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2006-04-07

Robert Fisk on Iraq, Palestine and the Failure of the U.S. Corporate Media to Challenge Authority

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We speak with one of the most experienced war correspondents in the world today, Robert Fisk–chief Middle East correspondent of the London Independent–about Iraq, Palestinian and Israeli elections, the corporate media and much more. [includes rush transcript]

For the past thirty years Fisk has covered almost every major event in the Middle East: From the civil wars in Algeria and Lebanon to the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. From the massacres at Sabra and Shatila to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. From the 1991 Persian Gulf War to the invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq. Robert Fisk"s latest book is "The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East."

  • Robert Fisk, chief Middle East correspondent for the London Independent.

Transcript

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

AMY GOODMAN: Iraq: Is the media telling the real story? That was the question asked at a public debate sponsored by Reuters this week in New York. The panel included journalists from the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal and Al Hayat. Also on the panel was Lieutenant Colonel Steve Boylan, who recently returned to the United States after 16 months in Iraq as chief spokesperson for the military. I attended the event and had the chance to question Boylan. This is an excerpt.

AMY GOODMAN: How many Iraqi civilians do you believe have been killed?

LT. COL. STEVE BOYLAN: I have no idea. I really don’t. There are so many conflicting reports depending on who you listen to. I’m not sure even the Iraqi government knows to date, because of —

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush said at least 30,000. The Lancet said an estimate, based on a Johns Hopkins/Columbia University study, said over 100,000. I would like to get your comment and two other journalists on this, and then two other quick questions. One is about —

MODERATOR: Well, let’s make it one question. Understand — I’m sorry, but there are other people who want to ask questions.

AMY GOODMAN: I know, but these are real quick. One is about fake news, about the U.S. military continuing to use groups like the Lincoln Group and the Pentagon itself planting stories, paying Iraqi journalists to print stories. And the third is we talked about journalists killed by insurgents, but what about journalists killed by and detained by the U.S. military? Specifically we had David Schlesinger debating you, Lietenant Colonel Boylan, when the Reuters cameraman, Haider Khadem, was wounded and detained; Waleed Khaled, the Reuters soundman was killed; the Al Jazeera reporters who were held at Abu Ghraib for months, Ahmad Mohammad Hussein and Salam Ureibi, and then released with no explanation, detained again and released with no explanation; Jose Couso at the Palestine —

MODERATOR: Okay, I think we get the message, Amy. Steve?

LT. COL. STEVE BOYLAN: That’s a lot. Okay, well, based on my understanding right now, there are no journalists being detained in Iraq right now, journalists may — whether they are stringers or any other journalists for that matter. The situation in Iraq is not like you will find it in New York or Chicago or Miami or London or any other place. It is a war zone. They are held — they are not arrested, which is a misperception by a lot of people. They are a security detainee, because at the time of the event there was something that was going on that at least appeared to be a security risk to the Iraqi forces, the Iraqi government, the coalition troops under the U.N. Security Resolution 1546.

There is a process in place to investigate what happened, investigate the individuals, but there is not the same jurisprudence that you would think that is happening in the United States. It’s not the United States, it’s not Europe. The same rules do not apply. And until everybody understands that, there will always be the issue of unlawful detention from some people. I believe, like I said, that from what I understand today, there are no more journalists or stringers or anyone else that works for the news media that’s being detained.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Lieutenant Colonel Steve Boylan, the former chief military spokesperson in Iraq. We’re joined by Robert Fisk, chief Middle East correspondent of the London Independent. For the last 30 years, he has been covering almost every major event in the Middle East, from the civil wars in Algeria and Lebanon to the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, from the massacres at Sabra and Shatila to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, from the 1991 Persian Gulf War to the invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq. Robert Fisk has just finished his latest book — it’s called The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East — and joins us in our Firehouse studio here in New York. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ROBERT FISK: Thanks you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you know Lieutenant Colonel Boylan?

