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The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 12/15/11

Guests: Chris Hayes, Frank Rich, Walt Tamosaitis, Tom Carpenter

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: Good evening, Ed. Thank you. And thanks to you at home for staying with us for the next hour. At the federal level in this country, we have something called the Freedom of Information Act. It was originally signed by President Lyndon Johnson. It has evolved over time to be a robust and lasting thing. It gives we the citizens of this country the right to all kinds of information from federal officials -- their schedules, their budgets, their e-mails., all kinds of stuff. When President Johnson signed the law on July 4th, 1966, he said, "Democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the nation permits." That`s at the federal level. But the states have their own versions of that federal law, and sometimes they have different names like the Sunshine Act or something like that. In the state of South Carolina, though, it`s just got the same name as the federal law. It`s called the Freedom of Information Act, FOIA, same name, same deal. You ask state officials for documents or records, and with a few exceptions, the law requires them to turn them over. Well, earlier this year, a local paper, the "Charleston Post and Courier," used the state FOIA law in South Carolina to ask that state`s governor, Nikki Haley, for some documents. Governor Haley is a Republican. She`s serving her first term in South Carolina. And the "Charleston Post and Courier" asked the governor for records - - records about how South Carolina was going to implement the federal health reform law. Governor Haley`s office responded to the newspaper with stuff that the "Post and Courier" describes as irrelevant. They gave them some press releases and some public schedules but really not much. The Charleston paper, though, also made the same request for the same type of documents from another agency in South Carolina`s government. They also asked a different agency. And that office did hand over a lot of information. They in fact handed over information that Governor Haley had withheld. And that is how we know something that Governor Haley wishes we didn`t know. Now that we know what it is that that other agency was willing to give up that the governor`s office wasn`t, we can see why she tried to withhold it, why her office was probably hoping that that newspaper would never know this thing existed. Back on March 10th, Governor Nikki Haley set up a committee to study how South Carolina would respond to health reform. The state got a million-dollar federal grant for this committee to consider creating an exchange where people could buy their health insurance. Governor Haley in public ordered this commission to convene the stakeholders and build trust and consensus. That was how Nikki Haley presented their work to the public. But thanks to the tenacious bulldog reporting of the "Charleston Post and Courier" and thanks to that state agency that did follow South Carolina law and did release the requested records, unlike the governor herself, thanks to all of that, we now know what Governor Haley was actually doing about health reform not in public but behind closed doors. On March 31st, she instructed her spokesmen, quote, "The whole point of this commission should be to figure out how to opt out and how to avoid a federal takeover, not," all caps, "not create a state exchange." So in public, Nikki Haley is saying we`re taking that million dollars in federal money to take a look at all the options. And in private she`s saying, all caps, don`t you dare look at all the options, I`ll tell you which options you can look at. The Charleston paper noted the discrepancy between Governor Nikki Haley`s public front and what she was doing behind closed doors. As you can see here, they noted it with the word "dictated" in the headline. Well, today, the newspaper`s reporter on the story, Renee Dudley, got another chance to ask Governor Nikki Haley about this story including the question of why she didn`t hand over all that e-mail when it was requested, when she was required by law to hand it over. Watch what happened. Watch this. This is from WACH FOX News in Columbia, South Carolina. This is one of the all-time greats. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REPORTER: We`ll get availability of e-mails included in our FOIA response. GOV. HALEY`S SPOKESMAN: OK. Ma`am, we`re not doing any interviews right now, OK? REPORTER: This was the one specific time that Rob Godfrey told me that I could have an available interview with the governor. GOV. HALEY`S SPOKESMAN: You`ll have to speak to Rob. REPORTER: Governor, we need an answer to the question. Those e-mails were specifically not included in our response. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is in regards to the article in the "Post and Courier"? REPORTER: Yes. And we still haven`t learned a response about why there was a -- UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Merry Christmas. REPORTER: -- governor`s response on the criticism that there was a predetermined conclusion to the health planning committee meeting. