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Guests: Senators McCaskill, Whitehouse & Merkley

By Hardball, Hardball - November 27, 2012

HARDBALLNovember 27, 2012

Guests: Jeff Merkley, Jonathan Weisman, Claire McCaskill, Sheldon Whitehouse, Michael O`Hanlon, Jonathan Landay, Alan Simpson

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Grudge match.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.

"Let Me Start" with this. There`s a real battle going on tonight. John McCain is out there on every television show accusing U.N. ambassador Susan Rice of covering up a national security breach. He says Rice denied al Qaeda`s lead role in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that cost the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others and that she did so knowing it was true.

Well, the man who defeated McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign takes this as a personal shot at him. How will he respond? Will he name Ambassador Rice his new secretary of state to replace Hillary Clinton? Will he meet McCain`s challenge head on and send Rice up to the Capitol to go face to face with the enemy? Well, tonight we study the battlefield and the firepower of the two sides in this year-ending political firefight.

McCain sure wants this fight, but do his fellow Republicans? Do they want an older white guy taking on the competence of a young woman of color, a Rhodes scholar of solid reputation? Most important, what end does the president want for this match of fact and wits?

I`m joined by Michael O`Hanlon of the Brookings Institution and Jonathan Landay, the national security and intelligence reporter for McClatchey Newspapers.

Michael, thank you for this. And I want to get to the facts. Am I right, is the main charge here coming from McCain and the others that Ambassador Rice knowingly covered up a national security breach for political purposes?

MICHAEL O`HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: I think that`s probably correct, Chris, because I don`t understand the level of invective and anger otherwise. Clearly, there could be a debate about whether Rice chose the correct words even based on what was known at the time, and I don`t think it was her most stellar performance.

But I have a real hard time believing that she was trying to be mendacious or in any way misleading, and I think that Senator McCain must have reached the other conclusion or it`s hard for me to see why he would be so focused on this issue so long after it happened.

MATTHEWS: So Jonathan, thanks for joining us. The big -- this is an argument about fact. I don`t know how to address it except the argument being made by McCain, by Lindsey Graham, and by Senator Ayotte of New Hampshire, is that this ambassador to the U.N. went on all the national shows, including "MEET THE PRESS," in mid-September and basically tried to delay the news because it would get out eventually that it was al Qaeda that launched this attack.

Does that pass the smell test, that somebody would knowingly do that, knowing the truth would be coming out in a matter of days?

JONATHAN LANDAY, MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS: Look, they still don`t know really who was responsible. There are links to al Qaeda, they say, but "links" is a broad word. Those links can take many forms. I think this is all a big political red herring.

MATTHEWS: OK.

LANDAY: The main question...

MATTHEWS: You`re with Tom Ricks on this one.

LANDAY: Yes, well -- the main question is, why was the consulate in Benghazi still open when the administration -- when even the ambassador acknowledged that the threats against the United States was rising and security wasn`t adequate.

MATTHEWS: And the answer could be that we had -- we had CIA agents in that area...

LANDAY: Absolutely.

MATTHEWS: ... (INAUDIBLE) be protected.

LANDAY: Absolutely.

MATTHEWS: Ambassador Susan Rice met with her strongest critics on Capitol Hill today to answer questions about Benghazi, and the verdict was decidedly negative from her adversaries. Senator John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte, the three I mentioned, said the meeting left them -- here`s the word -- "troubled." Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: We are significantly troubled by many of the answers that we got and some that we didn`t get concerning evidence that was overwhelming leading up to the attack on our consulate.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I`m more disturbed now than I was before. If you don`t know what happened, just say you don`t know what happened. People can push you to give explanations, and you can say, I don`t want to give bad information.

SEN. KELLY AYOTTE (R), NEW HAMPSHIRE: I`m more troubled today because it`s certainly clear from the beginning that we knew that those with ties to al Qaeda were involved in the attack on the embassy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, let me go back to Michael here. What I`m hearing today is that Ambassador Rice, when she went on "MEET THE PRESS" and those other shows in mid-September, was basically handed a set of talking points which came directly from the director of national intelligence, Mr. Clapper, and she followed them.

What did she do wrong by the lights of anybody, objective Democrat or Republican or just hater? What can you say she did wrong if she took the talking points from our top intelligence official?

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