Three weeks after being shot by US forces in Iraq, veteran Italian war correspondent Giuliana Sgrena is released from a military hospital. New details are emerging about the killing of the Italian agent who saved her life. We speak with independent journalist Naomi Klein, who just returned from meeting with Sgrena in Rome. [includes rush transcript]
In Rome, journalist Giuliana Sgrena has been released from a military hospital where she was being treated for a gunshot wound she suffered when US forces shot up the car bringing her to freedom after a month being held hostage in Iraq. The head of Italy’s Foreign Military Intelligence Nicola Calipari was killed in the attack when he shielded Sgrena from the bullets.
Yesterday, Italian newspapers reported that the justice minister has asked U.S. authorities to release the car so it can be examined by Italian ballistics experts. The papers said the request came after the U.S. command in Iraq reportedly blocked two Italian policemen from examining the car.
- Naomi Klein, award-winning journalist and author of “Fences and Windows: Dispatches From the Front Lines” of the “Globalization Debate and No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies.” She just met with Giuliana Sgrena in Rome.
AMY GOODMAN: : We’re joined in Washington, D.C. by journalist Naomi Klein, who has just met with Giuliana Sgrena in Rome. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Naomi.
NAOMI KLEIN: Thanks, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: : Can you talk about what she told you?
NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah. At first I want to say that I know Giuliana really would have liked to have been on the show herself to talk to your listeners and viewers, but one of the things that surprised me when I met with Giuliana is that she was quite a bit sicker than I think we have been led to believe. Her injuries were described as fairly minor; she was shot in the shoulder. But when I met with her, she was clearly very, very ill, and that’s why she’s not on the show this morning. She was fired on by a gun at the top of a tank, which means that the artillery was very, very large. It was a four-inch bullet that entered her body and broke apart. And it didn’t just injure her shoulder, it punctured her lung. And her lung continues to fill with fluid, and there continues to be complications stemming from that fairly serious injury. So that was one of the details.
She told me a lot about the incident that I had not fully understood from the reports in the press. One of the most — and at first, the other thing I want to be really clear about is that Giuliana is not saying that she’s certain in any way that the attack on the car was intentional. She is simply saying that she has many, many unanswered questions, and there are many parts of her direct experience that simply don’t coincide with the official U.S. version of the story. One of the things that we keep hearing is that she was fired on on the road to the airport, which is a notoriously dangerous road. In fact, it’s often described as the most dangerous road in the world. So this is treated as a fairly common and understandable incident that there would be a shooting like this on that road. And I was on that road myself, and it is a really treacherous place with explosions going off all the time and a lot of checkpoints. What Giuliana told me that I had not realized before is that she wasn’t on that road at all. She was on a completely different road that I actually didn’t know existed. It’s a secured road that you can only enter through the Green Zone and is reserved exclusively for ambassadors and top military officials. So, when Calipari, the Italian security intelligence officer, released her from captivity, they drove directly to the Green Zone, went through the elaborate checkpoint process which everyone must go through to enter the Green Zone, which involves checking in obviously with U.S. forces, and then they drove onto this secured road. And the other thing that Giuliana told me that she’s quite frustrated about is the description of the vehicle that fired on her as being part of a checkpoint. She says it wasn’t a checkpoint at all. It was simply a tank that was parked on the side of the road that opened fire on them. There was no process of trying to stop the car, she said, or any signals. From her perspective, they were just — it was just opening fire by a tank. The other thing she told me that was surprising to me was that they were fired on from behind. Because I think part of what we’re hearing is that the U.S. soldiers opened fire on their car, because they didn’t know who they were, and they were afraid. It was self-defense, they were afraid. The fear, of course, is that their car might blow up or that they might come under attack themselves. And what Giuliana Sgrena really stressed with me was that she — the bullet that injured her so badly and that killed Calipari, came from behind, entered the back seat of the car. And the only person who was not severely injured in the car was the driver, and she said that this is because the shots weren’t coming from the front or even from the side. They were coming from behind, i.e. they were driving away. So, the idea that this was an act of self-defense, I think becomes much more questionable. And that detail may explain why there’s some reticence to give up the vehicle for inspection. Because if indeed the majority of the gunfire is coming from behind, then clearly, they were firing from — they were firing at a car that was driving away from them.
AMY GOODMAN: : Now, can you talk about when Nicola Calipari arrived in Baghdad? For people who have not been following this story so much, the U.S. version of events of them driving to the airport very fast on a road with many checkpoints as you pointed out, not the secured road, that the U.S. soldiers fired into the air, tried to stop the vehicle, that they just kept on coming, and so eventually, they shot at them. Can you talk about how the Italian military intelligence official first came to Iraq?
