Four years ago, Josh Rushing helped sell the Iraq War to the American public as a Marine spokesperson when the U.S. invaded Iraq. He’s since retired from the Marines and has started working at an unlikely outlet — the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera International. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Four years ago, our first guest today helped sell the Iraq War to the American public. Armed with talking points from the Bush administration, Josh Rushing served as a Marine spokesperson at CENTCOM in Doha as the U.S. invaded Iraq. Josh Rushing has since retired from the Marines and has started working at an unlikely outlet: the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera International.
Rushing became famous in the Arab world after he appeared almost by chance in the documentary Control Room about Al Jazeera. After the film was released, the Marines ordered Rushing to stop speaking to the press, because he had begun publicly defending Al Jazeera. When the network launched an English-language channel, Rushing was offered a job.
Josh Rushing writes about his transition from the Marines to Al Jazeera in his new book, Mission Al Jazeera: Build a Bridge, Seek the Truth, Change the World. Josh Rushing joins us now in the firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!
JOSH RUSHING: Thank you for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you join the Marines?
JOSH RUSHING: I joined the Marines out of a sense of civic responsibility my parents believe in, that you have to give something back, so essentially my sister and I were raised either a teacher, military, firemen, police — something along those lines, you’ve got to do at least for a few years. So when I graduated high school, I was looking for ways I could put myself through college, I was looking for ways I could give back to my community, and it led me to the Marine Corps.
AMY GOODMAN: So you went into the Marines. Where did you go? Where did you begin? Where was your basic training? And then, where did you end up?
JOSH RUSHING: Sure. Well, it was 14 years of active duty, but long story short is, I went to basic training in California in San Diego. Everyone west of the Mississippi goes to boot camp in San Diego; east goes to Parris Island, South Carolina. From there, I went through infantry school, Camp Pendleton, California. They pulled me out to be a journalist, oddly enough, for the Marine Corps, a print journalist, and sent me to journalism school in Indianapolis at a military base. From there, I traveled the world for the next several years writing for military newspapers and magazines. Selected for a college program, I went to the University of Texas, still active duty, got a degree in the classics in ancient history while there; became an officer; went through infantry school again as an officer; went to flight school; ended up back in my old field, eventually, of public affairs, being a media liaison; eventually ended up working in Hollywood, representing the Marine Corps to the entertainment industry. And then for six months I was pulled out.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that part, the representing the Marine Corps to the entertainment industry. Explain how Hollywood works with the military.
JOSH RUSHING: Sure. It depends on how you look at it. The military looks at it as an educational opportunity. They realize how influential Hollywood is in shaping people’s views of the military, and everything else, for that matter. So what they do is that they make government bases, planes, tanks, personnel all available to Hollywood if the script is in some way deemed educational and pretty close to accurate — more important to be educational than actually accurate. And my job was to go through the script, make sure there was some value for the American citizen and the government participating in that, and then making sure the government was reimbursed to the penny, so that it didn’t cost taxpayers anything.
AMY GOODMAN: And if they didn’t like a script, they wouldn’t allow them to use the —
JOSH RUSHING: I spent more time saying no than yes to projects. For example, Jarhead was a book — I actually loved the book, Anthony Swofford’s account of his time in the Gulf War, the first one, but I had to say no to the script, even though the military tech adviser was a friend of mine, even though the writer of the script, Bill Broyles, is a former Marine, and then Sam Mendes directed American Beauty, my favorite movie. But we said no because it just had inaccuracies, and it didn’t show the events as they were, and it lacked what I guess was an educational element.
AMY GOODMAN: I remember interviewing the author of Black Hawk Down, saying, yeah, he changed the script to make the military happy, because they wanted to use — I mean, it’s, to say the least, very dramatic when you can have millions of dollars of U.S. military money invested in a film.
JOSH RUSHING: There was a scene in Black Hawk Down where it had a senior officer slapping a junior enlisted member across the face, and the scene was pulled from the script. And then, the director — who I’m forgetting right now.
AMY GOODMAN: The author was Mark Bowden. Wasn’t him.
JOSH RUSHING: Mark Bowden, exactly, yeah —- wanted to insert it back into the script, and the military pulled all the gear from the movie, and the movie used a ton of military stuff. They filmed it in Morocco, had all these military helicopters, millions of dollars’ worth of military stuff that they just couldn’t have otherwise. In the civilian world, you can’t get some of the things the military has, so -—
AMY GOODMAN: Ridley Scott was the director, right?