ROBERT FISK: I have seen him in performance, yes, live.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response?

ROBERT FISK: Look, these guys live in the Green Zone, the little area of the former Republican Palace, which is a bit like living inside, I’m sorry to say, a crusader castle. You can look between the palisade and see a bit of the street outside, and they are totally divorced from the reality of Iraq. I mean, Boylan says, for example, 'Oh, I don't think even the Iraqis know how many Iraqis are dead.’ Bush didn’t say, by the way, "at least 30,000." He said, "30,000, more or less." He would not have said, "Oh, there are 2,000 American dead, more or less," would he? He wouldn’t have dared to say that, but he could say it, because they were Iraqis. I think the Iraqis have a very clear idea how many there are dead, because when I went in August to the main mortuary, the mortuary officials in Baghdad showed me the Ministry of Health computer, which I’m not allowed to see, which showed 1,100 Iraqis dead in Baghdad alone in just July. So, they have the figures. That’s not a truthful statement by Boylan.

AMY GOODMAN: At the event, this debate put on by Reuters, Lietenant Colonel Steve Boylan, the former chief military spokesperson in Iraq, was also questioned about the military’s use of the so-called information operations. This was his explanation.

LT. COL. STEVE BOYLAN: What is information operations? What first comes to mind? I would submit that most would automatically think of deceit and probably more in the lines of psychological operations. It’s interesting that information operations is still trying to be figured out within the military and definitely within the public and the media on what it really means and what all it encompasses. There is no information operations campaign against the American public or to the American public or in the American public, and this kind of goes back to the question about paying Iraqi newspapers for stories to be printed.

Well, to the best of my knowledge, all the stories are true. They did focus on the more — the positive aspects of what was happening.

PANELIST: Good news.

LT. COL. STEVE BOYLAN: Well, yeah. I don’t want to use the term "good news." Progress. See, I still won’t use it, because the — if you want to call it the "adversity" was being covered extremely well. When that story broke, I was just leaving Iraq. I can argue either side of the story on that one, for or against, because if that’s the only way you can get the other side of the coin to be published, then why not? Many people call it advertising, if it wasn’t being done by the military.

QUESTION: What about propaganda?

LT. COL. STEVE BOYLAN: Propaganda is — is propaganda true or false?

PANELIST: Propaganda is part of war.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: I mean, one of the things that, you know, the U.S. government were always pointing out is the kind of the vibrant Iraqi press. How do they expect the Iraqis now on the streets to believe any good, positive story that is genuinely written by an Iraqi journalist? See, I’m not dismissing the act of good stories. But the problem is when there is such a kind of — this grave thing that’s happening now in Iraq, how can you — and in such a politicized way — how do you expect journalists, Iraqi journalists, decent Iraqi journalists to go into the streets and write a positive story. Everybody would be pointing at them, saying, 'Oh, you've been paid by the kind of Pentagon, the American army,’ and all these things. So, yes, you maybe managed to get like some positive stories, but you inflicted such damage on the young Iraqi press. I don’t see how they will recover from it. It’s a deja vu from the days of Saddam. Yes, Saddam, we can argue, he was trying do the same thing, was trying to put advertisement in the press.

LT. COL. STEVE BOYLAN: Well, my understanding also, which I don’t think has been widely reported, and I wish I had some statistics to give you, most of the stories that were, quote, "paid for" never got published.

PANELIST: You win some, you lose some.

PANELIST: As a taxpayer, I’m outraged by that.

PANELIST: Yeah, exactly.

LT. COL. STEVE BOYLAN: So, you know, the —

PANELIST: That’s a good story.

LT. COL. STEVE BOYLAN: Yeah, well. And that — you know, the paying for stories doesn’t happen only — and I’m not going to — I’ve been in other countries where their own host country governments, businesses pay journalists to cover what they’re doing. I’m not saying it’s an accepted practice. I know there’s a lot of focus on it right now with the Lincoln Group and the military’s participation in that. But it all goes back down to a lot of it is — some of the startup publications that were in Iraq, they could not have started without some assistance, because it does take money, it takes equipment, it takes people, other resources to run a newspaper.

