Analyzing Chalabi's Place in Iraq After 'Plan A'
In the cover story of this week's New York Times Magazine Dexter Filkins writes about the predicament of Ahmad Chalabi: "Once Iraq's anointed leader — anointed by the Americans — Chalabi, at age 62, is without a job, spurned by the very colleagues whose ascension he engineered." The title of the piece is "Where Plan A Left Ahmad Chalabi."
Other segments from the episode on November 7, 2006
DATE November 7, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Dexter Filkins, who covered Iraq for the New York
Times, on his years in Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi, and adjusting to
feeling safe again
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
"For many people in the West, Ahmad Chalabi has become the personification of
all that has gone wrong in Iraq: the lies, the arrogance, the occupation as
disaster." So writes my guest, Dexter Filkins, who profiled Chalabi in
Sunday's New York Times magazine. He describes Chalabi as the man who
persuaded the most powerful men and women in the US to make the liberation of
Iraq not merely a priority, but an obsession. First in 1998, when Chalabi
persuaded Congress to pass the Iraq Liberation Act. And then later in
persuading the Bush administration of the necessity of using force to destroy
Chalabi's group of Iraqi exiles, the Iraqi National Congress, received over
$27 million from the US over a period of six years, but the information he
gave the US was often inaccurate and misleading. Filkins covered Iraq for the
New York Times from the invasion in 2003 until the end of August this year.
He's known Chalabi for three and a half years. Currently, Filkins is based at
Harvard University, where he has a Nieman fellowship. I asked him to describe
how Ahmad Chalabi made the case for invading Iraq.
Mr. DEXTER FILKINS: Well, it's--there's no super-easy one line answer, but
I'll attempt it. The...
Mr. FILKINS: Well, it, I mean, first I should say, if you look at the
reports and what, I mean, there was this fabulous moment, which it's in the
story, but it was last year. And he came to Washington, Chalabi did, and he
spoke in front of the American Enterprise Institute, which is a think tank in
Washington. And he was asked by somebody, you know, `Would you like to
apologize to the American people for bringing the country to war?' And he
stood up and said, `Well the idea that I sold the Bush administration on WMD
is an urban myth.' And, you know, half the room gasped. You could hear them.
But actually, he's not terribly far off. That's not quite accurate, but there
was a Senate report, a big link in the investigation, the Rob Silverman
report, that said essentially--didn't say that Chalabi had played a
constructive role, it just said that the stuff he gave us, we didn't use,
basically. Or we didn't use much of it.
But the story doesn't end there, and again, it's--without going on too
long--there's another Senate report that says his intelligence, the defectors,
basically, the Iraqi defectors that he gave to American intelligence directly
affected some of the judgments about going to war and about whether Saddam had
weapons of mass destruction.
But the most interesting conversation I had, and the one I think that shed the
most light for me was a conversation with David Kaye, who was the head of the
Iraq survey group, the guy who went in after the invasion to look for WMD.
And what he said was the following, it's kind of complicated, but it's very
revealing. He said that the CIA, i.e. George Tenet at the time, didn't
really trust Chalabi. They had a falling out many years before. They weren't
really buying what he was selling them, or what he was giving them. But that
Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary; Vice President Cheney; Rumsfeld,
they believed Chalabi. And they be--so they, having been, essentially, armed
with the information that Chalabi gave them, they pressured Tenet and Tenet
ultimately caved, even though he didn't really buy what was in front of him.
GROSS: So what's some of the information that Chalabi actually gave the Bush
Mr. FILKINS: One of the main guys is a guy named--and I'm forgetting his
first name, but his last name is al-Haydari, and he was a defector. I think
he went to Jordan, and then I think that's where the INC, Chalabi's group, the
Iraqi National Congress, made contact with him, and I think that they met
American intelligence in a safehouse in Bangkok, if I remember correctly, and
Haydari told them a number of things. It, you know, god is in the details
here, so I need to be a little careful, but essentially, I think, Haydari
said, `I have seen buildings and I've seen structures that look like mobile
labs or laboratories used for the construction of, or the, you know,
maintenance of chemical and biological weapons,' that sort of thing. That was
one of the main pieces that Chalabi gave them.
GROSS: And did Chalabi also make it seem that if we invaded Iraq, we would be
welcomed as liberators and it would be, you know, pretty easy to create an
Mr. FILKINS: Well, I think, I mean, you raise a kind of larger point, which
I think is, I think, which I tried to say in the piece. Which is if you just
kind of--it's not really accurate just to say or just to ask yourself the
question, `What is it that Chalabi gave to US intelligence?' Because if you go
back to before the war, Chalabi was not just doing that. He was doing any
number of other things. He was--his group was disseminating information to
newspapers all across the country, to television stations all across the
country. Some of which turned out to be absolutely false, you know,
allegations, for example, that Saddam was involved in the September 11th
attacks and, you know, there were terrorist camps, you know, where they were
practicing hijacking and that sort of stuff.