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Merry Christmas. Thud. I don`t know if you can tell that was Governor Haley offering season`s greetings before she gets on that elevator and the door slams shut. But just in case it was, merry Christmas to you too, Governor. We are understandably fixated this year on the presidential race, on 2012 politics, on who the Republican nominee will be to run against President Obama, and a lot depends on the answer to that question. That sort of politics is one of the ways we figure out where we are as a nation, what at least one of the parties in our two-party system is thinking about the important issues that our country faces. But while we are waiting for the national answer to that question, a rather red hot political dynamic in this country is playing out not theoretically and not in debates but for real, every day, in the states. Republicans had a huge year in 2010, huge electoral victories in the states. They took over state legislatures and governorships. They transformed the political landscape in this country in that deep red 2010 election. They also started a fuse burning, essentially on accountability for their own Republican governance. The country went so red, so Republican in 2010 in the states, that in the states now, we are essentially running a live demonstration project on how Republicans govern. And on how Americans feel about how Republicans govern. In Wisconsin this year, progressives and Democrats and labor all set out to recall Governor Scott Walker after he stripped union rights in Wisconsin. Putting the governor up for recall in Wisconsin is not easy. The recall campaign has only 60 days to collect 540,000 valid signatures. Really, it`s more like 600,000 minimum if you want to make sure you`ve got enough signatures that are found to be valid. So you`ve got to somehow collect at least 10,000 signatures a day, every day, for 60 days in one state. A lot of knowledgeable political observers said even with strong sentiment against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, the bar just might be too high there, might be impossible to do it. Well, today jubilant Wisconsin Democrats announced that with half the time gone in the signature-gathering period, they are almost done already. They`ve got 507,000 signatures. They are halfway to a million signatures with half the time left to go. They`re almost done. They are going almost twice as fast as they dared to dream they could. Scott Walker and Nikki Haley were both elected in the huge Republican wave in 2010. But in the 2011 elections, last month, the off-year voting, that election actually brought mostly good news for Democrats. In just a few places in the country, though, this past November was another big night for Republicans, just like 2010 all over again. One of those places was the commonwealth of Virginia, where Republicans won a likely majority in the state Senate. That`s to go along with the control Republicans already had of the state house and the governorship and the lieutenant governor`s office and the attorney general. Virginia has just gone all Republican. Simultaneously, one of the strange things about Virginia right now is that President Obama is leading there right now for the 2012 presidential race. A new poll out today shows President Obama ahead of both the Republican front-runners in Virginia. Sort of an unusual dynamic with Virginia these days glowing a deep red in terms of who`s in control at the state level. Republican Governor Bob McDonnell very openly wanting to be considered as a vice presidential candidate for the Republican nominee even. So Republicans are doing very well in Virginia on one hand, but President Obama`s doing very well there overall. It is a strange dynamic. The president doing well, but Republicans totally in charge. What happens in that circumstance, what happens in Virginia now, tells us as much as any presidential candidate`s platform about what Republicans are like, about what Republican governance means, what Republicans stand for in 2011. Virginia Republicans` first act after last month`s election, what they put at the top of their legislative agenda, once they took total control of the state government, was this -- House Bill number 1, banning all abortion in Virginia and outlawing hormonal birth control, like for example, the birth control pill. This is bill number 1 under complete Republican rule in Virginia. Also in Virginia this week, the state approved new rules that allow adoption agencies to discriminate against couples for being gay and for a lot more. Under the new Republican majority in Virginia, now that they have total control, their new rules on adoption in the state reserve the right to discriminate against you not just on the basis of your sexual orientation but on the basis of your family status or your age or your gender or your disability or your religion, or your political beliefs. Seriously. Now that the Republican Party has taken total control of government in the state of Virginia, they have changed the rules to say that you can be blocked from adopting a child in Virginia because you`re a registered Democrat, or because you`re a Jew. Nice, right? Politics happens on all sorts of different levels and all sorts of different ways. Tonight in Washington, they`re apparently working out a two-month mini extension of the payroll tax cut and of unemployment benefits. Politics also happens all the way down at the ground level. At not just the House of Representatives but just at your house. This is Occupy Youngstown, Ohio. Remember them? You may remember our earlier reporting on Occupy Youngstown in one of America`s most impoverished cities, turning out with their senior citizens way few tents outside of the bank in what`s left of downtown in Youngstown in one of America`s most impoverished cities turning out with their senior citizens and their few tents outside a bank and what`s left of the downtown in Youngstown. Well, these are occupy Youngstown`s tents today, where they camped out in the yard of a mother and her family facing eviction from their home just in time for the holidays. This is politics too. If you want to take the political temperature of our country, absolutely, look at the 2012 race. But look too at Governor Nikki Haley`s 34 percent approval rating and that hometown reporter chasing her into the elevator with no answer, no explanation, merry Christmas. Look at the sudden and unexpected half million signatures for recalling Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. Look at how the Republican Party is wielding its