AMY GOODMAN: Lieutenant Colonel Steve Boylan, the former chief military spokesperson in Iraq also responding to my question about the so-called information operations or the planting of stories that the Pentagon has done in the Iraqi press, with freelance Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. We’ll get response from Robert Fisk, veteran war correspondent, in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk is our guest, war correspondent for more than 30 years. Your response, once again, to the issue of the planting of stories?

ROBERT FISK: Well, I’m surprised the military have to plant stories, because I find that an awful lot of my colleagues are quite happy to go along with stories planted or otherwise. You’ve only got to see the number of times on the front page of the New York Times or the L.A. Times or the Washington Post when the phrase "American officials say" appears, particularly the L.A. Times. I can give an example of that, in which a whole story is repeatedly sourced, after 2003, when we know there weren’t any weapons of mass destruction, when we know the press was misled totally in the United States and went along with the war party.

Still we see everything being sourced and re-sourced back to American officials, as if the U.S. administration is the center of world truth. I’ll give you an example. I was actually doing the book tour in Los Angeles, picked up my morning L.A. Times. Here’s a story about Zarqawi, who may or may not exist, of course. "U.S. authorities say," "U.S. officials said," "Said one Justice Department counterterrorism official," "U.S. authorities say," "officials said," "U.S. officials said." It turns to page B-10. It gets worse and worse. Look. "Several U.S. officials said," "those officials said," "U.S. officials confirmed" — stop me when you want — "American officials complained," "U.S. officials stressed," "U.S. authorities believe," "Said one U.S. senior intelligence official," "U.S. officials said," "Jordanian officials said" — Amy, see, there’s a slight difference here — "Several U.S. officials said," "U.S. officials said," "U.S. officials say," "say U.S. officials," "U.S. officials said," "The American officials said," "One U.S. counterterrorism official said." Welcome to American journalism today in Iraq. This is what’s wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: How would you write the story?

ROBERT FISK: I wouldn’t write that for start, because I don’t believe this particular story, which is claiming that Zarqawi has better intelligence than the United States. He doesn’t. It’s just that the United States military doesn’t know how to use intelligence, because it doesn’t understand what the war is about. But anyway, also I’m not sure that Zarqawi is alive, and this story claims that he is and he’s the mastermind — he’s supposed to be the al-Qaeda mastermind.

AMY GOODMAN: What indicates to you that he isn’t? The latest story we have, the possibility —

ROBERT FISK: That he’s been killed?

AMY GOODMAN: That he has been forced to step down, so an Iraqi could step forward.

ROBERT FISK: Ah, yes. "According to American officials." I remember the story came out, yeah. Look, Zarqawi has not been seen by anyone other than "U.S. officials say" ever since the beginning of the war. I think it’s possible, and many Iraqis think this, that he was killed in one of the initial air raids on Iraq in the northeastern area, in the Kurdish area, and that his I.D. has somehow come to be used by some other institution.

He has a wife of whom he was very possessive, who is now so poor. In the town of Zarqa, she has to get out to work. When his mother died more than a year ago, he didn’t even send condolences to the family, or so the family have informed me, unlike a man —

AMY GOODMAN: And the family lives —?

ROBERT FISK: In Zarqa, hence his name Zarqawi, of course. In Jordan. But, you know, the problem is that if this man believes he’s a true Muslim, why didn’t he send sorrowful greetings to his family on the death of his mother. Very, very weird. And over and over again we hear American military officials say or they think they can identify him in a videotape. This is a guy wearing a hood, right? I don’t know. Maybe he is alive, or maybe he’s a creation, but I’ve never met anyone who’s met him recently in Iraq, which surprises me, because I do meet a lot of people in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, the latest news out of Baghdad, a suicide bomber inside a Shiite mosque in Baghdad and another outside blew themselves up, killing at least 40 people today. The blast also wounded 45 people. The mosque in northern Baghdad belonged to SCIRI, the most powerful party inside Iraq’s ruling Shiite Alliance.