JOSH RUSHING: Ridley Scott, that’s right. That’s right. Scott wanted to put it in. It became a big showdown between Scott and the Army major. And the Army major pulled all the aircraft, and they said on the set for several days — millions of dollars a day passing by into the studio — said, “OK, Scott. Drop the scene.” And then they moved forward with the project. But the job in Hollywood, at its worst, is when it’s used for nothing but spin, when it’s used for shaping movies to sell, you know, a message that may or may not be true.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, that’s certainly the power, I mean, if they can withdraw millions of dollars worth of military gear.
JOSH RUSHING: Absolutely is. Absolutely is. And it really depends on the personality and the job. The same civilian has been in charge of it at the Pentagon for years now, a guy named Phil Strub, who’s not a bad guy, and he was my boss when I worked in Hollywood.
But an example is A Few Good Men. Do you remember the movie with Tom Cruise? And it’s about a Marine squad. They kill a marine down in Gitmo, actually, and then it’s a cover-up to the highest levels down there. And Tom Cruise is a Navy lawyer that kind of unravels the whole plot. That script, which I think is actually a great movie — Aaron Sorkin wrote it — was rejected by my office years ago. They denied support for it. I looked at the script and the project, what they were looking for, just out of curiosity when I was in the office, and I would have supported it, because in the end it showed that the colonel played by Jack Nicholson as being arrested and taken away. So it showed there are some bad apples, even at those very high levels, but that institutionally the institution wasn’t corrupt. So I would have supported that movie in a heartbeat. So it really depends on the personality of the person in that office, as to how they use it.
AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, Tom Cruise, in that film A Few Good Men, was playing David Iglesias, who was the U.S. attorney who was fired in this whole U.S. attorney scandal under Alberto Gonzales.
JOSH RUSHING: Really? I didn’t know that.
AMY GOODMAN: As a young attorney.
JOSH RUSHING: I didn’t know that was based on a real person at all.
AMY GOODMAN: I believe it was.
JOSH RUSHING: Oh, that’s fascinating. The law comes back full circle.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go forward from Hollywood to the war in Iraq, because you do have CENTCOM, where you served, that ended up being this multi-hundred-thousand-dollar set to present the war on Iraq. Explain.
JOSH RUSHING: Yeah, I was pulled out for six months to go from my Hollywood job to CENTCOM. There was actually no relationship between the two. And, ironically, I’m known for a movie out of CENTCOM, rather than out of my Hollywood job. But I went to CENTCOM to be a spokesperson for General Tommy Franks and Central Command, where, yeah, there was a lot of production value there for a military, you know, spokesperson’s office. We had a $200,000 set meant for generals to give the daily briefing from. It was intended to look very high-tech and send the message to, I guess, the world that down to the last detail we were the most high-tech, you know, tech-savvy army ever, that kind of thing. But I think a lot of people find it shocking to bring in a Hollywood set designer to set up a stage for a general to give war briefings from. It tells you you’re in a new stage of the information age, doesn’t it?
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the kind of information that was presented at CENTCOM and how you were feeling as someone in the Marines who was part of shaping that message, and how you changed along the way.
JOSH RUSHING: Yeah, no. This part was really rough for me, because as a military spokesperson, you don’t talk about policy. You talk about the way you’re going to conduct an action, not why you’re going to conduct an action. So if someone were to ask me before the war, “Why are you going to invade Iraq?” — and reporters did — the only honest answer I could give is, “We’ll invade Iraq if the president orders us to. And we won’t if he doesn’t. We don’t get to pick and choose our battles.” That way, it’s left to a politician in a suit behind a podium at the White House to explain why they made that decision.
But instead, what we did, we had a Republican operative who was put in charge of our office, displacing a colonel that had started doing media liaison when this Republican operative was about probably five years old. And what this guy knew how to do was run a campaign, and so we were run like a political campaign. And the first step in that political campaign was to sell the product, and that was sell the invasion. So they gave the reasons down to the young troops, guys like me, to go out to reporters and give the reasons we’re going to invade a sovereign nation.
