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Charles Sennott, Embedded in the 'Surge'

Foreign correspondent Charles Sennot recently returned from Iraq, where he witnessed the U.S. military's "troop surge" first-hand as an embedded reporter with the Army's 28th Infantry Regiment.

45:04

Other segments from the episode on March 18, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 18, 2008: Interview with Charles Sennott; Review of the television show "The riches."

Transcript

DATE March 18, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Charles Sennott of the Boston Globe discusses his
findings during recent trips to Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, journalist Charles Sennott, recently returned to Iraq to see how the
situation had changed five years after the invasion and to gauge whether the
success of the surge could hold. He was embedded with the unit that General
David Petraeus feels is carrying out the strategy of the surge. Sennott also
interviewed Petraeus in Iraq. They first met in 2003 when Sennott was in
Mosul. Sennott covered the invasion and its aftermath for the Boston Globe.
He's the Globe's former Middle East bureau chief and London bureau chief, and
currently works on a special projects team, for which he's written about the
difficulties veterans face after returning home. But now that the Boston
Globe and many other newspapers have closed their foreign desks, he's leaving
the newspaper business and starting a Web site devoted to foreign news. It
will be called Global News. We'll talk about that a little later.

Charles Sennott, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's really good to talk with you
again.

Let's talk about your recent trip to Iraq. Why did you embed with the Army's
1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment?

Mr. CHARLES SENNOTT: Well, I embedded with them because I wanted to be right
in the heart of the sectarian conflict, and where it's unfolded most
dramatically and most violently. I thought it was the most important place to
access successes or failures or challenges ahead of the surge.

GROSS: Now how long has the battalion been there, and how has their role
changed in that time?

Mr. SENNOTT: The battalion has been there since March. When they arrived a
year ago, you have to imagine from their point of view what it looked like. I
mean, they really came into red hot sectarian conflict. There are graphs that
show a sort of thermal mapping of violence in Baghdad going back one year ago,
and they would show Rashid, which is in the southern fringe of Baghdad, to be
red hot. It was really right in the middle of the worst of the worst. So
when they arrived, they were not doing reconciliation or reaching out to the
community. They arrived with what they called kinetic actions; meaning they
engaged the enemy, they went directly at the units that were in there of the
Shiite militias who were really pushing Sunni families out, and they were
going at the al-Qaeda in Iraq or al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. And al-Qaeda in
Iraq was finding a lot of support among a disaffected and really
disenfranchised Sunni community. So they were fighting on at least two fronts
in very serious kinetic actions. They lost 10 men; 100 were wounded. They
had very intense firefights and engagements on a daily basis. And really it
wasn't until the summer, last summer, that they began to really see that they
had made some headway and they could begin efforts toward reconciliation, to
open the market, to get the families to begin to move back into their homes
and to begin to broker deals with what they call the reconcilables, or the
people...

GROSS: What are the reconcilables?

Mr. SENNOTT: The reconcilables are the people who they feel can be dealt
with. They're people who maybe they were a Sunni militia member who was
working with al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, but had showed an opening and a
possibility for being someone who wanted to not work with al-Qaeda in
Mesopotamia, saw them as foreigners, saw them as people who had been
influenced from the outside; and they sort of wanted to come in from the cold
and recognize that the future of Iraq might be better off if they actually
engage with their own community and get back to working together, Sunni and
Shia, which is really a long tradition in Iraq and one that the US
government--in very sophisticated ways, I think, in the State Department and
in the military--is trying to rekindle that history. So that would be one
example of a, quote, "reconcilable,"

Another one would be, for example, a member of the Jaish al Mahdi, or the
Mahdi Army, which are the Shia militias. And those militias had community
leaders who they had to seek out and try to broker a new deal with, and stress
upon them that they're going to come at them very hard as an enemy, but if
they're willing to talk and they're willing to take part in the community
leadership council, that they would bring them into the fold and they would
bring them into the conversation. And surprisingly, I think, this has worked.

GROSS: Now how much of this was a function of persuasion, the US military
persuading the militia leaders to participate in reconciliation? And how much
of it was kind of buying them, you know, paying them to participate in
reconciliation?