ROBERT FISK: Somebody wants a civil war in Iraq. I don’t think the Iraqis do. You know, we have this story again, and it’s a sort of the narrative that’s been laid down, that all the Sunnis are rushing around blowing up Shiite mosques and all the Shiites are burning down Sunni mosques. And that’s not the Sunnis and the Shiites I’ve met in Iraq.

We keep hearing about people being kidnapped by men wearing police uniform or police stations being taken over by men wearing army uniform. Well, do you mean to tell me there’s a warehouse in Fallujah with 8,000 police uniforms made to measure for insurgents? I don’t believe it. I think the policemen are real policemen. I think the men wearing army uniforms are real soldiers. I think that the military on the Iraqi side has been thoroughly infiltrated by the insurgency, and I think there are despots working on behalf of government ministries. We know the Interior Ministry has a death squad, and now some of those corpses that I see in the mortuaries, including women blindfolded, hands tied behind their back, shot in the head, these are not being gunned down by insurgents on the roadways or blown up by bombs; they’re victims of death squads.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about what is happening in Israel and Palestine, the Hamas elections. Latest news, European Commission has temporarily halted direct aid payments to the Palestinian government.

ROBERT FISK: They voted for the wrong people, Amy. They voted for the wrong people. They misused democracy, you see? This is what happened in Algeria — isn’t it? — in 1990. The people were given democracy. They voted for the FIS, so the military canceled the second round of elections. We didn’t want democracy to begin with in Iraq. Then, we worried the Iraqi Shiites would join in the insurgency. So we had democracy, and we’ve got an Islamic government in Iraq, as well. Believe me, it is Islamic. It is effectively an Iranian government, because SCIRI and Dawa, the two main linchpins of the government, they grew up, they were the creation of Iran. In Lebanon, we’ve now got, democratically elected, a Hezbollah minister in the Cabinet, whom the Americans can’t talk to, of course, because again they elected the wrong people.

We’ve got this problem in the West Bank. There’s a story here somewhere. You know, the Muslim Brotherhood get 88 seats in the Egyptian Assembly elections. We’ve got Hamas in power. We’ve got an Islamic government still in Iran, of course. And what’s going to happen if Syria disappeared or the Syrian government went? You know, at some point, we’re all going to have to face up to the fact that if people do have a genuinely democratic election, we’ve got to talk to the people they elect, not the people they elect if they’re the people we want them to elect. And that’s the big problem for us in the Middle East at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think is going to happen with the Hamas government?

ROBERT FISK: The Hamas government will talk to the Israelis, and they probably already are. I remember when the Hamas officials, who were all in those days "terrorists," were thrown out of Israel into southern Lebanon, and I was talking to them on this hillside. Most of them or some of them have been blown up since by the Israelis, of course, and I remember I was saying to these guys, you know, "Well, actually, I’m going to be going to Israel tomorrow via Cyprus or via Jordan." I can’t remember which way I went from Lebanon. And one of these guys, Hamas people, bounded down the hill and said, "Ah, Mr. Robert, you might like Shimon Peres’s home telephone number." And it was Shimon Peres’s home telephone number, because, of course, these people all talk to each other. I remember, after the Oslo Agreement, being in Jerusalem and discovering — and it was on the front page the next day of the Jerusalem Post — that the Israeli army had actually sat down and been negotiating with Hamas officials after the Oslo Agreement on the White House lawn, the famous shaking of hands between Rabin and Arafat. So, these contacts have continued between Hamas and the Israelis. This business, 'oh, we don't talk to terrorists,’ this is for children and journalists.

