Other segments from the episode on June 26, 2008
DATE June 26, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: The New York Times' Baghdad bureau chief James Glanz
on government study criticizing Bush administration for
overstating goals in Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest James Glanz is the Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times. For
the past four years he's been rotating in and out of Iraq. He recently began
a stateside part of his rotation. This week he reported on a government study
which found the Bush administration has overstated progress in Iraq. He also
wrote this week about a Democratic effort in the Senate to block Iraq's
decision to award no-bid service contracts to several Western oil companies,
including ExxonMobil, Shell and BP. As the Times' Baghdad bureau chief, Glanz
manages a compound that at any given time includes between 100 and 120 Iraqis
and six to 15 Western reporters and photographers.
James Glanz, welcome to FRESH AIR. People have been talking about how
coverage of the war in Iraq has decreased, and your paper, The New York Times,
just ran an article that quoted a study compiled by Andrew Tyndall, who's a TV
consultant, and he monitors the three evening newscasts on the three networks,
and he said coverage of Iraq has been, quote, "massively scaled back this
year," unquote. CBS no longer has a single full-time correspondent in Iraq.
Do you have a sense of why that's happening?
Mr. JAMES GLANZ: Well, we talk about it a lot. It's not just reporters, by
the way, it's also photographers. Some of the big agencies who've covered
wars for time immemorial often don't even have a photographer in country. And
I just think it's a combination of things. One, it's a logistically
challenging place in the extreme, so in order to operate there you have to run
your own security, you have to have a place to stay, you have to have the
right telecommunications, all of that.
And then second, it can be very frustrating, not to mention dangerous, as a
correspondent there because it's not only dangerous to get the story, but it's
just tough to get places and get people who will give you information. It'll
take you three days to do something that takes a couple of hours in New York,
let's say. So there's that.
And then, of course, there doesn't seem to be as much appetite on the part of
the reading public or the viewing public.
GROSS: Do you think there's a sense that bombings and casualties have become
business as usual so that people aren't paying much attention, you know,
readers and viewers aren't paying that much attention to them anymore?
Mr. GLANZ: Well, that's dispiriting, but I think there's an element of truth
to that. When we first were over there, of course in 2003, and then in 2004
when I showed up, I remember constantly being woken up in the morning by a big
bombing, and you got sensitive after a while to exactly where the bomb went
off. You sort of get like a homing pigeon sense of where things are, or a bat
sense of where things are from the sound, and the size of it. And we'd
tumbled into a car, rush out on the street, and, you know, we'd go out there,
do the story. If there was a lot of casualties, as often as not, it would
lead the paper the next day.
Now, you know, it's not really journalistically worth our while to cover every
one of those bombings so intensively. First of all, because there isn't as
much interest. As you say, again in a very dispiriting way, it sort of seems
like business as usual, I think, to a lot of readers and viewers. And then,
second, again, it's more dangerous because you get out there and you never
know what militia may be in charge of that area, get shot. And the Iraqi
government has instituted all kinds of rules about what you can and can't show
on the street. So for a lot of different reasons, it does seem that a bombing
just doesn't get the attention it used to.
GROSS: How has the diminishing number of American reporters in Iraq changed
what you cover or how you cover it, or what your sense of responsibility is to
covering as much of the story as possible?
Mr. GLANZ: Well, I'm glad you mentioned that. I mean, we do feel a high
sense of responsibility, those of us who are still in Iraq reporting on the
story. And that's not just The New York Times. A lot of other news
organizations there still working.
GROSS: Though we should mention that some newspapers have cut their foreign
Mr. GLANZ: They have. And that has a sort of secondary domino effect on any
given bureau, let's say the Baghdad bureau for a lot of those organizations.
That's right. And I personally--and I think I speak for my colleagues--you
know, we like to see, so to speak, the competition out there. It keeps us on
our toes. And we feel that if we miss something, they'll catch it. And it
brings a bit more rounded story to the reading public. At this point, in one
sense it's easier, of course, because you don't have as many people out there
scrambling for the same story. So as a reporter, you know, if something
happens or you get a tip, you actually have longer to cover it and you can
take your time because you don't really hear footsteps as soon as you did
But I think, all in all, it doesn't serve, you know, a democracy like the
United States or, you know, the reading public in the world to have fewer
voices out of this country because inevitably, you know, more eyes, more
voices, you know, more pens, more cameras just means more points of view and
more information on what is still the biggest story in the world.
GROSS: You reported this week on a Government Accountability Office study
that reported several of the Bush administration's measures of progress in
Iraq were either incorrect or far more mixed than the administration
acknowledged. What are a couple of the key Bush administration measures that
are challenged by this report?
