Cheney, Edwards Clash Over Iraq and Justification for War in Vice Presidential Debate

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Vice Presidential nominees Dick Cheney and John Edwards faced off in the first and only vice presidential debate of the election Tuesday night. We hear excerpts of the nominees discussing Iraq, the White House linking 9/11 to Saddam Hussein and more and get analysis from journalists Rahul Mahajan and Robert Parry. [includes rush transcript]

Vice Presidential nominees Dick Cheney and John Edwards faced off in the first and only vice presidential debate of the election Tuesday night.

Iraq dominated the first half of the debate with Cheney defending the Bush administration’s record in Iraq and Edwards charging the White House with misleading the public on the progress of the occupation and the reasons for going to war.

The debate turned to domestic policy in the second half where the two nominees debated healthcare issues, the economy, gay marriage and AIDS. The face-off between the two vice presidential nominees produced a hard-hitting and sometimes personal debate.

The encounter came on the heels of the first Presidential debate last Thursday in which Sen. Kerry is widely believed to have emerged as the clear winner over President Bush. Last night’s vice presidential debate gained new significance after several major polls showed the presidential race tightening to a dead heat.

Four weeks to the day before the Nov 2nd election, the face off between Cheney and Edwards was held at Case Western University in the battleground state of Ohio.

Here is an excerpt of last night’s debate with moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS opening the discussion on the issue of Iraq.

  • Vice Presidential debate, October 5, 2004.
  • Rahul Mahajan, independent journalist who has spent time in Iraq. He is author of “Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond” (Seven Stories). And he operates a website at
  • Robert Parry, veteran investigative journalist and author of the new book “Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.” For years he worked as an investigative reporter for both the Associated Press and Newsweek magazine. His reporting led to the exposure of what is now known as the “Iran-Contra” scandal.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Here is an excerpt of last night’s debate with moderator, Gwen Ifill of PBS opening the discussion on the issue of Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: Paul Bremer, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, gave a speech in which he said that we have never had enough troops on the ground, or we’ve never had enough troops on the ground. Donald Rumsfeld said he has never seen any hard evidence of a link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Was this the fruit of a report that you requested that you received a week ago that showed there was no connection between Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Saddam Hussein?

DICK CHENEY: Gwen, I want to thank you and I want to thank the folks here at Case Western Reserve for hosting this tonight. It’s a very important event and they have done a superb job of putting it together. It’s important to look at all of the developments in Iraq within the broader context of the global war on terror. After 9/11, it became clear we had to do several things to have a successful strategy to win the global war on terror, specifically that we had to go after the terrorists wherever we might find them, that we also had to go after state sponsors of terror, those who might provide sanctuary or safe harbor for terror, and we also then finally had to stand up democracies in their stead afterwards because that was the only way to guarantee that the states would not again become safe harbors for terror or the development of deadly weapons. Concern about Iraq specifically, focused on the fact that Saddam Hussein had been for years listed on the state sponsor of terror, they had established relationships with Abu Nidal who operated out of Baghdad and paid $25,000 to the families of suicide bombers and he had an established relationship with al Qaeda. Specifically, Look at George Tenet, the C.I.A. director’s testimony before the committee on foreign relations two years ago when he talked about a ten-year relationship. The effort that we mounted with respected to Iraq focused specifically on the possibility that this was the most likely nexus between the terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. The biggest threat we face today is the possibility of terrorists smuggling a nuclear weapon or biological agent into one of our own cities and threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. What we did in Iraq was exactly the right thing to do. If I had it to recommend all over again, I would recommend exactly the same course of action. The world is far safer because Saddam Hussein is in jail. His government is no longer in power. We did exactly the right thing.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Edwards you have 90 seconds to respond.

JOHN EDWARDS: Thank you. Thank you, Gwen, for moderating the debate. Thank you to the folks of Case Western and all of the people in Ohio for having us here. Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people. I mean, the reality you and George Bush continue to tell people first that things are going well in Iraq. The American people don’t need us to explain this to them. They see it on the television every single day. We lost more troops in September than we lost in August; lost more in August than we lost in July; lost more in July than we lost in June. The truth is our men and women in uniform have been heroic. Our military has done everything they’ve been asked to do. And it’s not just me that sees the mess in Iraq. There are republican leaders like John McCain, like Richard Lugar, like Chuck Hagel who’ve said Iraq is a mess, and it’s getting worse. When they were asked why, Richard Lugar said, because of the incompetence of the administration. What Paul Bremer said yesterday is they didn’t have enough troops to secure the country. They also didn’t have a plan to win the peace. They also didn’t put the alliances together to make this successful. We need a fresh start. We need a president who will speed up the training of the Iraqis, get more staff in for doing that. We need to speed up the reconstruction, so the Iraqis see some tangible benefit. We need a new president who has the credibility, which John Kerry has, to bring others into this effort.

GWEN IFILL: Would you like 30 seconds to respond, Mr. Vice President.

