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Editorial columnist for 'The New York Times,' Nicholas Kristof

In his recent columns he has been writing about the intelligence officers who disclosed to him that the Bush administration exaggerated the claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the war. Kristof recently returned from Iraq.


Other segments from the episode on June 25, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 25, 2003: Interview with Nicholas Kristof; Review of Fountains of wayne's new album "Welcome interstate managers."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Nicholas Kristof discusses his New York Times columns
including recent reports from Africa

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Nicholas Kristof is a New York Times columnist who just returned from Iraq.
His recent columns have started with him joking about how he was trying to
help the Bush administration find those weapons of mass destruction. The
mystery of the missing WMD, as he puts it, is a subject he's also taking quite
seriously. Several of his columns have quoted current and former American
intelligence agents who have told him that the Bush administration leaned on
intelligence agents to exaggerate information that supported the case for war
and downplay or conceal information that did not. Yesterday Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, quote, "I have every reason to believe that the
intelligence we were operating off was correct, and that we will, in fact,
find weapons or evidence of weapons programs that are conclusive."

We invited Nicholas Kristof to talk with us about his columns, including his
recent reports from Africa. He's worked as The Times bureau chief in Hong
Kong, Beijing and Tokyo and has covered North Korea.

Let's start with intelligence about Iraq. What are some of the most important
things you were told by intelligence agents?

Mr. NICHOLAS KRISTOF (The New York Times Columnist): There were a lot of
cases where intelligence was kind of goosed up to some degree, but I think the
most striking case, at least in my mind, had to do with the uranium in Niger,
because that was a case where it wasn't just that intelligence was kind of,
you know, prettied up or some facts were neglected, but you really had
something that had no credibility that made it into a presidential speech, and
that had to do with the suggestion that Saddam Hussein was working on a
nuclear program and was trying to buy radioactive material from the country of
Niger to create a nuclear device. And it turned out that this had been around
for a long time; that almost a year before the president's State of the Union
address in which he used that supposed fact, the CIA had sent an envoy at the
behest of the vice president's office to investigate, and had found that it
was completely untrue, completely not credible, that the documents that were
supposedly evidence of it, you know, had names of people who'd been out of
office for more than 10 years, that it was a very obvious fabrication. And
this was widely reported, widely known within the intelligence community and
still was used by the president to argue the case to the American people in a
way that I found deeply disturbing.

GROSS: Now Condoleezza Rice said that the Bush administration didn't find out
that this document was forged until after the president cited it in his State
of the Union address. And somebody else from the Bush administration said
that the vice president's office didn't even know that this document wasn't
credible until they read about it in your column.

Mr. KRISTOF: Yeah. You know, I always thought that I should do a deal with
Vice President Cheney, that, you know, I'll tell him everything I know about
what he's doing if he'll tell me everything he knows about what he's doing.
And it seems to me, on that basis that, you know, in that case, he would have
come out ahead. But he hasn't bought into that yet.

I think it may well be true that the reports about the Niger deal being fake
didn't circulate as widely as they should have, and I think that partly that's
because the administration was sending out very, very strong feelers from the
highest levels that what they wanted was evidence of nuclear, chemical or
biological weapons programs, not evidence that it was not happening.

And secondly, though, I do know from talking to people directly involved in
the Niger deal that information did go to the vice president's office and did
go to the national security staff in the White House and went to the top of
the CIA. So, I mean, I don't know that it got to the president's desk or that
it got to the vice president's desk, but there was clearly some major
breakdown here, and so it may well be that Condi Rice is narrowly correct in
the sense that the information that the Niger deal was phony did not reach her
desk until after the president had spoken. But in any case, something went
very badly wrong because the information was widely known, including at senior
levels in the administration.

GROSS: I think what you're suggesting is the possibility that if high-place
people within the Bush administration, including President Bush himself,
didn't know about this, perhaps it was because they let it be known that they
didn't want to hear any information that might discredit their case against

Mr. KRISTOF: Yeah. And I think that's what I found dispiriting about this,
and that's what, I think, you know, is key as we look ahead, because Iraq is
behind us, but there are going to be other issues ahead, whether it's North
Korea, Iran or Syria. And I think it's just critical that the intelligence
that is garnered about those countries be gathered dispassionately without any
political agenda, and I think that the system as it is right now is not doing
that. The intelligence community has been kind of subverted to serving a
political purpose, as has happened at times periodically in the past under
both Democratic and Republican administrations, but I think it's happening
again in a way that undermines US foreign policy, undermines our credibility
and that, you know, the intelligence agencies were set up to be independent
and they've really got to try to restore that.