Mr. GLANZ: Right. Well, in Iraq, you know, there's a fog of war the likes
of which I don't know that we've ever seen before. So, you know, I'll preface
my remarks by saying it's always unclear with the administration whether, you
know, there's a bit of wishful thinking in their numbers or whether it's just
as tough for them to get information right as it is for us. And you see a lot
of disagreement on really basic things in Iraq for just that reason. It's
very, very hard to pin down the simplest numbers, and we find that every day.
So with that preamble, it is true that the Government Accountability Office,
which has done some of the best studies, I think, on ground troops in Iraq, is
finding that crucial things like the readiness of the Iraqi military may be
overstated by Pentagon reports. The Pentagon is saying that, for example, 70
percent of the Iraqi units now are in the lead in counterinsurgency
operations. Government Accountability Office sees that number as low as 10
percent. And there is a combination of reasons why that number is different.
But, as you can see, it's just, it's a huge difference in their assessment.
Second, you know, there's been a lot of interest recently on how much money
Iraq is spending, you know, its own money, on reconstructing the country. And
the Bush administration and the Iraqi government has been touting its
progress, they are saying that they're up to about 60 to 70 percent of their
allocated funds for reconstruction that they've actually spent that and built
things. Whereas, again, the Accountability Office is coming in and saying
it's somewhere between 11 and, I think, 28 percent was the number. So
tremendous difference in certain respects in their assessment of ground truth
GROSS: As you go back and forth between Baghdad and the United States,
reporting for The New York Times, do you ever sense a difference between what
you've observed firsthand in Iraq and what the Bush administration is telling
the American public about progress being made there?
Mr. GLANZ: Yeah. Again, I wouldn't--I'm sure there's an element of politics
here, right? Because they're trying to make various political points, about
which I know nothing. I'm not a political reporter. But again, there's
another element of just, you know, whenever an organization of any kind
undertakes an operation or some kind of project and we're called upon to
report on it, you know, their assessment of it is going to be rosier,
probably, than the article we write about it. Because we're not involved in
it. You know, we don't have that motivation to try to pump things up.
In the case of the administration, yeah, they've spent five years now pushing
forward this effort in Iraq. But at the same time, they've also had a
tremendous public relations effort to try to promote progress there. And we
grapple with that every day. What's interesting about it is the storyline
changes. I mean, at one point it'll be that, you know, the provinces are
doing amazing things and building things and forgetting about Baghdad because
Baghdad's ministries have fallen off the map and don't know how to function
properly. And then the next day it'll be that the ministries are actually
taking control. You know, in one case it'll be the tribal sheiks are doing
great things, and the next time it'll be political figures or something and
tribal sheiks don't matter. Whatever. You know, it goes on and on. The
story goes around and around; but at any given time they'll pushing a
storyline, and our job is always to sort of try not to listen to it, in a
sense, and just get the facts. And sometimes we find the same thing they're
telling us, and sometimes we find something that's very different. And so
it's just a, you know, the gap is generally pretty large--let's put it that
way--and we have to deal with that...
GROSS: Is there an example of that kind of gap now that you observe?
Mr. GLANZ: You take the case of the Basra children's hospital down in the
southern city of Basra, which was first put forward as a big project release
promoted by the first lady, Laura Bush. We heard progress report after
progress report on that hospital over the years, and it's supposed to have a
big X-ray facility and other high-tech things to treat children. And it
turned out that at a certain point we had a good set of engineers go in that
did an investigation, and really there was nothing there. The violence had
stopped them from pouring concrete. The big machines were nowhere to be found
because you couldn't put them in there in that environment, and the whole
thing had come to a standstill while we were receiving all of these sort of
bullish reports on the project.
And that's not an isolated case. That's happened again and again. I think,
to their credit, now they've gone back to that project and they're working on
it again. But we're never able to take at face value the press releases we
receive on progress and rebuilding in Iraq.
GROSS: My guest is James Glanz, the Baghdad bureau chief for 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 James Glanz, and he is the
Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times. He's been going in and out of
Iraq for the past four years.
In March of this year, you wrote an incredible piece about being in the alleys
in the slum of Sadr City, which is controlled by Muqtada al-Sadr's militia.
Would you describe what you saw there in the alleys of Sadr City?
Mr. GLANZ: Sure. It's very tough to get into Sadr City, and you have to
sort of wind your way through back streets, usually, and you have to know
everybody on every corner. And what you see depends on exactly where you are.
