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Investigative Journalist Probes CIA Secrets

Investigative journalist Jane Mayer discusses a secret CIA counterterrorism program that was reportedly concealed from Congress under direct orders from then Vice President Dick Cheney.

34:59

Other segments from the episode on July 14, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 14, 2009: Interview with Jane Mayer; Interview with Roger Cohen.

Transcript

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Investigative Journalist Probes CIA Secrets

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. New questions about alleged abuses in the
Bush administration war on terror have been raised in recent days with a series
of damaging revelations, including the revelation about a secret CIA anti-
terror program.

The CIA hid the program from Congress for eight years, apparently at the
direction of Vice President Dick Cheney. Several national news organizations
now report that the program involved assembling secret hit teams to kill al-
Qaida operatives in other countries.

The program, which was never operational, was recently canceled by the new CIA
chief, Leon Panetta. Our guest, Jane Mayer, has written extensively about the
intelligence community and the war on terror for the New Yorker. Her latest
article was about Leon Panetta and whether he can move the CIA forward without
confronting its past. She’s also the author of the bestseller, “The Dark Side:
The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American
Ideals.”

Mayer spoke this morning to FRESH AIR contributor, Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES: Well Jane Mayer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now the nation, of
course, has paid a lot of attention in recent days to revelations by the CIA
director, Leon Panetta, that Congress had been kept in the dark for eight years
about a secret anti-terror program run by the CIA. What do we know about this
program now?

Ms. JANE MAYER (Author, “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on
Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals”): Well, we still don’t know all of
the details, but it sounds like, from the reports that have been out there,
that it was a program to form a kind of a death-squad unit that would rove the
world in search of al-Qaida leaders who, under this program, could be targeted
for killing.

DAVIES: So assassinations outside the United States, as far as we know, right?

Ms. MAYER: Well, assassination is actually a term that suggests illegal
activity, and so targeted killing is what it would have been called because
that suggests, then, that it was legally authorized.

DAVIES: And as far as the reporting reveals so far, never actually implemented,
right?

Ms. MAYER: That’s right, though there does seem to be some suggestion that the
unit was set up and - but that it never became operational. I think it went –
it was somewhere between an idea and an actual program. They began to take a
close look into setting it up and I think maybe began to train people slightly,
but those are the details that we’re still trying to ferret out.

DAVIES: And is it clear that Vice President Dick Cheney was largely responsible
for keeping this secret from Congress?

Ms. MAYER: Well, that is what the current CIA director, Panetta, told the
committee, the Intelligence Oversight Committee, and so far it remains
undisputed. So I guess we can assume that former Vice President Cheney truly
did try to purposefully keep this information from Congress.

DAVIES: Now, congressional leaders are furious about this, but I’m sure a lot
of Americans wouldn’t necessarily expect that the CIA would talk about its most
sensitive covert operations, even in closed doors with congressional leaders.
What exactly is the obligation of the CIA to disclose these kinds of
operations?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I mean, the problem is that there is a legal requirement that
the CIA disclose these kinds of operations. It’s not up to the executive branch
whether to inform the congressional overseers of covert programs and other
important intelligence activities.

Under statute, the CIA is required to disclose these kinds of details. There’s
some leeway in terms of how quickly they need to disclose them, and there’s
some interpretive leeway also about what kinds of programs must be disclosed,
they have to be important programs, but they don’t necessarily have to be
operational programs. They have to even inform Congress when they are
considering important covert operations.

DAVIES: Now, you and others have written about the tendency of Vice President
Cheney and his chief of staff, David Addington, to take different, perhaps
somewhat more innovative views, of the reach of executive power. Do we know if
this is an area in which they also had a different view of the intelligence –
the executive branch’s legal obligations to inform Congress?

Ms. MAYER: Definitely. This is a key area where there’s a long history here, a
long…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAYER: …and very fraught, basically, where former Vice President Cheney
has resented the role of Congress in overseeing intelligence operations and in,
as he sees it, interfering in the executive branch’s right to conduct national
security and foreign affairs.

So this goes way back - we’re talking about to the 1970s, basically. So maybe
it’s worth sort of filling in some of the history here, if you want.