And that stuff was making it into the--because it made it into the newspapers,
including ours, it was kind of, I mean, he was sort of beating the drum in
public, not just with, you know, American intelligence, but so that he was
instrumental, I think it's fair to say, he was instrumental in sort of helping
to create the climate, the public climate that existed at the time the
decision to go to war was made.
GROSS: Now you've been talking about some of the people who blame him for bad
information that led us into the war in Iraq. But he points his finger to the
Pentagon, and he says that the Pentagon guys chickened out. And what does he
think the Pentagon did wrong?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's a--he's making a slightly different point, Chalabi
is, when he blames the Pentagon. What Chalabi says, and I think you can say
it's fair to say, that a lot of the people who supported the war, the very
strong war supporters back in 2003, this is what they say now. I mean, I've
heard this argument now from not just Chalabi, but Richard Perle and any
number of other people who supported the war back then, was that the Pentagon
blew it this way. When Saddam fell and the Americans rolled into Baghdad,
what they did, of course, was they set up an occupation authority, they
brought into Paul Bremer. You know, the city was in flames, the Iraqis were
looting, and they kept 150,000 American troops in there and proceeded, you
know, in the way that they did.
And what Chalabi says is that what they should've done, and what he believed
they were going to do, was the Americans were going to do at the time, was
instead of imposing an American kind of occupation authority on Iraq and then
thereby guaranteeing the unpopularity of the Americans and kind of humiliating
the Iraqis with this term occupation. What they should've done is put Iraqis
in charge and allowed the Iraqis--that means Chalabi, of course--to set up an
interim government, essentially an Iraqi government, that could've taken over.
And if they would've done that, if the Americans would've done that, as
Chalabi and others were urging at the time--and I think it's fair to say they
were urging it at the time, talk...
GROSS: He was hoping to be the head of that government, too, wasn't he?
Mr. FILKINS: He was. Of course he was. Yeah. And there a number, I mean,
there were a number of Iraqi--most of them were exiles at the time--who were
pretty close to the Americans as the invasion was kind of unfolding. And, you
know, there was actually a meeting that took place in Baghdad, you know,
city's on fire, in April 2003 they met with Zalmay Khalilzad, who's now the
American ambassador to Iraq, and he at the time was the special envoy to the
Iraqi opposition. And he--they describe this meeting, and it's Chalabi--it's
all the, you know, the big exiles. It's Chalabi and Barzani and Alawi and all
these people. And they basically made the case to Khalilzad as they describe
it, they say, `Look, put us in charge. You know, we can do this. We're
Iraqis. We understand the language. We know the culture. We can act firmly
where you can't.'
And as they tell the story, you know, and I don't know--this part I don't
really know if it's true or not, but that Khalilzad was very receptive to it,
and said, `OK, I'll go back to Washington and see what I can do.' And, you
know, he didn't appear on the scene again for another two years. But, you
know, a couple weeks later, Paul Bremer showed up with a totally different set
of marching orders.
So but I should just say, as I do in the piece, and I mean, I think it's,
Chalabi basically says, `The Pentagon should've done it my way. They
should've done it that way, and they chickened out, and that's how they blew
it.' Because, you know, they put it--they had the Americans in charge instead
of the Iraqis, and so everything went bad.
But for that scenario really to be plausible, I mean, you have to imagine what
Iraq was like at the time. I mean, it was in a state of total chaos and total
anarchy. I mean, I was there. The place was on fire. There was no Iraqi
army, there was no Iraqi police force, there was no Iraqi government of any
sort. I mean, all the government buildings were being looted, you know, I
mean, by 10 AM on April 9th, 2003, as the American tanks were rolling in, the
Iraqis were descending on all the government buildings and tearing them to
So there wasn't anything, you know, when Chalabi says, `Well, the Pentagon
chickened out and they should've put us in charge,' it just doesn't, you know,
it doesn't really ring true. Maybe it would've been possible, but it seems
hard to believe, I mean, that basically, you know, a dozen Iraqis, some of
whom had been out of the country, like Chalabi, for 45 years, could sort of
come in and sort of take over and start, you know, pulling the levers of
power. I mean, I think in this case, the levers weren't connected to
GROSS: In terms of his relationship with the United States government,
Chalabi has gone from close friend to enemy. I'm not sure what his status is
now. I'll ask you that again a little bit later, but the enemy part really
becomes clear in May 2004 when his home was raided by American and Iraqi
agents. What were they looking for?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, it's pretty--it--I mean, just to--it's amazing, the ups
and downs here. You know, Chalabi as the favorite son, and then Chalabi as
the enemy, and then Chalabi goes back to Washington and he's the favorite son
again. And now he's kind of--yeah, now he's somewhere between those two
poles. I think now, I--well, I mean, in fact I mean now he's regarded as
irrelevant, which I think is probably the most stinging thing for him of all.
