioned Democrats' ability to protect the country from terror, asking: "How are we going to be safer as these [terrorist] movements go forward ... if we can't surveil them and figure out what they're doing?" Mehlman also suggested that in the upcoming congressional elections, Americans will elect Republican candidates because "I don't think they want to weaken the surveillance" of terrorists.
But as Media Matters for America noted when Mehlman made similar claims, the assertion that Democrats "oppose" the surveillance of terrorists is a straw man, "a made-up version of an opponent's argument that can easily be defeated." In fact, Democratic leaders have consistently acknowledged the need for U.S. intelligence agencies to eavesdrop on the communications of suspected Al Qaeda operatives. At the same time, Democrats -- and numerous Republicans and conservatives -- have raised serious questions about President Bush's decision to bypass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which, except as otherwise specifically provided, requires the government to obtain a warrant to conduct domestic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes.
Mehlman: Sen. Reid "said we should take the use of force" against Iran "off the table"
In attacking Democrats' record on national security, Mehlman claimed that Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (NV) "said we should take the use of force off the table," with regard to Iran's pursuit of technology that could be used to build nuclear weapons. Mehlman's claim echoed an April 19 RNC press release that attacked Reid for his April 18 statement -- reported by the Associated Press -- that "[w]e don't have the resources" to take military action against Iran because of U.S. military involvement in Iraq. But in stating that the United States lacks sufficient "resources" to use force against Iran, Reid did not say that the use of military force should be taken "off the table," as Mehlman claimed. Rather, Reid stated that the use of force was not possible, due to the Bush administration's Iraq policy.
Gregory to Mehlman: "Do you want Senator Lieberman to win, to expose the Democratic Party as divided and weak?"
In discussing the Connecticut Senate race, in which Lieberman has said he will run as an independent despite losing the Democratic primary race to Ned Lamont, Gregory asked Mehlman: "Do you want Senator Lieberman to win, to expose the Democratic Party as divided and weak?" Mehlman responded that he did not support Lieberman in his Senate bid.
From the August 13 edition of NBC's Meet the Press:
GREGORY: You've heard [Democratic National Committee] Chairman [Howard] Dean.
MEHLMAN: I have.
GREGORY: Your response?
MEHLMAN: Well, I think that Chairman Dean gets it wrong in terms of defending America. The fact is it's not the right-wing extremists, as he said, who talks about Iraq being central to the war on terror, it's the enemy. If you listen to what Osama bin Laden says, if you listen to what Mr. [Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-] Zawahiri says, they both say that their goal is to drive America out of Iraq the way we were driven out of Vietnam and to use that as a base to launch further attacks. They've said what their goal is if there's a failed state sitting in between Syria and Iran.
The second point that I disagree with that he said -- he said, "We want to be strong." Then why has his party voted against the Patriot Act, against the surveillance programs, similar to the kind of programs that were used in London to deal with the threat? Why has his program -- why has his party been against missile defense? On issue after issue after issue, whether it's not giving the terrorists a victory in Iraq -- whether it's the tools we need at home to figure out what the terrorists are doing, to make sure we're successful -- on every one of these issues, unfortunately, the party of [House Democratic Leader Nancy] Pelosi [D-CA] and the party of Dean and the party of Harry Reid has followed what Nancy Pelosi said less than a year after 9-11, which is she doesn't think America is really at war.
GREGORY: It is very clear that this is going to be topic A in the midterm election. This is what another prominent Democrat, the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Jay Rockefeller, had to say about the legacy of the Bush years, particularly the war in Iraq. He said the following: "I fear many of our policies over the past five years have done more to inflame extremism than to diminish it. I believe the war in Iraq has diverted resources and undercut the Bush Administration's ability to protect our people against a terrorist attack." A view echoed in terms of money spent in the Iraq war by the 9-11 Commission's co-chairman.
MEHLMAN: I would say, with all due respect to Mr. Rockefeller, tell that to the families of the 241 people who were killed in 1983 by Hezbollah, the people that were in the East African embassies that were bombed in the 1990s. The fact is, for a generation terrorists have made war on America. From the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich to Mogadishu to Beirut to the East African bombings, to the USS Cole. What changed was that after September 11, this president recognized in fact we're at war. And the fundamental question Americans are going to have to answer is, "Do you believe we're at war?" And if you believe we're at war, then it's important to use every tool possible to win the war on terror, not to weaken coordination between law enforcement -- the Democrats did by trying to kill the Patriot Act -- not reducing our ability to interrogate the enemy, as they've done, and not oppose efforts to surveil the enemy, which is exactly what, if you look at the reports from London, the British officials were able to do to stop the attack.
GREGORY: The president has said he's running on a record, as are Republicans in this fall campaign.
GREGORY: Here is part of the Bush record on national security. Five years after 9-11, bin Laden is still on the loose. Iran and North Korea, part of that "axis of evil," have only increased their weapons capacity. In Iraq, we were told we'd be greeted as liberators, now our generals say we're on the brink of civil war, 2,600 U.S. troops have been killed, and anti-American sentiment, as -- as the 9-11 Commission co-chair said, higher today than it was before 9-11. Is that really a record of success?