There are some relatively--especially in the eastern part of Sadr City--there
are some relatively upscale sections, but most of it is a slum. And, you
know, what you'd think of as a street is really kind of an uneven alley with
big pot holes and dust and lots of little children staring at you suspiciously
from windows and things like that. But you also always find that each little
alley literally is controlled by some Mahdi commander or subcommander. And
they'll have to know who you are or you will not pass.
And back then, which was only a couple of months ago, they were preparing for
the Americans to come in, so they were wiring up those alleys with bombs. And
I wasn't paying much attention to the activity around me. I wanted to get an
interview with this deputy commander of an alley, basically is what I called
him in the piece. That's what he was. And at one point one of my best war
photographers, who'd come with me, a completely fearless person named Joao
Silva, said, `Jim, it's time to go.' And I said, `Joao, I just started the
interview.' And he said, `Jim, it's time to go.' So I never turn by back on
that kind of advice from Joao. We got in the car and went.
But as I turned around, I realized there were wires going past my feet that I
hadn't noticed. There were people laying them out. And as we talked in the
car and I looked back, he pointed out to me that they were laying an
IED--that's an improvised explosive device, a bomb--into the street only feet
away from me. And at the same time, an unmanned drone--which sometimes can
carry a Hellfire missile--an American drone was flying overhead and there was
an Apache helicopter on the horizon. So Joao's calculation was the interview
wasn't worth getting wasted by a Hellfire missile.
And that's sort of the way it is in Sadr City. You go in there and
it's--unless you know somebody, you're not going in. And unless you really
know what you're doing, you know, you can come to an end pretty quickly. So
you really have to know what you're doing in Sadr City, and I think you also
have to be lucky.
GROSS: How did you get that far? You said you have to know somebody in order
to get from street to street. Who did you know?
Mr. GLANZ: Yeah. Well, the thing about Iraq, you know, it's not so
different from a lot of places in that, you know, connections are everything.
And in Iraq it's even more important. You have to know somebody, somebody's
cousin or, you know, somebody's been a neighbor of one of your drivers for 25
years and who saved his son's life once. And, you know, it's, you know,
there's a giant web of understandings and connections and relationships that
you develop there. Not just you personally, but the people you're working
with, the Iraqis you work with. And that's sort of your lubricant for getting
into those kinds of places.
They also know that you're telling their story, and that's really important.
We forget that sometimes. When we come in, you know, they have every
motivation to dislike me as an American because the stance of Muqtada al-Sadr,
their leader, is that what he calls the American occupiers should leave. But
they completely overlook that. They agree to overlook that because they know
that we're coming in to tell their story to the world, and that makes a big
difference. And so those are some of the things you use. Not all of the sort
of tricks of the trade there, but some of the ways that you get into those
difficult spots in Iraq.
GROSS: Muqtada al-Sadr's militia men control the allies of Sadr City. They
have IEDs. They control them without. How else to they control the alleys
and why is that so important?
Mr. GLANZ: Well, let me--I'm trying to think of the right analogy. I mean,
in the piece you mentioned, I remember being back in Chicago, a place I lived
for a long time, and imagining an occupying army coming in and trying to have
its way with the place. You know, if that many people are all related or, you
know, they all live there, they have one culture, and they sort of don't want
you there, the lines of communication are just intense. So the sinews
of--what do I want to say?--resistance, if you will, in those allies are very
thick and numerous. They all sort of operate together. You know, when an
order comes down for people to leave an area, they all just leave. If there's
supposed to be a demonstration, believe me, everybody shows up for the
demonstration. I've been in Sadr City, and they can turn out tens of
thousands. I don't know if you can get a million people out there, but he can
approach it on a given day.
So it's a very sort of--I'm trying to find the right word. You know, when you
come in as a foreigner, what you meet is a group of people who are of the kind
of culture that works very well together and there's an understanding out
there that if the local commander says that he received the word to do X, then
you're all going to do X.
GROSS: I think one of the difficulties that Muqtada al-Sadr presents for the
United States is that he has this, like, really resistant militia, right,
that's really good at what they do; but then he'll call for these long
cease-fires, and then things quiet down, the picture looks rosier. And then
he'll tell his militia to take up arms again. And so like the cease-fires
never seem to necessarily be something that's going to last for very long. Is
that part of his strategy, to be very unpredictable and to basically be
setting the ground rules by calling these cease-fires on and off?