NAOMI KLEIN: My understanding is he came the day before, and that he had checked in. U.S. authorities were aware of his presence. There was some kind of a negotiation process, but these details actually haven’t come to light. The details that led to the negotiation, if there was a ransom paid. We don’t know those details yet. What Giuliana knows is simply what happened from the moment of her release to this day, and her description is that she didn’t see any of those signals, and she really wants people to know that she was not on a road with any checkpoints, and in fact, she told me many times that Iraqis are not in any way able to access this road. It’s not the road that we hear described so many times as being a road with roadside bombs going off all the time, with checkpoints that you have to pass through. It’s a completely separate road, actually a Saddam-era road, it would seem, that allowed his vehicles to pass directly from the airport to his palace. And now that is the U.S. military base at the airport directly to the U.S.-controlled Green Zone and the U.S. Embassy.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Naomi, what did she tell you about Calipari? He was sitting in the car with her in the back, or what happened when the shooting began, and — with him?
NAOMI KLEIN: Yes. I mean, she feels a tremendous amount of guilt, as you can imagine, and one of the reasons why she feels so much guilt is that Calipari chose to sit with her in the back seat. There were only three of them in the vehicle. So, he could have sat in the front seat with the driver. But because she was so afraid and she had just emerged from this horrifying ordeal of being in captivity for a month, he told Giuliana, let’s sit together in the back seat, and I’ll tell you — she said that he was telling her stories to try to reconnect her with her life, because she had been incredibly disoriented. One of the things that she has told me was most disorienting about her month in captivity was just that she didn’t know what — the difference between day and night. She didn’t have control over the light switches, and because of Baghdad’s constant blackouts, the lights would go on and off at all hours, and she couldn’t control the switches. So she really didn’t know where she was. She says she has kind of a black hole of that month. She said one of the most terrifying things was that she would often hear U.S. helicopters over the house, and she was obviously very afraid that the house that she was in would come under fire, because obviously it was a resistance house. It was a resistance stronghold. So she had many reasons to fear. She was afraid of her captors. She was afraid of U.S. soldiers. And so, Calipari sat with her in the back seat, and he just told her stories about all of her friends, about her husband, about everyone who had been worried about her, about Italy, and that was the context in which he was killed. So it was his decision to sit with her in the back seat, and he was telling her these stories and reconnecting her with her past life, with her current life, when he died protecting her from a bullet. And she told me that that moment is really all she’s able to remember vividly. That’s the only moment that feels real to her is the moment of his death. In fact, her month in captivity, horrific as it was, she said feels like a far-away dream. All she can think about is the moment where he died really in her arms, protecting her.
JUAN GONZALEZ: What about the driver of the car? Did she tell you anything about what happened with him, or did she recall that part?
NAOMI KLEIN: Well, what she told me, and this is once — an incident that I know that has been reported on in the Italian press, but not so much in the American press, is that after the shooting, she was very injured. They took her out of the car and lay her down, I think — I don’t know if they had a stretcher, but they — she was being tended to, her wounds were being tended to. And the driver who was another intelligence officer called Italy and was on the phone, I think, with Berlusconi, she said, and he said, our car has just been fired on by 300 to 400 bullets. And as he was saying this, the U.S. soldiers ordered him to hang up the phone. So, but I asked her whether she had connected with him since the incident, and she said that she had not, with the driver.
AMY GOODMAN: : We’re talking to Naomi Klein, independent journalist, who just met with Giuliana Sgrena, saw her in her hospital room in Rome. I’m looking at Jeremy Scahill’s piece in the most recent Indypendent called “Checkpoint Killings Unchecked,” that says the Italian government, a close ally of the Bush administration is disputing what the U.S. says. According to Italy’s foreign minister, Calipari arrived in Baghdad that Friday after making contact with the kidnappers. Calipari and a fellow agent checked in with U.S. authorities at the airport as well as the forces patrolling the area. The agents had been given security badges by the U.S. to allow them to travel freely in the country after picking up Sgrena from the abandoned vehicle where her kidnappers left her. They drove slowly to the airport, keeping the car lights on to help identify themselves at U.S. checkpoints. It says, news of Sgrena’s release was already on the Reuters newswire and on Al-Jazeera. The mood in the car was one of celebration until the vehicle came under intense gunfire. So this is also not only what you and Giuliana Sgrena are saying, but quite something that one of Bush’s closest allies to the top, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is now refuting his ally’s claims and also demanding an investigation that the U.S. is stopping at this point. Naomi?
NAOMI KLEIN: Well, Berlusconi is facing elections at the beginning of April, which is partially why he needs to be seen to be taking somewhat of a tough line with the U.S. He doesn’t — he is not facing presidential elections. That doesn’t come for another — I think until 2007, but there are regional elections, and this was a national, obviously, a national incident, and he needed to be seen to be standing up to the U.S. in some way. But he’s really been going back and forth, and this is another thing that Giuliana Sgrena was very frustrated about, because as we know she is very, very opposed and continues to be strongly opposed to the ongoing occupation of Iraq, believes that Italian and all, indeed, all foreign troops should withdraw. And in the — one thing that she told me that was very moving was, she believes that her release really came as a result of anti-war organizing in Italy across incredible coalitions, and she said that she feels like her life is a testament to what people can do when they get organized, and when they work together. And she is frustrated that that same pressure forced Berlusconi to announce that Italian troops would be withdrawn in September, and she really felt that the left opposition parties should have really maintained pressure on Berlusconi to insist on Italian troop withdrawal now. But in fact, Berlusconi has been allowed to backpedal on this claim, and now he is saying he didn’t really say that; they will withdraw when Iraqi security forces are strong enough. And of course, Iraqi security forces — it’s not a training problem, it’s an occupation problem. The reason why Iraqi security forces are not strong enough is because they’re being massacred, because they’re seen as an extension of the occupation. They don’t have independence. And the continued occupation is the greatest problem to Iraqi security independence. It is not helping.