Here’s the problem: The reporters in no way had the latitude to ask someone in uniform a critical question. I mean, on MSNBC their coverage was actually packaged with a banner that said, “Our hearts are with you.” So when I’m the young troop in uniform on screen, and the viewer sees “Our hearts are with you,” do you think the reporter’s going to ask me a critical question? Of course not. But I’m out there giving political answers. I’m out there saying, “We’re going to invade Iraq” — and this was the real catch: They would ask me before I would go on air live, “Are there any messages you want to get across today?” Well, yeah. My boss comes straight from the White House, and they have the messages of the day, and so they would give it to us. So I’d say, “Sure. WMD, regime change, ties with terrorism.” And they go, “OK. Well, I’ll ask you these questions, so we can get those answers out.” And they set it all up.
AMY GOODMAN: Who, in particular, would say this?
JOSH RUSHING: You know, I pick on Fox a lot. Fox reporters would do it. But NBC did it, as well. Those two were probably the worst about it, because those two were the most competitive about wanting access. I think they saw this as kind of part of the game. So we would go on live. They would ask me, you know, the staged questions. They would pat me on the back and thank me for my service. And then, “Back to you, John, in New York.” And the answers I gave weren’t the way we were going to conduct an action. They were the political reasons for invading another nation. And I was just a junior officer. So it was really kind of startling the way that all went down.
AMY GOODMAN: Jim Wilkinson, who is he?
JOSH RUSHING: Jim Wilkinson is the Republican operative I was talking about. He’s a guy that — he’s about my age. He’s from a small town in Texas. Again, I don’t believe he’s a bad guy. I just — I disagree with what he was ordered to do, what he volunteered to do. He worked in Dick Armey’s office. He is credited with coming up with a line about Gore having invented the Internet. That was Jim’s work.
Then, in the 2000 elections, he was in charge of the media down in the Florida recount, where there was one point where the Dade County voting board was going to recount the ballots down there. The Republicans didn’t want them to recount it until a decision had been made by the courts, and so they stormed the office. The office had to shut down, couldn’t do the recount. It was Jim in the press — you can go back and look at the articles — who says it was just a moment where a bunch of Americans felt the voting process was being taken away from them, and so, you know, they got a little over-emotional, and that’s what happened. But if you actually look at the pictures, it’s called the “Brooks Brothers Riot” these days, because everyone in the picture, the rioters, are all in bow ties and nice suits [inaudible]. They’re young, 20-something, blond hair. And if you start to kind of circle the faces and identify them, they’re all congressional staffers, Republican congressional staffers. But if that was an organized event, it would be illegal. It would be voter intimidation. So — moving them across state lines to perform that kind of thing, because they were all out of Washington, D.C. So that’s why Jim was in the press saying, “Oh, you know, this wasn’t organized. These were just emotional people who felt the system was being taken from their grasp.”
AMY GOODMAN: So it was this party operative, Republican Party operative —
JOSH RUSHING: That was Jim Wilkinson.
AMY GOODMAN: —- that was designing -—
JOSH RUSHING: Yeah, designed the whole thing.
AMY GOODMAN: — that was setting the scene at CENTCOM.
JOSH RUSHING: Yeah. He did so well there down in Florida, the next place he pops up is September 14, 2001, right here in New York, where he hands the bullhorn to President Bush, for Bush to tell the workers at Ground Zero that “I hear you, and soon the world will hear you.” And it’s a huge media event, and that, again, was Wilkinson. Wilkinson goes from there to CENTCOM.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break. When we come back, we’re going to play a clip of Control Room that made you famous around the world. We’re talking to the Marine-spokesperson-turned-Al-Jazeera-reporter, Josh Rushing. His new book is called Mission Al Jazeera. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue with Josh Rushing. His new book is Mission Al Jazeera: Build a Bridge, Seek the Truth, Change the World. I want to turn to an excerpt of the documentary, Control Room, about Al Jazeera. This clip goes back to the opening weeks of the war in 2003, when Al Jazeera broadcast footage of captured U.S. soldiers. In this excerpt, you’ll see Al Jazeeera journalist Hassan Ibrahim; Joanne Tucker, the manager of aljazeera.net; and, finally, Josh Rushing. But it starts with U.S. Army Specialist Shoshana Johnson being shown as a POW on Al Jazeera.
AL JAZEERA REPORTER: Where do you come from?
SPC. SHOSHANA JOHNSON: Texas.
AL JAZEERA REPORTER: You come from Texas?
SPC. SHOSHANA JOHNSON: Yes.
AL JAZEERA REPORTER: How old are you?
SPC. SHOSHANA JOHNSON: Thirty.
AL JAZEERA REPORTER: Yes?
SPC. SHOSHANA JOHNSON: Thirty.