DICK CHENEY: I would. We have made significant progress in Iraq. We have stood up a new government that’s been in power now only 90 days. The notion of additional troops is talked about frequently, but the point of success in Iraq will be reached when we have turned governance over to the Iraqi people, and then they are able to establish a democratic government. They’re well on their way to doing that. They will have free elections for the first time in history next January. We also are actively, rapidly training Iraqis to take on the security responsibilities. Those two steps are crucial to success in Iraq. They’re well in hand, well underway, and I’m confidence that in fact we’ll get the job done.

GWEN IFILL: You have 30 seconds, Senator.

JOHN EDWARDS: Mr. Vice President, there is no connection between the attacks of September 11th and Saddam Hussein. The 9/11 Commission has said it. Your own Secretary of State has said it. And you have gone around the country suggesting that there is some connection. There is not. And, in fact, the CIA is now about to report that the connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein is tenuous, at best. In fact, Secretary of Defense said yesterday that he knows of no hard evidence of the connection. We need to be straight with the American people.

GWEN IFILL: Time for a new question, but the same topic. This time to you Senator Edwards. You and Senator Kerry have said that the war in Iraq is the wrong war at the wrong time. Now, does that mean if you had been president and vice president that Saddam Hussein would still be in power?

JOHN EDWARDS: Here’s what it means — it means that Saddam Hussein needed to be confronted. John Kerry and I have consistently said that, that’s why we voted for the resolution, but it also means it needed to be done the right way. And doing it the right way meant that we were prepared, that we gave the weapons inspectors time to find out what we now know: that in fact there were no weapons of mass destruction; that we didn’t take our eye off the ball, which are Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, the people who attacked us on September the 11th. Now, remember, we went into Afghanistan, which by the way was the right thing to do. That was the right decision. Our military performed terrifically there. But we had Osama bin Laden cornered at Tora Bora. We had the 10th Mountain Division up in Uzbekistan available. We had the finest military in the world on the ground, and what did we do? We turned — this is the man who masterminded the greatest mass murder and terrorist attack in American history. And what did the administration decide to do? They gave the responsibility of capturing and/or killing Saddam — I mean, Osama bin Laden to Afghan warlords who, just a few weeks before, had been working with Osama bin Laden. Our point in this is not complicated. We were attacked by al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden. We went into Afghanistan and very quickly, the administration made a decision to divert attention from that and instead begin to plan for the invasion of Iraq. These connections, I want the American people to hear this very clearly. Listen carefully to what the Vice President is saying because there is no connection between Saddam Hussein and the attacks of September 11th, period. The 9/11 Commission has said that is true. Colin Powell has said it’s true. But the Vice President keeps suggesting that there is. There is not. In fact, any connection with al Qaeda is tenuous, at best.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Vice President, you have 90 seconds to respond.

DICK CHENEY: The Senator has got his facts wrong. I have not suggested there’s a connection between Iraq and 9/11 but there’s clearly an established Iraqi track record with terror. The point is that that’s the place where you are most likely to see the terrorists come together with weapons of mass destruction, the deadly technology that Saddam Hussein had developed and used over the years. The fact of the matter is that the big difference here, Gwen, is they are not prepared to deal with states that sponsor terror. They have got a very limited view about how to use U.S. military forces to defend America. We heard Senator Kerry say the other night there ought to be some kind of a global test before U.S. Troops are deployed preemptively to protect the United States. That’s part of a track record that goes back to the 1970’s when he ran for congress the first time and said troops should not be deployed without U.N. approval. Then, in the mid 80’s, he ran on the basis of cutting most of our major defense programs. In 1991, he voted against Desert Storm. It’s a consistent pattern over time of always being on the wrong side of defense issues. A little tough talk in the midst of a campaign or as part of a presidential debate cannot obscure a record of 30 years of being on the wrong side of defense issues. And they give absolutely no indication, based on that record, of being willing to go forward, and aggressively pursue the war on terror with the kind of strategy that will work—that will defeat our enemies and will guarantee that the United States doesn’t again get attacked by the likes of Al Qaeda.

AMY GOODMAN: Dick Cheney and John Edwards facing off in their first and only Vice Presidential Debate at Case Western Reserve in Ohio. [break]

AMY GOODMAN: We just played an excerpt of Dick Cheney talking about the connection between the September 11 attacks and Saddam Hussein, answering the charge of John Edwards, who directly accused vice president Dick Cheney of falsely making this connection. Let’s go back to what Cheney said.

DICK CHENEY: This senator has got his facts wrong. I have not suggested there’s a connection between Iraq and 9/11, but there’s clearly an established Iraqi track record with terror.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go back to Cheney’s comments on Iraq. This was during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” September of last year. In the interview, Vice President Cheney not only suggests links between 9/11 and Iraq, he claims Iraq was the, quote, “geographic base for the September 11 attacks.” Let’s watch. Cheney on “Meet the Press.”

DICK CHENEY: If we can stand up a good representative government in Iraq that secures the region so that it never again becomes a threat to its neighbors or to the United States, so it’s not pursuing weapons of mass destruction, so that it’s not a safe haven for terrorists. Now, we will have struck a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who had us under assault now for many years but most especially on 9/11.