GROSS: Can you just tell us some of the things that current and former
intelligence agents told you about ways in which it was suggested to them or
implied to them that they needed to exaggerate the threat of Iraq's weapons of
mass destruction?

Mr. KRISTOF: OK. I mean, there's several areas. One is that the nuclear
program, which is sort of the most ominous but also the least developed in the
Iraqi overall military effort, was advanced and was a genuine threat to the
US. They thought that was hugely pumped up.

Secondly, that the biological and chemical programs were exaggerated so that
they weren't just, you know, programs kind of in the background but that they
involved huge stockpiles and abilities to strike the US.

Third, that Iraq had close connections to al-Qaeda, which seems not to be the

And fourth, that people within the CIA, the DIA and elsewhere in the
intelligence community were really told to only pass on one kind of finding,
one kind of conclusion, and that which was most incriminating of Iraq, and
that the White House wasn't interested in, you know, a kind of thoughtful
weighing of the issues or in its analysis; it was interested in evidence that
could get into presidential speeches, for example.

And finally, they said that, you know, one result of this is that the CIA in
particular and also the DIA, for that matter, are deeply demoralized. And
that's unfortunate, because George Tenet, as director of Central Intelligence,
really had done a great job of getting the CIA back on its feet, of managing
it, of reassuring people inside the agency. And just, I'd say, in the last
six months there's a real feeling, particularly among the intelligence people,
that they've been let down, that he hasn't stood up for them, that he let the
Pentagon people kind of cut the legs out from under some senior intelligence

GROSS: Well, in fact, one of the intelligence agents who spoke to you said
that Tenet sided with the Department of Defense crowd and cut the legs out
from under his own analysts. What do you know about that, about that
suggestion that he was so loyal to the Department of Defense and Donald
Rumsfeld that he perhaps allowed information to be exaggerated to help the
Bush administration make the case?

Mr. KRISTOF: You know, the way intelligence works is that there's always just
mountains of tips and information coming in and a lot of it is bad, but you're
never quite sure, you know, what is bad, what is good, what the pattern is.
And I think that part of the problem was that people in the CIA didn't feel a
lot of self-confidence as it was. They had kind of blown it in the run-up to
9/11 and they hadn't been sufficiently alarmed. And traditionally in the
intelligence community the way you protect yourself is you are very alarmist
and you see threats everywhere. And this time they didn't really see it, but
the Pentagon people were screaming, you know, `connections with al-Qaeda,' you
know, `nuclear threat,' `chemical weapons,' `biological weapons,' `smallpox,'
and this kind of thing.

And the CIA and DIA people didn't believe it and they objected to some degree,
but I think that they were also a little bit nervous that they were going to
be, you know, sort of proven wrong again, and I think that that was
particularly true of George Tenet, and so that when people in the Pentagon's
intelligence shop started, you know, plucking out little bits of intelligence
here or there to try to prove an al-Qaeda link, for example, that he was very
nervous about siding with people who really kind of knew what was going on and
signed on to assessments that were really largely, I think, ideologically
driven and coming out of the Pentagon and coming out of the White House.

Part of that may also be that he was not really part of the gang in this
administration. He was a holdover from the Clinton administration. He's more
of a Democrat than a Republican. He's somebody who has a good relationship
with President Bush, maybe a better relationship with President Bush than he
had with President Clinton, but he's not kind of one of the gang, and he may
have felt a little bit insecure about his own position. I think there's a
collection of reasons that led to this, to a real breakdown in the
intelligence process.

GROSS: How is the CIA supposed to be protected from a politicization of
information and intelligence?

