Sen. John Kerry on Iraq War, Rosa Parks Former presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) talks about the latest efforts on Capitol Hill to get a clear Iraq war strategy from the White House. He also discusses new legislation to place a statue honoring civil right pioneer Rosa Parks in the capital.
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Sen. John Kerry on Iraq War, Rosa Parks

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Sen. John Kerry on Iraq War, Rosa Parks

Sen. John Kerry on Iraq War, Rosa Parks

Sen. John Kerry on Iraq War, Rosa Parks

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Former presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) talks about the latest efforts on Capitol Hill to get a clear Iraq war strategy from the White House. He also discusses new legislation to place a statue honoring civil right pioneer Rosa Parks in the capital.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

The war of words over Iraq is escalating between congressional Democrats and the White House. Yesterday at a press conference, Democratic Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania called for the immediate withdrawal of US troops.

Representative JOHN MURTHA (Democrat, Pennsylvania): I believe we need to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis. I believe before the Iraqi elections, scheduled for mid-December, the Iraqi people and the emerging government must be put on notice. United States will immediately redeploy.

GORDON: Some Republican colleagues accuse Murtha, a decorated Vietnam vet, of retreating. The president has countered by saying that many of these critics voted for the war based on the same intelligence information that the White House used. Another well-known Vietnam vet, Senator John Kerry, also critical of the administration, told me that he feels the Bush administration entered the war without divulging the full story.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): The president and the vice president and others took information which the CIA, the Air Force intelligence, others, told them was not reliable. And they put that information in front of the American people specifically. The president spoke words in his State of the Union message that--about the nuclear efforts of Saddam Hussein that three times they had been in writing and verbally warned by the CIA were not accurate. In addition, they quoted additional evidence from people they had been told was a fabricator.

Now that was in each case evidence that they presented America and the Congress based on unreliable intelligence that they knew was unreliable intelligence, or should have known was unreliable intelligence. The unreliability of that was not shared with us. And in each case, they misled America. They also fundamentally misled America by saying that they would, in the Cincinnati speech the president gave, go to war if needs be as a last resort. It was not a last resort. They rushed to war even though they said they would plan carefully, and I think their actions are reprehensible. Their actions have cost the lives of young Americans. Their actions have cost America its reputation and its leverage in the world.

GORDON: So when the president says that `Congress knew what we knew and they voted for the war anyway,' your contention is that you did not know as the White House did at the time that this information may not be reliable?

Sen. KERRY: The answer's yes. That is true. The evidence is incontrovertible that they did not present to the Congress all of the same evidence they had. When the president says, `The Congress had the same evidence we had,' that is not a true statement. I regret to say it. This was a clearly misleading, inappropriate use, in my judgment, of presidential power. I said that during the campaign. I said on the floor of the United States Senate that it--before the vote that if they proceeded in a way that didn't build legitimate consent in America, if they didn't build a legitimate coalition, they were going to make America less safe. They were going to create a volatility in the region. And that's exactly what has happened.

GORDON: Do you believe that the information was not given to Congress intentionally?

Sen. KERRY: That is, obviously--I think some of it was not given intentionally. I can't tell you which or where or what, but it's very clear to me--I mean, let me give you an example. You know, Vice President Cheney personally opposed going to the United Nations for inspections. They didn't want the inspections. And it was common knowledge here in Washington--for George Bush, the weapons of mass destruction were a means to getting rid of Saddam Hussein. For the rest of us, getting rid of the weapons of mass destruction was the key and removing Saddam Hussein was incidental to that effort.

GORDON: Do you believe now, though, that Congress has to sit at this table as well, that, perhaps, there was the fear by many people on Capitol Hill, perhaps, to be seen as unpatriotic, if, in fact, they had voted against the war at the time?

Sen. KERRY: No, I don't think it was a question of lack of patriotism. I think based on the perception--I mean, the president is correct. We did believe based on the information we were given that Saddam Hussein was moving towards the creation of certain weapons and still had some. I don't back off that statement one bit. That was our perception at the time. But that perception was, number one, based on an incomplete picture, and, number two, that perception never required them to automatically go to war. We gave the president the power to use force as a last resort as he promised, when you'd done all the inspections as he promised, if you'd build a coalition as he promised as a last resort. And the fact is he abused that. He didn't go as a last resort. In fact, even on the Sunday prior to his, I think, two- or three-day-later decision that he was going to start the war, there were offers from Security Council members to try to work through how they might further confront Saddam Hussein on the inspections. But the administration just shut that down and said, `Sorry, the time for diplomacy is over.' Well, I don't think it was over. And I said so at that time, right then and there, in my statement, I said, `I wish they had pursued those avenues.'