Mr. GLANZ: Oh, you bet it is. Yeah. I wouldn't call--from what we
understand--I wouldn't call Muqtada al-Sadr a brilliant strategist, but he
knows his country and he knows he's not strong enough to go toe to toe with
any of the other military forces in the country--or many of them. That
includes certainly the United States and probably now the Iraqi army. So,
remember, this is a guy who survived the Saddam Hussein years and whose father
was killed by Saddam, and his father-in-law was killed by Saddam. He sort of
took the mantle of the family and made it through. And he did that also with
a series of sort of tactical retreats. When his father was murdered by
Saddam's men on the square, I believe in Najaf, he didn't come out--as people
would call him--as like a firebrand cleric and say that `Saddam killed my
father.' He just laid low. And he knows how to do that, and he uses that
trick again and again and again when he doesn't think he can make his point by
And in this latest case, when the prime minister, Prime Minister Maliki,
decided to undertake this assault on Basra, you saw that whole dynamic play
out. The first thing that happened was the Iraqi military got nowhere because
the Mahdi army in that place was stronger than they were. And it wasn't until
Muqtada decided to send out the word that his fighters would stand down that
the government forces took the city, if you want to put the word "took" in
quotation marks. That's what happened.
GROSS: I guess it's hard to defeat him because any time he thinks he's going
to be defeated, he calls a cease-fire. And then, you know, the militia kinds
of disappears so you can't defeat them. And when he's ready, he comes back
Mr. GLANZ: Oh, you bet. I mean, that's--and that's a street fighter, you
know. He comes out. He says, `This is my corner and you're not going
anywhere. We're going to stop you.' And then when he realizes he's beat, he
melts away into the shadows. I mean, what do you do with somebody like that?
It must be a nightmare to be an American commander and try to strategize
around an enemy like that.
GROSS: Meanwhile, part of the American strategy in Iraq is to pay men in
Sunni militias to help the Americans fight insurgents and fight, you know,
Islamic extremist groups, and that has contributed to any signs of calm that
have developed in the past few months. And I'm wondering if you have met any
of the militia men who have accepted the money in return for siding with the
Mr. GLANZ: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Because they're out on the street. So
we'll go out there and talk with them. And the interesting thing about Iraq
is that someone can go from, you know, the most dangerous insurgent, at least
in theory, to the sort of the corner cop overnight. And it's a shape-shifting
kind of a place. And when you go out there, you just you can't even sort or
recreate in your mind how this sort of inoffensive kid, which a lot of them
are, standing out there with a nice new tan uniform supplied by the Americans
might have been the person who was planning a bomb which would blow up my own
car, you know, a few months before that.
And that's one of the realities of Iraq, I think, that's not much appreciated
is that, you know, they're a people that is used to historically living under
occupation. And people in that condition are very good at concealing their
real intentions, you know, sort of keeping their night job separate from their
day job. And when the people you're talking about--now they're called Sons of
Iraq is the term that's used for that group--sort of became the corner cops.
They actually come out and they keep the peace. It's the most bizarre thing,
but they really do bring down the violence, again, as long as they decide to
GROSS: James Glanz is the Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times. He'll
be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with James Glanz, the
Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times. He's been rotating in and out of
Iraq for the past four years and is currently on a stateside portion of his
When we left off, we were talking about some of the issues that make the
future of Iraq difficult to predict.
Meanwhile, the UN resolution authorizing the American role in Iraq expires at
the end of this year. What does that mean?
Mr. GLANZ: I think it's pretty important. I mean, you know, rules and
mandates and all those sorts of things in Iraq are pretty fungible for the
most part. But, you know, at this point, the United States has made it very
clear that it is doing what Iraq thinks is best to put the country on its
feet. And it's said over and over again that Iraqi troops are in the lead.
And it was asked by the prime minister to undertake this support action or
what have you and that it is very much not an occupation in the view of the
administration and the American commanders there.
So that, I think, that view of the conflict on the American side makes this
expiration much more important, because what they have to do is negotiate
their reason for being there now with the Iraqi government. And the Iraqi
government knows that this is going to be important and that they--I wouldn't
say have the United States over a barrel, but have some pretty strong levers
for getting some things they want in these negotiations.
GROSS: Well, you know, a recent New York Times editorial about the end of
this forthcoming expiration of the UN resolution authorizing the American role
in Iraq means that the US and Iraq have been quietly negotiating a deal. And
the editorial said that, according to Iraqi leaders, Washington has been
insisting and keeping more than 50 long-term bases in Iraq. Assuming that's
true, that Washington is insisting on that, what would the implications of
Mr. GLANZ: I think they'd be major. I really do. I mean, I think that, as
I said, before, I think the shape of this agreement is actually important.
And if you have the kind of presence that, you know, entails maybe a
headquarters in Baghdad, a couple of provincial outposts, and then, you know,
a force ready in Turkey to come down if there are problems, that's a very
different thing than having Americans within, you know, a hundred miles of any
given spot in the country, you know, so that they could be there with Black
Hawk helicopters in a matter of minutes. You know, two totally different
situations. And that would lead to two totally different, I think, you know,
relationships with the Iraqi government; and, you know, sort of differences in
our ability to prop up the kind of regime we'd like to see there.