AMY GOODMAN: Your most recent piece, "Another Brick in the Wall," you say we’ve been conned again. The Israeli elections, we’re told, mean that the dream of greater Israel has finally been abandoned. West Bank settlements will be closed down, just as the Jewish colonies were uprooted in Gaza last year. The Zionist claim to all of biblical Israel has withered away.

ROBERT FISK: Well, this is my point, that it’s not correct. What’s happened is that the war, which we prefer to call a security barrier or a fence — see you New York Times — it has taken away 10% of the 22% of mandate Palestine was left to negotiate over for the Palestinians. The Jordan Valley has gone. The roads that run like concrete ribbons across the territory, which is the so-called viable Palestinian state to come, are not going to be moved. And the major Jewish settlements or colonies, which is what they would — colonie in French — at least they use the right words in the French press — are going to remain. Ma’aleh Adumim, this vast concrete semi-circle which divides East Jerusalem — or what was Arab East Jerusalem — off in the West Bank, that, effectively, along with the wall — and it is a wall as tall, if not taller than the Berlin Wall or the "Berlin Fence," as they would have called it if built by the Israelis. This effectively means there is not going to be a Palestinian state. So the idea that Mr. Olmert is going to suddenly invent new frontiers, and we’re all going to accept it, is pie in the sky. I can’t see how the U.N. can accept a new frontier. I can’t see how the E.U. can. I can’t see how even our own dear Mr. Blair is going to accept that. I’m sure Mr. Bush will manage a way, though.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get your comment on Noam Chomsky talking about troop withdrawal in Iraq. Noam Chomsky, the world renowned linguist and political analyst.

NOAM CHOMSKY: There is a certain principle that we should adhere to. The principle is that invading armies have no rights whatsoever. They have responsibilities. The prime responsibility is to heed the will of the victims and to pay massive reparations to the victims for the crimes they’ve committed. In this case, the crimes go back through the sanctions which were a monstrous crime, through the support for Saddam Hussein, right through his worst atrocities, but particularly, those of the invasion. Those are the two responsibilities of an occupying army.

Well, you know, the population has made it pretty clear. Even U.S. and British polls make that clear. Overwhelming majorities want the U.S. to set a timetable to withdraw and adhere to it. Britain and the United States refuse. Reparations, we can’t even talk about; that’s so far from consciousness in the doctrinal system. Well, I think that answers the question. Doesn’t really matter what I think. What matters is what Iraqis think, and I think we know that pretty well. The reason the U.S. and Britain aren’t withdrawing are those I mentioned. You know, the consequences of independence for Iraq would be an ultimate nightmare for them. And they’re going to try to do anything they can to prevent Iraqi democracy, as they’ve been trying in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: And the argument that they will just descend into civil war and that the sectarian violence will increase, and the U.S. went in and now has a responsibility not the leave a mess?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Yeah, I mean, the Germans could have given the same argument in occupied Europe, the Russians in the satellites, the Japanese in Asia, and so on. Yeah, they could have all given the same argument: well, we went in, and now we have a responsibility to ensure that terrible things don’t happen, and so on. And the argument had some validity. So, when the Germans were driven out of France, let’s say, there were thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people killed by — as collaborators, and in Asia, even more so. But is that an argument for them? No. It’s none of their business.

We don’t know what will happen, and it’s not our decision to make. It’s the decision of the victims to make, not our decision. Occupying armies have no right to make the decision. We could have an academic seminar about it, in which we could discuss the likely consequences. But the point is it’s not for us to say.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, do you agree with Noam Chomsky?

ROBERT FISK: I always like to agree with Uncle Noam, as I call him to his face. Yeah, it’s a pity we weren’t having this discussion before we invaded Iraq and that we’ve waited until now before we get around to discussing our responsibilities. I remember at the very beginning of the press conference series, when our friend Mr. Boylan was talking a lot, when we were told, 'Oh, you know, we know there's some Iraqis, innocents have been killed. We’re trying to find out how many.’