DAVIES: Well you know, and the history involves what were then called
assassinations, which as you say now, targeted killing may be the preferred
term, but back in the ‘70s, there was an enormous outcry about the CIA’s
activities abroad that involved killings of perceived enemies of the United
States. It’s led to, you know, the Church hearings in Congress and new rules
for this. To what extent are we…?

Ms. MAYER: Specifically, those kind of activities, which is the irony here,
it’s specifically reports of assassination attempts that created these
oversight rules. And so if you go back to – basically the CIA was founded in
1947, and at the time, there was concern that it’s very hard to balance a
secret intelligence organization inside an open democracy.

So they set the CIA up, and they specifically worried at the time that we did
not want, in this country, to have something like the KGB or like the East
German secret police. So they set boundaries, among which were that the CIA
cannot operate in our own country.

Then in the 1970s, a number of abuses surfaced, and there became this, as you
mentioned, the Church Committee, a congressional investigation that looked into
allegations that the CIA was engaged in an assassination plot against Castro,
one against an African leader, Lumumba. There were reports of interferences in
elections in Latin America. There were reports about mind-control experiments
with drugs on human beings that were being done, including one that resulted in
a death of somebody jumping out of a window after having been given LSD without
knowing about it.

There were also questions of illegal break-ins, including some into the private
property of anti-war protestors in this country during the Vietnam War years,
where the CIA assisted the FBI in particular in breaking into the psychiatric
office of a doctor who was treating an anti-war protestor.

So these sorts of things became fodder for national scandal and outrage, and
the result was an effort to try to reform the CIA. And the thought was that if
Congress was authorized and required to perform an oversight role that there
would be some checks and balances put in place on what the CIA was doing. It
was very much a kind of mirroring what we do in other parts of the government,
where you have outside, independent review in order to check abuses. And so
that’s how this – these oversight rules got set up in the first place.

DAVIES: Dick Cheney was a player back in the ‘70s. Remind us where he was and
how this experience informed his own views, then and now, about the CIA and its
relationship to congressional oversight.

Ms. MAYER: At the time, Vice President Cheney was the chief of staff to former
President Gerald Ford, and so he was in the White House when some of these
scandals were breaking, and he - from the time, and he’s written about it,
talked about it, he has looked at the Congress as having, you know, an
illegitimate role here in trying to break the role that the executive branch,
as he sees it, should play.

So he’s described Congress as gnats in the past. And his top lawyer, David
Addington, who actually was a lawyer at the CIA in the ‘80s, the two of them
have worked hard to try to minimize the role of Congress and maximize the role
of the executive branch.

So there’s been this ongoing fight. And under Cheney’s interpretation, I mean,
he really feels that he needs to have a strong executive in order to have a
strong America and that Congress shouldn’t interfere.

DAVIES: Then there was the Iran-Contra affair, and Dick Cheney was in Congress
at the time. Remind us briefly what that was about and what Cheney’s views were
then.

Ms. MAYER: Basically, this was when Reagan was president. Reagan wanted to fund
the one side in the Nicaraguan civil war, and Congress explicitly forbade the
White House from funding one side in the war. They didn’t want to get involved
in this, but the White House went ahead and did it anyway, along with the CIA.
And what they did was they funded the Contras with money that was raised abroad
instead of getting it out of Congress.

Congress was furious when they found out. There were all kinds of hearings,
many legal repercussions, but throughout this whole thing, what was interesting
is that Cheney always took the side of the White House, even though he was in
Congress. He thought that it was up to the president to make foreign policy.

DAVIES: Now, apart from the battles of the 1970s changing the relationship
between the CIA and Congress, it also changed the CIA and its conception of
itself. And I’m wondering as somebody who follows the intelligence community,
are you surprised to see a renewed interest in the CIA in developing, well,
targeted killing squads?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I mean, I think you have to understand where this is coming
from. It was right after 9/11, and the Bush White House was panicking about the
possibility of another attack from al-Qaida. And they basically pulled out all
the stops and decided they would do everything they could possibly think of,
and the same with the CIA, which came the week after 9/11 - went over to the
White House with a list of things that they would like to do, and this was on
the list.

