Charles Nailen/The Hoya  

Journalist Peter Arnett, renowned war correspondent and 40 year veteran of the press, sat down for and interview with THE HOYA Wednesday evening at Georgetown University. Arnett, a New Zealand native, joined the Associated Press in 1962 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for his extensive coverage of the Vietnam War.

Arnett joined the fledgling CNN in 1981, covering politics and conflict across the globe while witnessing the birth of the 24-hour news network. Arnett has interviewed an extensive list of world leaders throughout his career – he was the first western journalist to meet with Osama Bin Laden in 1997 and interviewed Saddam Hussein in 1991 during the Gulf War. He was one of the only journalists who remained in Baghdad throughout the conflict with Iraq, broadcasting live for CNN.

Arnett’s most recent projects include filming documentaries from Iraq for National Geographic EXPLORER. He has covered 19 wars throughout the course of his career and appeared as a panelist on “Hardball with Chris Matthew” Wednesday evening at Georgetown.

THE HOYA: With the situation we have now, there are some parallels to the situation you faced when you were in Baghdad covering the Gulf War for CNN. How is the current conflict different – are than any advantages that [journalists] have now that we may not have had during the Gulf War?

Arnett: There is great difficulty getting access at this point in time How do you get access to the action, and then secondly how do you get information from that access back to the public in a reasonable amount of time?

One big issue, how do you get access to what’s happening? Secondly, if you get access, how do you get the information back? In the Gulf War, the U.S. led coalition did not give reporters much access. And those who had it, under what they call a pull system, where a few journalists represented everyone, it was difficult for them to get the information released, because it was censored. So the Gulf War was getting poorly covered from the coalition’s side. General Wesley Clark, who was a recent NATO commander just said on CNN the other day that one of the biggest tank battles of modern war was fought in southern Iraq during the Gulf War and it wasn’t covered and people didn’t know about it. In fact, in December I was in that southern Iraq area and I drove around. There were 4,000 destroyed tanks, Iraqi destroyed tanks, they were destroyed in this incredible action. But the public didn’t hear about it, books came out much later with that information. So that is a pity. I think that’s a pity because those who fought that battle did not get credit for it. I believe the press should be with the military to give the real people credit. Who got credit for the Gulf War? General Schwarztkof and General Powell. They’re admirable people, superb commanders, but what about the tank commanders and the G.Is who fought the war? I don’t think it’s fair. America is a celebrity driven society, but what about the grunts who really fought it?

So this time, they’re doing what’s called `embedding’ reporter’s with the units. Reporters have already volunteered to go from mainstream news organizations and they’re being trained and they’re going to be sent over there to actually live with the units and go into battle with them. This is sort of like WWII.

The issue is, I talked to them, they feel, they’re worried they might not get their stories back fast enough – this is a competitive field . they don’t want eye-witness accounts that they see in the battlefield reported in a Pentagon briefing. There’s still a lot of uncertainty about whether the American efforts in this war will be covered, whether the Pentagon will allow it. Now in terms of Baghdad, the Iraqis are allowing several scores of journalists to be in Baghdad, they’ve been there for quite some time, they’re there now. They are allowing coverage, live video uplinks. They are allowing reporters to travel around the countryside, they are limited going to military areas – they have to travel with `minders’ who are basically watching every move and limiting the amount of coverage they can do, but they are allowing these reporters to be around. The big difference is that during the Gulf War there was only one video uplink out of Baghdad that would do live pictures and that was the CNN uplink brought in during the war for me to use. Now there are 20 video uplinks in Baghdad, so many reporters are using them. In 1991 there were just a couple of American reporters; today, you have Al Jazeerah the Arab news organization, you have other Arab and South Asian news organizations, you have Japanese, you have Turkish, many others. So it will be a far greater amount of reporting from many different people this time around, so therefore Baghdad will have a lot of information coming out, so expect at least from the Iraqi side much more than there was in the Gulf War. However, overall it’s going to be very dangerous because there’s a potential for the use of weapons of mass destruction by Iraqis, chemical and biological, against American troops and there will be reporters there. And in Baghdad there could be great difficulties because of the general unrest that happens when a city is surrounded, when there is a battle for a city, reporters sometimes are in the way. So it’s going to be dangerous for the press to do it – I know there’s a lot going to do it, but it’s going to be very dangerous.

THE HOYA: Do you feel it was more dangerous when you were there or is it more dangerous now?