Mr. SENNOTT: I think it's both. I think it's persuasion on a genuine level
of people are tired of the sectarian violence. It's like Iraq had had a black
hole of what it would be like to be in a civil war--which they were in--with
sectarian violence unfolding on every street corner, and to look down into
that hell and to say, `Do we really want to go there?' And I think there's a
genuine spirit of the community that wants to move away from that. But you
make a very good point. They were also buying these guys off. You know, $300
a month to the "awakening," which is the new word for the Sunni reconcilables,
or the people who have been brought in. And, you know, there's definitely an
element of that. They are paying people off. And I think that's what has the
Iraqi people who I spoke to, including these people involved in
reconciliation, concerned about whether or not this can hold. There are
successes that are considerable as a result of the surge, but there is a
question that looms over all of Baghdad, and it is a question that every Iraqi
is asking themselves right now, and that question is, `Can it hold?' And the
answers that I found on the street were most Iraqi feel it can't hold.

GROSS: Why not?

Mr. SENNOTT: They feel that the dynamic that was opened up hasn't played
itself out. There are too many displaced families, there is too much
confusion within the government about what the roles are and who's going to
actually deliver services; and within that confusion and chaos, there's a
failure to deliver services. There's also corruption, which is causing a lot
of problems within the sectarian divide in Iraq. And there's also just sort
of the simple notion that the Iraqi Army is not up to the task of controlling
those forces that can lead back to the violence. So what I heard from a range
of people, including US military off the record, diplomats off the record, you
know, people on the street, people like a Shia leader, a sheik from Rashid,
would tell me on the record, very clearly, `We do not think this can hold.'
And I heard the same thing on the Sunni side, I've heard the same thing from
the Kurds, and I've absolutely heard the same thing from a very small,
diminishing Christian population that feels very imperiled.

GROSS: Is it because they fear that when the US troops pull out, there will
be less security? Or because it's the US troops that are kind of brokering
all these agreements, and you take the broker away, people will just start
fighting again? Are they afraid that the money that's being used to kind of
pay off people so that they participate in reconciliation is going to dry up
when the US leaves?

Mr. SENNOTT: I think it's all of those things. And I think it's, most
generally, it's a feeling that the Americans are naive about where they are,
that they've never truly understood the complexity of Iraq and the
interlocking relationships within the different sectarian groups that are
influenced greatly by the neighborhood: with Iran influencing the Shia, with
the Saudis and the rest of the Arab world influencing the Sunnis, with the
Kurdish north being greatly impacted by Turkey there on its border, not to
mention Syria having elements of funding coming in with al-Qaeda in Iraq. I
think all of that complexity and that picture is a puzzle that most Iraqis
recognize; and I think they're right, the US government didn't understand when
it launched the invasion in 2003. It's never really understood. And even
though it is trying right now to work very hard to deepen its understanding,
and it has two people who are very talented in this direction--General
Petraeus, the commander of US troops, and Ambassador Crocker in Baghdad, both
get it. They both understand it. But I think Iraqis look at the situation
and say, `Well, you have the right men in place now, but it's too little, too
late.'

GROSS: So we'll get back to the conversations that you've had with Petraeus
and Crocker. But I'm just wondering like what it's like for you to listen to
the political debate now about what we should do in Iraq, if you think that,
like, in the primaries, for instance, is the political debate addressing the
real questions?

Mr. SENNOTT: I don't think it is addressing the real questions. I think the
sense I have from coming back from my visit to Iraq and hearing the political
story unfold again is that the political clock in America is ticking faster
than ever, on the Democratic side in particular. The military clock continues
to click at its own inevitable pace, which is based on what General Petraeus
would call the geometry of the battlefield. They have very clear guidelines
and standards and capabilities for building this down, which they are moving
toward. In July, the surge troops will not be replaced. They will go home
and they won't be replaced. That will bring Iraq down to the pre-surge levels
of 130,000 troops. That's an inevitable force of planning that is underway
and going to happen, according to General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker.
Beyond that is a period of what they call assessment, weeks or months, as they
told me, in which they want to really look at the successes of the surge and
make sure they can hold at pre-surge troop levels.

But beyond this very fast ticking political clock and beyond the very steady
ticking military clock is a whole different time zone, which is Iraq, which
measures time in centuries, not news cycles. And I don't think either one of
those clocks, the political clock or the military clock, have huge
significance in the long term way in which Iraq's history is going to play
itself out. And I think it's naive on the part of both the political process
in America and the military to think that they can somehow affect that. I
think they have affect, but it's minimal.