power in trending blue Virginia. Look at Occupy Youngstown, saying this is their priority, that they will stand up for this, that even if no other level of politics in this country can stop this one foreclosure -- maybe they can stop it in their own town. Joining us now is Chris Hayes, the host of "UP WITH CHRIS HAYES," which airs Saturday and Sunday mornings here on MSNBC. Chris is also editor at large of "The Nation" magazine. Chris, good to see you. CHRIS HAYES, UP WITH CHRIS HAYES: Great to see you. MADDOW: I have been waiting to see what`s going to happen in the Republican race for president and in Congress, and in all of this, I keep coming back, actually, to the Occupy movement, what`s happening in places like Youngstown. Do you think that is a result of political processes, or are we at the point where what`s happening in the streets is sort of the cause of political processes too? HAYES: That`s fascinating. I do think it has caused a change in the national political conversation. I do think there`s also a connection between the degree to which people feel alienated from Washington, they feel like the system is dysfunctional, they feel like it`s broken and the degree to which they`re willing to invest in these local actions. I think that we got very swept up in national politics, I think during the Bush administration, particularly around the war, because that was the defining political moment I think in the last 10 or 15 years in terms of when people really got galvanized on the left. And wars can only be stopped at the national level. And I think so much of the infrastructure that was built and so much of people`s political consciousness that came about in 2003 and 2002 in the run-up to that war was so focused on national politics, it`s taken a very long time to get people to sort of remember -- or the people that became politicized during that moment to get them to remember about local politics, about how much effect you can have at a local level. And I do think as people find Washington more and more sclerotic and dysfunctional, there`s more of a hope in doing things like the folks at Occupy Youngstown because it has this more immediate and palpable effect. MADDOW: Do you think we`re starting to have a national -- I keep thinking of like taking temperature is the way to do it because what we`re watching on the federal level is to understand where the country is going and what we`re fighting about and what`s important to us. Is what`s happening at the state level with Republican governance in so many states that have gone all the way red is also informing what we think about as the national political temperature? HAYES: I think it should more than it is. And one of the things I think is so interesting is who do people, when voters go to the polls, who do they think of as the incumbent? Because I think what you see, both in - - there`s polling out today that shows 2/3 of the people want to see their congressperson voted out or against incumbents. When people go to the polls, particularly a state like Florida, let`s say, right, Florida`s getting destroyed by the housing bubble. It`s got some of the highest foreclosure rates and underwater homes in the country. It`s also got a Republican Governor Rick Scott who might be the most unpopular governor in the country. He sort of bunched around. It`s also got, you know, President Obama who is going to be at the top of the ticket. And the question is when you go into that voting booth in - - MADDOW: And you`re mad. HAYES: -- in central Florida and you see subdivision after subdivision after subdivision with foreclosure signs, who is responsible for that? And that`s a really profound question because I think the defining sentiment of the electorate in the last three successive elections is they are ticked off at the people in power. MADDOW: Yes. HAYES: And so, the question is who do think understand? Who do those electorates, particularly in swing states, understand as the people in power when they want to make some statement when he had head into the polls in November? MADDOW: And the pew polling that came out on this today, which was captioned by Greg Sargent at the "Washington Post," I think adequately essentially holy cow, we`re a really populist country, the national sentiment right now being expressed to pollsters is that the people at the top are getting way too much of the spoils of both our economy and our political system and I resent it, and I think that even if I`m a Republican. HAYES: Majority of Republicans say that wealthy people -- corporations and people with money have too much power in this country, a majority of Republicans -- Republicans in the poll. MADDOW: Are you seeing politicians behave in a way that reflects a desire to meet that concern? HAYES: What`s amazing to me is how unresponsive Republican state level officials are and how much they`re responsive to all of their ideological priors, all of the interest that they promised fealty to before they got into office and how little trimming of the sails they`ve done. I mean, Rick Scott just seems to be perfectly happy to plow along at 25 percent, doing all these things that are wildly unpopular. And I think there`s a different set of incentive structures on the right, partly because of the way the money works over there, partly because of the ideological cohesiveness of the base. But what we have not seen largely are course corrections. MADDOW: Yes. HAYES: I mean, the closest we`ve seen is John Kasich, after being voted out in Ohio issuing a somewhat humble and apologetic statement. But that`s really the closest we`ve seen. What we have seen by and large are Republican majorities and Republican governors pursuing a pretty hard right ideological agenda and not trimming their sails in response to the backlash that`s been precipitated. MADDOW: Well, I know no way of making people calm down about foreclosures that`s any better than banning birth control. HAYES: That`s right. Or gay couples. MADDOW: Seriously. Chris Hayes hosts "UP WITH CHRIS HAYES" on Saturday and Sunday mornings here on MSNBC. Thank you for being here. HAYES: Thanks a lot, Rachel. MADDOW: Good. All right. Frank Rich will be joining us straight ahead. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: There are certain things in our great wonderful world that last precisely seven weeks. There are certain things that go for seven weeks and then they come to an end. One of those things is the gestation period of the cutest little cuddly most adorable little creature on the whole entire planet. That would be a baby red fox. Red foxes are amazing. Do you know their hearing is so good they can locate a mouse squeaking in the grass from an entire football field away? Yes. From red fox mating to baby red fox being born, that`s about seven weeks. Something else that exists for about seven weeks, your average worker bee. They`re the ones that make the honey and generally do the stinging. But it`s a quick, super-productive life for these guys. Seven weeks, and then sayonara. One other thing that lasts about seven weeks in our world, which has nothing at all to do with the animal kingdom, one other thing that lasts seven weeks is the bubble candidacy of the Republican presidential front- runner who is not named Mitt Romney. That candidacy lives on our green earth for seven weeks, and then it dies. Do you remember Herman Cain? The Herman Cain bubble began toward the end of September, right around September 20th. We`d earlier calculated his bubble at being about a five-week thing. But really he began to burst in a big way around the second week of November. So, to be fair, I think it`s more like about seven weeks, maybe a little less, and then splat. Do you remember Rick Perry? The Rick Perry bubble really started to inflate in mid to early August. And then by the end of September, that bubble was officially no more. Again, roughly about seven weeks, maybe a little less. And now, we have Newt Gingrich. The Newt Gingrich bubble began around October 27th. From that point on, Mr. Gingrich`s polling numbers just took off. Seven weeks from October 27th would be today -- which means that Newt Gingrich would appear to have fully gestated, and right on cue, the polls are beginning to reflect that. Nate Silver at "The New York Times" reporting tonight, quote, "The polling data I`ve seen over the last two or three days suggests that Newt Gingrich`s momentum has stopped and has probably reversed itself." Not only has Newt Gingrich now lost his lead in Iowa to Mitt Romney according to one new poll out today from Rasmussen, but look at this national Gallup tracking poll between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich over the last few weeks. Gingrich jumped out to an enormous lead as his bubble inflated. But look at the very end there, Newt Gingrich crumbling and Mitt Romney gaining. It appears to be baby red fox time for Newt Gingrich. He has fully gestated as a non-Mitt Romney front-running candidate. And now it`s out into the cold hard reality of life. Mom! There are two things. One since there isn`t enough time for a full seven-week gestation period for a new candidate before Iowa that maybe Republicans just get Mitt Romney. Presumably that is as much a problem for the Republican base right now as it has ever been in this race. They do not appear to be falling more in love with Mitt Romney, they are just running out of people to try who are not him. A second thing that could happen is that even though there really isn`t enough time between Iowa and New Hampshire we could just decide that Iowa and New Hampshire really don`t matter all that much anymore. We could start a new bubble right now. In the "National Review`s" scathing right-wing editorial against Newt Gingrich last night, they told conservative voters not to vote for Mr. Gingrich but to consider only Mitt Romney and two other candidates. The other two, Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum. I mean, Rick Santorum, sure. But what about Jon Huntsman? New polling out of New Hampshire showing that Jon Huntsman is now starting his own teeny tiny little mini-surge. So maybe that`s possible. Or how about a new entrant in the race altogether? Is it too late for that? Technically it is too late for that. But how else do you explain this going on in New Hampshire right now? Dave Weigel at reporting today that New Hampshire residents are starting to receive phone calls asking them the following questions. Do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of Mitt Romney? Do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of Newt Gingrich? Do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of Jeb Bush? Jeb Bush? Somebody is paying for those calls to go out right now in New Hampshire. What`s that all about? Finally, there is one other option, which is that maybe the Newt Gingrich bubble just won`t go away. I mean, it does seem to be ending. It does seem to be getting to the end of its natural life span. Time for the fox to be born. But what if the Newt Gingrich bubble were artificially resuscitated? What if it were artificially rebuilt with a lot of money? reporting today that one donor, one person, a man by the name of Sheldon Adelson may be about to give Gingrich a lump sum payment of $20 million. Not directly to Newt Gingrich but to a PAC supporting Newt Gingrich, which is essentially the same as giving it right to him. To put that in perspective, the total we know Newt Gingrich has raised overall the whole time has been running is about $7 million. He`s about to get $20 million in one check from one person. They say that money can`t buy you love, money can`t buy you happiness. But can it buy you another few weeks in the bubble? Frank Rich joins us next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: Today, the war in Iraq officially ended. Operation