AL JAZEERA ANCHOR: [speaking Arabic]
HASSAN IBRAHIM: Oh, that’s calling the kettle black. Rumsfeld is saying parading the footage of the captives is a violation of the Geneva Convention. What do you call Guananamo Bay? What do you call the Iraqi soldiers parading yesterday on American television? What do you call bombing a city without authorization from the U.N. Security Council? Now there’s a Geneva Convention? [inaudible]
BRIAN BURRIDGE: The decision by Al Jazeera to broadcast such material is deplorable, and we call on them to desist from future broadcasts of such a nature.
JOANNE TUCKER: Are we sure about this news? Are we sure? OK.
REPORTER: There’s a lot of pressure, obviously, on Al Jazeera to withdraw those pictures. Were you surprised by the reaction to those photographs?
JOANNE TUCKER: I think they were understandable. The reactions didn’t really surprise me. If you’re an American and you’re seeing dead Americans, of course it’s going to affect you and you’re going to have an emotional reaction. But, you know, let the people understand that this is a war and people are dying. It’s not a clean war. It’s a very messy war. It will continue to get messier.
REPORTER: Your journalists have a position on the war. Are they capable of being objective?
JOANNE TUCKER: That’s a good question, but I ask the same question. I’ll answer the question by asking a question. Are any U.S. journalists objective about this war? Are any of the news broadcasts that I tune into not taking a position on the war? And that’s absolutely shown —
REPORTER: Does that justify your position then?
JOANNE TUCKER: No, but I’m just trying to show that this word “objectivity” is almost a mirage. You know, if you’re in the States, I mean, the amount of rage directed against us because we showed soldiers who had died in combat or in an ambush — they were soldiers who had died in a war zone — there was rage directed against us. If there was no agenda, if there was true neutrality, there would be a welcoming of any and all information from all sides.
JOSH RUSHING: The night they showed the POWs and the dead soldiers — Al Jazeera showed them — it was powerful, because America doesn’t show those kind of images. In most of the news, America won’t show really gory images. And this showed American soldiers in uniform strewn about a floor, a cold tile floor, and it was revolting. It was absolutely revolting. It made me sick in my stomach.
And then what hit me was, the night before, there had been some kind of bombing in Basra, and Al Jazeera had shown images of the people, and they were equally, if not more, horrifying — the images were. And I remember having seen it in the Al Jazeera offices and thought to myself, “Wow, that’s gross. That’s bad,” and then going away and probably eating dinner or something. And, you know, it didn’t affect me as much. So the impact that had on me, me realizing that I just saw people on the other side, and those people in the Al Jazeera office must have felt the way I was feeling that night, and it upset me on a profound level that I wasn’t as bothered as much the night before. It makes me hate war, but it doesn’t make me believe that we’re in a world that can live without war yet.
AMY GOODMAN: Josh Rushing in the film Control Room, former Marine spokesperson, now actually works at Al Jazeera — English — Al Jazeera International. As you watched that, your thoughts?
JOSH RUSHING: It’s just hard to watch some of that footage. And I think it’s kind of interesting, because now I understand the process I was going through. And I didn’t understand it at the time. I didn’t recognize it at that time. But it’s a universal thing that we all do. We all feel most empathetic for those who appear most like us and the least sympathetic for those who appear the least like us. And I think going into the war, the Arabs and the Iraqis were clearly the “them.” They were least like me. But the longer I was there and the more time I spent with them, the more I realized we had in common than in difference. And in doing that without quite realizing it intentionally, I was gaining a real sense of empathy for them, realizing we had so much more together than we did apart. And that’s why I realized that their dead should hurt me as much as our dead.
AMY GOODMAN: Tommy Franks. You asked the general to start talking to Al Jazeera.
JOSH RUSHING: I did, yeah. I asked him. Actually, it was just simply to call on an Al Jazeera reporter first at a press conference, as kind of a sign of respect. And his response was, “Yeah, sure, right after I rip off his head and” — well, I can’t say the word — “I crap down his throat.” And then it kind of moved on. And he’s a four-star general, and I was a young lieutenant, and there’s not much I can say in response to that. But it clearly showed their attitude about, you know, engaging Al Jazeera. I mean, if you won’t even call on them first at a press conference, forget about giving their reporters any kind of access to senior leadership or, you know, to information, to empowering their reporters in a way that they could tell the CENTCOM story. Absolutely forget about that.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a clip of British Lieutenant Commander Steve Tatham. He was the head of the British Royal Navy’s media operations in the northern Arabian Gulf. He served as the British Navy spokesperson in the critical months leading up to, during and after the Iraq invasion. He was responsible for war correspondents embedded with British troops and for responding to the flood of media inquiries during the invasion. Tatham worked alongside U.S. military planners in the Gulf, coordinating the huge media campaign that foreshadowed and accompanied the Iraq War. He also wrote a book called Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion. I went to his house, Lieutenant Commander Steve Tatham’s house, last year, and this is some of what he had to say.
