Christian Parenti On the “Ongoing Despotism” in Iraq and Why Jim Lehrer Apologized For Parenti’s Comments

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Journalist Christian Parenti was embedded with US troops and the Iraqi resistance in Iraq. We’ll hear his story and we’ll look at why Jim Lehrer of PBS’s Newshour issued an apology to his viewers for comments Parenti made on his show. [includes transcript]

  • Christian Parenti, contributing writer to the Nation Magazine and author of the forthcoming book “The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq.” He was in Iraq this past December and January and spent time with the Iraqi resistance.
  • Excerpt of Chris Parenti on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Christian Parenti, who has spent a good deal of time in Iraq, both embedded with US troops, also interviewed Iraqi resistance fighters, both embedded with the 82nd Airborne and The Florida National Guard. As well as having interviewed Camilo Mejia extensively, it’s coming out in the next issue of The Nation, the Florida National Guardsman who surrendered to police, saying he will not return to fight in Iraq, has on the run for five months. Your comments.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well, I think that Camilo was incredibly brave in leading the way and refusing to go back to the killing fields of Iraq and I would urge the soldier, Cody, to consider that example. Yet the situation in Iraq is, you know, deteriorating, it seems, and I think that the contracting is central to it all. In this counterinsurgency war that the US is now fighting there, the political and economic component would be essential for the US to stabilize the situation. But the US administration seems to be caught in ideological bind. They’re so obsessed with the cult of the market that they have allowed Halliburton to just steal all of the money that might otherwise stabilize the situation. And that translates directly into dead US soldiers and dead Iraqi civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the experience of the two different units you are embedded with?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: The Florida National Guard unit that I spent time with in August was not very well supplied and morale was not super high. They were doing their best to carry on and the 82nd airborne, on the other hand, was fairly well supplied. They were on a shorter rotation and their morale was much higher and I think that is an important point, just in terms of people thinking about this war in terms of Vietnam. This war is very different from Vietnam. But to the extent that the army broke down in Vietnam, it was due to this large population of coerced draftees, and in the current situation, I think Reservists and National Guardsmen are, in in many ways, the new draftees and it is interesting that their proportion of the total deployment is going up, this new rotation.

AMY GOODMAN: You also wrote about Al Jazeera going to jail. Can you talk about the reporter who was imprisoned?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: There were two reporters in Abu Ghraib, and I interview a number of people and had family there and I went to Abu Ghraib. The guy I interviewed, Salah Hassan, is a cameraman and he was arrested by US forces and spent a month and a half being basically tortured in Abu Ghraib because the US doesn’t like Al Jazeera’s reporting. So, he was stripped naked, kept awake for long periods of time, hooded, bound, made to wear a vomit-covered uniform, given no access to a lawyer, not told what was happening, and finally due to pressure from Al Jazeera, he was released and so, too, after two months’ detention was his colleague. But the specifics of those intentions should be put in a larger context of the US really hating the fact that Al Jazeera reports critically on their occupation. And at the same time, the US has launched this new satellite station called Al-Hurra, the free one, which is a US-funded, sort of answer to Al Jazeera. So at the same time, they’re investing $100 million a year of taxpayer’s money in their propaganda battle, they’re trying to limit Al Jazeera and other critical Arab language networks by arresting journalists, killing journalists. The governing council has banned Al-Arabiyah for two months, which is now over and banned Al Jazeera from covering their meetings. So all of this pressure, both the violence and the political pressure, is a form of censorship, essentially, and that relates to a larger point. Fundamentally, the situation in Iraq is still one of despotism. The basic structure of Saddam’s society is still in place. You have random police searches and abuse of the population. You have massive use of detention, you have this form of press censorship, you have torture being used in Abu Ghraib—maybe not as excessively and physically violent as Saddam used, but wide spread psychological torture. You have hunger, you have a culture of spying and snitching and incredible fear among Iraqis . And with the collapse of the education system, you also have a form of enforced ignorance. So you have all of the features of despotism and of a totalitarian society. But it is now run by the US coalition.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Cody, the soldier who is back from Iraq, and now speaking out for the first time. Christian Parenti writes in The Nation about this reporter who was taken to Abu Ghraib, Salah Hassan, who worked for Al Jazeera. Once inside the sprawling prison, Hassan says he was greeted by US soldiers who sang “Happy Birthday” to him through his tight, plastic hood, stripped him naked, addressed him only as, “Al Jazeera boy” or “bitch”. He was forced to stand hooded, bound and naked for eleven hours in the bitter autumn night. When he fell, soldiers kicked his legs to get him up again. In the morning, he was made to wear a dirty red jumpsuit which was covered by someone else’s fresh vomit, and interrogated by Americans in civilian clothes. They made the usual accusations that Hassan and Al Jazeera were in cahoots with terrorists. You were at the prison. Does this sound like anything that you saw or witnessed?