And I remember I made a point: Hold on a second. You know, you are the occupying power. You have — and this is very much what Noam is saying — you have a duty, you have an absolute responsibility, even under the new U.N. Security Council resolution, to protect these people and to care about them. And the idea of protecting and caring about Iraqis simply wasn’t there, because we didn’t go to look after Iraqis. That was not the reason why we invaded Iraq. And why did we invade Iraq? Well, if the national export was asparagus, as I’ve said before, I don’t think the 82nd Airborne would be in Mosul.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what has to happen now?

ROBERT FISK: They’ve got to get out. We’ve got to get out quickly. Our presence — and you only have to go and be in Iraq to see this — our presence is fueling the violence there. We are the petrol burning on the surface, and we’ve got to get out. How we get out — you know, I’ve said this to you before on this program — you know, we must leave, we will leave, and we can’t leave, because we’ve got to find some political hodgepodge to try and pass off on us, the people, as to why Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush are pulling out. But pull out, we’ve got to do, and quickly. And we’re not wanted, even by the Kurds now, it seems.

AMY GOODMAN: And the same question to Chomsky was: What about the idea that the country descends into civil war?

ROBERT FISK: Well, I said just now, somebody wants it to descend to civil war, but I don’t — you know, I’ve told this story before. I went to the funeral of a doctor, Sunni Muslim, sat next to his brother at the funeral feast afterwards, and said to him, "Is there going to be civil war?" And he said, "We’re not a sectarian society. We’re tribal. I’m married to a Shiite. Do you want me to kill my wife?" In many cases in Iraq, most of the people I know, most of them, and maybe by chance, are actually mixed marriages between Shiites and Sunnis. And I don’t think they’re trying to kill each other in their mixed marriages. I think that what is happening is there are certain forces which are going after the idea of civil war and trying to provoke the Shiites into retaliating, because somebody wants the Shiites fighting, as well, because if you have the Shiites and the Sunnis both involved in armed violence, then that’s the end of new Iraq, isn’t it?

AMY GOODMAN: Who wants?

ROBERT FISK: You know, if I could give you the answer to that story, it would be on the front page of my newspaper tomorrow morning, Amy, and I don’t know the answer. And it’s very difficult to say, 'Look, I don't think it’s this. I think it’s something else’ without telling you what the other is. I don’t believe that men in police uniforms are insurgents dressed up; I think they are policemen. I believe that soldiers in military uniform are soldiers. This is exactly what happened in Algeria, when they used to have what they called faux barrages, false checkpoints, and we’d say, oh, all these Algerians line up at this checkpoint, manned by men in police uniforms, who then cut their throats after 6:00 p.m. And it quickly turned out that these were guys who were policemen during the day, and at some point like five past six became something else, but they were the same guys.

AMY GOODMAN: You don’t come to the United States very much. You —

ROBERT FISK: I come an awful lot, actually. On average, every three-and-a-half weeks, but I don’t always go on your program every three-and-a-half weeks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, when you see the networks, what do you think?

ROBERT FISK: I try not to see them, and I try not to read the New York Times, and I definitely will not be reading the L.A. Times anymore. You have a major problem in the United States, in that your journalists don’t challenge authority. They will not, will not, will not challenge authority, unless they think authority is lying on the ground. Then they’ll have a timid kick at it, which we’re now seeing with the Scooter Libby affair. But by and large —

AMY GOODMAN: And with Katrina, as well.

ROBERT FISK: And with Katrina, yes. But by and large, you only have to look at a presidential press conference: "Mr. President! Mr. President!" "Yes, Amy." "Yes, Bob." "Yes, John." That’s how the relationship — osmotic, parasitic, fearful. To be questioning of power will suggest that you are unpatriotic and thus potentially subversive.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, I want to thank you for joining us. He’ll be speaking tonight in New York at the Ethical Culture Society with David Barsamian at 7:00 and tomorrow at the CUNY Grad Center at 34th and 5th at 4 p.m.

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