GROSS: President Bush's term is about to expire, and time is running out for,
you know, the end of the negotiation of this deal because it runs out in
December. So does this mean that President Bush will be negotiating, or the
Bush administration will be negotiating America's future in Iraq just as
they're on the verge of leaving and a new president will be coming in?
Mr. GLANZ: Hm. I think that's right. And remember that another little
truth that you come to understand after being in Iraq, you know, awhile, you
know, it's a place where going to the brink is the way to get anything done.
Just because it's convenient to somebody else to have, you know, an agreement
done four months before it was due to expire, it doesn't mean anything in the
Iraqi mind. So I do think that it will come down to the wire--everything does
in Iraq--and the Iraqis will press their advantage. And I think that it'll
probably be very tough for the Bush administration to remain focused on this
right up until the closing minutes of its tenure. But if they want to get the
agreement, I suspect they're going to have to do that.
GROSS: So it means that the Bush administrating, on its way out, will be
setting the terms for America's future presence in Iraq.
Mr. GLANZ: Well, that's an interesting question. Would the next president
come in and say, `We've got to renegotiate this immediately'? Would there be
some loophole in there that would allow, you know, the next president to
change certain parts of it? I'm now sure exactly how that would work. But I
do believe that, just as with the Iraqi constitution, which took forever and
ever to negotiate, the exact words that go down on paper, you know, in some
ways will have an influence. It may not be the law of the land that the
negotiators want, because it just doesn't work that way. They have people
follow some things and they ignore others, and that's just the way--even high
level politicians work that way there. But it will make a big difference if
they come out and say, `We're allowing, let's say, 60 bases in Iraq,' vs.
saying, you know, `You're not going to have that.'
And remember that, in terms of conflict, if you're just talking about what
they, you know, the commanders call the kinetic part of this effort, the
fighting, 60 bases is not a lot. If you want to fight, if you want to keep
fighting and you think you're going to have to keep fighting, you'll need 60
bases. There's a lot of space out there. There's a lot of desert and a lot
of places for the bad guys to come from. But if you think that you've gotten
to the point where political reconciliation or some kind of reconciliation
among the parties is at hand, well, that's a different situation. Then 60
bases starts to seem like a pretty big housekeeping chore.
GROSS: My guest is James Glanz, the Baghdad bureau chief for The New York
Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is James Glanz, and he's the Baghdad bureau chief for The New
York Times. And for the past four years, he's been rotating in and out of
Iraq. He's on a stateside part of that rotation right now.
One of the things you've been reporting about from Washington is the fact that
more than four Western oil companies are about to sign service contracts,
short-term service contracts, with Iraq. And this has been met with a lot of
skepticism in the--cynicism I maybe should say--in the States for two reasons.
One is that they're no-bid contracts. And two is that, for a lot of people,
it just seems to kind of reinforce their fear that the war was about oil and
about getting access to oil. So let's kind of back up and maybe you can tell
us what these contracts include, what do these contracts give the Western oil
Mr. GLANZ: Mm-hmm. Yeah. That story was broken by my colleague Andrew
Kramer in Baghdad not long ago. And I was just talking about it this morning
by phone with my deputy in Baghdad, Alissa Rubin. And the contracts
themselves are pretty simple and by no means lucrative. They just allow the
Iraqi oil industry to send workers out for some training. The companies will
analyze seismic data and things like that to try to figure out the size of
fields and things. It's not very elaborate. It's not very large. But they
are no bid, and they come with the promise that they'll have some advantages
in later bidding on more substantial contracts, you know, for actually
exploiting the field. And that's the really controversial part of the whole
So the companies have been angling for this for quite awhile. When I first
reported that they were working with the Iraqi government on certain issues of
just this kind, I was assured by the oil ministry in Baghdad that there would
never be any advantage given to these companies in future bidding just because
they were helping out the Iraqi government. That was an absolute statement
they gave me, and that turns out not to be the case at this point. And, of
course, that's what the companies wanted all along. I mean, you know,
companies are supposed to make money. They're supposed to look for their own
advantage, and that's what they've been doing.