Mr. KRISTOF: One of the basics is that the intelligence people, the spooks,
are just adamant about they don't do policy. You know, one of the spooks I
admire the most is a guy who knows North Korea really well. And because he
knows it so well, I remember asking him at one point, you know, `So, you know,
what do you think we should do about North Korea?' And he just looked at me
and said, `I don't go there'; you know, I don't do policy. And, I mean,
that's the traditional attitude. That's what the intelligence agencies are
supposed to do beginning really at the end of the Clinton administration. The
Clinton administration started involving George Tenet in the Middle East
process kind of in the policy of bringing peace in a way that, I think, in
retrospect was a mistake. And then the Bush administration extended that and
George Tenet was really brought much more into the White House kind of
policy-making process, and I think that reduces the insulation that is there
for the intelligence people.

GROSS: My guest is New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nicholas Kristof, and he's a
columnist for The New York Times.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is going to conduct a review of
prewar intelligence and how it was handled. What do you think they might be
up against since this has been such a politicized process?

Mr. KRISTOF: I'm not holding my breath on the congressional investigations.
I just think that given who's leading them that they're unlikely to be really
aggressive and, you know, that they'll poke around the ashes a little bit, but
I don't think that it's going to be as thorough an investigation as it should.
And I wish that there were a much more aggressive congressional investigation
of this, and I think it's just, you know, critical for our national security
that we do try to make intelligence honest again.

And, I mean, I must say that I think that one problem with the political
process right now is that it is so polarized that, you know, there is a sense
that there are a lot of Democrats who want to investigate this, not just to
rectify the way the intelligence is gathered, but also to use it as a club to
beat the Bush administration, and that makes the Republicans, you know, very
nervous about going down that road.

GROSS: The cover story of The New York Times Sunday: Weekend Review this
week asked the question: Did President Bush lie to did he exaggerate when he
made statements like, `Intelligence gathered by this and other governments
leaves no doubt that the Iraqi regime continues to possess and conceal some of
the most lethal weapons ever devised'? I mean, he said that in a speech to
the nation on March 17th of this year. Do you have any thoughts on where that
line is between lying and exaggeration in this story?

Mr. KRISTOF: In my columns I keep using words like `deceive' or, you know,
`mislead,' and I keep getting these incredibly reproachful letters, e-mails
from people saying, `You know, use the "lie" word,' but I'm not comfortable
doing so for a few reasons. I mean, one has to do with civility. I think
that there's already enough incivility out there that, you know, using extra
epithets isn't really going to help.

But beyond that, I do think that what happened was a process of systematic
exaggeration rather that just completely fabricating things out of thin air,
and that beyond that I think that people at the White House and at the
Pentagon who I think were the leaders of this that, you know, they believed
the bottom line of what they were saying; they believed that Saddam was a
threat to us because of his weapons of mass destruction, and I think they
absolutely believed that Saddam had WMD all over.

I think that the problem was more that some of these figures, especially the
Pentagon, were ideologues who deceived themselves and deluded themselves and
also deceived other people than that they kind of deliberately concocted
things and, you know, lied to people. So it seems to me the problem is not,
you know, one of lying as such as of people being too ideological, not
objective enough about the evidence and creating a system where there were no
checks on those ideologues.

GROSS: Have there been supporters of the Bush administration who have tried
to discredit your columns?

Mr. KRISTOF: On the intelligence issue, actually, not so much. I mean, the
thing that I have been really harping on has been the Niger deal, and there,
you know, they do accept that the Niger documents were fabricated; they accept
that this--even though they say they learned about it from my column, they do
accept that, yes, it is correct that at the behest of the vice president's
office a former ambassador was sent to Niger to check, that he said that, you
know, the documents were false. They haven't disputed any of those facts in
the column.

They, you know, says it's untrue that there was a sort of deliberate effort to
spin things. But I say they haven't, you know, sort of challenged the
accuracy of my columns, although they've challenged the interpretation.

GROSS: Do you think what you've written in your column and what other
journalists have written about intelligence agents who say that information
was exaggerated, that they were pressured to report only selectively on
intelligence--do you think that that is changing the way the CIA is operating
now? Do you think it is less probable now that information will be
exaggerated or used selectively?