But to go to the American raid on Chalabi's house, that was in May 2004, I was
actually there at the time. And they surrounded his neighborhood with a bunch
of humvees and--the American troops did, and then Iraqi agents went in with
some American agents, not really clear who the American guys were. They were
probably intelligence people--and raided his house. And there's a bunch of
different reasons I've heard for why they did it, but the most compelling is
is that there was an allegation that Chalabi had told the Iranians, told the
Iranian government, that the Americans had cracked their secret codes and were
listening to them. And so, you know, that was regarded as sort of a gigantic
betrayal by the Americans. And so they kind of swooped in, and that really
made the break final.
GROSS: So is he no longer considered to have spied for Iran or, you know,
betrayed America by giving secrets to Iran?
Mr. FILKINS: It's unclear. I mean, it's--at the time, you know, the
Americans were fulminating about that. But then again, I remember when, in
November, it was just about a year ago, November 2005, when he returned to
Washington, you know. He was running for Parliament, he had kind of an
outside shot to be prime minister, so he--you know, they welcomed him back.
He met with Rumsfeld, he met with Secretary of State Rice, he met with Cheney.
And, you know, those allegations were forgotten. They were, you know--and I
called around to people in Washington and said, `Well, what happened to the
allegation that he had tipped off the Iranians?' And it just kind of went
And so it makes you wonder if it were ever true, or whether they just couldn't
prove it. I don't know.
GROSS: My guest is Dexter Filkins of the New York Times. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins and he covered
Iraq for the New York Times from the time of the invasion till just a couple
of months ago. And in this Sunday's magazine of the Times, he has an article
about Ahmad Chalabi.
Well, you actually went on a trip with Ahmad Chalabi to Iran. What was his
Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's a really difficult question to answer. I should
say, it was an amazing trip because we drove to Iran, and we drove across the
border. And, I mean, everything about it was amazing, and also mysterious.
We drove across eastern Iraq out of Baghdad, and in this enormous armed
convoy, you know, we had about 30 cars and about 50 guys with machine guns,
and drove to the border in this little bordertown called Marah. But I
remember, as we drove into Iran, you know, the entire geography changes. I
mean, you know you're in another country and it was kind of very romantic,
because it was sort of the, you know, the old historic boundary between the
Persian empire and the Ottoman empire, and you could really feel the world
changing, you know?
But--and then we got there and we crossed the border and we drove to the
nearest airport, which wasn't, I don't know, a half an hour away, and there
was a private jet waiting for Chalabi, an Iranian government jet. And then we
all got in and flew to Tehran. But at the time, I mean, there were so many
different things happening that it's difficult to say exactly what Chalabi was
doing there, but I think, you know, he wanted to be prime minister at the
time. And I think he wanted to talk to the Iranians about that is what it
comes down to.
GROSS: What, about backing him?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, or not getting in his way, you know? `Would you oppose
this?' in other words. I think that, I mean, that was sort of my best
assessment. Because I think the answer would be, you know, the Iranians
loomed very large in Iraq, and they loom very large in that part of the world.
And they're, you know, in the intelligence world, they're regarded as being
very, very sophisticated. And I think if the Iranians didn't want Chalabi to
run for prime minister, then he probably wouldn't have, you know? I mean, as
it happens, he didn't become prime minister, but it doesn't look like they
were opposed to it.
GROSS: Well, he actually met with President Ahmadinejad. So he has to have
some sense of power in Iran. I mean, what gives him that kind of authority
that he could get a meeting with the president?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's, I mean, that's another really good question. I
mean, at the time, you know, this was November 2005, it was just about a year
ago. And, of course, when he finished meeting in Tehran, meeting Ahmadinejad,
he flew to Washington and met with, you know, Rice and Rumsfeld and the
others. So he had a lot of currency at the time. I don't know if he'd get a
meeting with any of those people today, because he's out of power, you know?
I think there was an expectation that he might actually be somebody to be
reckoned with in Iraq after the elections. As it happens, you know, he lost.
He didn't get a seat. But so I think, you know, I think--but I think that the
larger answer to your question is that at least according to many of the
people that I talk to, and I mean Iraqis but also American intelligence
agents, Chalabi has had a very long-standing relationship with Iran, pretty
I mean, I should--Robert Baer, Bob Baer, the guy who wrote "See No Evil," a
kind of very well known CIA agent--as well known as these people can be--went
as far as to say he thinks--he always regarded Chalabi--and he knows Chalabi
and he's worked with him, and he said, `Chalabi never lied to me, he was
always extremely straight with me.' But, he said, `I always regarded Chalabi
as essentially a double agent.' That basically he was working for Iran. And
so he--Baer--said, you know, `We had to kind of--we had to account for that,'
GROSS: Well, how ironic is that? I mean if, in fact, Chalabi helped lead us
into the war in Iraq, and if in fact he was working in any way as a double
agent with Iran, and Iran is on the axis of evil, and now they have, you know,
a nuclear program that the Bush administration is trying to stop, it becomes
very confusing at the very least, doesn't it?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, there's a lot of paradox there. Yeah, I mean, I
think--but to be to fair to Chalabi, I mean, he completely dismisses that
notion. And I think, actually, his friend Richard Perle--I put this in the
piece, in the story I wrote on Sunday as well--but he put it pretty well. He
said, `Look, does he have a relationship with the Iranians? Of course he
does. You have to have a relationship with the Iranians to operate in that
part of the world. The more important question is, "What kind of relationship
is it?"' And he said, `My feeling is'--this was Perle talking about his friend
Chalabi--`My feeling is is that Chalabi's been very skillful at getting more
out of the Iranians than they ever got out of him.' And that's another way to
look at it.