MEHLMAN: Well, I think a couple of things, David. First of all, let's remember, they both made this point, as did Mr. [Homeland Security Secretary Michael] Chertoff, we face a movement, not a country. It's much harder to beat a movement. When you face a country, if you bomb the barracks where the general is, then you've eliminated command and control. It's much harder to fight an enemy when the ability, say, to create an IED can be developed on a website. So it's a different kind of war.
But every one of the points you mentioned -- North Korea successfully tested six missiles. The people want to vote for Democratic leaders who have been against missile defense. You mentioned Iran; Harry Reid said we should take the use of force off the table. How are we going to be able to negotiate and prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon -- which Chairman Dean is right, is a terrible thing if it happens -- if they don't think force is a possibility? How are we going to be safer as these movements go forward if we can't interrogate them in an aggressive and effective way, if we can't surveil them and figure out what they're doing, and if there's not good coordination? And finally, think about this: We know that 9-11 taught us how dangerous it was when you had a failed state in Afghanistan. Imagine a failed state on the second-largest oil reserves in the world. That's what would happen if we cut and run in Iraq, which, unfortunately -- which is what the Democratic Party has now made their orthodoxy.
GREGORY: Let me ask you about the race in Connecticut, Senator Lieberman.
GREGORY: This is what you had to say after his defeat: "Joe Lieberman believed in a strong national defense. And for that, he was purged from his party." Safe to say that you believe and have respect in Senator Lieberman's views on national security matters?
MEHLMAN: Well, look, in most issues, I disagree with Joe Lieberman. The fact is --
GREGORY: But on national security, you think he has credibility?
MEHLMAN: On national security, I think he was part of the Harry Truman/JFK tradition which, unfortunately, apparently isn't welcome in the Democratic Party.
GREGORY: This is something that he also said last Sunday during a campaign speech. "The fact is" -- this is Senator Lieberman speaking -- "I have openly and clearly disagreed with and criticized the president for, among other things: not winning the support of our allies in the run-up to the war; not having a plan to win the peace; not putting enough troops on the ground; putting an American in charge of the Iraqi oil supply. And I said that if I were president, I would ask [Defense] Secretary [Donald H.] Rumsfeld to resign." Given your respect for the credibility of his views, do you acknowledge that he's right on these points?
MEHLMAN: Look, the fact is that our mission in the war in Iraq is critical. We agree on that; we agree it's wrong to cut and run. But look, we're not coming in and saying, "Stay the course." The choice in this election is not between "stay the course" and "cut and run," it's between "win by adapting" and "cut and run."
Let me tell you what we're doing. The fact is, before the successful Iraqi elections, the number of troops went up from 137- to 160,000. That's adapting to win. Recently, the increased troops in Baghdad, adapting to win. We changed how the training of Iraqi forces occurred to involve more Iraqis. That's adapting to win.
MEHLMAN: We've involved the international community more, the EU, the U.N. --
GREGORY: Right. But do you -- do you acknowledge these faults that he's outlined?
MEHLMAN: I've -- I acknowledge that when you're facing any war, the enemy is smart, the enemy thinks, and particularly in this kind of war, it requires you to adapt to win. We [inaudible] want to adapt to win, and what you heard from Chairman Dean and when you hear from the Democratic leaders, if they had their way, "It's too tough, we'll cut and run," that's not the answer.
GREGORY: Do you want Senator Lieberman to win, to expose the Democratic Party as divided and weak?
MEHLMAN: I'm following -- I'm following the advice -- I'm following the advice of my leadership, which is I'm focusing on making sure that [Rep.] Chris Shays [R-CT] and that [Rep.] Nancy Johnson [R-CT] and that [Rep.] Rob Simmons [R-CT] is re-elected, and that Governor [M. Jodi] Rell is re-elected.
GREGORY: Do you support Senator Lieberman as senator?
MEHLMAN: I do not.
GREGORY: You do not?
MEHLMAN: I -- I -- I think it is up to the people of Connecticut. I'm certainly not endorsing Joe Lieberman who, while I agree with him on some issues, disagree with him on most issues.
GREGORY: Beyond Connecticut, there are new, troubling signs for the Republican Party. There's a new AP-Ipsos poll. This is the reporting on it. Put it up on screen for our viewers and you. "An Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted this week found the president's approval rating has dropped to 33 percent, matching his low in May. His handling of nearly every issue, from the Iraq war to foreign policy, contributed to the president's decline around the nation, even in the Republican-friendly South.
"More sobering for the GOP are the number of voters who backed Bush in 2004 who are ready to vote Democratic in November's congressional elections -- 19 percent."
And here's a look at a generic congressional matchup from that same poll. Fifty-five percent supports Democrats taking over Congress, 37 percent Republican. Is the party in trouble?
MEHLMAN: David, there's no question we're in a tough political environment. We're in the sixth year of a president's term, we know that. We're in the middle of a tough war. But the focus now is going to be, who's on the ballot? What are the choices? And I don't believe Americans, in the middle of a tough war, as they see these plots, want to weaken the tools and surrender the tools that are critical to keeping Americans safe. I don't think they want to weaken how we interrogate potential terrorists. I don't think they want to weaken the surveillance. I don't think they want to kill the Patriot Act, and I certainly don't want to think that they give the enemy the kind of victory that the 9-11 Commission had said they would have if we cut and run from Iraq.
GREGORY: We're going to have to leave it there. Ken Mehlman, thank you for your views.