Arnett: I think it’s much more dangerous now because the first Gulf War was about pushing Saddam Hussein’s troops out of Kuwait and Baghdad was bombed basically to put pressure on Saddam, to destroy the communications system, to destroy command and control . This time, the bombing will be aimed at the same kind of targets, but the potential for unrest in the city is enormous. Indeed the criminality could break out if there are areas where military retreat from or police go into hiding. Gangs could come out and loot houses. The potential for ethnic warfare as American troops get closer, the potential for different communities to attack each other will be very strong. Then you’ll also have those who really support Saddam – and there’s as many thousands and certainly in Baghdad in support – fighting those who don’t support him. So you’ll have sort of a civil war probably with criminality, ethnic war and just the general mayhem of the American efforts. [pause] Makes good stories though.

THE HOYA: Now that there’s a diversity of reporters and now that the media is on this 24-hour news cycle that has evolved to be a much larger part of the news culture, how do you think that is going to impact the media and the way any potential conflict in Iraq is portrayed?

Arnett: Well already the media has become a weapon in the war. It’s a war of words at this point, very potent words. There is a war that began when President Bush early summer last year essentially announced the `Axis of Evil.’ In a speech he said Saddam was becoming too dangerous, there had to be a change of government. He’s been fighting that war with words ever since and he’s still using words of war. Saddam Hussein countered with his own arguments, they allowed inspectors into Iraq, opened the gates to inspectors of factories and production plants. They’re allowing the media in, so it’s a war of pictures and words, because the Iraqis say, `We’ve opened the gates, what’s your problem? We’re letting you in.’ On the other hand the U.S. says `Wait a minute. You’re not really cooperating.’ I think already the U.S. has lost the war of the inspectors in Iraq. The world believes the inspectors are acting, that they’ve had a degree of success and that if the inspections continue; they will solve the problems of weapons of mass destruction. That’s because the Iraqis played the word game very cleverly . I think the Iraqis have already won the information war at this point.

THE HOYA: How can the media avoid being a `propaganda machine,’ avoid just simply trumpeting what Hussein or Bush has to say?

Arnett: Well the media is a propaganda machine, even in peace time because the U.S. media is essentially celebrity oriented and the president is the biggest celebrity . news emanates from government in the United States because that is policy – policy directions, policy decisions . you know, the decision to go to war with Iraq will be in the hands of President Bush. He’s not going to take a poll, he’s going to make the decision and already he feels like he has enough support to do it. The media watches Bush, everything he says becomes significant. So you end up presenting the administration’s view, whether you like it or not. Now how do you cover the views of those who don’t like it? Then you cover the demonstrations, maybe you write editorials. It’s very difficult for television to avoid being a propaganda operation because they are tied to press conferences, statements. You don’t have debate on the networks about whether we should go or not – the main networks have their 30-minute news, there’s no room for debate. In cable television, you do have a lot of debate and opinions are exchanged, but not enough Americans look at cable television, maybe a maximum of five million at any one time versus 270 million Americans. Also for the media who are in Baghdad, Saddam manipulates the pictures there, he manipulates the message, he presents information that he wants presented. He gives his press conferences, he makes people available, he allows trips to different places, he has demonstrations in the streets of Baghdad. The media is really stuck reporting what both sides do. It’s not an easy position to be in. And when you do get subtleties in the best newspapers, like The New York Times or the Washington Post, who reads them? Who knows? It’s not an easy game. The press, we’re really bystanders, we’re eyewitnesses to these potentially cataclysmic events and I think we should be there, we should record it all. We’re not going to influence it very much . The wild card of the press comes when the media sees an event that is unprogrammed. Say they see the U.S. bombing a hospital or a shelter in Baghdad that is not on the list of approved targets. There is a target the world may not like – a hospital a school – you could argue it was an accidental, it was an unintentional bombing, as during the Gulf War, but the effect of the bombing can be very negative. That’s what happened during the Gulf War in late January when the ALBOMBARIA shelter was hit, nearly 400 civilians died . this is the unexpected event the media can deal with. Reporters who went in with the ground troops saw Iraqi troops were surrendering even to them, they were coming out of the bunkers waving white flags. This was quick evidence that the Iraqis had folded, so the media played a role. Evidence that soldiers are surrendering to you, throwing themselves at your feet – it’s sort of an unplanned opportunity.