Why the Iraqi government decided to go this route, I'm not exactly sure. But
one thing that Alissa was pointing out to me this morning is that you have to
be aware that it's going to play entirely differently in Iraq than it does in
the United States. Here, you know, the storyline is--and understandably--that
you have big multinational companies, Western-led companies, going in and sort
of giving some justification to this, you know, theory that the administration
has--always been a conspiracy theory--that the United States really went in
for the oil. And, of course, there's a kind of a suspicion of these big
companies that we understand in the West and have as part of our whole
Now in Iraq, Alissa said she was just talking to some people about it on the
street. She said she asked them the question, `Do you think that this proves
that the United States come to Iraq for the oil?' And they sort of looked at
her and said, `Of course. That was always the reason they came to Iraq,'
So the, you know, a lot of Iraqis really believe that that's why we went
there, and they're not really particularly outraged by this because it's one
of those received bits of wisdom, take it for what it's worth.
GROSS: These are short-term contracts. So what are the long-term advantages
these short-term contracts give to the Western oil companies?
Mr. GLANZ: Well, remember, just in general, the longer these companies work
in these obscure ministry offices that control enormous amounts of oil in
various fields, the more familiar they become with the officials, you know,
the better sort of sussed up they are on the issues and how they might put
together a bid in the future that would help them gain access to those fields.
But the contracts do more than that. The service contracts do more than that.
They actually formally say that there will be preference given to these
companies in that future bidding. I don't recall the exact language, but
that's the part that's very controversial, is that they are getting not just
experience with the ministries, which is already useful. They are also
getting kind of a headstart on any future bidding for much more lucrative oil
contracts. And there's a lot of oil in Iraq, you know, at least a hundred
billion barrels under the ground there, and a lot of it is very good oil.
And, of course, oil is going for, you know, $100 and up now, so, you know, the
stakes are tremendous.
GROSS: And one of the problems for the Western oil companies is that they've
been shut out or the role has been diminished in a lot of countries because
those countries' oil companies have been nationalized, like Venezuela and
Mr. GLANZ: Right. Think Venezuela, yeah.
GROSS: So, you know, the four companies I mentioned before--ExxonMobil, BP,
Total and Shell--they, I think, all four of them were members of the Iraq
Petroleum Company back in the 1920s when that consortium of companies
basically controlled Iraqi oil. The Iraq Petroleum Company was tossed out
when Iraq nationalized its oil industry in 1961. But what does it mean that
these companies that had controlled Iraqi oil are going back now?
Mr. GLANZ: Hm. Well, remember, they are the big guys and they always have
been. So, you know, it's natural that they are the ones who would be sort of
most interested and the ones who might be invited back. But, yeah, I mean,
you can see history kind of going in cycles there. There's such a long
history of turmoil, really, in the Iraqi oil industry. It goes all the way
back to the 1920s, as you said. The British started up in the northern part
of Iraq, up by Kirkuk. And that's still, you know, it's a place where
insurgents are coming out of the woodwork and they really can't export from
there at this point because the pipeline keeps getting hit. Nevertheless,
they are really attempting to, in a way, to repeat some of the history of
their oil industry and maybe get it back to where it was before. Because, you
know, at one point, I mean, they were putting out much more oil than they are
now in Iraq, and they've never really gotten back to that point, you know, the
1991 war really knocked it down and they've never really put things back
together again. And I think they hope to do that. And maybe part of it is,
you know, thinking back to the good old days. I'm not sure why exactly they
picked those precise companies.
GROSS: The Bush administration said before we invaded Iraq that the profits
from oil would be used to rebuild the country. Do you think these contracts
bring us any closer to that possibility?
Mr. GLANZ: No. I don't think they have any bearing on that at all because
they already have enough money to undertake at least some degree of
reconstruction. And they have, as far as we can tell, had as little success
at that project as the Americans did when they were in charge.
GROSS: Why? Why has it been so hard?
Mr. GLANZ: Yeah. And that's another very hard thing to understand about
Iraq. You've got all this money and it's your country and, you know, it's
fallen apart and, you know, crushed by war. Why can't you rebuild it? Well,
it's a combination of things that only-in-Iraq kind of issues. One is it's
still very dangerous to go out and set up any kind of construction site. You
get attacks. There's always somebody who wants to attack you. You know, it
doesn't have to be the whole country. You know, it could be an insurgent
group. It could be a militia. It could be just somebody who wants your
bricks. You know?
And then another really strange issue about Iraq is that they have a hard time
spending their money because you have to have contracting officers, you have
to have banks that function. You have to have a way to get raw materials into
the country and transfer funds to get those raw materials. And all of those
little things that we take for granted here just don't exist, or they sort of
lurch along and there's maybe one or two people in the entire ministry who can
do contracts properly because the other ones have fled or been killed or too
intimidated to come to work or just aren't skilled enough. And, you know, the
transfer of money is always a difficult thing there. I mean, literally
highway robbery, you know, is just a constant, constant threat in Iraq and
they are still moving cash around a lot. It's a cash-based economy.