GROSS: I think that's why a lot of people are saying we could stay there
forever and these grudges and long time, you know, wars will still exist, so
why not just kind of get out?

Mr. SENNOTT: Exactly. And I think that that is a understandable impatience
with the complexity of where we are and a timeless sense of what it is. I
think I can also--just as a reporter, as a person who's gotten to know a lot
of the soldiers and a lot of the veterans who are coming home and really
listened to them--what I hear that really resonates with me is when they say,
`Look, we broke it. We need to fix it.' And I hear that on every level from
people who are against the war, who have served in it, people who are very
smart, who know the region; but I do think there is a very strong sense, that
I relate to and I feel resonates with me, which is an obligation to fix
something that we broke.

Let's talk more about the trip that you just made to Iraq when you were
embedded with the Army's 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, which is the
regiment that is in a zone, there's been a lot of ethnic fighting and now
they've kind of quieted things down and the battalion is working toward
reconciliation. You went to a reconciliation meeting between Sunni and Shia
leaders. Tell us a little bit what that meeting was like. It was led by
somebody from this battalion.

Mr. SENNOTT: It was led by Lieutenant Colonel Pat Frank, who I compared to
Tom Sawyer when I met him. He has that sort of freckle-faced red hair look,
and he is an amazing soldier. I had great respect for him, for his sense of a
can do spirit. He's got that sort of great American ability to say, `We're
going to try to do the best we can here, right now. You know, come help me
paint the fence.' And I thought that you could approach that with a great bit
of cynicism if you chose to. I came to see, in spending time with him and
watching just how hard he was working, these endless nights where he's doing a
combination of police work and social work and basically trying to broker
small peace deals and reconciliation agreements in the neighborhood.

And I really grew to respect the efforts he made. And he led the convoy to
Reconciliation Hall, which is what they call an old Baathist official's home,
which has got all of the sort of Baath kitsch and the cut chandeliers and it's
all sort of dusty and once grand, and no lights work. As we walk in there,
they have to start up the generator and it sort of flickers on. And they
begin to sit down with these tribal sheiks on the Sunni side and on the Shia
side, and begin to really hash out the nitty-gritty issues of bringing them
together.

And all of the cynicism I would normally have about this sort of approach
began to fade because I could see that they were really working through
serious issues, like: how do you physically get the families that have been
displaced back, what are the problems that can ignite in a second when a
family comes back and finds a Shia family in their home if they are Sunni, and
how do you avoid those? And I heard them working through it block by block,
house by house. And I think I was encouraged by it, frankly. I've been very
critical of the war in Iraq. I've been very hard on the mistakes that were
made; but I think that the efforts being conducted by General Petraeus on the
ground with the surge are genuine, and I think they are having impact. And I
think they're setting a sort of model, a standard, for the Iraqi people to
find a way to move forward themselves, through very local governance.

GROSS: So give us an example of the kind of movement forward that you saw at
this reconciliation meeting, for instance, with the problem of what do you do
when like a Sunni family moves back and finds that there's a Shia family in
their home or vice versa?

Mr. SENNOTT: Well, they talked about a Shia neighborhood that had a certain
member of that community who had been active in the militias, who the Sunni
side felt had really forced them out of their homes. And they said, `Look, we
want to move back to our homes, but we're not going to move into homes and
have the person who forced us out as a neighbor. That person shouldn't be
able to come back.' And there was a great, very lively, animated discussion
about this, and it went into some detail. And they were looking for models
that perhaps that person could rent their home out and not live in the
neighborhood anymore, where they had caused great damage. Or maybe that
person should be investigated; and if there are grounds to find that that
person did remove people from their homes and that he did do thing that would
break any kind of laws for any kind of democracy, then maybe that person
should be locked up and detained by the US forces. And you could hear within
the conversation a very sophisticated, I thought, way in which the US military
would set the questions up for the Iraqi council, and then step back and
quietly watch as they tried to work it out, and then maybe jump in and try to
guide the conversation again, and then step back.

This is a sort of field initiative among people like Lieutenant Colonel Frank
that General Petraeus has tried to really inspire. These are the kind of
people who are going to make decisions on the battlefield that can't be
directed from above. They're going to have to be split-second decisions and
in very initiative-oriented leadership and command in the field; and it's
really textbook for what General Petraeus had hoped to do with the surge, to
take his most experienced battalion commanders and even sort of captains of
companies and say, `Look, you do your own initiatives and go out there and try
to make it work.' And they're being very creative. They're thinking of things
like naming it a reconciliation hall, or having a joint prayer service with
the Sunni and Shia to turn over the keys of a Sunni mosque that had been taken
by a Shia militia. And that's the kind of creative work that I think we're
not hearing enough about on the street.