So, you know, it's a hall of mirrors, the Middle East, and that's one example.
GROSS: So how would you describe Chalabi's status now in Iraq?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, it's--I guess I describe it like this: he's officially,
he's not in power. His party didn't win enough votes for even one seat in the
Iraqi Parliament. So in that sense, he's irrelevant. But Chalabi is kind of
a--he's a force of nature. He's absolutely relentless, he's totally driven,
he's brilliant. And so I think he's still a force to be reckoned with, or
maybe to be reckoned with in the future. I mean, I think it would probably be
wrong to conclude that he won't be back. So I think, you know, I think we
haven't heard the last of him.
GROSS: One of the things that's been said about Chalabi is that he fed a lot
of misleading information to journalists during the run up to the war in Iraq,
information related to weapons of mass destruction. Judy Miller, for
instance, who at the time was writing for the New York Times, your paper, used
him as a source in her articles about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction.
So when you talk to Chalabi, are you very cautious about accepting anything
that he says? I mean, is he hard to trust, knowing that he misled
Mr. FILKINS: Absolutely. Yeah. You can't--I mean, I would say, you know,
that's the same really for anything. But, I mean, you know, I know his track
record in that regard and, you know, and I think, I mean, our paper has been
very clear about, you know, what we thought was kind of a failure on our part
to scrutinize the information more carefully before we put it into print
before the war. And so, yeah, you got to--I mean, I would do this with
anyone, but you've got to--you can't just take information like that at face
value. I mean, you've got to run it down and try to verify it independently,
GROSS: My guest is Dexter Filkins of the New York Times. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Dexter Filkins. He left
Baghdad in late August after covering Iraq for the New York Times since the
start of the invasion in March 2003. He won a George Polk Award for war
reporting for his coverage of the battle of Fallujah. He's currently based at
Harvard University, where he has a Nieman fellowship.
Filkins has profiled Ahmad Chalabi in Sunday's New York Times magazine. As an
Iraqi exile, Chalabi helped persuade the US to invade Iraq, but much of his
information was inaccurate and misleading. He had hoped to lead the new Iraq,
but now finds himself spurned by both the American and Iraqi leadership.
You know, we're talking about your profile of Ahmad Chalabi, and of course
you've known him for several years, and you've traveled in his convoy. What
is it like to travel in his convoy, and do you feel like safer because you're
traveling with all these armed guards, or do you feel like more of a target
because you're traveling in Chalabi's convoy?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, I should say, I mean, to be fair to Chalabi, I've
traveled with a number of Iraqi politicians, or frankly anybody who has enough
money to do this does it the same way. You can't get in your car in Baghdad
or anywhere else in Iraq and just drive down the street without being fairly
certain you'd be killed. The typical Iraqi politician now, or businessman,
has an army, basically, that protects him. In Chalabi's case, I drove with
him to a couple of places, once to the border of Iran, and another we went to
a town called Muhaid in southern Iraq, but, god, it was like 30 cars, maybe
three guys in each car with Kalishnakovs. We were driving, you know, 70 miles
an hour. We were going south. Sometimes we were in the southbound lane,
sometimes the entire convoy would veer into the northbound lane, guys hanging
out the window with their machine guns really, really menacing the oncoming
traffic. The cars that were coming towards us had to go off the road. I
mean, it was crazy. It was insane.
That said, it's hard to imagine traveling any other way there. I mean, that's
the way it is there. It's a state of nature now, Iraq. And if you want to
travel--if you're, you know, if you're an Iraqi in a position of power or you
have some wealth or whatever, people are going to want to kill you or they're
want to kidnap you. And so that's the way they travel.
GROSS: What about the roadside bombs? How does, like, a Chalabi convoy
protect itself against them?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, the--you go fast, is the short answer. And that's, if
you look at the way even American humvees now, when they're on the roads in
Iraq, if you go back to 2003, they're cruising around, you know, 20 miles an
hour in a humvee. And now they go 50 miles an hour, and they weave and they,
you know, they go down the middle of the road, not the side, and they back and
forth. I mean, it's crazy, and that's the way people have to drive now.