DAVIES: And you know, of course, there have been efforts to kill al-Qaida
leaders going back through the 1990s, usually using guided missile strikes or
drone aircraft. What’s the difference between the military undertaking the
killing of an al-Qaida operative and the CIA doing it?

Ms. MAYER: Well, the problem beneath all of this, it’s very complicated, but
the problem is, you know, whether or not you regard al-Qaida leaders as
suspects in crimes or if they are warriors in a war. There’s one set of laws
that governs how we treat people in wars and another if they are criminals, and
so there’s been a lot of confusion about a sort of blurring the barriers there.

After 9/11, we basically went to war against al-Qaida. So the laws of war
should have applied to the al-Qaida leaders here.

DAVIES: So then a military attack against an enemy of the United States is
different from a killing of someone who is a suspected criminal. If the
government views us as being at war with architects of terror, can the CIA be,
in effect, employed as a military asset and conduct those killings around the
world?

Ms. MAYER: Right. Conceivably, you can argue that they have the right to kill
the enemy because we’re at war with the enemy. And Congress wrote up the

authorization to use military force, which gave the U.S. the power to go to war
against the leaders of al-Qaida and the Taliban.

The question, though, is where’s the battlefield? You can, under the rules of
law, you can kill people, the enemy on the battlefield, but you can’t
necessarily chase them into sovereign states that are not part of this battle.

DAVIES: We’re speaking with Jane Mayer. She’s a staff writer for the New
Yorker. We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, our guest is Jane Mayer. She is a staff
writer for the New Yorker, where she’s written on security and intelligence
issues. She’s also the author of the book, “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of
How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals.”

You know, the battle that we’re seeing now is not just about whether or not
Congress should be briefed about some of these activities, but it really
reflects this question of to what extent the Obama administration will now look
back and hold Bush administration’s accountable for alleged violations of law
in its security activities, or in the interest of, you know, political
compromise and national unity, let some of those things go and move on to a
more forward-thinking agenda. Is this going to make it harder for Obama to
confront that dilemma?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I mean, the problem is that from the start, you know, even
before he was elected, Obama made a major issue of Bush’s policies in the war
on terror. He was an outspoken critic of them. So when he took over the White
House, people expected him to end these policies and hold wrongdoers
accountable. But he kind of instead, when he took over, said that we will fix
what went wrong, but we don’t want to look back. We want to look forward and
not get caught up in punishing people who may have done wrong during these past
years.

It’s been a very hard line to walk, though, and it’s getting harder all the
time because there’s more and more information suggesting there was serious
wrongdoing of various sorts that took place during the Bush years.

DAVIES: And each time a new revelation emerges, he is called upon to comment
and maybe confront a new decision about whether there should be an
investigation.

Ms. MAYER: Absolutely. I mean, and so the thing is, he – the choice becomes
does he want to open up the past, or does he want to cover up the past? And
instead, he’s looking for some kind of middle ground, where he can be neutral
on this issue, not covering up necessarily for Bush but also not getting
dragged into partisan fights about prosecuting his predecessors. And it’s just
– it’s a swamp that he keeps getting dragged into.

DAVIES: And then there’s this still-pending decision by the Attorney General
Eric Holder on whether there will be investigations into those who developed
the legal authority for enhanced interrogation techniques - torture. Now help
us understand this. I believe the administration has said that they will not
investigate or prosecute people who were acting within the legal limits that
the Justice Department defined at the time. Is that right?

Ms. MAYER: Right. So basically they’re trying to, you know, inoculate the CIA
officers, who were acting in good faith and were told that what they were doing
was legal, because it would seem unfair to go back at them now and change the
rules on them. And so they have also said that - the Obama administration, that
is – that they are not likely to prosecute the lawyers whose interpretations of
the laws were so controversial.

So what’s left, then, is the question - and it seems from recent reports that
Attorney General Holder is looking at the possibility of appointing a special
prosecutor who would investigate whether interrogators themselves, the people
in the room with those terror suspects, whether they crossed over the line
criminally, whether they went beyond even the very generous kinds of
interpretations of law that the Justice Department during the Bush years gave
them.