But to give a little bit of cynicism to it, I really pressed General Petraeus
on that, and he conceded, it is a little bit of Barnum & Bailey. As he put
it, `There's a lot of plate spinning.' But he wants his field commanders to
feel creative and to feel like entrepreneurs and to move toward reconciliation
in any way they can find.

GROSS: Well, one of the problems that you run into with reconciliation is say
the Sunni militia leaders who have been persuaded or bought and are now
participating in reconciliation, these are some of the same people, as you
point out, who led the militias that chased out Shia from the neighborhood.
So now these same guys, they're part of reconciliation and they're trying to,
you know, make it possible for Shia families who fled to move back in. Why
should those Shia families trust them?

Mr. SENNOTT: Well, having covered counterinsurgency in a lot of different
countries, I mean, you could say the same thing was true on the streets of
Belfast when they began to broker the Good Friday agreement, and it really was
the people on the street who led the politicians to an agreement. You could
also say the same thing in Israel-Palestine, where we saw people who were once
right at each other's throats tried very hard to move forward to a peace
process. Now that did collapse; it was not something that succeeded, but it
came very close. And I think in both the example of the Clinton
administration's efforts in Northern Ireland and the efforts of the US
government that continue to today in Israel-Palestine, you see sort of
bookends of what's possible.

Good Friday worked because the people supported it and they were able to move
forward and see that they could no longer call their neighbors enemies, they
had to see each other as people who need to move forward to build their own
communities. They were tired of all of the violence. They were ready to
change. Israel-Palestine was an example of an attempt at reconciliation that
was pushed by a political clock in America and in Israel, and that didn't
work. And it didn't allow for the people on the street, both Israeli and
Palestinian, to accept what it was going to be and it fell apart. We should
be learning from those two examples about what can work and what can't. And I
worry about sort of the ahistoricity of our State Department and our military
sometimes to not look back at these examples and really try to study them and
talk openly about them. I think there are people, like Crocker and Petraeus,
who think that way, but not enough.

GROSS: Charles Sennott will be back in the second half of the show. He
covered the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath for the Boston Globe and is the
paper's former Middle East and London bureau chief. I'm Terry Gross, and this
is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: On this trip to Iraq that you just got back from, you spoke with
General David Petraeus who's leading the surge, and you had met him before
when you were covering the invasion of its aftermath. You'd already
interviewed him several times before this most recent meeting. What's your
impressions of if he thinks this strategy is really working?

Mr. SENNOTT: General Petraeus is very careful not to be overconfident about
the successes of the surge. The successes of the surge have metrics. I mean,
violence levels are down, killings of civilians are down, killings of US
troops are down; and they're all down in a category of somewhere between 60
and 70 percent. I mean, this is a dramatic and precipitous and very
considerable drop. And so he could be talking about light at the end of the
tunnel, to use a phrase that came from the Vietnam War. But he will never do
that and he's very careful about that.

And I think part of the reason he is careful about that is General Petraeus is
a scholar of history. He wrote his PhD at Princeton on the lessons learned
from Vietnam, and he keeps those lessons in mind every day when he's managing
the message and trying to deliver on the surge. And he thinks, `You can't
talk about light at the end of the tunnel. You just have to build the
breathing space. You have to create less violence so that the Iraqi people
can decide to build their own institutions and move forward to build their own
country.' And in containing what he seeks to accomplish, I think he has a
greater possibility of succeeding in what he sets out to accomplish. I think
the big test for General Petraeus is coming, and it's going to come when he
testifies next month before Congress about the surge.

GROSS: And how is that the test?