GROSS: But I thought you had to look for things on the road that might be
IEDs and that's hard to do, I'd imagine, if you're going 50 miles an hour as
opposed to 20.
Mr. FILKINS: Well, it depends on what you're trying to do. I mean, if
you're trying to get from point A to point B and live, you drive really,
really fast with guns hanging out the window, swerving the whole way. If
you're on a patrol, say, with an American military unit that's looking for
IEDs--it's really terrifying, I've done that, too. You go five miles an hour
and you look down at the road really, really carefully for every little wire
that might be sticking out.
GROSS: You have an incredible description of what Iraq has been like in your
profile of Chalabi. And I just want to read this. You write, "Iraq was a
nightmarish, apocalyptic place where gunmen kidnapped children and sometimes
killed them, where bodies turned up at the morgue peppered by the hole from
electric drills, and corpses lay uncollected in the streets along with the
trash for days on end." Is everything in that list something that you actually
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, yeah, definitely. That's pretty bleak, but that's pretty
accurate, too. Yeah, I mean, if you just take the visits to the morgue, it's
pretty amazing. On any given day, I mean, I think, you know, in Iraq now, as
best anybody can count, about 100 people a day are being killed, civilians,
Iraqi civilians, most of it in sectarian killings. And it's not merely, you
know, bullet to the head, bang you're dead. It's, you know, you see the
bodies, and the bodies are--they're handcuffed, they're blindfolded, they're
drilled with holes. There's some kind of grim fascination there with electric
drills that's amazing. They're burned with acid. There's, you know, letters
carved into their skin, you know, I could go on an on here.
But it's, in a really kind of basic way, it's become dehumanized, you know.
There's so much death there that it's just--life just doesn't really have that
much value anymore.
GROSS: When you left Iraq in August, how mobile were you as a reporter? How
much was your reporting restricted, compared to what it had been to say even a
Mr. FILKINS: Pretty restricted. You know, I mean, I--most of us, all of us,
really--still go out every day and we still, you know, we make a really,
really hard effort to get out and talk to Iraqis every day, because you got to
do that, you know, to really understand what's happening.
But having said that, the areas that you can operate in have just shrunk so
much. And so stuff like, I mean, you know, as a reporter, for me, I can't
sort of pull over and walk into a crowd and talk to people the way that I used
to. I can't. I mean, I'm, you know, I'm an American male and I look very
American. I can't do that. I can go to people's houses, you know. I can
call them up and I can schedule a time to come over, but even that is getting
really, really difficult. I mean, and I'll give you an example. I mean, it's
like, it's hard for me to go to, you know, Ahmad's house because it's so
dangerous for me, but it's really, really dangerous for him. You know, he
doesn't want somebody who looks like me in his neighborhood, you know? I get
out of the car and the whole neighborhood starts talking, `My god, there's an
American. There's an American walking into Ahmad's house.' You know? And
that puts him in danger. So I'll give you an ex...
GROSS: Are you talking about Ahmad Chalabi here?
Mr. FILKINS: No, no, Ahmad anybody.
GROSS: Ahmad anybody, OK.
Mr. FILKINS: No, I mean anybody. No, no, no.
Mr. FILKINS: I mean any Iraqi. You know, if you talk to the average Iraqi,
the first thing they'll tell you is, you know, `I'm an Iraqi and I'm not
sectarian. And I may be a Shiite, but, you know, I'm married to a Sunni.' Or,
`My brother's married to a Sunni, and we're all Iraqis and nobody cares about
sectarian stuff.' And I think that was really true, you know, and it's been
true for hundreds of years. One of the reasons why now Baghdad is so bloody
is because all these neighborhoods are mixed, you know? If you're in a
neighborhood, it's got Sunnis on one street and Shiites on the next and
Christians on the other and Kurds, as well. And so all that's changing, it's
because, you know, this terrible, terrible dynamic has taken over of sectarian
killing, and it's really just kind of a self-sustaining storm now. And so
these neighborhoods are dividing up, and they're dividing ethnically. And so
it kind of, you know, super-rough dividing line is the Tigris River, it runs
right down the middle of Baghdad, and it's Sunni on the
west--predominately--and Shiite on the east.
But you know, to watch that happen is a terrible thing, you know? I mean, I
went to a, just to tell you a story, I went to a refugee camp not long ago.
It was in a Shiite neighborhood called Shab. I'm not even sure if I could go
to Shab now. But there--it's a Shiite refugee camp, and it's filled with
Shiite people who had come in from the countryside, which is largely Sunni,
and they'd all been ethnically cleansed from their homes. And I remember
sitting in this one guy's tent, Mr. Karmit, I think his name was. And Mr.