AMY GOODMAN: : Naomi, we have to break. When we come back we will continue this discussion and also talk about Paul Wolfowitz to be President of the World Bank.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue with independent reporter, Naomi Klein. She just met with Giuliana Sgrena, who has just been released from a Rome hospital to her home though she is still very ill, dealing with having been shot on the way to the airport after her release by — in Iraqi captivity. Naomi Klein, the news that the checkpoint — that the road that they — that Calipari was killed on, that she was driving on, Sgrena, when she was being driven to the airport, had been set up for — that there had been a checkpoint set up for the trip of U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte to a dinner that night with General George Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq to provide security. U.S. soldiers established mobile checkpoint, clusters of humvees armed with 50 caliber machine guns on top. It was one of the details that opened fire on the Italians’ vehicle. Have you heard anything about this?
NAOMI KLEIN: Well, this would support what Giuliana told me, which is that the road she was on was not the public road that other journalists have traveled on, and that contractors and so on travel on, the very dangerous road. It was a secured road reserved for top Embassy officials, like obviously like Negroponte. But one thing that’s very clear is that if she is on this road, and the way she explains it, she had to go through a U.S. checkpoint in order to get into the Green Zone. You can only access this road through the Green Zone. It’s very, very difficult to get into the Green Zone. When I tried to get into the Green Zone, I had to go through six checkpoints — six different passport checks. So, the idea that the American military didn’t know that they were on the road, that they — that didn’t know about their presence is impossible, if she was, in fact, on a road that emerged out of the Green Zone. And I think that the idea that there was a mobile checkpoint set up for Negroponte obviously supports this claim very strongly. What Giuliana was talking about was what she was — the only thing she could figure out is that the people who they checked in with in the Green Zone, the U.S. soldiers they checked in with in the Green Zone in order to get in, didn’t radio ahead to these mobile checkpoints and warn them that they were coming. And from her perspective, that could have either been a mistake, or it could have been some sort of act of vengeance and anger, you know, and we know that there’s a lot of anger at the idea that Italians may be paying very large ransoms for the release of prisoners. She’s not alleging some grand conspiracy. There could have just been a broken down communication. But the idea that they didn’t know, I think, is impossible, if she was on this secured road, because it emerged out of the Green Zone and you cannot get into the grown zone without passing through a checkpoint.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But even if there was broken down communication, it would seem that the issue of even just firing on a car that is moving away from you and is posing no threat to you on this secured road certainly raises questions of at least extreme negligence on the part of the U.S. soldiers.
NAOMI KLEIN: I think so. And I think that the — all of these details will obviously emerge from the investigation, and we’ll be hearing it directly from Giuliana herself and presumably from the driver.
AMY GOODMAN: Did Giuliana talk about her time in captivity and who held her, Naomi Klein?
NAOMI KLEIN: Yes, she did. I mean, she talked about this incredible disorientation. I think — I know that you have covered the case on your show, and you have really stressed the fact that Giuliana’s experience is not at all unique from the perspective of Iraqis who are living in this sort of pincer of the fear of being caught in a bombing by the resistance or a fear of being shot by U.S. soldiers at a checkpoint, and this is an ongoing fear every time Iraqis leave their home, and we’re only hearing about this because there was foreigner involved, because it was such a dramatic incident. But I think the other part of the story is the implications for journalists and for independent journalists, because Giuliana Sgrena is really a hero, and she is an incredibly committed war correspondent who has put herself in situations of tremendous risk around the world. She has been to Iraq many, many times. And she went back to Iraq after Simona Pari and Simona Torretta had been kidnapped and released. She told me she has met with the Simonas in her hospital room, as well as several other people who had been kidnapped. She referred to it as the ex-kidnapped club. And she went knowing these risks, but one thing she told me that I think is an issue that you have discussed often on the show is the implications for all of this, for whether independent journalists can do their job in Iraq. And coming from someone who has been willing to take such tremendous risks, she said she just cannot figure out how it’s possible at this point. This is because the people who held her made it very clear to her that they don’t want independent journalists working in Iraq talking to Iraqis. And this was really one of the most disturbing details and, I think, a very telling detail. She told them that that made them just like Bush, because the Bush administration has also made it clear that they don’t want independent witnesses talking to Iraqis, counting the bodies, highlighting the civilian toll of the war, but there are also clearly some elements of the resistance that feel the same way, and this makes it very, very difficult for independent journalists to do their work.