Mr. SENNOTT: I think it's the test because he's going to be asked to account
for the successes of the surge, which he'll be able to point to. And then
he's going to be asked what's next. And how he spells that out, beyond the
medium term, which is to say there needs to be a period of assessment and we
will build troops down further based on what we see as an assessment, that
will be the answer he gives. But I would predict there will be a lot of
pressure coming from those committees. Both Republicans and Democrats, I
think, will be asking, `You've got to go further with this. Where is this
headed in the long term? What do you think is wise? Do we need to stay in
here for the long term? Are we really having successes that, if they do hold,
what do you see as a time frame?' And I just don't know whether he can, A,
answer those because it's hard to know what you don't know. I mean, there's,
you know, to use the phrase, there's a future out there for Iraq and it's just
built on unpredictability, and it's very difficult to try to navigate the way
forward. But Petraeus is going to be pressured, and Crocker is going to be
pressured; and it'll be very interesting to see how candid they are and how
their testimony plays out in this very hot political climate of a presidential
race.

GROSS: Now, General Petraeus might become the top commander of NATO. Should
we read anything into that? I always wonder does that mean he's disillusioned
with Iraq and wants to get out because he knows in the long run it can't work?
Or is this just part of the normal rotation of, you know, positions in the
military that people don't stay in one place for too long and when they're
really good they're going to be promoted?

Mr. SENNOTT: I don't know the answer to that because we didn't talk about
that. I talked to his staff quite a bit about those kinds of issues just to
understand military culture. I'm someone who doesn't cover the Pentagon but
I've gotten to know General Petraeus really in the last five years and had a
chance to meet with him at a lot of different points in the war in Iraq and
different points in his career, which has been pretty stellar. And I've seen
him, you know, when he was up and when he was down. And now that he's back up
again, I would read into it this way: I would say that is not a predictable
path for a general to take, to go from the commander of forces in Iraq to
NATO.

I think that what it suggests is an interest in refocusing the American
military's attention on Afghanistan, where there is a very sophisticated
counterinsurgency strategy; and General Petraeus has defined himself as the
military's best and brightest on counter insurgency. He rewrote the
counterinsurgency manual, which needed to be rewritten. It hadn't been
rewritten in 30 years. He brought a lot of understanding of history to it.
And I think he really is equipped to take on the much more complex challenges
of fighting terrorism on many levels, not just the conventional level of
kinetic engagement, but on the level of how you in very strategic ways try to
broker deals, try to play to the axiom of the region, which is the enemy of my
enemy is my friend. How to look for opportunities for reconciliation. And
he's very good at painting what he calls the white lines in the road and
directing his men forward in trying to figure that out.

And if I were to guess, and this would be a guess, I would say that General
Petraeus would like the NATO command because he would be able to put those
skills to use in Afghanistan; where I can tell you after spending time on the
ground in Afghanistan, they are hugely needed. That is a theater of this
"long war," and I use that as quotes, that we are fighting where there is a
great need for a much deeper and more sophisticated understanding among the
military and the State Department of where they are and what challenges lie
ahead. I think it's hugely undermanned, and I think it doesn't have the
intellectual power that it needs to be able to succeed there.

GROSS: So you know, everybody is asking, can the successes of the surge hold?
And the way that question is usually posed is, can it hold after the US pulls
out? Can it hold after Petraeus pulls out? Like if Petraeus leaves Iraq to
assume command of NATO, will there be anybody who can carry on with the kind
of wisdom that a lot of people think he has applied in Iraq?

Mr. SENNOTT: That's a really good question. I think it's a very profound
question, because why is it that General Petraeus' command is locked into that
one time frame? Is it possible that General Petraeus should continue to lead
the surge if it needs to go further? And I don't know really whether or not
that's possible within military guidelines for his command to be extended.
But I do think that if the successes are happening, and it's moving forward
steadily, should we as a country keep the person who is perhaps best equipped
to do that in there longer?

GROSS: You covered the invasion of Iraq for the Boston Globe and the
aftermath. What's one or two of the things that surprised you most, the
outcomes in Iraq that you just couldn't have predicted?

Mr. SENNOTT: I'm not very surprised by the outcome in Iraq. I think people
who covered the region for a long time, I'd covered it since the first Gulf
War, and by many measures that's not a long time. There are veteran
corespondents who go back to, I think, covered the war in Lebanon and further
back. But everyone who brings some historical perspective to the region
understood that Iraq is a tinder box of sectarian conflict. And if that is
opened, and it's not opened in a way that it can be quickly contained, that it
will explode.

And there are a lot of us who were writing in 2003 and foreshadowing that,
particularly after we really got on the ground in say the first six months
after the invasion in March of 2003, where you began to see the insurgency
build up steam and you began to see it go off the rails. And I think since
then, certainly if not before among some more senior writers, we've been
predicting this, that this would happen. So I'm not surprised at the forces
that have been unleashed. I am surprised by the intensity of it. I am
surprised by the ferocity of the sectarian violence.