THE HOYA: An ABC news poll done for Nightline last week that indicated that the public was not supportive of free press during wartime – 56 percent of those surveyed said news organizations are obliged to support the government in wartime, 60 percent said the government’s ability to keep wartime secrets is more important than a free press and two-thirds said the government should have the right to stop the media from disclosing military secrets. How do you feel about the nature of wartime coverage and where do you draw the line between freedom of the press and national security?

Arnett: I think the government has the right to draw the line between what the public has to know and national security. But they have to buttress that with sensible, valid arguments. It’s not good enough to say `Well, any story in wartime has to be censored because it could help the enemy.’ Most that are censored are those that are embarrassing to the government. So when embarrassing incidents happen . like General Patton slapped a soldiers face in WWII because Patton accused him of being a coward, but he actually had combat fatigue. The reporters didn’t do it or their stories were censored so when the story [eventually] came out, Patton had a lot of trouble . therefore the media has to be on its guard that censorship is not strictly to avoid embarrassing the government and the government has to really prove that it’s absolutely necessary. I’ve been to conferences where it’s been said there’s not one case in American history where any reporter has endangered the lives of Americans – there’s not one case where a reporter’s story resulted in an American dying. I’d ask the Pentagon to prove otherwise. On the other hand, the public is easy pickings for the government in times of national crisis, because there are young Americans, their sons, daughters, husbands or their friends or family – they don’t want anything to possibly lead to any insecurity or to threaten the lives other than what they’re going to face anyway. So the government finds it very easy to say `If the American public supports us, we shouldn’t have any coverage.’ The point is, though, the media has a role of what we call the Fourth Estate. You’ve got the executive branch, the legislative branch, the judicial branch – but Fourth Estate is to try and give a check and balance to the government. Many White Houses would be happier if the press didn’t cover the White House, but they have to cover the White House, the public demands it. The less information the better for elected officials, there are no illusions about that, but press has a role to check and balance what governments are doing. We have a right to hold presidents and generals accountable for their actions. We also have a responsibility to be careful of what we say, that we don’t give information that can help the enemy. I don’t think embarrassing stories that deal with incompetence in the field or stupidity should be concealed because it’s embarrassing to the Pentagon or the unit. We should have the right to see much more of what’s going on than we do get to see. The public, they’re going to be supportive of the government. They look at the press as being basically scatter-shot, critical, without any real government control, which is what the press is all about, and I can understand them being cautious. On the other hand, an enlightened government can give the press access, because in a democracy, accurate information is very important. So if the government is smart, they will allow more reporters to give more information back, because sooner or later the story will come out. If the U.S. air force accidentally bombs a village in Afghanistan, kills 40 people, there’s no point in hiding it because reporters will find out. Those villages will report. If it’s not an American media, it will be Al Jazeera, or someone will find out – what’s the point in hiding this stuff? Let’s get there and cover it when it happens.

THE HOYA: You’ve conducted interviews with Fidel Castro, with Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein. These are people who are portrayed as the most feared and intimidating people you can possibly meet. How do you go in to something like that – were you at all nervous? Afraid?

Arnett: I have had friends, certainly in Africa, who have been intimidated by the leaders they have interviewed and in fact, [former] President Bokassa of the Central African Republic, who was a jumped-up sergeant who had a coup d’etat and proclaimed himself emperor, he attacked a friend of mine in the Associated Press with a gold-tipped cane, put him in the hospital and actually imprisoned him for five months, simply for asking a question the emperor didn’t like. So there’s always a potential for violence . But usually, when you’re summoned to give an interview, they have something to say. The only reason they would even entertain your presence is if they have a message they want out to the world. So I interviewed Fidel Castro when I was with the Associated Press, which is a world-wide news organization, I interviewed a lot of others. I interviewed Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden when I was with CNN. They wanted their views broadcast. Going into those interviews, I did not fear for my life. There was a lot of security because Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden feared for their lives. In both interviews I was strip-searched my notebooks, my watch, everything was taken, my shoes were checked because they’re worried there may be tracking devices of some U.S. government agency that’s going to get them. So they’re living with a sense of greater peril than I the reporter am living with. That’s always an advantage on my side. When I went to see Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War the tenth day in I figured that this was a guy who wanted something to say, that he was on the defensive, I was on the offensive. The U.S. air force wasn’t trying to kill me, they were trying to kill him. In fact they developed special bunker-busting bombs to try and get him. Clearly, they failed.