DAVIES: What might be the fallout from prosecuting those who actually inflicted
torture?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I think the problem may be that the actual interrogators would
argue immediately that they were authorized to do everything they did. And they
would then point straight up the chain of command and say that the blame should
be pushed upwards to the very top of the Bush administration, which after all
signed off on this program, including the president, the vice president, the
director of the CIA and the secretary of defense. So it wouldn’t – it’s very
hard to contain this at the very bottom rungs of the program, and I think
that’s what they would find very quickly.

DAVIES: You know, with the revelations that have come out over the past, you
know, days and weeks, do you think the balance has shifted in terms of the
pressure on President Obama to more aggressively investigate alleged wrongdoing
during the Bush days, or will he stay on the course that he has charted so far,
to do as little as possible?

Ms. MAYER: You know, I just don’t know that he can stay on this course. I
understand very much why he wants to do it. This - you know, he doesn’t want to
tangle his presidency up in endlessly trying to deal with the problems that the
former president created in the war on terror. And you know, clearly President
Obama’s got his own positive agenda. He wants to deal with health care. He
wants to deal with the economy. The country probably agrees with his priorities
in many ways, yet there is something about these legal problems that are coming
out of the Bush years that you can’t just sweep under the rug.

And I’ve been interviewing a number of experts on this area who say it’s very
much the experience that other countries have had when they’ve had scandals
that involved allegations of torture. Frequently, everybody wants to just fix
it and move on, but it doesn’t go away - that these allegations are so serious,
and they strike so much at the core of our values that people don’t feel
comfortable just letting perpetrators off the hook. And so it just keeps
bubbling up and bubbling up until there’s some kind of either a truth and
reconciliation commission or some kinds of prosecutions or some way of just
opening up what happened here because, you know, we’re an open society, and
torture is a major crime. So it’s very hard to forget it.

DAVIES: You know, there are also international obligations, which may force the
United States’s hand in dealing with issues of torture, and we’ve seen efforts
by a Spanish judge to bring some Bush administration officials to account.
Where is that going to go? What impact will that have on the Obama
administration’s actions?

Ms. MAYER: Well, this is another problem for the administration because Eric
Holder may not be free to ignore these allegations of torture. As you say,
under international law, the convention against torture requires the United
States to investigate if there are credible allegations of torture, and if we
don’t do it, other countries will, which creates a very uncomfortable
situation, as we’ve seen in Spain, where they’ve started to take, you know,
open up a criminal investigation into the U.S. So again, Holder may not be free
to just move on without looking at this.

GROSS: Jane Mayer will continue her interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave
Davies in the second half of the show. Jane Mayer writes for the New Yorker
magazine. Dave Davies is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. I’m
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

Leon Panetta just revealed to Congress that the CIA had a secret program to
kill al-Qaida operatives, a program it kept hidden from Congress. Our guest,
Jane Mayer, recently wrote a New Yorker article about Leon Panetta and what he
faces as the new head of the CIA. Mayer is a staff writer for the magazine and
is the author of the bestseller, "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the
War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals."

Let's get back to her interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVIES: You wrote recently in The New Yorker about Leon Panetta and his efforts
to reform the CIA and confront the dilemmas it faces about its recent past. One
of the first things Panetta had to confront was whether he had an agency in
which operatives under his command had committed torture. Is it clear whether
that was the case?

Ms. JANE MAYER (Staff writer, The New Yorker): Well, the thing is it depends
whose definition of torture? In the Bush years, the lawyers said that the
things that were done in these interrogation programs were not torture. Many
outside experts have said this clearly was torture, including the Red Cross,
which is pretty much the world's expert on torture and war crimes. So there's
a, you know, a fight on about whether what was done constitutes criminal
actions or not. And you know, many people think that this was a program of
torture.

DAVIES: Now, you tell us in the piece that when Leon Panetta came in he said he
wanted to be sure that nobody on the CIA payroll could be prosecuted for
torture or related crimes. How did he go about ensuring that that was the case?

Ms. MAYER: Well, he asked the inspector general, John Helgerson, at the time,
whether Helgerson thought there were people there who had committed crimes
and...