Karmit was from Dora, which is a predominately Sunni Christian neighborhood in
southern Baghdad, and he pulled out a piece of paper that he had with him, and
the piece of paper said, you know, `This is Mohammed's Army and we're
cleansing this area of the dirty Shia. You've got 48 hours to get your family
out of here or we're going to kill you.' And so he'd packed up and moved to
this crappy little refugee camp. I mean, it was just a dump, you know, he had
a--he was living in a tent when I saw him.
But that's what's happening. And it's happening kind of in slow motion, but
it's definitely happening.
GROSS: Saddam Hussein was found guilty and is sentenced to hang. Now,
assuming that he doesn't win his appeal, and apparently nobody thinks he will,
he will be hung perhaps as soon as sometime in the next few months. What
effect do you think it's going to have in Iraq if he is hung?
Mr. FILKINS: You know, I may be a minority here, but I actually don't think
that it'll have that much effect. I mean, I think he's gone, he's long gone.
I mean, I think you can go up to Tikrit, his hometown, and you can, you know,
rustle up a bunch of people who think fondly of him. But for the most part, I
mean, you know, the Shiites, which is the majority of the country, despise
him. I mean, the Kurds will be dancing when he's hung. But even among the
Sunnis--this is just a personal opinion based on my experience there--I just
don't think there's that much love lost for him. I do think that it'll kind
of--it'll probably exacerbate, you know, the divisions that're already there,
and that won't be a good thing. But I think you can overstate that.
GROSS: What about the whole idea of, you know, a deposed Arab leader being
hanged? How unusual is that, you know, to have somebody legally hanged who
had been a head of state?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's a--boy, that's a hard question. I mean, I do
think this, which is, you know, you can be against the death penalty or for
it, but I really, I mean, given the society that Iraq is, and where it came
from, and where it's going, I don't think the Iraqi people would understand
anything less than the death penalty for Hussein. I think really they
wouldn't consider it, the average Iraqi wouldn't consider it justice, wouldn't
even be able to kind of apprehend it.
GROSS: My guest is Dexter Filkins of the New York Times. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Dexter Filkins. He covered Iraq for the New York Times
from the start of the invasion until late August of this year. He profiled
Ahmad Chalabi in Sunday's New York Times magazine.
You were in London over the summer in August. Part of the reason why you were
there is that you were talking to Ahmad Chalabi for this profile that just was
published in the New York Times magazine. And while you were there, you know,
the terrorist airplane plot was uncovered, and you did a bunch of interviews
around that plot. Among the interviews you did were interviews with young
Islamists in England who saw themselves, I guess, as like Islamic
revolutionaries. Having come from Iraq, what was it like to talk with them
and what were--how did they see what was happening in Iraq? What did Iraq
mean to them?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, it was funny. I flew in from Jordan just to see Chalabi,
who was in London at the time. And then I was literally getting in a taxi to
go to the airport and the taxi driver kind of turned around and said, `Hey,
bloke,' you know, `I don't think you're going to be flying today.' So anyway,
I kind of pitched in and helped out. But I was really struck by a couple of
things in London.
One was, I mean, I went out to this neighborhood called Walthamstow, which is
sort of eastern London, and there's--where a lot of the suspects in the
bombing plot was. And what was amazing about it to me, the first thing, the
most striking thing was that if you talked to the older Pakistani immigrants,
the people who were born in Pakistan, the fathers of a lot of these kids, they
were very mellow and very, you know, measured, not terribly upset or angry
about anything. But when you talked to their kids, who were born in England,
you know, raised in this very free and wealthy society, they were the ones who
were angry. And that was really obvious. And it was just very jarring. It's
just not kind of what you would expect, you know?
But the second thing that really struck me when I was there was I met with a
bunch of--with a number of really, really extreme Islamists. I mean, I met
with one guy who was running a Web site that, you know, they post beheading
videos and, you know, how to blow up American and British soldiers and that
kind of stuff, you know. Really, really extreme stuff. And then other guys,
I met with these other Islamist leaders who were kind of openly advocating
killing British police officers, you know, setting up an Islamic emirate, you
know, car bombings, the whole thing.
And as they talked--I mean, I had just come from, you know, hell on earth,
right? I'd come from the most--the bloodiest place on earth, where 100 people
a day are dying in the most horrible way. And for a lot of these guys, you
know, the violence was very abstract, you know? They lived in sort of quiet
London, which is, you know, a sort of beautiful and civilized place. And they
were talking and kind of waxing about car bombings and suicide bombings and
whatever they call them, martyrdom operations, that was really, really--well,
it was, well, I mean it was offensive because I, you know, if you've ever been
to a car bombing and seen the product of, you know, that work, you know, it's
hard to feel anything but revulsion for it, you know, the pain that it causes.
And these guys were kind of going on and on about how, you know, they were
just talking about it in a very abstract way. And it was just really--it was
GROSS: And was it disturbing for you to see that in England, as opposed to in
Mr. FILKINS: Well, I was struck by how much, how many angry people there are
in England, yeah. I mean, I don't--it, you know, I came away with the
impression that we haven't heard the last of those people.