AMY GOODMAN: Dick Cheney on “Meet the Press” a year ago. Rahul Mahajan with us, the independent journalist who writes His book is called Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond. Well, start off with this, whether Vice President Dick Cheney has made that connection, that he now denies between Iraq and the September 11 attacks.

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Well, you know, there’s been a lot of innuendo about Iraq and al Qaeda, and if you look at, say, Congressman Henry Waxman’s searchable database of misrepresentations, you can find over 20 statements by Cheney connecting al Qaeda and Iraq. Most of the time, he doesn’t mention 9/11, but on a couple of occasions he has tried to suggest there is a direct connection, most specifically through the extremely discredited claims that Iraqi intelligence met with Mohammed Atta in Prague in Czechoslovakia not long before 9/11.

AMY GOODMAN: And that charge?

RAHUL MAHAJAN: That charge has been discredited. In fact, the claims that he made in April of 2001, it’s actually known from his phone records that he was here in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Parry, you have written Secrecy and Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty From Watergate to Iraq. Your overall reaction to the debate between John Edwards and Dick Cheney on the issue of Iraq?

ROBERT PARRY: It seems like the administration wants to control the narrative of Iraq. It will not give in to the increasing evidence that much of what the administration said in 2002 and 2003 is wrong. Cheney seems to want to defend the idea that there were these connections of various kinds between terrorism and certainly al Qaeda and Iraq, and he will not seem to budge. He does seem to shift a little bit once in a while when it comes to specific details as was just mentioned, now saying that was never suggesting there was a tie between September 11 and Iraq, but on the overall message he seems to be insisting that the American people must accept the narrative that the Reagan — that the Bush-Cheney administration put in place.

AMY GOODMAN: In the first question of the debate, moderator, Gwen Ifill asks Vice President Cheney about a report that shows there was no connection between Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Saddam Hussein. Newsday yesterday found that Zarqawi has far less power than has been portrayed by the U.S. and the media. The paper estimated his group has just 100 members inside Iraq and a new Arab intelligence assessment cited by Newsday, determined that Zarqawi does not have the support to carry out all of the attacks that he takes credit for. After first responding to the question, Cheney last night returned to the issue of Zarqawi.

DICK CHENEY: Gwen, the story that appeared today about this report is one I asked for. I ask an awful lot of questions; that’s part of my job as vice president. A CIA spokesman was quoted in that story as saying they had not yet reached the bottom line and there is still debate over this question of the relationship between Zarqawi and Saddam Hussein. The report also points out that at one point some of Zarqawi’s people were arrested. Saddam personally intervened to have them released, supposedly at the request of Zarqawi But let’s look at what we know about Mr. Zarqawi. We know he was running a terrorist camp, training terrorists in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. We know that when we went into Afghanistan that he then migrated to Baghdad. He set up shop in Baghdad, where he oversaw the poisons facility up at Khurmal, where the terrorists were developing ricin and other deadly substances to use. We know he’s still in Baghdad today. He is responsible for most of the major car bombings that have killed or maimed thousands of people. He’s the one you will see on the evening news beheading hostages. He is, without question, a bad guy. He is, without question, a terrorist. He was, in fact, in Baghdad before the war, and he’s in Baghdad now after the war. The fact of the matter is that this is exactly the kind of track record we’ve seen over the years. We have to deal with Zarqawi by taking him out, and that’s exactly what we’ll do.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Dick Cheney in the debate at Case Western Reserve. Rahul Mahajan, your response?

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Well, Cheney’s referring to the C.I.A. report that basically discredits any attempted claim that Zarqawi was connected with Saddam Hussein’s government, and in fact if you listen to Cheney’s clip, what he says is just patently dishonest. He says that Zarqawi was based in Baghdad and then was put in charge of a ricin production facility which was actually supposedly at a camp of Ansar al-Islam in northern Iraq, which was not under Saddam’s government. And of course that ricin facility was never found. The best evidence they ever had of any connection was that Zarqawi, they claimed, spent some time in Baghdad, and in fact, if you look more deeply at what Zarqawi is doing, then all of these claims that they are making are really ludicrous. In fact, the idea that he’s connected with Osama bin Laden — he’s very different. He has very particularly anti-Shia, and most of his attacks have focused on killing Shia. Bin Laden, on the other hand, according to the 9/11 Commission, has actually cooperated with Hezbollah.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean when you say Zarqawi was operating in the north of Iraq, and why that means he was not connected to Saddam Hussein?

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Well, ever since the Gulf War and the imposition of the no-fly zones, the Kurdish parties, the P.U.K. and K.D.P. of Barzani and Talabani had jointly ruled northern Iraq as practically an autonomous region. Saddam Hussein’s writ didn’t run there except a few times when he invaded, most notably in 1996. And so, if Ansar al-Islam was operating there, he was actually able to operate because Saddam Hussein was in not in control. In the areas that he was in control, he allowed nobody else to operate.

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