DAVIES: That's the inspector general of the CIA, right?

Ms. MAYER: That's right.

DAVIES: Right.

Ms. MAYER: And whether people needed to be investigated further there. And
interestingly, Helgerson said he did not think there were - there were no
people he knew of at the time who had committed crimes. But he also left the
door open saying, you know, potentially more could be found out about people.

DAVIES: So where does that leave Panetta? I mean what standard did he employ?

Ms. MAYER: Panetta…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAYER: Well, Panetta's in a tough spot. He wants to win over the loyalty of

the building. He doesn't want to alienate the people who's, you know, who he is
the boss of. And so he pretty much has decided to take the same line as
President Obama saying, if these acts were authorized by lawyers in the Bush
administration, then he doesn't think people should be prosecuted now that
we’re reinterpreting the law. So he seems to be, you know, to some extent
accepting what was done before and trying to move forward.

DAVIES: Now one of the things that President Obama has said is there's going to
be a new era of openness and transparency. To what extent has Panetta done that
or maybe been more protective of the CIA when it comes to the disclosure of
past deeds and memoranda reports?

Ms. MAYER: Well, he has kind of moved back and forth on this, taking something
of a middle course. I mean he has released a number of documents, including
almost all of the legal memos that the Justice Department wrote during the Bush
years that guided this program, some of which have been filled with absolutely
shocking details. So that was transparent to some extent. But he also has
obviously held back on a number of things when he's been advised that it will
hurt national security.

So, for instance, he didn't release the photographs of detainees being
tormented in various ways recently because he was afraid that it might stir up
some kind of anti-American backlash. And there are other areas where his
Justice Department has asserted national security rather than opening up
secrets. And there have been a number of critics saying that they think he's -
that Obama has been too much like Bush in over-asserting national security
secrets.

DAVIES: Panetta at the CIA also had to deal with this issue of rendition, of
taking prisoners and then having them transported to countries where they might
undergo torture or really intensive interrogation techniques. Where has Panetta
come down on the rendition program?

Ms. MAYER: Well, it’s interesting, and I think surprising to many critics of
rendition that Panetta and the Obama administration are continuing the
rendition program, which they say they're going to do differently than the Bush
administration did. In the Bush years this program just grew exponentially and
resulted in a number of allegations. The people who the CIA picked up and
basically abducted and sent over to foreign prisons to be interrogated, many of
those people allege that they were hideously tortured.

So what Panetta told me was that they're going to monitor it much more closely
and they're going to make sure that nobody gets sent to a country where they
torture or abuse prisoners, and that they - we will keep tabs on them to make
sure that they are treated humanely. Which sounds good, but it is actually what
the Bush administration said too.

This is a program, to be honest, that began during the Clinton years. And so it
- and there are a number of people inside the CIA who think that it's very
effective, so they’ve been pushing Panetta and Obama to keep it going.

DAVIES: How credible do you find these assurances that people can be protected?

Ms. MAYER: I think it's very hard. I mean there are very few countries that
live up to the United States’ standards of justice. So, I mean, even during the
Clinton years they - the CIA picked up a number of suspects and sent them to
Egypt and some of them were summarily executed. So it's very hard to say that
you can find other countries...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAYER: ...that live up to our standards of human rights. And I mean I think
it’s, you know, it’s asking for trouble, I think.

DAVIES: What's the logic of maintaining a rendition program? Isn't it designed
to evade protections in U.S. law? Why would the United States government want
to do that?

Ms. MAYER: Well, actually there are many people who think the rendition program
is very effective. It's not necessarily just designed to evade U.S. law. What
it's designed to do is pick up terror suspects around the world and capture
them and deliver them into some form of justice, if not our own, and some have
been brought to our country, but then to some other countries, an allied
country that maybe will be able to prosecute these people. So some of them are
taken to the countries that, you know, where they are citizens. And we’re just
sort of assisting other countries in bringing people to justice.

I mean, in theory I can see why it has an appeal because, you know, it picks
people up off the street who might be extremely dangerous terror suspects. But
the question is whether the U.S. should be involved in bringing people into
circumstances where they might be tortured and we have laws that say we can't
bring them to places that'll torture them. And then the question is, well, can
we monitor this appropriately, and it's hard to do.