So they just can't get it done. And they say they're improving, and that's
one of the issues that the Bush administration disagrees on, disagrees over
with the GAO, the General Accountability Office, which says that they're only
spending 11 to 28 percent of their reconstruction funds, whereas the US says
they're spending more than 60 percent.
GROSS: James Glanz, although you are the Baghdad bureau chief and you've been
rotating in and out of Iraq for four years now, you started off at The New
York Times as a science reporter. You have a PhD in astrophysics.
Mr. GLANZ: That's right.
GROSS: And, you know, writing about science and studying astrophysics is a
long way from covering the war in Iraq for the last four years. I'm sure one
of the triggers to you becoming--trigger is maybe a wrong, loaded word
here--but one of the triggers for you becoming a war correspondent is when the
World Trade Center was attacked, you were assigned to write about the
structure of the World Trade Center and why it responded in the way it did to
the jet planes that were crashed into it, and that led to a book that you
co-authored about the World Trade Center. But how did you end up becoming a
Mr. GLANZ: Yeah. Not the first time I've been asked that question. You're
exactly right. I was, I mean, I was a former physicist--my degree is in
astrophysics--writing science for the Times. And on 9/11, my friend Lara
Chang, who's now the science editor--at that time she was the deputy science
editor--pointed at me as I rushed in before the buildings had fallen and said
one word, "Structure." Which meant I was supposed to write a story about how
these things were built; and then they fell, and so it became a story about a
lot of others things, you know, starting with why they fell. And that evolved
into a long-term sort of beat on terrorism, and I spent a lot of time at
ground zero; as you said, wrote a book.
What happened was that, in terms of Iraq, was I wrote a memo in 2003 and I
said somebody should be covering reconstruction in Iraq. And by that time,
you know, the way it works in journalism, you know, I became our sort of
engineering expert. I said, `You know, you need somebody over there to cover
how they're going to build all the big bridges and fix the electricity grid.'
Because that was the storyline that the administration had out there at the
time. And they said, `You know, you're right. Why don't you go over?' So
they sent me over for one-year stint and sort of like, you know, "Gilligan's
Island," you know, "a three-hour cruise," I re-upped and stayed there and got
into the wider story. And, you know, now here we are in the present day, I'm
the bureau chief.
But I will say, you know, one thing about this background that I have is
actually pretty nice in a place like Iraq because so many things about our
cultural background have absolutely nothing to do with the conditions over
there or the things that are in people's minds and hearts and souls in that
part of the world. However, it's a place that really respects engineers and
has a lot of good engineers. It actually respects science to a very high
degree, as long as it doesn't conflict with other, you know, religious
mandates and so forth. And there are a lot of very highly educated technical
And they and I share, oddly enough, a common language, which is this language
of sort of science and engineering that's been extremely useful to me many
times. A lot of the people on my staff are former engineers. They tend to
learn English and be really smart, you know. And a lot of the people in
government were actually educated as engineers. So, you know, I'll be talking
with somebody who's, you know, a member of parliament or something like that,
and you sit there and talk for a while about bridges. You know? It gets you
through the tea. And person decides you're OK and then you can start talking
about stories. So it's been a bit of an odyssey, but, you know, in my sort of
strange world, it somehow makes a kind of sense.
GROSS: Well, James Glanz, I want to thank you so much for talking with us,
and I wish you the best. Thank you.
Mr. GLANZ: Thanks a lot. Nice to talk with you.
GROSS: James Glanz is the Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times.
Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews "Hopkins," the new ABC
documentary series about Johns Hopkins University Hospital. This is FRESH
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Review: David Bianculli on ABC's "Hopkins"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Eight years ago ABC presented a non fiction documentary series, "Hopkins
24/7," which told very intimate, very real stories about the medical staff and
patients at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore. Tonight ABC
begins televising a sequel series called simply "Hopkins," which our TV critic
David Bianculli says is just as captivating. He also says that both the
series and television have changed in the interim.
Mr. DAVID BIANCULLI: How different was TV back in 2000 when producer Terry
Wrong produced his original "Hopkins 24/7" series? So different that the term
"reality TV" wasn't yet in widespread use. "Survivor" started that summer on
CBS and jumpstarted the entire genre. But "Hopkins 24/7," which peeked over
the shoulders of doctors and nurses and gave us an unfiltered look at the way
medical personnel work, think, react and joke, was a different sort of animal.