CODY: We heard about things. When they moved in the interrogators at the end of the summer, it was — they were kind of kept separate from the rest of the people that were there, the rest of the soldiers. So, the thing is, I think they could have — I mean, I didn’t see it personally because we couldn’t see the interrogations and things like that and we would just catch word that there were new prisoners, this, this, and that, and — but I mean it sounds very real and I could see it happening because there is a lot of soldiers over there without guidance, as far as what they’re looking for or, you know, just bringing these people with, you know, tagged enemy. And everyone takes it upon themselves to try to treat them that way. The question is, who is the enemy and who’s not?

AMY GOODMAN: Cody, what is the attitude to a soldier like you, who speaks out or not even speaks out publicly like you are for the first time on national television and radio, but speaks out within your unit is critical?

CODY: See, the thing about speaking out is a lot of questions about how you will be looked at after that. Anyone that’s anti-Bush or anti-war will be looked at as a traitor and I’m just trying to put out to everybody that you can be — you can love the Army and you can love America and just because you don’t want to be in Iraq doesn’t make you a traitor to your country. That doesn’t make you any less patriotic. But you’re being labeled that way because, you know, they’re trying to suppress what the real morale is over there.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll go to break. When we come back, we’ll continue this discussion and then we’re going to hear from people around the world who are preparing for protests this weekend. This is Democracy Now!. We’re speaking with two US soldiers who have returned from Iraq. One will be protesting tomorrow. The other will be going back, not exactly sure where, still part of the military, Christian Parenti with us, as well, a journalist embedded with US troops and also interviewed Iraqi resistance fighters. Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: Welcome back to Democracy Now!, the war and peace report. I’m Amy Goodman. In the last few days, Christian Parenti, author of an upcoming book on occupied Iraq was interviewed on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. I wanted to play an excerpt of what you had to say.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI (RECORDING): Why are Iraqis so angry and willing to point the blame at the US after this sort of bombing? A lot of it has to do with the failure of meaningful reconstruction. There still isn’t adequate electricity in many towns like Ramadi. When I was there there wasn’t adequate water. Where is all the money that’s going to Halliburton and Bechtel to rebuild this country, where is it ending up? And I think that is one of the most important, fundamental causes of instability, the corruption around the contracting with these Bush-connected firms in Iraq and unless that is dealt with, there is going to be much more instability for times to come in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Christian Parenti on the air. What happened after that?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well, then I went home and went to sleep and the next morning I got a call from the producer, who is a very nice guy, Dan Segalan, and he was upset that I had been unbalanced and I asked him what was unbalanced and he said, “Well, it is not that you said that was problematic, but we didn’t have someone to count you are your points about Halliburton.” I said, “Wait a minute, you don’t have someone countering administration positions every time they’re on.” And he agreed that that was true. He said but, you know, overall it all balances out. We get different positions on and overall it all balances out. Then I don’t understand why my comments won’t be balanced out the next time you have someone from the administration or somewhere else on. And so then he hung up and he was — I didn’t understand what he was getting at. And then he called back and said that Jim Lehrer was so upset that Jim Lehrer was going to read some sort of apology on the air. Which I thought was ridiculous. But I was very flattered that he though it was so important what I said.