DAVIES: You know it's interesting that Panetta's dilemma at the CIA is sort of
parallel to Obama's, but they're different. I mean, Obama has to make a
decision that's to some extent a political calculation. Whether it's better for
the country to honestly confront its past or to let some of that go unexamined
so that he can build a national consensus to move forward on an important
agenda, everything from health care to the economy to energy.

Panetta has a managerial challenge. I mean he needs to get his agency moving on
a very important national security mission that might be undermined if he
spends a long time going into investigations and recriminations on past deeds.
And I'm wondering what your sense is of the extent to which Panetta's goals for
the CIA, and obviously it does a lot more than interrogate people, to what
extent his goals for the agency have been undermined by, you know, the looks -
the investigation of its past?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I think there is a great fear that he and others have over at
the CIA that if they start opening criminal investigations or even disciplinary
investigations into the counterterrorism staff that it will hurt the morale of
the agency and make the - particularly tie up the time of the experts in
counterterrorism at a time when we still face a threat from terrorism.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAYER: So it is a real dilemma. Though I have to say that, and it's very
much also what the Republicans on the Hill have been saying. They’ve been
arguing that this is a dangerous course to take and it's going to weaken the
CIA if you hold people accountable for past abuse. It's - one of the things
that intrigues me about this argument though is that the military, of course,
does this all the time. If there are allegations of war crimes they investigate
them.

If, you know, obviously in Abu Ghraib a number of people were charged with
crimes. And what they - part of the reason they do that is to keep high
standards of discipline and also to learn lessons from things they did wrong in
the past. And I think, you know, weighing on the other side of this argument is
the question of whether the CIA has learned something from this period. Have
they really decided that abuse is - was unnecessary and wrong and off the
table? Or would we possibly slip back into this if there was another attack?
And I think it's very unclear. So there's kind of a lot of confusion over...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAYER: ...over at the agency and it's up to Panetta to try to straighten
all of this out.

DAVIES: Well, Jane Mayer, thanks so much for joining us again.

Ms. MAYER: Glad to be with you.

GROSS: Jane Mayer speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Mayer writes
for The New Yorker and is the author of "The Dark Side." Dave is a senior
writer for the Philadelphia Daily News.

This is FRESH AIR.
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Covering Iran Without A Press Pass

TERRY GROSS, host:

It's been difficult to get news from Iran because the government has forced out
foreign reporters. But after the government revoked the press passes of foreign
reporters, my guest, Roger Cohen decided to take his chances and stay and
continue covering the protest against the election results until his visa
expired. He had been in Tehran since early June. He returned to New York last
week. Cohen told me he took the risk of staying in Iran because he thought it
was important to bear witness.

Mr. ROGER COHEN (Columnist, The New York Times): I have never witnessed
anything quite like it; three million people moving through the streets in
silence. Whenever there was a murmur they would say, sokut, sokut, which is
Farsi for silence. And they had their arms raised. They were making the "V"
sign for victory.

This was not a narrow response to the election. This was not a bunch of
students or a bunch of North Tehrani rich kids. There were students and
shopkeepers, old and young. I saw people on crutches. And this was a massive
and immediate response to what was perceived as this fraud. And I was deeply
moved. I felt that I should go on as long as I could. I didn't go into hiding.
I stayed. I was in a relatively little known resident hotel but, of course,
they could've found me if they wanted to.

I did write to the head of the Ministry of Information press office on the day
that my press pass was revoked and expired and I asked for a renewal. I mean I
knew it was for naught but I wanted to have the record that I had done that and
I got neither a rejection nor, of course, an approval. I just got silence. So
in that silence I figured I'd carry on.

GROSS: Okay. So you’ve described a massive and peaceful demonstration. But the
atmosphere changed as the demonstrators were attacked by the Basiji(ph). Why
don't you describe what it was like to be in the middle of one of the
demonstrations that were - where the demonstrators were tear-gased and clubbed.