GROSS: When you left Iraq in August, after covering Iraq for several years,
was it hard to say goodbye to people there, both Iraqis and journalists who
you had been working with?
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, yeah. You know, it's really, it's been my home for three
and a half years. But, you know, I've almost been killed there more times
than I can count. I've kind of, you know, immersed myself and thrown myself
into this epic, gigantic story. And so in that sense, yeah, you know,
I'm--the gravitational pull of the place was very, very strong. But I've got
a lot of Iraqi friends there, and some of them I work with and some of them I
just--I cover, you know, and I write about. And you know, frankly, you don't
know, when you say goodbye, you know, whether you're ever going to see them
again in a situation like that. You know, we've lost an Iraqi on our staff, a
stringer that we had was murdered, and...
GROSS: Were they murdered because they were a journalist?
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, yeah. Fakher Haider.
GROSS: Were Iraqi journalists more likely to get murdered than American
journalists because it's seen more as an act of betrayal?
Mr. FILKINS: I think it's a question of how well protected you are. I mean,
I think, what's the number now? You know, 75 journalists have been killed in
Iraq since the war started, I think, which is like more than World War II,
more than Vietnam. But I think most of those were Iraqi. I think there's
some foreigners, but most were Iraqi. But yeah, I mean, the guy that worked
for us, Fakher Haider in Basrah, great guy--and he worked for other--he didn't
work just for us, but he did work for us. Yeah, they killed him for what he
was doing. And he was doing, you know, he was doing what he was doing because
he understood the historical moment he was in. I mean, he totally got it, and
that's the, you know, that's the tragedy of Iraq. You know, the good guys are
GROSS: After having spent several years in Iraq covering the war there, now
you're living in Boston, you have a journalism fellowship, and I'm sure you've
been watching and reading coverage in the United States of the election. And,
of course, the war in Iraq has been a big issue in the election, so I'd be
interested in hearing your observations about how Iraq is being discussed as
an election issue. You know, after having been there, sitting back and
watching it discussed, you know, politically in America.
Mr. FILKINS: Well, I kind of think that the debate hasn't really started.
It seems to me, you know, that it's a pretty juvenile debate. I mean, on one
hand you have people saying "stay the course," which, I mean, unfortunately is
midwife to disaster, this catastrophe. And on the other you have kind of "get
out," which I think isn't much of an answer, either. I mean, maybe it's the
only answer, but it--that simply, it's not an answer. And so it's kind of
a--I don't think it's been terribly constructive, and I just, I have the
impression that, you know, that you've got the Baker commission, which is
supposed to make a bunch of recommendations, I guess as early as this week
about what to do. And I kind of think, you know, depending on how the
election goes, you know, there might be a pretty serious debate that begins
after the election, but I kind of feel like it hasn't really started yet.
GROSS: Well, you're in Boston now, and you're there on a Nieman journalism
fellowship. So you've gone from the mayhem and calamity of Iraq to a college
campus. Is it hard to adjust?
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, it's very hard. Yeah. It's very quiet here. It's a
little too quiet. I found myself missing the crash and bang of Iraq. It's
this kind of weird but singular fact that most car bombings, or most
explosions, happen, you know, between the hours of 8 and 9 in the morning. Or
so it seems that way, the ones that we usually hear at our place. And, you
know, if you've been up until 3 or 4 in the morning the night before, it's a
pretty, you know, it's--I've been woken up many, many mornings by the walls
shaking and, you know, the sounds of explosions. And suddenly to come to a
place like Cambridge, Massachusetts, which, you know, the loudest sound is
like, you know, a garbageman throwing the lid, yeah, it's pretty jarring.
GROSS: Do you have anything like, you know, post-traumatic stress coming back
at you now that you're in a safe place?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, I don't like cars backfiring. Yeah. Yeah. That kind of
stuff is, yeah, I'm kind of tense.
GROSS: Is driving difficult, period? Because you're so used to the dangers
associated with driving in Iraq?
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, I don't drive. It's, yeah, and I mean, I don't want to
drive. But I don't have a car. Fortunately, I don't need one, but if I had
to drive, I don't know what I would do at the moment. It'll take me a while.
GROSS: Did you drive before?
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I mean, I don't have to drive now,
but driving in, I mean, you can say this for any Middle Eastern
country--driving in the Middle East is just insanity, you know? Whether it's
Iraq or not. But especially in Iraq, because it's so dangerous. But, yeah,
yeah, I'd rather not drive for a while.
GROSS: Well, Dexter Filkins, it's nice to end a conversation with you knowing
that, you know, tomorrow you're not going to be flying into Iraq and all of
the dangers there. So I just want to say thanks for all the risks that you
took to keep your readers informed of what was happening in Iraq. And thank
you, as always, for talking with us on FRESH AIR.