When I met him, he was dressed as a diplomat – dark suit with a floral tie – and he was quite engaging. He greeted me pleasantly, chatted a few minutes about odds and ends and then said `Ask any question you want.’ We talked for an hour and a half. There were three cameras from Iraqi television assembled in the room – I wasn’t able to take anything, but there were the cameras. We interviewed for an hour and a half, I was given the video tapes afterwards and took them back to the hotel. At the end of the interview, Saddam posed for me for pictures, shaking hands and smiling, and then he left. His message basically was calling upon peace-loving people to end the war and sort of pointing out he wouldn’t use weapons of mass destruction, things like that. I can say that was the most important interview of my life up to that time and I felt pretty happy about getting it. At no point was I concerned about my life. This was bigger than me, the interview was bigger than me, covering the war was bigger than me. Who am I, insignificant little Peter Arnett, watching the tides of history converge? [laughs] I am not important. What I feel is not important. What I see is important, what I report is important.

It was the same with Osama bin Laden. We spent three months arranging the interview through his office in London because in arch of ’97 when I interviewed him, he did have an office in London. We negotiated through the office and he allowed us to interview. We flew to Pakistan, went to Jalalabad, which is a small Afghan city across the Pakistan border. We waited six days while his people checked us out, talked to us, went over our equipment and in the end we got in an automobile without any equipment, they said `You can’t take it.’ We drove blindfolded up a mountain side and waited in a small house at the entrance to a cave, a small house in Tora Bora the mountains. After about 30 minutes, he appeared. We were inside, sitting on carpets. He appeared in the doorway and had white garments and a white turban but he had a combat jacket, camoflage, and he carried an AK-47. He walked into the room, bowed, told us to sit down. We went to the wall and in with him came a cameraman with a digital camera and a still photographer. We had about an hour long interview with him and at the end of that we chatted about odd things, we sipped tea and then he was gone. They held us for five hours so he could make his getaway, then we went down the mountain.

Every step of the way for that interview, they checked us. The guards would stop the vehicle on the way up and talk to us, say `Do you have any tracking devices? Tell us now, if we find them, you will die.’ They were paranoid about being located. . of course, I’m not suicidal, but they didn’t know that.

THE HOYA: After going through these kind of interviews, are there any interviews you’d back away from, that you wouldn’t want to do?

Arnett: There’s a couple of Hollywood types I’d have nothing to do with. [laughs] There’s no political interview that I wouldn’t do, in any corner of the world, in terms of the international, political. There are a lot of temporary celebrities I wouldn’t want to spend any time with, I wouldn’t want to interview a serial murderer. I’m interested in the big picture, the tides of history. The vagaries of human nature don’t really interest me, that’s why I’m not really interested in crime reported. Now, you can argue that Saddam Hussein is one of the world’s great murderers, if you’d believe the Bush administration and the Clinton administration. But he murders for a grand vision that he has, for himself and the Arab world and Iraq. There’s still murders, but its for a grander vision than some serial rapist who kills young people because he’s mentally disabled or just a vicious person. I’d interview everyone else.

THE HOYA: Has there been anything about the world leaders you’ve interviewed that surprised you or was unexpected?

Arnett: With every interview, whether its Fidel Castro, or Saddam Hussein, they’re just regular people. They’re just people. They’ve been given great leadership, exalted by their followers – but they still have to go to the bathroom, they still twitch if you ask a tough question, they evade direct questions, they blush at times. They’re ordinary people. So however you demonize a Castro or a bin Laden or a Saddam Hussein, they’ve got lives, they’ve got needs, they’ve got to go to the bathroom like anyone else. What it is, the interview humanizes these people. At the end of the day, you say they are just regular people elevated to great power, that they are just like you or me. There’s nothing armor-plated about them. I mean, Osama bin Laden is tall, all three of them are tall men incidentally, well over 6 foot. On the other hand, Napoleon was only 5 foot 1 and Hitler was 5 foot 5 so you know, height is not really a factor.

THE HOYA: Were these interviews done strictly on your own or did the government know in advance that you’d be conducting them?