Mr. COHEN: The atmosphere got steadily worse and it changed with Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei's vitriolic sermon of the Friday after the election. That was exactly
one week after the election. He used Friday prayers to call all the foreign
media agents of subversion to tell Mousavi that if the street demonstrations
continued the blood would be on his hands, to side unequivocally with
Ahmadinejad.

And as, you know Terry, the supreme leader in the setup created by Khamenei,
the supreme leader has traditionally sat above the fray. But has the - sits
literally at the flank of the prophet so his authority is divine. So when he
says there will be blood on the streets, it in effect gives divine sanction for
bringing that blood to the street. So on the Saturday, tens of thousands of
people - not millions, tens of thousands defied the Ayatollah Khamenei's words
and went out in the streets. There was a massive security presence and I saw
women being beaten and club. One I remember particularly vividly limping toward
me and then we tried to comfort her and she turned around and she wanted to go
back into the heart of the demonstration. I myself got very badly tear gassed,
just walked into this - I wasn’t sure it was smoke or tear gas. It was tear
gas. And I was kind of choking and there was a whole bunch of people next to me
were choking. We kind of dashed down this alley of (unintelligible) Revolution
Avenue. And one of the signs of the massive support for the protestors into
Tehran, and there are many, but one of them was always that doors were flung
open in houses for people in distress. And we ducked into this hallway where an
older woman had made a little fire in a bowl. I wasn’t aware of this before but
fire smoke, smoke from a fire, actually dispels to some degree the effects of
tear gas. Everybody was putting their head over this little fire, over the
smoke. And pitched battles, garbage on fire, alarms going off, windows getting
smashed, police eddying back and forth.

One of the interesting things that day was that the city police, dressed in
their green uniforms, were actually being quite friendly. And I heard one
pleading with a protestor in front of him just saying, look, I have a wife and
kids too. Please just go home.

GROSS: Did you have any close calls yourself while you were in Iran?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I did at this demonstrations that I described in running,
running from police, beating people while being tear-gassed. And yeah, that
was, that was very unpleasant. But I wasn’t shot at while, although I heard
gunfire. But it was a very emotional and draining experience, especially in the
last five or six days, when I felt a tremendous responsibility. I mean the
chances these days, given communication and the interconnected world we live
in, the chances of being almost alone as an American journalist, you know, on a
story of those dimensions - just because everybody else had had to leave - are
extremely remote.

But, you know, it happened. And, you know, so I really hardly slept the last
five or six days. And I feel, I feel a connection with Iran. And you know,
Iran, Terry, has aspired - it had the first democratic revolution in Asia in
1905. And it was demanding something called a constitution. And so it was
called the Constitutional Revolution against the Qajar dynasty, and
intermittently ever since Iranians have looked for some form of liberal
democracy.

And I think the tragedy of Iran is that these two currents - the one, the very
strong profound Islamic faith of the country; the clerical current, if you
like, and the liberal democratic current, which is equally strong, there’s no
reason ultimately that they shouldn’t coexist. And you know, the Islamic
Republic has had some very significant achievements. But as these recent events
demonstrate, it has not finally been able to get those two forces into some
balance that brings Iranians together and overcomes the pain of exile of
millions of Iranians and draws the country toward, you know, its potential,
which is, which is huge.

GROSS: My guest is Roger Cohen, a columnist for The New York Times. We‘ll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is New York Times columnist Roger Cohen. He covered the protest
in Tehran after the election. So you had decided to stay in Iran until your
visa ran out, even though your press pass was revoked, as all foreign
journalist press passes were. When your visa was up, that meant it was time for
you to leave. But when you left, then people examined your visa and your
passport. They’d see your name and for anybody who was following this, they’d
know you were the reporter who was illegally getting information out from Iran
back to the United States. So did you leave with some trepidation knowing that
you could be arrested on your way out?

Mr. COHEN: I did. Yeah, and I was given an extremely bad time at Khomeini
airport. Looking back, I think I was so exhausted that I wasn't really as alert
as, you know, as I might have been. But I was, yeah, I was – it was very
unpleasant, it was quite humiliating. I mean, you know, I was virtually strip
searched. And five minutes was devoted to the examination of each pen. And
yeah, it was pretty horrible. But…

GROSS: Did you think you weren't going to get out?