It has some narration but no music, and it was intentionally, refreshingly
adult. It didn't go in for sensationalism, which was why in the end is was so
But now it's 2008. Not only has reality TV taken over prime time like
crabgrass, but ABC itself has provided a new model for medical drama with its
romance-heavy "Grey's Anatomy." "Hopkins," the sequel to "Hopkins 24/7," is
televised by ABC on the same night reserved for "Grey's Anatomy," and that's
no accident. Nor is it an accident that this time around "Hopkins" doesn't
have any narration at all but does feature a lot of young doctors and
residents and even includes places for dreamy music and lyrics, just like
So Terry Wrong and company have adapted to the shifting TV landscape, but they
haven't sold out. They still hang around the hospital long enough and film
enough footage to capture lots of interesting cases and find lots of
interesting nonfiction stars.
The very first one we meet, in fact, comes out of the blocks running, or at
least walking briskly through the hospital corridors, filmed by a handheld
camera, just like one of those frantic walk-and-talk scenes from "ER." Except
that this particular doctor, one of the country's leading brain surgeons, is
talking directly to the camera and explaining his fascinating background as an
illegal immigrant who jumped the fence as a kid to work the fields. Lou
Dobbs, please take note.
(Soundbite from "Hopkins")
Unidentified Doctor: Twenty years ago I couldn't imagine my dreams I thought
I was going to be doing this right here...(unintelligible). I was born in a
small little border town between the United States and Mexico.
How are you?
And all I wanted to do when I first came to the United States is just to make
a little bit of money, send it back to my family so we could actually put food
on our tables.
The only difference now is that I have got an education. I went to Berkeley,
Harvard, UCSF, but I'm still the same person. Absolutely nothing has changed.
I'm the same crazy son of a gun I was 20 years ago.
(End of soundbite)
Mr. BIANCULLI: That's only one of many really captivating characters--real
life characters, not written ones--we meet in the six hours of "Hopkins."
There's also Brian, a heart and lung surgeon who's separating from his wife as
the series begins. And Ann, who works in the ER at Hopkins, and with her West
Virginia accent and feisty unguarded attitude could slip unnoticed into
"Grey's Anatomy," "ER" or any other TV series seeking a plucky young heroine.
You can almost imagine Lou Grant saying to her, `You've got spunk.' But she's
got honest human emotions, too. When she's driving in bad weather and passes
a multicar pile-up on the side of the road, she covers her eyes and keeps on
going. That doesn't seem like what someone on TV would do, but it rings as
completely, refreshingly honest.
Honesty, in fact, is the secret ingredient of "Hopkins." Scenes involving
Brian, the doctor with marital troubles, are almost too raw. We see his wife
hovering nervously during a visit in episode one, and listen to one of their
three young daughters as she sobs, contemplating the possibility of divorce in
episode two. But by episode three, things have taken a turn for the better.
Happy endings aren't always part of the mix, though. Some patients we meet
get lucky and get that heart or lung transplant in time. Others aren't so
fortunate, and we're witness to grief, mistakes and horrifying decisions about
life and death.
On occasion we see these doctors unwinding or filling time by watching TV--a
spelling bee here, a Johnny Cash special there. They watch to escape because
most TV isn't brain surgery, but on "Hopkins" part of it is, or a dual lung
replacement where the doctor handles and describes the open chested lung so
casually, providing his own play by play, that it's a truly amazing display of
There's usually one moment per hour where, if you're squeamish, you might look
away, like the ER doctor on "Hopkins" passing that car crash. But for the
rest of it, I promise, you'll be captivated. Real life has better writers
than TV does, and the stories are a lot less predictable.
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for Broadcasting & Cable magazine and
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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Profile: Ira Tucker of The Dixie Hummingbirds dies at age 83
TERRY GROSS, host:
We'll close with a song by the gospel group The Dixie Hummingbirds. The lead
singer, Ira Tucker, died Tuesday of heart failure. He was 83. He sang with
the Hummingbirds since the late 1930s. The group broke through to a pop
audience in the '70s when they sang with Paul Simon on his hit "Love Me Like a
Rock." Here's The Dixie Hummingbirds recording "Going On."
(Soundbite of "Going On")
DIXIE HUMMINGBIRDS: (Singing) Now, ever since I've been converted
I've been working for my crown
But the devil, he don't like it
He's been trying to turn me 'round
But I'm just going on
I'm just going on
Going on till my work is done
I've got to overcome so I can make it home
Go on, make that devil leave me alone
I can't hardly pray, he's standing in my way
Every step I take, keep trying to make me stray
Well, I've...(unintelligible)...with him
I'm just going on
See the things there, ain't getting better
They're getting rougher all the time.
(End of soundbite)
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.