LT. CMR. STEVE TATHAM: There’s a press briefing with American forces, where all of the media are invited to attend. It’s a sitrep on the operational situation, but as Al Jazeera go into that briefing, they’re stopped by a U.S. officer and said, “No, sorry, not you guys. You’re a channel with a reputation.” Now, perhaps it’s my British sense of fair-mindedness, but it does seem paradoxical that we’re inviting the rest of the world’s media in, and we’re not too concerned about them, but the Arab media can’t come in, because we’re concerned about their reputation or about what became the new four-letter word, their “bias,” one way or the other, and that struck me as entirely counterproductive to trying to win this war of ideas and explain who we were.
AMY GOODMAN: Steve Tatham also talked about how at the British briefings they had the translations of the Arabic newscasts so that they could get a sense of how the world was watching. But in the United States, trying to, at CENTCOM, get people to watch the media, the Arab media, understand what was being conveyed, that was almost blasphemous.
JOSH RUSHING: It was impossible. Now, I have to say, we had a bank of television screens in our office, and one of them was on Al Jazeera. As a matter of fact, there’s a picture in the book of me giving an interview, and it’s a picture of that screen in our office, and I’m on Al Jazeera. Problem was we had no translators to tell us what they were saying. All the translators were, I guess, needed up in Iraq. And that kind of — that makes sense, but, you know, if you’re looking at this broader issue of how the U.S. is engaging the Arab world, I think someone probably should have been paying much closer attention to what they were saying on Al Jazeera.
AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about this transition from Marine spokesperson to Al Jazeera reporter. How did it happen? How did you end up leaving the military? And what are your thoughts on CENTCOM, now that you have a different position?
JOSH RUSHING: Sure, excuse me. When I left the war, it was July of 2003. I had been there for six months. I was frustrated, because I couldn’t gain Al Jazeera better access at CENTCOM. I couldn’t gain them any access, other than, you know, the young lieutenant. I thought that Franks should have — excuse me — had an Al Jazeera reporter —- pardon me -—
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I’ll just use this opportunity to say we’re talking to Josh Rushing. His book is Mission Al Jazeera. Yes, Josh.
JOSH RUSHING: Thank you very much. I apologize. I thought Franks should have had an Al Jazeera reporter beside him when he went into Baghdad. I thought that they should have given Al Jazeera amazing access to explain to the world why they were doing what they were doing or we were doing what we were doing. But that wasn’t the case, and I came back really frustrated about it.
AMY GOODMAN: One thing on that: You were saying that it was U.S. reporters, in fact Fox reporters, that actually, when talking about coordinates of U.S. forces, they were the ones who were violating the U.S. military rules.
JOSH RUSHING: Absolutely. I mean, look at the Geraldo Rivera case, which is rather famous. You know, he’s on live TV, and he has the camera pan down to the sand, where he draws the map on where they are and where the unit’s heading, in clear violation of the ground rules and putting the very unit there at risk. That was Fox.
AMY GOODMAN: And you have the reporter talking about where to hit an Abrams tank?
JOSH RUSHING: Yeah, sure. It was a live report. The reporter was saying — you know, there was an Abrams tank on fire behind them, which was unusual at the time. I mean, at that point of the war, they thought that the Abrams tanks were, you know, invincible. And so, he’s pointing to the tank behind him that’s on fire and says, “Apparently the RPG got in through here on the side, and there must be a weakness there in the tank.” So anyone watching that would say, “Well, if I’m going to fire an RPG at the Abrams, I’ll wait until I can get into that spot. Thank you very much, Fox News.” You know? And yet, Fox got great access, and Al Jazeera was just shunned.
And what would be more important than explaining to the Arab people why they’re taking these kind of military actions in the Arab world? I couldn’t understand it. So I came back, and I was frustrated, but I was a young officer. Who would listen to me?