New Dawn is over. The U.S. military flag was lowered and packed up and retired in Baghdad. Just a few hundred people, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, were on hand to see it. There was a military band at the ceremony, but there was no parade, no celebration. What are the American lessons learned from our nearly nine-year, $800 billion war? A war that was started to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction that they did not have. What have we as a country learned about the price of pre-emptive war? What has the Republican Party specifically learned from the Iraq war and our experience there? (BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS) NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We are not going to tolerate an Iranian nuclear weapon. REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I`d respond with absolutely everything that the United States can put on the line. We cannot abide a nuclear -- an Iran with a nuclear weapon. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How do you prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon? Is it worth going to war to prevent that? MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If all else fails, if after all of the work we`ve done there`s nothing else we can do besides take military action, then of course you take military action. RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIALK CANDIDATE: There are lots of things we can do to stop that program from moving forward, both from the standpoint of covert operations as well as -- and I`m talking about actual operations within the country to make sure that that program does not continue. GINGRICH: Rick Santorum`s consistency and courage on Iran has been a hallmark of why -- if we do survive, it will be in part because of people like Rick who`ve had the courage to tell the truth about the Iranians for a long time. ERIN BURNETT, CNN: When push comes to shove, if what was between them and a nuclear weapon, there was an uncertainty, required troops` invasion, you`d do it? JON HUNTSMAN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I can`t live with the implications of not doing it. GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Whether it`s diplomatic, whether it`s economic sanctions, whether it`s overt or covert operations up to and including military action. We cannot afford to allow that madman in Iran to get his hands on a nuclear weapon. Period. JOHN KING, CNN: Even if is it started a war in the region? PERRY: We cannot allow that madman to get his hands on a nuclear weapon. (END VIDEO CLIPS) MADDOW: With the exception of Ron Paul, every single Republican running for president says that he or she would gladly consider starting another pre-emptive war in the Middle East. No problemo. Iraq`s wrapping up today. They are ready to start the next war next door. This is the lesson learned for the Republican Party from the presidency of George W. Bush. Joining us now, "New York" magazine writer at large, Frank Rich. Frank, thank you for being here. FRANK RICH, NEW YORK MAGAZINE: Nice to be with you as always. MADDOW: How is the Republican Party different today than it was in 2002, when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were president and vice president? RICH: As you said, except for Ron Paul, who was actually the same then too -- MADDOW: Yes. RICH: Not at all. And they`re sort of picking up from where McCain left off. Didn`t he do a joke once about bombing Iran, bomb, bomb -- MADDOW: That`s right. RICH: And to me it`s just the most empty posturing. First of all, half of them don`t know where Iran is. They`re all listening to the same coterie of sort of neo-con advisers and Cheney holdovers and they`re trying to posture just to show that they`re strong. The one thing that -- they`ve learned nothing. They don`t even care whether they`ve learned anything. And I think they`re all talking through their hat because one thing they should have learned is the country did learn something. They don`t want to pay for these, kind of, half-cocked misadventures that don`t have any real basis or probably good outcome. MADDOW: Chris Hayes was just here, and he said something that stuck with me, which is that of the past decade, the Iraq war is probably the most salient political event in American history of the past decade. And 9/11 may have been the most salient event, but Iraq was the most salient political event. Do Republicans not believe that? Do they think that it did not -- that what happened in Iraq doesn`t require any sort of change in worldview or strategy? Did they not think it was important? Or do they just know that voters this year aren`t going to be voting on foreign policy so it doesn`t matter, so just say what the last guys were saying? RICH: I think it`s more the latter. I think -- I don`t think they even really think about it. I think some Republican voters do think about it, including some, for instance, supporting Paul. But I think these candidates, they feel that war -- and we`re still in one, by the way -- doesn`t even show up remotely near the top of concerns of voters. So, they look at it as a free pass. They can talk as recklessly as they want. And they`re not really going to be held accountable because first of all most of them and possibly all of them are not going to end up in office. And secondly, it`s never going to happen because they`re never going to get it through Congress and a press which has learned something since its catastrophic failures before the Iraq war about vetting the evidence for war. MADDOW: I wonder -- I hadn`t been thinking about it in these terms until you just said that, but I wonder if with the horizon on Afghanistan right now that doesn`t end this year or next year or the year after that, but not until the end of the year after that, the end of 2014, that`s the horizon for leaving Afghanistan right now. Obviously, I