Mr. COHEN: I didn't know, and I was also, this sounds ridiculous, but I was
worried, you know, my visa expired at midnight and my flight was at three in
the morning of the following day. And this search went on for so long that I
was worried that, I mean, come two minutes past midnight, they could say I had
overstayed my visa. You know, which given everything else just sounds almost
comical, I guess.

But knowing Iran the way I do, I knew that I didn't want to get my passport
stamped any time after midnight. Because – and anyway, in the end I got my
passport stamped at maybe four minutes to midnight. So the whole thing was,
yeah, I was very tense and it was very unpleasant.

GROSS: So when you were done with that unpleasant experience and you got on the
plane - what were you thinking?

Mr. COHEN: I was, you know, I think I was not in fact relieved, which maybe I
should have been. I was upset. I thought quite seriously about staying. But
then I thought about Nazila(ph) and other colleagues and what might happen and,
you know, also of course what might happen…

GROSS: You’d be putting them at risk.

Mr. COHEN: Yes, and – well, I also thought of course about what might happen to
me. There have been other journalists arrested at that point who disappeared
from view. And I was talking to my wife, who has, you know, pretty long
experience at this point of me in war zones. And I told her I was thinking of
staying, and she was pretty smart. She didn’t say anything. She just said,
well, when you make up your mind let me know. And – but of course I knew what
she didn’t want me to do. So in the end I left, but - well, I left thinking it
was unlikely that I’d get back any time soon. And I left just feeling I was
betraying the people whose acts I'd been writing about.

GROSS: I’m curious who was on the plane with you when you took that 3:00 a.m.
plane out of Tehran. Was it people who were feeling endangered and trying to
get away or - like who were the other people?

Mr. COHEN: I don’t know. I mean there were bunch of very sleepy people, it
being 3:00 in the morning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: All right.

Mr. COHEN: So you know, basically Lufthansa put the lights out and everyone,
you know, tried to sleep, and I slept myself, actually. I was just exhausted
and drained. But I think there were some, you know, there were some business
people, there were, you know, there's a huge Diaspora, millions of people.
Khomenei globalized Iranians, and as you know, there’s a large community here,
particularly in California, but also very large communities in Britain and
Germany. And I was on a – of course there are no U.S. flights into Iran. And I
was on a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt. And I think there were quite a lot of
German-Iranians, you know, who’d gone back to see families. The flight was - it
wasn’t full. It was maybe two-thirds full, if that.

GROSS: You said before that in a way journalism is a young man’s game, you
know, like when you get the call to go to Lebanon in the middle of the night.
It’s one thing if you’re 25, it’s another thing if you're, you know, 40 and you
have a family. And I’m wondering, I mean - you’re married, you have children.
I'm wondering if you didn’t expect to conduct this kind of journalism, you
know, in a country like Iran when you’re officially banned from reporting there
at this stage in your career, this stage in your life.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah, it was a bit of a shock, Terry. You know, as a columnist you
just choose where you go. So I feel, strange thing to say, but I feel fate just
kind of drew me into Iran this year and it hasn’t really stopped from the
beginning of the year. And now I have that feeling that I had after Bosnia,
that you know, there’s something kind of welling inside me that I, you know,
will still have to get out somehow, which probably means a book. But you know,
I haven't moved forward into that yet.

But one thing about journalism is that it can always surprise you. And I think
I wrote in one column that, you know, we’re supposed to be hardened and able to
move on and we’re just voyeurs. You know, we look at one story, then we look
at another. And I think every now and again we just get ambushed by a story.
And I’ve certainly been ambushed by Iran. And your subject turns the tables on
you and has you in its grasp rather than you deciding when you want to move on.

GROSS: Well, Roger Cohen, thank you very much for talking with us and thank you
so much for the reporting that you did from Tehran.

Mr. COHEN: Thank you.

GROSS: And for sticking it out there as long as you possibly could. Thank you
so much.

Mr. COHEN: Thank you, Terry. Great to talk to you.

GROSS: Roger Cohen is a columnist for The New York Times. You can download
podcasts of show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
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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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