Mr. KRISTOF: I think that's true right now vis-a-vis, you know, Iran and
North Korea and so on. But I do worry that there is pressure among some of
the political people in the administration to make a scapegoat of George Tenet
and toss him overboard, and that would really put the Pentagon in the driver's
seat for foreign policy as a whole. Already the Pentagon has been kind of
chipping away at the intelligence community and gathering more and more of the
ability to, you know, use satellites, to collect intercepts, to interpret
things; you know, it's started its own intelligence shop. And I do worry that
the result of this will be that you will get ideologues who will be in charge
of the intelligence process as a whole, and if that were to happen then, I
think, you know, it would be a real step backward.

And so what I've written is--I mean, I think that George Tenet really screwed
up by not protecting his people, but I do not think that he should be forced
out as a result, because I think that, you know, ultimately that would be bad
for the independence of the intelligence community.

GROSS: Can you explain about this intelligence agency within the Pentagon
that the Pentagon recently started?

Mr. KRISTOF: Yeah. You know, it goes way back in the sense that Don Rumsfeld
and Paul Wolfowitz had a deep, long-standing suspicion of the things the
intelligence community were doing. They thought that the intelligence
community had kind of become a big bureaucracy, that they just sort of
shuffled papers around, came out with very conventional thinking, didn't come
up with very good information, and so they started up after 9/11 a small group
in the Pentagon that would work with the intelligence agencies and look at raw
intelligence and gather it out and pass it on to policy-makers.

I think one unfortunate result was that, you know, the most alarmist
intelligence was going on to the president, and, you know, you should be
giving the president the best intelligence you have; instead he was getting
some of, you know, the worst raw intelligence that came in that was unverified
and that, you know, shouldn't have been going even to low-level bureaucrats.
It was totally untrustworthy.

GROSS: Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times. He'll be back
in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: Coming up, the rise of the Islamic fundamentalists in southern Iraq.
We continue our conversation with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof,
who just returned from Iraq. We'll also talk about his recent trip to Africa
and his thoughts on the likelihood of a confrontation with North Korea. And
Ken Tucker reviews the new CD by Fountains of Wayne.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with New York Times
columnist Nicholas Kristof. Before becoming a columnist, he was The Times'
bureau chief in Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo. His latest columns have been
about his trip to Iraq, from which he just returned.

This week in your column, you report that it's looking like the Islamic
fundamentalists have won in Iraq or at least in parts of Iraq. What are the

Mr. KRISTOF: You know, I'd say that they are winning maybe rather than they
have won. I don't think that it's over yet, and I think things could go in
all kinds of directions. But I think that the fundamentalists have really
gained ground. What are the signs? You know, one of the most striking is
that Christians in the south are really living in great insecurity and fear.

And part of that is that they've traditionally been involved in the liquor
business. And you know, in Basra alone, there were more than a hundred liquor
stores, and Saddam protected them from the fundamentalists. Now as far as I
can tell, there isn't a single liquor store open anywhere south of Baghdad.
There were, you know, fundamentalists who went to each store and threatened to
kill the owners unless they closed up shop. In many cases, they smashed up
the shops; they, you know, drove vehicles into the shops, smashed up all the
bottles, beat people up, kidnapped the owners and, in Basra, in two cases,
they murdered the shopkeepers. And so the Christians are fleeing the south;
all these shops have closed.

You see it in pressure on women to wear the hijab, the head covering. A lot
of shops have signs saying, you know, `Sister, you know, cover your hair.'
And the extremists went to Basra University, which is really, you know, a kind
of a model for equal opportunity in the Middle East. Eighty percent of the
science students are actually women and, you know, a lot of the professors are
women as well. And so they went to the university and asked that men and
women have separate classes. They instructed women to wear the hijab. And
that hasn't been entirely followed, but it certainly makes a lot of
professional women and women students, you know, deeply nervous about the
future of the country.

GROSS: Well, if a democratically elected government, you know, either a
locally run government or a national government in Iraq, ended up to be an
extremist Islamic government, that would put the United States in a strange
position, 'cause what it wants is democracy, but it doesn't want an extremist
Islamic government to take over.