Where I am surprised in the bigger picture is Afghanistan. When I go to
Afghanistan, you know--and I was there among the first reporters in September
of 2001. We were among the first on the ground. I checked in, back on that
story throughout the years that I was last there, about a year and a half ago.
Excuse me, I was last there just a year ago. You know, I am surprised that in
Afghanistan we don't have more troops. I am surprised in Afghanistan that we
don't see we need to make that work, and that the successes we have had there
through the provincial reconstruction teams are greatly in peril right now and
that that is slipping away from us. That is the point from which our country
was attacked on September 11th. That is where bin Laden trained the forces.
That is where we have to presume bin Laden could be, you know, in hiding, just
on the other side in the Pakistani areas. And why we haven't had a more
sophisticated and aggressive fight there is to me the biggest surprise I hold
when I step back from all of the reporting and all that's gone on since
September 11th. And I just can't fathom how it is that we are not taking a
much more serious approach to Afghanistan.

GROSS: You know, in addition to covering the war in Iraq, you've also covered
what it's been like for veterans who have returned home. You've written
several articles about some of the frustrations that they face. And one of
those frustrations is dealing with the VA hospitals. What are some of the
problems that veterans have run into with the VA hospitals?

Mr. SENNOTT: Well, the VA hospitals are geared toward and have been shifted
toward peace time. You have to think of the sprawling network of VA hospitals
as this vast HMO. And they had structured themselves to deal with World War
II veterans. And that was all occurring under the Clinton Administration, and
really even under the 41st Bush Administration. This was a time in which the
VA was being restructured and recast. They were closing the big hospitals.
They were shifting their focus to sort of outpatient care. And suddenly the
country is attacked and hit with a war on two fronts, and the wounded are
coming home with unbelievably complicated wounds and the system is not
equipped to deal with it.

People who work in the VA, many of them are very good people who care a lot
about veterans, who want too work as hard as they can. But there's a culture,
an institutional failure within the VA that is astounding once you're inside
it. So you have a situation where the veterans who are coming home wounded,
they get the best online medical emergency care that is offered anywhere in
the world. When they're in the field, they get great care. When they're in
Germany, they are receiving top notch, top flight excellent care. When they
get to Bethesda or they get to Walter Reed, the care is excellent. It's after
they're done with acute trauma care that they're really falling off the map
and falling through the cracks of a system that just hasn't figured out how
it's going to take care of these guys.

And why this isn't a bigger issue in the presidential race, I just can't
understand. How you don't hear about this from both Republicans and
Democrats, the outrage that we don't take care of our veterans the way that we
should is something I can't fathom. I mean, you do hear it from Clinton, you
do hear it from Obama. You can hear McCain who, of course, you know, spent a
lot of time in the military medical system himself. But you don't hear it
resonate out. You don't see it being covered. You don't see it being asked
about by the reporters covering the campaign very often. And I just wonder
why that is. To me it seems like one of those issues we should be pounding
down doors on. And I'm not seeing it.

GROSS: Yeah. Another source of frustration that you've written about for
veterans is the, you know, the GI Bill...

Mr. SENNOTT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and the promises that were made to them about access to education,
which they don't feel the promises are being followed through.

Mr. SENNOTT: Yeah, the GI Bill is probably one of the most historic pieces
of legislation, right? It changed our country. We come out of World War II
and we decide we're going to take care of veterans. We're going to give them
an education in exchange for their service, or we'll give them loans to build
a home or to build a company, and we will take care of them. And that was
very successful. The return to the American economy on the original GI Bill
was for every dollar that was invested in the GI Bill, the country received $8
back, you know, when people went on to have great salaries and pay taxes and
be successful in their lives and grow a family.

Now, you know, we reach a point where the GI Bill was changed during peace
time to become a peace time GI Bill so the benefits were reduced. It's--now
we are not a country at peace time. Although you can sometimes feel like that
when you're walking through a shopping mall in America, you wouldn't even know
there was a war. But for the families who have loved ones who fought in that
war, for the men and women who are doing it, the war is very real. And the GI
Bill doesn't cover their education enough. It doesn't reflect war time
service, I think. It really needs to be corrected. There's legislation being
looked at to do that. But again, why isn't that getting pushed down the road
much more quickly?