GORDON: And finally, let me ask you. John Murtha, who is a Pennsylvania congressman, a veteran...

Sen. KERRY: Yes.

GORDON: ...is calling for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq. We hear your colleague, John Warner, a friend of yours with the Senate Armed Services Committee, says today that we have to stay the course. Now is not the time. Where do you sit on this, Senator?

Sen. KERRY: Well, first of all, let me just say that John Murtha is one of the most respected members of Congress on military matters, and he is himself a veteran of war, and this is a man who knows what he's talking about. But I don't happen to agree that it's an absolute immediate situation. I gave a speech a few days ago in which I laid out what I think is a better course in Iraq where we can withdraw 20,000 troops around the holidays if we have a successful election. We have 160,000 troops there. We had 138,000 most of last year. Everybody said that was adequate to do the job, the people over there. Well, we put 20,000 more in to do the referendum and the election. If both of those are successful, that's a benchmark of success that should allow us to bring the extra troops that we put in for those purposes home.

Then you set the next benchmarks, which are the transfer of responsibility for security for various provinces, for Baghdad, etc. And as they take and assume responsibility for them, our troops can come back. I suggested that we could, in fact, responsibly withdraw our troops without creating regional chaos and hurting America's foreign policy--we could do this over the course of the next year. I've laid out very clearly how you can set up those benchmarks...

GORDON: Yeah.

Sen. KERRY: ...how we could get more countries in the region involved in helping to resolve it.

But here's the bottom line for Americans. You cannot have a military solution here. There just isn't a military solution. There is a political solution. You have to resolve the reason there's an insurgency. Part of the reason is the Sunni-Shia; the biggest part is the Sunni-Shia struggle, which has gone on for hundreds of years. A second part of it is America's presence there. And you've got to begin to make it clear we're not planning to be there permanently. We are going to begin to reduce the numbers. Let Iraqis police Iraqis. American forces, after they've given them this next election, I believe, will have done their part, the greatest part. Everything I am saying is said with the greatest respect and support for our troops. The greatest support our troops can get is a policy that works.

GORDON: Yeah. Let me take you to the legislation that you and Congressman Jesse Jackson have put forth and that is to honor the late Rosa Parks with a statue at the US Capitol. I should note that last I saw you was at a funeral in Detroit of Rosa Parks.

Sen. KERRY: Indeed, and it was a very, very touching, very moving ceremony. What an extraordinary woman and what an extraordinary impact she's had on America. What Congressman Jackson and I want is not just a statue in the Capitol. We want her statue to be in Statuary Hall, which is the principal hall of statues in the United States Congress. There are statues elsewhere. But we will pass legislation empowering her statue. The question is where it ought to be, and that's our feeling. It ought to be front and center. There is no woman, no African-American woman of any of those statues, and I think given the significance of what she initiated, it would be very, very fitting to have her statue there.

GORDON: Do you believe you'll get bipartisan support? I spoke with a number of CBC members who weren't necessarily optimistic that you'd see that for Statuary Hall.

Sen. KERRY: Well, we may not get bipartisan support. I think Congressman Jackson has 180 sponsors at this point in time, but we'd rather try to see if we can't force Congress to say, `Look, just because it hasn't happened and just because this rule has been there that there are, you know, only two statues from each state and they've already been put in there, that's just old stuff, folks.'

GORDON: Yeah.

Sen. KERRY: `We got to take a look at what she meant to America and whether or not her recognition shouldn't be singular and special. And in my judgment, it ought to be.

GORDON: And finally, Senator, based on what we've seen with the recovery of Katrina, should we not be also trying to push legislation and making sure that the process of what Rosa Parks fought for remains true to its name present day?

Sen. KERRY: It goes without saying that the gap in America is getting larger, not narrower. So we have more poor people in America. They're cutting after-school programs. They're cutting safe and drug-free school programs. They're cutting Medicaid for poor kids so that they can give a tax cut to millionaires. I don't get that morality. I don't get whatever value--I mean, I know the value that represents. It represents greed.

But from all the politicians who are talking about values in America, they are really turning their back on the real values of our country. And I'm tired of all these guys who talk about valuing families and they never do. You know, they talk about family values, I mean, gosh, when you hear the stories about an old person who's not able to pay their heating bill and can't--or their rent and has to choose between that and their prescription drugs, and yet people earning more than a million dollars a year are going to get over $32 billion worth of tax cuts next year, something is really wrong.

GORDON: All right. Senator John Kerry, always a pleasure to talk to you, sir. Thanks for joining us today.

Sen. KERRY: My pleasure to be with you. Thank you.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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