Mr. KRISTOF: Right. I mean, I think it's a real conundrum that, you know, we
want democracy, but we don't probably want what most of the Iraqis would like
to see, the kind of government they would like to see. For my part, I don't
get the sense that it would be a, you know, wildly extremist government. I
don't think it would be like Iran, for example, with, you know, real
ayatollahs calling the shots, with, you know, women having no role whatsoever
in kind of outside society. But I do think that it could be, you know, a real
step in that direction from the way Iraq is right now.

And I think there are a lot of ordinary Iraqis, you know, poor, uneducated
Iraqis who are deeply offended at the number of women who now do play a role
in society, who go out alone or with other females on the streets or, you
know, who, most shocking of all, you know, date young men on their own. And
all these things just grate horribly on a lot of Muslims in the south in
particular. And now is their chance to kind of design a country that they
want, and I think that, especially for girls and women, the result's going to
be a step backward.

GROSS: Did you see more chaos in this trip to Iraq than you did in your
previous trip in April?

Mr. KRISTOF: Oh...

GROSS: You know, have things gotten any better or worse?

Mr. KRISTOF: Actually, since April, I'd say, it was about the same. I mean,
it was certainly better than when the war was going on and, you know, people
were sort of shooting right and left and you were always scared; you didn't
know when you were driving around whether to put big, huge American flags and,
you know, TV signs on your car to reduce the chance the Americans would shoot
you, but increase the chance that, you know, Iraqis would shoot you, or--you
know, you really didn't know how to strike that balance.

This time there are a lot more cars on the road and you feel somewhat safer
than right when the war is going on. But having said that, it is a real mess.
It's a scary place to be. And normally, you know, I love to travel and go to
all kinds of places that there aren't Fodor's guides to. But Iraq--I must say
Iraq makes me nervous. There are a lot of bandits out and, you know, their
tactic is to, you know, rake a car with machine-gun fire and force it to crash
and then steal its stuff. And I had a friend who that happened to, and she
was able to get away. I had another friend recently who--she was driving
along and the bandits had dug a ditch across the road to force her car to
stop, and they swarmed it and grabbed her backpack.

At night every night I was using my satellite phone to check for e-mail, and
there's just gunfire all over. You know, it was great to come back to the US
this time in particular.

GROSS: My guest is New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is my guest, and he just got
back from Iraq.

You've made a couple of recent trips to Iraq, but in between those trips, you
went to Africa...

Mr. KRISTOF: Yeah, Africa...

GROSS: ...which kind of surprised me in the sense that, you know, you, like a
lot of journalists, have been really focused on Iraq. So when you went to
Africa, I was kind of surprised and, of course, interested to read what you
had to say. But why did you go?

Mr. KRISTOF: Well, Africa has been a passion for many, many years. When I
joined The Times, and I think they thought they were going to send me to
Africa, and instead, somehow, they sent me to Asia, and I spent most of my
career in Asia. But Africa has always been a long-term passion. And, you
know, the stakes always seem so much higher in Africa than anywhere else in
the world. If you get it right, you save so many lives. And if you screw up,
then you lose so many lives, 'cause there's so many people right at the

And as a columnist--now I'm new to the columnist gig. I'm new to the whole
opinion gig. And I found the whole period writing about Iraq actually a
little bit frustrating, because it felt like I was basically sort of, you
know, stirring a pot that was already there called Iraq and that people were
interested in. And I felt I couldn't really write about other things, 'cause
that's all anybody wanted to talk about, but that, you know, I wasn't really
putting anything new on the agenda. And one of the, you know, cool things
about having a column is that ability to bring something out on the agenda.

And so the moment things kind of got calm enough that I felt, you know, I
wouldn't be derelict to my responsibilities by going to Africa, I went there,
and there was sort of an incipient famine in the Horn of Africa. And partly
because of the war in Iraq, it had gotten no attention, and far more people
are going to die there than in Iraq, and it just gets zero attention.

GROSS: One of the things you've written about in your Africa columns is the
impact of the Bush administration's cut last year of the $34 million that it
had given to the UN Population Fund. And you looked at some of the ways that
the US end of money to that fund has affected people in Africa. What are some
of the things that you found?