GROSS: Charles, we've been talking about your reporting on Iraq for the
Boston Globe and your reporting on veterans who return from Iraq. There's
some news in your life I'd like to talk about, too, which is you're leaving
the Globe and launching a new Web site for international reporting called
Global News. And just before we get into what the new Web site will be, why
are you leaving the Globe with whom you've been for 15 years?

Mr. SENNOTT: I'm leaving the Globe with a lot of sadness, but I'm leaving
because they allowed me to go off and cover the world for 10 years. I was
based in London and the Middle East, and I think I was very lucky to have a
chance to do that. And the when I came home, they closed the foreign bureaus.
They no longer have a foreign editor and they no longer cover foreign news.
And that makes me really sad to think that this great newspaper has shrunk its
vision to the point where it doesn't feel, because of the economic necessities
of what's happening in the newspaper world, that they can cover international
news. And I think that's been true across newspapers in America. Baltimore
Sun has shut down its foreign operation. Newsday has cut back. Philadelphia
Enquirer, Chicago Tribune, you just keep going down the line. And all of
those reporters who covered that are now wondering what happened. And I think
our Web site, I hope, will be a chance to fill the gap, to say where
traditional establishment news organizations have cut back or abandoned their
mission to cover the world, we see a great opportunity. And we really want to
try to flood that zone and fill that space. And we have a lot of
underemployed foreign correspondents who can help us do it.

GROSS: So what's your editorial model of how this would work and what it will
look like?

Mr. SENNOTT: Well, my partner, Phil Balboni, who will be CEO, has a business
model; and I'm going to be editorial head of the operation. And Phil's idea
is a very broad one, to have 70 foreign correspondents who will be based all
over the world and who will be paid a retainer in exchange for filing their
stories. Now, that's not a new model. That's really a sort of a stringer
model that a lot of news organizations have used. But what we are doing
that's different is we're offering the foreign correspondents a share of the
company. We're going to be paying in shares as well, and allow foreign
correspondents to be entrepreneurs in the field and to think about the fact
that they are vested in the success of this Web site.

GROSS: You had to deal with your own safety in the field, but this will be
your first time as an editor, signing off or not when a reporter tells you
that they want to put themselves at risk in a war zone to cover a story. So
I'd be interested in hearing about your thinking on the position you're going
to be in having some responsibility for other people's lives.

Mr. SENNOTT: I take that very seriously. I've been in a lot of conflict
zones with a lot of colleagues, and sadly lost a few. Or been in, you know,
just very worried about colleagues like Matt McAllester who was held at Abu
Graib, or Jill Carroll who was being detained; and worked very hard in every
way I could to help them get released, or to help the families of
correspondents who died in the field. I mean, these are issues for this
generation of foreign correspondents who've been in the field that we take
very seriously. So when we have 70 foreign correspondents all over the world
who are young, we want to also have a community of more veteran journalists
who can also mentor them and talk to them about the need to be safe. You've
got to first care about their safety, be sure they're OK, be sure they're not
taking unnecessary risks, and use every bit of street smarts and intuition
that you have as a more veteran foreign correspondent to communicate that to
them. And I will work very hard to do that.

GROSS: Well, Charles, it's great to talk with you again. Good luck with your
new venture on the Internet.

Mr. SENNOTT: Thanks, Terry. It's always great to talk with you.

GROSS: Charles Sennott leaves the Boston Globe next month to start the Global
News Web site.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: David Bianculli previews season two of the HBO series
"The Riches"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Tonight on the FX Cable Network, Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver return in the
second season premier of "The Riches." They play Irish American Gypsies who
have adopted the identities of an upper class couple and try to make the scam
last long enough to pay off. Our TV critic David Bianculli says it already
has.

DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:

The premise of "The Riches" is so wildly improbable that you have to suspend
disbelief from the very start, but it's worth it. Eddie Izzard and Minnie
Driver play Wayne and Dahlia Malloy, who are part of an Irish American Gypsy
clan called "travelers."