don`t think they`re making decisions in Washington about the Iraq war mostly on what the basis of the political impact domestically on decisions would be, I just don`t hear that from Democrats in Washington when they talk about the war. But I think right now, if they were calculating the domestic political cost of ending the Afghanistan war, there would be none. I do not think that the Republican Party has either the credibility or the energy on foreign policy to resist Democratic White House if they wanted to end the Afghanistan war sooner. Do you think that`s true? RICH: I think that`s true. I think they`d be pushing open an open door. I think that whole spirit has sort of leaked out of the Republican Party. And look, the prime movers of it have been disabled or -- you know, McCain is regarded as a crank. Lieberman is leaving. Lindsay graham is not a major figure. Cheney is riding off more or less into the sunset. And his daughter is proving to be a poor understudy. So, there`s no one -- there`s no there there to this Republican hawkishness. And most of all, it isn`t there from the voters. MADDOW: Yes. RICH: Voters have turned completely on this. The American public I think has learned a lot, even if some politicians in the Republican Party have not. MADDOW: I think you`re right, too, that the media has learned a lot, too. I think that the media would be significantly more skeptical and less cheerleadery now than they were for any sort of new venture, than they would have been in 2002-2003. RICH: Well, yes, almost every major news organization, including most major newspapers and television networks went along with the WMD barrage of the Bush administration, fell for it, didn`t vet it, buried stories, challenging it, or actually helped further the propaganda. It didn`t help any of them. It led to major meltdowns in some of these organizations. So, it`s in their best interests, not only their patriotic interests, their own selfish interests, to not make that mistake again. MADDOW: Before I let you go, Frank, I have to ask you if you see the Newt Gingrich surge persisting. Are you looking forward to the Santorum surge? Feels awful to even say. Or the Jon Huntsman surge? What do you think is going to happen? RICH: I think Gingrich may be a little harder to tamp down back into the bottle. And if that Adelson money is for real -- MADDOW: Twenty million dollars. RICH: That`s not chopped liver, as they say in Vegas, where I think he operates. MADDOW: Frank Rich, it`s always really great to have you here. Thank you. RICH: Thanks for having me. MADDOW: Frank Rich, of course, is "New York" magazine`s editor at large. All right. We will be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: Coming up tonight on "The Interview," a man who has tried to prevent what he says could be disaster at one of America`s biggest nuclear sites. Stay tuned. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: In 1943, what we used to call the War Department took over two small towns in Washington state. Two towns called Hanford and White Bluffs. Two farming communities on the banks of the Columbia River. The people who lived in Hanford and white bluffs were given a month or so to clear out completely. They were told to leave their homes, abandon their crops. Some of the farmers burned their fields in protest. The people did not want to go. And that was not helped by the fact that the reason the government was taking their land was classified. But two years later on August 9th, 1945, the world learned the War Department`s secrets at Hanford. The plutonium for the atomic bomb that the United States dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, which killed more than 70,000 people in its immediate aftermath and tens of thousands more in the following years. That plutonium for that bomb was made at Hanford. This is a replica of that 10,000-pound bomb. Little Boy was the bomb they dropped on Hiroshima. That was a uranium bomb. But the one they dropped on Nagasaki, that one was called Fat Man, and it was plutonium. It was plutonium from Hanford. Hanford very quickly grew to become one of the largest nuclear facilities in the world. It had nine reactors. It employed tens of thousands of people. And it created plutonium for nuclear bombs throughout the Cold War. In 1988, the government shut down Hanford. The Department of Energy switched from the nukes building business to the nukes cleaning up business. There are billions of gallons of waste at Hanford. And cleaning it up has not gone all that well. As the "Seattle Times" put it earlier this year, "Some of the hottest radioactive waste from Hanford was funneled into concrete and carbon-steel tanks that today are decades past their projected life span. Some have spontaneously heated up or burped explosive gases, 67 are suspected to have leaked. At least a million gallons of radioactive goo has spilled into the ground and is working its way to the Columbia River." Yes, what everybody agrees is the most contaminated site in North America is right on the beautiful Columbia River, which among other things is the lifeline for about 10,000 farmers and dozens of commercial fisheries. So, the Hanford cleanup in Washington state is a tough situation. The Energy Department is in charge there. They hired the Bechtel Corporation to do the work. It`s a multibillion-dollar project on a 600-square-mile site that, again, is the most contaminated place on the continent. And now a senior engineer on site, who works for a subcontractor to Bechtel, said something is very wrong there. Last week, Hanford engineer Dr. Walter Tamosaitis, who works for a subcontractor to Bechtel called URS, Dr. Tamosaitis testified before a Senate committee. The doctor told senators that after he raised concerns about the cleanup project being dangerously rushed by Bechtel and URS in order to hit deadlines and get bonuses, after he raised concerns that shortcuts being taken with Hanford`s radioactive mess could lead to more radioactive leaks or explosions or fires, he says he was taken off his job. He wasn`t fired but in sort of classic fashion he was reassigned, reassigned to a basement office that happened to house two working copying machines. Quote, "I`ve been sit nag basement office now for nearly 16 months," he told senators. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), MISSOURI: And I assume Bechtel is still in charge? DR. WALTER TAMOSAITIS, URS: Bechtel is still in charge of the project. Yes, Senator. MCCASKILL: And everyone sees you go to work in the basement with no windows? TAMOSAITIS: Yes. Yes, ma`am. MCCASKILL: And knows that you are not allowed to work even though you`re there on site and getting paid? TAMOSAITIS: Correct. MCCASKILL: So everyone -- so every day you are an example to all the workers there, whether they`re federal employees or Bechtel employees, don`t say anything or you too will be banished to the basement? TAMOSAITIS: Yes, Senator. Very directly. It`s a very visible example of what happens if you speak up. MCCASKILL: It`s just unbelievable to me that we`ve allowed this to occur. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri. So, Dr. Tamosaitis works for URS. URS works for Bechtel. Bechtel works for the Energy Department. We called all three of those entities today to respond. URS told us they fully support Dr. Tamosaitis` right to raise safety concerns but they say they do not agree with his assertion that he suffered retaliation for doing so. Bechtel told us too that safety and quality are Bechtel`s top priorities and they do not tolerate retaliation or harassment in any form against anyone who raises a concern. Bechtel said they strongly dispute Dr. Tamosaitis` version of the facts. The Department of Energy similarly told us that retribution for raising safety concerns will not be tolerated. They said they are committed to continuing to improve our approach to safety at Hanford. All of those statements are available in full at tonight if you want to see them. But I would just say two things here. Well, three things here. First, did I mention this is the most contaminated site on the continent? And it`s right on the Columbia River? All right. So that`s first. But also, there`s also been an independent look-see into this situation already. Your tax dollars pay for something called the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. And, frankly, you`re psyched that your tax dollars pay for that because it`s a board of nuclear scientists that`s appointed by the White House and that is independent from anyone else. It`s their job to look into safety issues at nuclear stuff that the Energy Department is responsible for. They looked into what`s going on at Hanford, and they said this -- "The investigative record demonstrates that both DOE and contractor project management behaviors reinforce a subculture that deters the timely reporting, acknowledgment, and ultimate resolution of technical safety concerns." And at one point, I should say, if the name Bechtel is ringing a bell for you, while we`ve been talking about this, it is probably because you remember Bechtel as one of the giant contractors that got huge rebuilding contracts in Iraq, billions of dollars` worth of Iraq rebuilding contracts. How did Bechtel do there? Quote, "Bechtel National, met its original objectives on fewer than half the projects it received as part of a $1.8 billion reconstruction contract, while most of the rest were canceled, reduced in scope, or never completed as designed." When the inspector general looked into why that was, why Bechtel blew it so badly in Iraq, the conclusion was that Bechtel needed oversight. Bechtel needed strong, firm hand oversight -- or those billions of taxpayer dollars would find a way of just disappearing. We kind of accepted that as one of the craven, disgusting costs of the Iraq war. But do the same rules apply in Washington state? Joining us tonight for the interview are Walt Tamosaitis and Tom Carpenter, an attorney and executive director of a non-profit group called Hanford Challenge, which has been a critic of conditions at the Hanford site. Thank you both for being here tonight. I appreciate it. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you. MADDOW: Dr. Tamosaitis, can you describe your safety concerns at Hanford for the non-nuclear engineers among us? TAMOSAITIS: Yes, ma`am. The major concern is poor mixing in the vessels, the tanks that process the hazardous nuclear waste. And if you have poor mixing in the tank, you can build up solids, the solids can trap hydrogen gas. You can have solids build up on the bottom of the tank which can lead to a criticality. So, trapping a hydrogen gas can lead to a fire or an explosion. And the solids buildup could lead to a criticality. MADDOW: Is that something that`s the inevitability of the difficulty of this project or a way to handle that more safely if they were willing to take more time or money? TAMOSAITIS: It can be addressed. It`s a chemical plant, first of all. It`s not a nuclear plant as people describe it. It`s a chemical plant that processes a nuclear waste. The waste is like a very thick ketchup with sand in it. And they have to improve the mixing in the vessels. There`s a couple ways to do it. And they need to address that in order to make the process safe. MADDOW: Mr. Carpenter, let me ask you a question. I know the Dr. Tamosaitis is not the only whistle-blower who has come forward from Hanford. I know you have represented a couple of others. What other concerns have you known to be raised by whistle-blowers at the site? TOM CARPENTER, HANFORD CHALLENGE EXEC. DIRECTOR: Well, there are several other whistle-blowers. One is the manager of nuclear safety at waste treatment plant there. And she was raising concerns about the risk of hydrogen explosion, and the fact that it could catch on fire. And the