Mr. KRISTOF: The reproductive health care is just one of the ways in which
you can help poor countries the most, because once, you know, you save
children's lives for very small amounts of money, you save the lives of
mothers for, you know, tiny amounts of money, then they have, you know, fewer
children in turn as they know their children will survive, and they then
provide those kids more education and so on. So the notion that we were
cutting off funding to the UN Population Fund just went against everything I
believed about how we can help Africa and Asia for that matter.

And in particular, one of the issues that I think hasn't gotten nearly enough
attention in the West is something called obstetric fistula, which doesn't get
attention, I think, because it's exceptionally unpleasant and sort of
disgusting to talk about, and so, you know, everybody averts their eyes. But
it's a condition that women develop in countries where there are very few
doctors, very few midwives, and typically a very young girl, you know, a
15-year-old girl, who's pregnant, her pelvis isn't fully formed, she doesn't
have a doctor, doesn't have a trained midwife, tries to give birth on her own
or with her mother, the baby can't come out, after several days, the baby
dies, and she gets these internal injuries, this obstetric fistula, which
leaves here incontinent, leaves her smelly, makes her a pariah in the village,
and her life is suddenly completely destroyed at age 15. And there are
hundreds of thousands of these women. Nigeria may have 800,000 women just in
Nigeria. And that 34 million, I mean, some of that money would have gone to
help those women, and, you know, I wanted--so in Ethiopia in particular, I was
trying to call attention to that problem. There's a wonderful program in
Ethiopia that's kind of a model for the world.

GROSS: So a fistula is when, say, like the bladder or the intestines are
punctured as a result of this problem delivery, and therefore, your inner
feces can just leak out?

Mr. KRISTOF: And they leak out constantly, and the woman is always wet,
stinking. Her husband almost always divorces her. In Ethiopia, I talked to
one woman who, I think she was 15 at the time. Often, they're also crippled
in the process of this with one or both legs. And she had given birth on her
own out in the bush. The baby had died. She had crawled back. Her husband
had been, you know, horrified at the stink, had left her in a hut at the edge
of the village to die. Well, she didn't die, so he took the door off the hut
so the hyenas would get her at night. She fought off the hyenas, then crawled
for miles and miles to an American missionary who then took her to Addis
Ababa, and she had this treatment to fix her fistula. And it's something
that, for about $200, one can get the surgery to treat these women. And all
of a sudden, you know, they're transformed, and their lives are saved.

GROSS: OK. So the UN Population Fund funds some of these procedures to
reverse the fistula. The US cut off its money to the UN Population Fund.
What was the Bush administration's motivation for cutting off money to the UN
Population Fund?

Mr. KRISTOF: It was the UN Population Fund's association with the Chinese
family planning program, arguing that the Chinese program is coercive and
involves forced sterilization and forced abortion. And I mean, they're right
that the Chinese program has, indeed, relied on force and coercion, is often
completely brutal. They're wrong about the UN Population Fund kind of
endorsing that or supporting. On the contrary, you know, living in China and
watching it, it was very, very clear that the UN was desperately trying to
restrain, and was, indeed, succeeding in moderating the Chinese family
planning program.

GROSS: Do you think the Bush administration might reconsider this money?

Mr. KRISTOF: I don't think so. Congress is reconsidering it. I mean, I
think there are a lot of Republicans who are concerned about the cutoff of
funds. I don't think that the White House will change its mind on that. But
you know, let me just give you one example of, in China, the kind of program
that the UN was involved in that just made a huge difference, didn't have
anything to do with abortions. China used to use a kind of IUD that just
didn't work. It was very cheap, but it led a lot of women to bleed, to
develop all kinds of internal injuries, and it was a disaster, but China was
stubbornly sticking to this. And the UNFPA, the UN Population Fund, it funded
studies. It constantly pressured these officials. And China eventually
switched, as a result, to, you know, sort of international standard IUDs. And
you know, the result on a Chinese scale is that you've got tens of millions or
hundreds of millions of women who have much better health and, you know, are
able to bear children and so on because of the UN intervention. And this, you
know, is precisely what the Bush administration is insisting that the UN
should not be doing. They're saying it should be pulling out of China. And I
think that would be a disaster.