When the series began last year, she was being released from jail and fighting
a drug addiction. They got into trouble with members of their own clan and
fled, packing up their three kids and heading out on the open road. On that
road they were first upon the scene of a fatal one car accident, which had
claimed the lives of Doug and Cherien Rich. A quick search of the mangled
vehicle uncovered that the Riches were on their way to a lavish new home they
had bought over the Internet and a lawyers job for which Doug had been hired,
site unseen. The Malloys decided then and there to hide the car and the
bodies, become the Riches, then become rich. That's a preposterous scam to
try to pull off, and there are dozens of reasons why it wouldn't work. What's
fun about the FX series "The Riches" is that it doesn't ignore that reality.
The scam doesn't work. Almost every week there's a new wrinkle, a new threat,
an old acquaintance. The Riches are in deep, and each week the digging gets a
little deeper.

Take the second season opener, for example. Even before we get to the opening
credits sequence, the complications escalate to a critical mass. Pete, an old
friend of the real missing Doug Rich, has shown up in town. So has Dale, an
old enemy of Wayne Malloy, who knows Wayne is now posing as Doug Rich. The
family plan is to leave town immediately. But the youngest son has another
idea, to offer Pete a hefty bribe to keep quiet about his missing friend.
Wayne, played by Eddie Izzard, has an idea too and springs it on Dahlia,
played by Minnie Driver, just as they're about to gather the kids and drive
away.

(Soundbite from "The Riches")

Ms. MINNIE DRIVER: (As Dahlia Malloy) All right, get in the car. What's
wrong? Get in the car.

(Soundbite of door closing)

Mr. EDDIE IZZARD: (As Wayne Malloy) I want you to grab the kids, get the
hell out of here. I will meet you in Galveston.

Ms. DRIVER: (As Dahlia Malloy) Wayne, get in the...(censored by
network)...car.

Mr. IZZARD: (As Wayne Malloy) I'm not going, baby. I've got the 40 grand
and the seven grand we saved up. Try to talk to him.

Ms. DRIVER: (As Dahlia Malloy) Wayne...

Mr. IZZARD: (As Wayne Malloy) Like Sammy said, money makes the world go
round.

Ms. DRIVER: (As Dahlia Malloy) Wayne, he's a little boy. You're a grown
man. There's things you want and there's things that are. You've got to know
the difference.

Mr. IZZARD: (As Wayne Malloy) I have to try.

Ms. DRIVER: (As Dahlia Malloy) Baby, you can't bribe Pete. Don't you get
it? He's honest.

Mr. IZZARD: (As Wayne Malloy) Baby, then I will buy you a little time and
get you closer to Mexico.

Ms. DRIVER: (As Dahlia Malloy) Wayne, get in the...(censored by
network)...car.

Mr. IZZARD: (As Wayne Malloy) If anyone's going to prison, this time it's
me.

Ms. DRIVER: (As Dahlia Malloy) No, Wayne, baby.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: No matter how bad things seem, they invariably get worse. Wayne
is always one slip away from being exposed as a fraud. Dahlia is one step
away from being snatched by the cops for violating terms of her parole. Even
the kids are in trouble, especially the teen son who hates conforming to the
new life of the Riches and just wants to treat everyone as marks and victims
the way he was raised to. Hardly an episode goes by without an eruption of
awful violence, the threat of death or an escalation of the body count. And
yet the performances are so delicious, the Riches is irrestible..

As you watch each episode and poor Wayne gets painted into a corner from which
there appears to be no escape, you finally realize what's so compelling about
this series. It's like a dramatic version of "Fawlty Towers," that classic
British comedy in which John Cleese would get himself into one horrible fix
after another. The difference is Wayne Malloy, as the new improved Doug Rich,
keeps finding ways out of them. But I'm not sure he always will.

On "The Riches" you can delight at the complexity and cleverness of a scam one
minute, only to be horrified the next when the con goes sour and the would-be
victims react by drawing guns or swinging baseball bats. Violence in "The
Riches" is sudden, unexpected and realistic, and it's never far away.

As the leading couple, Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver are almost like
chameleons. Sometimes they act like the Riches, other times they adopt other
identities. And even when they're alone, intimately sharing secrets and
fears, they're still not dropping their guard fully. The TV show "The
Riches," like the characters the Riches, can't be trusted. No matter where
you think it's headed, it veers off somewhere else. But it's a very
intriguing place to be. As with "The Sopranos," "Dexter" and "Breaking Bad,"
the wrong side of the law turns out to be where to look if you want to find
the most interesting characters and the most entertaining TV shows.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for TVWorthWatching.com and for
Broadcasting & Cable magazine.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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