Arnett: No, we didn’t tell the government anything, we’re just not in the business of filling the government in because it’s really a pact with the devil if you make a pact with the government in terms of information. It’s self-preservation. I didn’t mind if the U.S. government knew I was going to interview Osama bin Laden, neither here or there, except that they could try and follow you, try and do something, track you down and get you involved with something you didn’t want to get involved in. If I interview Osama bin Laden, my job is not to assassinate him or allow him to be assassinated – I’m a reporter. There’s some reporters who’ve said they’d rather shoot bin Laden than interview them, but there is a pact if you’re a reporter – you’re basically meant to follow that line. Sort of like a diplomat. You wouldn’t expect an American ambassador to shoot some protagonist chief of state somewhere, it’s not done. So you wouldn’t expect a reporter to get involved in that. Really, so the less the authorities know reporters are doing the better.

THE HOYA: HBO recently aired the movie `Live From Baghdad’ about the CNN team that reported on the Gulf War from inside Iraq in 1991. Do you think that was an accurate portrayal of what it was like at the time?

Arnett: [laughs] I’d call it an acceptable exaggeration . The special effects were fantastic. I don’t think they particularly glamorized it, I mean, they exaggerated. I came off as a real hot-shot, sort of war-lover type. But I’m not a hot shot or a war lover. But if some see me that way, that’s not the way I see myself. Essentially the facts were right – the Iraqis let us cover it and the bombing was dramatic and we got the story out. I’ll leave it at that. [laughs] I don’t think it was harmful, it was essentially how we did it.

Actually getting back to the point about government, when Bernie Shaw left Baghdad a couple of days into the war, he went to Jordan, Amman, on the way back to the States. The embassy called him and said they wanted him to be debriefed by the defense attaché. Bernie said `No, I’m not going to do it.’ They said, `What’s wrong? You’re not patriotic?’ He said, `No, to hell with it, it’s not my job to be debriefed. If you want to know, it’s on CNN.’

They’ll try and ask you things like `Do you recognize this man in the group of people you met?’ It’s not my job to finger people, it’s not my job to be an agent of the U.S. government, or of any government. I mean, I’m not specialized, I’m not trained, I’m not being paid for that and I just don’t expect the Iraqis to say to me, `.Well, is the U.S. using this now?’ I wouldn’t tell them. I mean, what will it mean . I’m not in the business of spying for either side. I think that is something we, the media, shouldn’t be involved in. If indeed they want to see the interview afterwards or if indeed things about what we report you want to tell them, that’s all right. But going beyond things we normally report, I think it’s ill-considered, it’s stupid. It’s also dangerous because if word gets out you’re working for a government, your life can be terminated very quickly in some places like that.

THE HOYA: What kind of role do you see yourself playing in the media today with the potential war with Iraq?

Arnett: Well I’ve been over there. I was over in Iraq for the month of May and I did an hour documentary for National Geographic Explorer. I was over there November through mid-December and I’ve done another hour that will come out in a few weeks. I do a lot of commentary and stuff on television – I know a lot about Iraq, I’ve been there many times wince the Gulf War, been there 15 or 20 times. I interviewed the officials, I’m willing to talk about my assessment of what’s going to happen, what the Iraqis say. At this point in time I know a lot of people there. The documentaries sort of talk about how, if indeed there is war, how it will affect the lives of several families I know. One of them is a big soccer star, another’s a student from a modest family who’s studying English and media, the other is a very poor family where the father is a cleaner in a mosque . I just want to talk about the people who will be there after the war. I’m the veteran reporter . I like to be in these places so long as I still have the energy, if my brain is still willing to face the crisis, I want to continue doing it. I think history is being made – one more chance to see it happening. I’ve been [in media] for 40 years or so but as long as I’m still thrilled and excited about what I do, as long as opportunity lets me play the game and there’s still a civic conscience and need for accurate reporting, I feel that’s good enough reason to continue doing it. That’s not unusual in American life to be called in this way – you could call me the Frank Lautenberg of war correspondence. Frank Lautenberg was the New Jersey senator who came in to fill in the slot after Torricelli sit. Lautenberg’s 80 years old, he’d been in the senate and retired . so I guess I’m the Frank Lautenberg of war correspondence.

THE HOYA: What attracted you to journalism?

Arnett: When I was a kid I used to hear broadcasts of WWII and I was intrigued by what was happening. Everything I learned was from radio broadcasts and then newspapers. I liked writing essays and that in school, so I think I gravitated with a taste for writing and an interest in what was happening in the world. I come from a little town in the southern part of New Zealand . journalism was just a ticket to ride, really. I worked on my local newspaper and just worked up from there.

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