GROSS: Now you were explaining that even though Iraq is at the center of the
agenda for so many people, you wanted to report from Africa. I think we're
undergoing a certain amount of selective compassion, where we're supposed to
be, like, really compassionate about one group of people and kind of ignore
the misery of another group of people. And it's true that you can't help
everybody in the world simultaneously, but I'd just be interested in hearing
your thoughts about selective compassion.

Mr. KRISTOF: Yeah. I mean, I think that Africa and in particular, I mean,
the Congo is a great example of that. At this point, the argument for
intervening in Iraq has basically boiled down, in principle, to a humanitarian
intervention argument. I mean, since we haven't found a major weapons program
at this juncture, and since we haven't found major terror links, the principal
argument is basically that, hey, we saved an awful lot of Iraqi lives, and
that is certainly true. But if one looks at just the country of the Congo,
the former Zaire, you've had some 3.3 million people die in Congo alone,
deaths that would not have happened otherwise because of the war, just since
1998. And you know, there are not any easy solutions. I can't pretend that
there are, but there are things that we can do to provide more help and that
will ease the misery. And I think that we're going to be judged harshly in
retrospect 20 years down the road when people look back and see the horrors
that were going on in Africa that we did nothing at all about.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times columnist
Nicholas Kristof.

You used to cover China, and I know you've been following what's happening in
North Korea. Do you have any guess what's next? Like, what are you hearing?

KRISTOF: I don't think that the problems are resolved at all. I think that
we're heading toward, you know, a confrontation there. And when that is going
to break out, I don't know whether it's going to be the summer or the fall,
but I think it's really hard to imagine a deal being worked out whereby North
Korea is going to give up its nuclear program. I think that it, you know, on
the contrary, is developing it further. And the idea of North Korea, you
know, turning out nuclear weapons, kind of becoming a nuclear Wal-Mart, is
absolutely terrifying. But I think that we're kind of headed toward more
confrontation, more brinksmanship there.

GROSS: So are you suggesting that we're heading toward a confrontation with
weapons inspectors or a war situation?

KRISTOF: I think that what's going to happen is that the US will be trying to
put more pressure both in term of having the UN lean on North Korea, and on
having other countries in the region inspect North Korean ships, for example,
for any kinds of armaments or nuclear items, and that those inspections are
going to lead to more tensions. And then North Korea can ratchet up tensions
on its part by sending warships south, by firing across the border, that kind
of thing. And we don't really know what is going on in terms of its
reprocessing of its nuclear materials, but if it hasn't already begun
reprocessing its fuel rods, then that would be the next step that would sort
of throw us into a tizzy, because in six months, it can produce enough fuel
for five or six new nuclear weapons. And it may already be doing that. We
don't really know. But if there are signs that is happening, you know, that
will be the next big crisis.

GROSS: Finally, Nick, I'm wondering if the Jayson Blair story and the
resignation of Howell Raines at The New York Times is affecting your
day-to-day life at the paper.

Mr. KRISTOF: I'd say that it isn't really affecting, you know, the way I do
things. I'd say it's affecting my mail to some degree. I mean, it used to be
that when I got e-mails from people, they would just say, you know, `You're a
raving idiot.' Now they say, `You're a raving idiot who fabricates things
just like Jayson Blair.' So it's made the e-mail a little more colorful.

GROSS: Well, Nicholas Kristof, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. KRISTOF: Hey, it was my pleasure.

GROSS: Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.

Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the new CD by Fountains of Wayne.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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

Review: Album "Welcome Interstate Managers" by Fountains of Wayne

Rock critic Ken Tucker believes that we're in the midst of a new creative
flowering of pop rock, catchy guitar-based music with echoes of bands ranging
from early period Beatles to The Box Tops to The Beach Boys. In a series of
upcoming reviews, he's going to play some of the best of this new music. He's
leading off with the new third album from the band Fountains of Wayne called
"Welcome Interstate Managers."

(Soundbite of music)

FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE: (Singing) Sitting in traffic on the Tappan Zee, 50
million people out in front of me. Trying to cross the water, but it just
might be a while. Rain's coming down. I can't see a thing.