AMY GOODMAN: On March 4, Jim Lehrer returned to the end of the show, at the end of the program, and read the following statement — “For those whose were watching two nights ago, a discussion about Iraq ended up by — ended up not being as balanced as is our standard practice, while unintentional, it was indeed our mistake and we regret it.”

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Surreal is all I can say. I mean, I think what it shows is the idea logical rigidity of that show and of most of the mainstream media in this US, in this country, that they can take issue with stating facts such as there is corruption in Halliburton, which is a Bush-connected firm. The Pentagon has begun criminal investigations against this firm. Its subsidiaries are continually giving back money for overcharging. There’s nothing at all controversial about that point.

AMY GOODMAN: And the idea that you were a reporter brought on to report and not to express opinion?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Right. That was one argument they made and I don’t think I was expressing opinion. I was referring to my experience in Iraq. And this is very palpable. People talk about the lack of reconstruction all the time and I referred to that experience. It wasn’t an opinion. It was facts. And, actually if one did support this war, they should be very, very concerned about these issues. So, I just saw that —

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by that?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well, I think that one of the main — if this — if the US loses this is counterinsurgency war, it will be primarily because it has completely messed up the political and economic side. Militarily, the US has total dominance. In all guerilla wars, the political and economic side is key. That’s how the Brits won in Malaysia was by really creating a functioning, legitimate government. That’s why the US lost in Vietnam. It could not create a functioning, legitimate puppet government or create meaningful economic reform. So if in five years down the line the resistance has grown, the US is beleaguered, the army is breaking down and about to pull out, a lot of that will have to do with the fact that billions upon billions of dollars had been, literally, given away to these firms that then don’t repair the roads, don’t repair the sewers, don’t repair the water or the electrical systems and telephone systems and in the process don’t hire Iraqis to do this and succeed in alienating the population there.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Hoffman, former Marine artilleryman served in Iraq from March to May. What will be your major statement tomorrow outside Fort Bragg?

MICHAEL HOFFMAN: There is going to be two points I’m really going to try to make tomorrow. The first is that the active duty reservists and the recent (inaudible) in Iraq, if they feel that the war is wrong, they need to start speaking out, just like Cody has, and I have been — and the number is slowly growing. Just recently with all the returning — with all the returning troops from Iraq, the numbers are slowly starting to grow. For a while, I was honestly, as far as I knew, the only one publicly speaking out. But, of course, as you can see, that’s slowly starting to change. The other message I always try to stress is the fact that — or not the fact, but the way the administration’s avoiding the real cost of the war. They are constantly broadcasting the total number of deaths there, but they’re not talking about what those deaths mean here, to the families, and they’re also not talking about the mental and physical wounds that are happening over there. We are at — I was at the protests this Monday at Walter Reid Memorial Hospital and there was a counter-protest there saying, “Don’t use our wounded as propaganda tools.” And our response was we’re not using them as propaganda tools. We’re just trying to make people aware that they’re here, which is something I feel many, many Americans aren’t aware of at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Cody, I give you the last word. You’re on temporary leave. Where do you head now? Where will you be deployed?

CODY: Well, I’m going back to Germany.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you go to Iraq if you were told you had to?

CODY: It depends on what means I would be send. If it meant keeping somebody else back, then yeah, I’d go in their place. But I wouldn’t go voluntarily.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Cody who does not want to use his full name, speaking out on temporary leave from deployment in Iraq and Michael Hoffman, former Marine artilleryman, will be at Fort Bragg tomorrow. Christian Parenti, contributing editor — contributing writer to The Nation magazine, author of the forthcoming book, The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq. Thank you for being with us.

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