reducing of safety margins at the site. And this manager recently filed a whistle-blower retaliation claim with the Department of Labor. Another engineer, scientist, was working for the Department of Energy. He still works there. And he`s been raising concerns about how mixing in the tanks could lead to corrosion, an erosion in the tanks and actually wear a hole through the tanks, which is not good for the nuclear process. That could lead to a leak or a release of radioactive material which could harm the public. Both of these individuals have said, like the Dr. Tamosaitis here, that their concerns have been suppressed. They felt harassment. MADDOW: In terms of -- Dr. Tamosaitis, let me go back to you. In terms of your safety concerns and, again, speaking to a public that may not be, including myself, all that familiar with the processes you`re describing there, what is the greatest risk that you think is possible here based on corners that you`ve seen cut? Are we looking at something that could be more than the kind of leaks that Hanford has already experienced? Are we talking about something that could be a larger release of radioactive material? TAMOSAITIS: Yes, ma`am. Yes, Rachel, we are. If we have poor mixing, we could trap hydrogen gas, we could end up with a fire or explosion, as we saw on the TV at Fukushima in Japan. MADDOW: You have more than 40 years` experience in this field, Doctor, as a highly skilled nuclear engineer. Since you have raised these concerns on site, what have you been spending your days doing for the past 16 months? What has your job been since you started raising concerns? TAMOSAITIS: I was assigned to a basement office. And in the basement I keep myself busy by reading technical papers and trying to stay abreast of the technologies. MADDOW: Mr. Carpenter, one last question for you. The Department of Energy owns this site and is responsible for meeting deadlines and trying to keep costs under control. They are also in charge of overseeing that work, overseeing the work to do the cleaning -- to do the clean-up at Hanford. That is the hardest for me to understand, as somebody who is just concerns about this in terms of safety and good government. Is the Department of Energy effectively overseeing themselves here? CARPENTER: I would say no. Others agree with me. It`s hard to be an owner as well as a regulator. And I think most people understand that. The commercial side of the nuclear industry has a separation between the owner, which is the owner of the nuclear reactor, for instance, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which doesn`t own anything, right? They`re just there to protect the health and safety of the public. So, there`s a separation that we`d expect to happen. But that`s not true at Department of Energy facilities and it`s something the taxpayer should demand as well as Congress, that there be a separation, so that there isn`t a conflict with owning the site and regulating yourself. MADDOW: Tom Carpenter, executive director of nonprofit group Hanford Challenge and Walt Tamosaitis, an employee at URS and a whistle-blower on this site, and who has paid for it -- thank you for being here tonight. I will tell our viewers, the response from your employer, Doctor, from Bechtel and the Department of Energy are at our site if they would like to compare stories. But this is pretty damning stuff you brought to the public`s attention. Thank you for your bravery in doing it, sir. TAMOSAITIS: Thank you. MADDOW: Thank you. All right. We got the best new thing in the world coming up, just in time. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: Best new thing in the world today is obviously the end of the Iraq war. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta saying today in Baghdad that Iraq is now fully responsible for directing its own path. The war ending as it should. Iraq now becoming its own sovereign country without our flag flying over it anywhere, without our troops anywhere in it. That`s easily the best new thing in the world, maybe this decade. But there`s another Iraq story that is ending as it should. It doesn`t beat the end of the war, but it`s pretty good. This fall, a Chicago-based artist got together with a New York arts group and a restaurant. They put together an ambitious, big thinking art project. They found on eBay dinner plates believed to have been looted from Saddam Hussein`s palaces after the U.S. invasion. They bought the plates and as an interactive art installation, they served on Saddam Hussein`s flatware and plates venison, with tahini and date syrup and pomegranates. The project was called "Spoils." The artist said he wanted diners to think about how the plates got to their table. Quote, "This is about symbols of power in that regime that have come into the ownership of the populist that we`re living under Hussein." He told "The New York Times" last month, but you can`t just buy Saddam`s dinner plates on eBay. Not legally anyway. When the art group was formally notified that the plates really belonged to the Iraqi people and needed to be returned, they agreed to give them up. So, earlier this week, what "The New York Times" says was a strange but cordial visit, the artist helped the U.S. Marshals packed up the plates so they could be delivered to the Iraqi mission at U.N. By Tuesday afternoon, the plates made their way to D.C. where Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was in town to meet with President Obama, and the plates were then scheduled to flight back with Maliki on his private plane on Wednesday, which is to say this big thinking art project ended as it should be. The Iraq war is over. Iraq is a sovereign nation. One of the very small things that means is that they get their stuff back, too. Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD" with Lawrence O`Donnell. Have a great night. THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END