KEN TUCKER reporting:

The two leaders of the Fountains of Wayne quartet, songwriter-singers Adam
Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, vocalize with intentionally sour harmonies,
fuzz their guitar chords, and rev up the tempo of even their most downbeat
lyrics. And you could say they've got a fair amount to be downbeat about.
After all, the quartet's first two albums, "Fountains of Wayne" and "Utopia
Parkway," were not-so-little masterpieces of pop craft, full of precise
details about suburban life in New Jersey and the outskirts of Manhattan, and
went nowhere commercially. Dropped by their big-time label, Atlantic, in
1999, they've put out there new one on the indie S-Curve Records, and have
filled it with more songs about ordinary people going through their lives in
boring jobs, tortured by hopeless crushes, yet redeemed by a cheerful wryness.
In this, they can join the musical escapism of, say, Cheap Trick with lyrical
barbed ironies in the manner of early Randy Newman. Fountains of Wayne is the
champion pop rock outfit of the moment.

(Soundbite of music)

FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE: (Singing) Working all day for a mean little man with a
clip-on tie and a rub-on tan. He's got me running around the office like a
dog around a track. But when I get back home, you're always there to rub my
back. Hey, Julie, look what they're doing to me, trying to trip me up, trying
to wear me down. Julie, I swear, it's so hard to bear it, and I'd never make
it through without you around. No, I'd never make it through without you

TUCKER: That song, called "Hey Julie," with its meticulous mentions of
employers with clip-on ties and rub-on tans, is like the musical version of
Mike Judge's 1999 cult film, "Office Space," insinuatingly charming, cool in a
post-slacker way. Schlesinger and Collingwood, both in their 30s, are old
enough to recognize that rock 'n' roll's eternal lust factor can manifest
itself in a variety of ways, as when they summon up a teen-ager's crush on his
female friend's mother in this fine bit of frisky eroticism, "Stacy's Mom."

(Soundbite of music)

FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE: (Singing) Stacy's mom has got it going on. Stacy's mom
has got it going on. Stacy's mom has got it going on. Stacy's mom has got it
going on. Stacy, can I come over after school, after school? We can hang
around by the pool, hang by the pool. Did your mom get back from her business
trip, business trip? Is she there, or is she trying to give me the slip, give
me the slip? You know I'm not the little boy that I used to be. I'm all
grown up now. Baby, can't you see, Stacy's mom has got it going on. She's
all I want, and I've waited so long. Stacy, can't you see, there is one girl
for me. I know it might be wrong, but I'm in love with Stacy's mom. Stacy's
mom has got it going on.

TUCKER: Even in their ballads, these guys are eternal adolescents, who can
sketch scenes of steamy New York summertime pleasures and frustrations, as
they do here on "Fire Island."

(Soundbite of music)

FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE: (Singing) Driving on the lawn. Sleeping on the roof.
Drinking all the alcohol. All the kids from school will be naked in the pool
while our parents are on Fire Island. Cranking up the tunes till the windows
break. Feeding chocolate to the dog. Jumping on the couch till the feathers
all come out while our parents are on Fire Island.

TUCKER: That song, like many on "Welcome Interstate Managers," manages to be
both stately and obstreperous, novelistic and nostalgic. Fountains of Wayne
are the most experienced and shrewd of the new wave of music that I want to
review for you over the next few weeks. Hip-hop, country music and
post-grunge squall can take a partial summer vacation. I'm applying some
number 45 sunblock and putting up a sign saying `Gone fishin' for power pop.'

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"Welcome Interstate Managers" by Fountains of Wayne.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE: (Singing) I used to know you when we were young. You
were in all my dreams. We sat together in period one, Fridays at 8:15. Now I
see your face in the strangest places, movies and magazines. I saw you
talking to Christopher Walken on my TV screen. But I will wait for you as
long as I need to. And if you ever get back to Hackensack, I'll be here for
you. I used to work in a record store. Now I work for my dad, scraping the
paint off the hardwood floors. The hours are pretty bad. Sometimes I wonder
where you are, probably in LA.


Announcer: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, more with Susan Orlean, author of the best
seller "The Orchid Thief." In 1994, she wrote a New Yorker profile of
children's clown David Friedman. Only after publication did she learn the
dark side of his family story, which is now told in the new documentary,
"Capturing The Friedmans." Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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