Well, eight months later, I find out about the movie at Sundance. I didn’t know a movie had been made about me. I was introduced to these two filmmakers, as students from the University of Cairo, as doing a Master’s project following around some Al Jazeera producers. I had no idea what it was going to become. And they showed it. They screened it at Sundance, and they hadn’t contacted me to say, “Hey, we” —
AMY GOODMAN: This is Control Room.
JOSH RUSHING: Control Room, yeah. “Hey, we actually made a movie, and you’re one of the characters.” I wasn’t supposed to be a character. They had a different character, and they dropped him out kind of at the last moment and put me in. But they didn’t contact me to let me know. So it was literally, someone in the audience called me in Los Angeles and left a voicemail, said, “Hey, I just saw your movie and wanted to say thanks.” And I had no idea what he was talking about. I found out by Google, the way everybody finds out everything now, you know? “Josh Rushing Sundance” and up came Control Room. I’ve never heard of this movie.
And, well, all the media in America had requested to speak to me about the movie. And the Pentagon, who hadn’t seen the movie, didn’t want to deal with it, didn’t know why a junior officer was in a movie about Al Jazeera anyway, said, “No comment,” which really just fueled the fire. I mean, it took all the coverage of me from the entertainment section, the calendar section, of newspapers and magazines to the front page of the L.A. Times, to the editorial pages of the L.A. Times and The New York Times, taking an official position on why I should speak about this.
And what I realized was, I was the only person in the world, the only person in the world, who had been inside the Pentagon, the Bush administration and Al Jazeera studios, and I had a unique vantage point. And what I saw was that Al Jazeera wasn’t what America thought it was. I saw what it actually was. And I also saw why it was so important to America’s own strategic interest, much less to the world getting along a little better.
And so, I had a civic responsibility to say that to America. I couldn’t say it as a marine, so I resigned my commission, with no jobs, no opportunities, no savings. I took out a second mortgage on the house to get by. No healthcare. And I went out to the media, particularly the most conservative media I could. I went on O’Reilly. I went on all the Fox stuff, because these were the people who needed to hear it. And I was the only person out there who could go on a show like that and not be dismissed, you know, as a lefty from Berkeley, and say, “Wait a second. I’m from Lone Star Texas. Dad’s a firefighter, Mom’s on the city council, because they believe in civic service. Been a marine my entire adult life, and I’ve given up everything to say you’ve got to reconsider Al Jazeera.” So I did that for a few months. I was unemployed.
And then I got a call, saying, “Hey, we’re going to start an English-language Al Jazeera. I’m from the BBC, and I’m going to head up their program department. I saw your movie. Why don’t you come by, and we’ll talk about maybe doing something together?” And thank goodness they did. I was about to be a PR guy in Houston, you know? I had to take a job. And so, they came along right at the right time, and it’s worked out really well.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that first story you went out on. Talk about going to North Dakota and what happened.
JOSH RUSHING: Yeah, you know, it seemed like a simple story. We were going to do a story about Small Town America, and there’s actually a part — and, you know, the country is obsessed with immigration, how many people are coming over the border. Well, there’s part of North Dakota, this kind of western, northwestern North Dakota, where the towns are actually emptying out. All the kids are graduating, going away and not coming back, to the point there’s actually small towns that will give you money to put your children in the school system there and land. They’ll give you free land to build your house on, just trying to attract somebody to keep these communities alive. So I wanted to see what’s the value in these communities. So it’s a real nice, charming story, extolling the values of Small Town America.
Well, I go up, and it was kind of interesting, because a reporter came out on my first day there, a reporter from the local newspaper, and she said she was surprised at how I was dressed. And I thought, well, maybe I’m kind of casual to be on TV. I was in blue jeans. And she said, “No, I thought you’d be in robes and a head scarf.” You’ve got to be kidding. Why would I be in robes and a head scarf? “Well, you’re Al Jazeera, you know. And that’s what we were looking for.” So it was —
AMY GOODMAN: So she came out to do a story on you —
JOSH RUSHING: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — doing a story in her town.
JOSH RUSHING: Absolutely, right. And so, you know, I gave her a nice interview. She kind of got it. And a couple days later she called me, really terrified and upset. And she said a federal agent had been to her office, had asked her to step outside. She said, “Can I bring my reporter’s notebook?” And he said, “No. I’ll be the one asking questions,” took her out and started asking her questions like, you know, “Who did you talk to? Did he seem like a citizen? Did he seem like an American? Did he have a camera? He didn’t take pictures, did he?” “Of course, he took pictures. They’re doing a story, you know? A news story.”