Mr. FILKINS: Thank you.
GROSS: Dexter Filkins covered Iraq for the New York Times from the start of
the invasion until August of this year. His profile of Ahmad Chalabi was
published in Sunday's New York Times magazine.
Coming up, John Powers reviews a new DVD collection of 50 years of art house
films. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: John Powers, film editor for Vogue, looks at "Essential
Art House: 50 Years of Janus Films" and defends not only their
brilliance, but their importance as cultural touchstones
TERRY GROSS, host:
Janus Films was a pioneer distributor of art films by the likes of Fellini,
Bergman, and Kurosawa. To celebrate its 50 years in business, it's launched a
nationwide tour of its films and released a massive new DVD box collection
called "Essential Art House: 50 Years of Janus Films," collecting 50 of its
most famous films. Our critic at large John Powers says the movies are not
only good, but offer a glimpse into our cultural past.
Mr. JOHN POWERS: We all like to think that our taste is our own, that I like
what I like because I like it. But in truth, much of our supposedly personal
taste is simply a matter of time and place.
Although my mother always adored the movies, a love she passed on to me, she
never watched a single foreign film. When she was a kid, nobody showed them.
And by the time they were readily available, she was too old to feel
comfortable with them. The subtitles struck her as strange and alien, just as
so many kids today feel put off by subtitles or even black and white
Things were different for my generation. By the late 1960s, seeing foreign
movies had become a routine cultural experience, and I spent my college
weekends watching classics by Bergman and Fellini, Bunuel and Truffaut. Over
time, I came to associate such movies with a company logo, the two-faced head
of Janus Films.
You can imagine my nostalgia when I learned that this company was bringing
together the cream of its catalogue for a DVD collection, "Essential Art
House: 50 Years of Janus Films," which contains a whopping 50 films and a
commemorative book. The result is less a conventional DVD package than an
invaluable introduction to foreign film literacy. In fact, merely to name the
titles is to call up some of the high points in movie history. There's Jean
Renoir's great country house tale "The Rules of the Game," often voted the
greatest film ever made, with its lesson that everybody has his reasons.
There's the chess game with death in Bergman's "The Seventh Seal." The old man
alone in the snow in Kurosawa's "Ikiru," Louise Brooks' iconically bobbed hair
in "Pandora's Box," old Miss Freud disappearing on that train in Hitchcock's
"The Lady Vanishes," and the famous freeze frame of Antoine Doinel on the
beach at the end of "The 400 Blows."
And then there's the ferris wheel encounter between Joseph Cotten's Holly
Martins and his black marketeer friend Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, in
"The Third Man." Here, Harry cheerily dishes up one of the most quoted riffs
of the last century.
(Soundbite of "The Third Man")
Mr. ORSON WELLES: (As Harry Lime) You know what the fella says. Italy for
30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed,
but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In
Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and
peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.
POWERS: Now "Essential Art House" isn't historically comprehensive. There's
no Murnau, no Dreyer, no Bresson, no Goddard. And it does contain some DVDs
that are frankly inessential, like the condescending "Black Narcissus" or
Anthony Asquith's banal adaptation of "The Importance of Being Earnest." But
it remains a great collection that, among other things, fills me with respect
for the commercial savvy of Janus' owners, who locked up the rights to all the
movies I mentioned earlier, plus classics I haven't mentioned by the likes of
Fellini, Bunuel, Polanski, Antonioni, Ozu, and Eisenstein. These were the
movies that defined the image of foreign films in the era when they first
became popular, back in the mid-1950s and early 1960s.
Which is why the Janus collection may best be seen as an astonishing time
capsule. It reflects the tastes and assumptions of a period when foreign
films offer an exciting alternative to Hollywood. They showed life in other
countries from the inside. They tackled the great humanistic themes of love
and death, war and justice, guilt and redemption. And they had a willingness
to grapple with adult material that American movies seemed to be afraid of,
especially sex, a subject that American movies still fear.
Needless to say, no small part of these films' allure was that they were
tone-y. They flattered the post-war middle class' sense of cultural
aspiration. Of course, over the last 40 years, the world has moved on from
Bergman and Fellini and Truffaut. Any new list of essential art house films
would have to include the later directors, like Fassbinder, Amodovar,
Kiarostami, and Wong Kar-wai. And today's most devoted fans of foreign films
care less about high-falluting humanistic themes than sheer pop excitement.
They're turned on by anime and Asian horror.
Which isn't to say that the "Essential Art House Collection" is somehow passe.
The movies in this voluminous box set don't merely hold up as movies, but as
enduring cultural touchstones for those who grew up watching them, especially
the baby boomers who cared about them the most. These movies forever helped
shape an entire era of popular taste. All this time later, when somebody says
the words "foreign film," the post-war generation instantly thinks of "Jules
and Jim" or "The Seven Samurai," not the latest winner from Cannes, whatever
that might be.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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