And he said there were possible international implications to me being that close to the unsecured border. Let alone, I came from Washington, D.C., where my office is three blocks from the White House. Now I’m a danger in northwestern North Dakota. So it turns out he was from the Border Protection, Customs & Border Protection. He went around and did that to everyone I interviewed so that I couldn’t go back and get another interview. We were going to go back and do the high school graduation, and we were unwelcome at that point, because people were worried. They were worried — are there international implications they don’t know about? Had they said something that would put the country at risk to me, or even worse, maybe put themselves at risk from their own country? At the time, it was the NSA wiretapping story that was in the news. And even this reporter worried about calling her mom, because was she now on the wiretap database, and would that put her mom on the list, as well? So I was going through this kind of weird time, where I’m being followed by federal agents. I’m just trying to do a story about the value of Small Town America.
Right in the middle of that, I get a call from an old friend who says that one of our best friends from high school had just died in Iraq. His Little Bird helicopter had been shot down in a battle south of Baghdad. And so, I left and I went home for his funeral. And at his funeral, he had two young kids. One was five. One was about 18 months — or I guess three and 18 months. And one was named Luke, just like my son’s named Luke. All my old high school friends were there. And Jake, the youngest one, had a pacifier that was red, white and blue, and it matched the coffin, that they laid over Matt’s coffin. I mean, he had the flag that they laid over Matt’s coffin. And it just occurred to me that Matt had died fighting for an idea of America that was starting to resemble the state of America less and less. It wasn’t — he didn’t die for an America where federal agents went around following reporters who were doing stories about Small Town America. He didn’t die for an America that’s run by the kind of fear and xenophobia that was starting to shape our country. And it was really pretty sad and frustrating.
And I called this federal agent back, and I asked him, you know, “What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Why didn’t you call me and ask me?” And I actually worked for the federal government longer than he had. I could have told him what I was doing there. But I knew that wasn’t why he was following me. It wasn’t because that was part of his job. It was because he didn’t like Al Jazeera, because he thought he knew what Al Jazeera was, and he was going to intimidate me away from doing the story, intimidate anyone from speaking to me. But the whole story ended up just being kind of a sad commentary on where America is now.
AMY GOODMAN: So now Al Jazeera International has launched, but most people in this country cannot see it unless they’re watching online, or where in the country?
JOSH RUSHING: Right. And this is sad, because it’s one of the largest launches ever in history, internationally. It started with 80 million homes. It’s now the fastest-growing network in the world. It’s over 100 million homes. Even in Israel, they’ve taken the BBC World off the YES! satellite system to put Al Jazeera English on in its place. Same down in South Africa. The Belgian foreign minister recently said he’s addicted to Al Jazeera English, can’t stop watching.
And in America, it’s the news they don’t want you to see. You can only see it in local access cable in Burlington, Vermont; Toledo on Buckeye Cable; at the Pentagon on channel 36 — they’re watching. But it’s really disappointing, not so much as a journalist, because I’m not sure Al Jazeera necessarily cares that much or not in America. I mean, they’re a lot more focused on the world or about the world, not just America. But as a citizen of America, it’s disappointing we can’t see this international news.
AMY GOODMAN: And Sami al-Hajj, the Al Jazeera reporter who has been at Guantanamo for close to five years, we only recently heard from him, because of a quote that got out where he said, “Release Alan Johnston,” the BBC reporter who’s in Gaza in captivity, saying, “No reporter should be kidnapped.”
JOSH RUSHING: Yeah, absolutely. Sami, we believe, suffered the fate that a lot of people suffered in Afghanistan in the early days, where the U.S. government was offering $5,000 from anyone from the Taliban and $10,000 from anyone from al-Qaeda. So a lot of the people — if anyone wasn’t from that area, locals went and told the U.S. officials, “Hey, that guy’s al-Qaeda.” They go and pick up this person, pay the guy $10,000, and now those people have gone through Bagram Air Force Base and are stuck in Gitmo forever. Of course, Sami wasn’t from that area. He was there covering a story on behalf of Al Jazeera, and a local sold him away to the U.S. government. It’s unbelievable.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Josh Rushing, I want to thank you very much for being here. Mission Al Jazeera is his book, Build a Bridge, Seek the Truth, Change the World. Thanks for joining us.
JOSH RUSHING: Thank you for having me.