DATE November 25, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: John Burns discusses the latest news from Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest John Burns is The New York Times' chief foreign correspondent. He
was based in Baghdad in the months leading up to the war, remained there
during the bombing, and left at the beginning of May. Early this month, he
returned to Iraq, but he's in New York today to accept a lifetime achievement
award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. As we'll hear, he's taken
great risks to report from Iraq. Burns has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his
work in war zones, covering Bosnia in '93 and reporting on the Taliban in '97.
I spoke with John Burns this morning.
Let's start with today's front-page story that you wrote about a seeming lapse
in American surveillance that led to the looting of radioactive capsules from
one of Saddam Hussein's old battlefield testing sites in the desert. What are
these radioactive capsules?
Mr. JOHN BURNS (The New York Times): Well, they've been known about for a
long time because, of course, the world was investigating Saddam Hussein's
weapons of mass destruction and his attempts to develop them, you know, over
20 years. And, in fact, this site--it's about 35 miles southwest of Baghdad
in the heart of the so-called Sunni triangle, which complicates the whole
story because of the hostilities for American troops in the area--was used
certainly in the '80s, probably less so in the '90s, once its existence became
known to the United Nations monitors, to simulate battlefield conditions for
nuclear, chemical and biological warfare.
So it was actually part of his WMD program. And as part of that, they had
these eight 75-foot-high steel towers about 3 feet across at the base, rooted
in concrete plinths in which they had cobalt-60 capsules, which were raised
into the towers so that they could irradiate the area. When American troops
arrived in the area this April, a WMD unit of the American forces went and
looked at this place and found that the capsules were still there and still
active, and therefore potentially dangerous.
What's happened since then is that with only 130,000 troops in Iraq, the
American forces have been pretty stretched thin. And as far as we can
understand it, the surveillance of this area was done by remote
high-technology means, which I think means satellites. There was a delay in
interpreting satellite pictures which resulted in these towers being looted,
three of them actually being pulled down, two of the cobalt-60 capsules being
looted with them into neighboring villages.
And the downstream consequences of this are that there are at least two cases
of radiation sickness and that most of the men--we don't know how many--who
actually cut the towers down, transported them to the villages, along with the
capsules, have disappeared and the villagers are refusing to say where they
are or even if they're alive or dead.
So, you know, it's going to be a difficult problem to resolve, but once the
lapse in surveillance was discovered, you have to say that the American forces
and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency went into high gear and have done
everything possible to mitigate the problem.
GROSS: You think one possible use of these capsules during the Saddam Hussein
regime was using them to test the effects of radiation on the human body?
Mr. BURNS: Yeah. Well, that was much reported that he was doing this at one
or other sites, his battlefield testing sites, back as long ago as the 1980s.
What we discovered when we--I mean, The New York Times, myself and the
photographer and our Iraqi helpers--went into this battlefield testing zone a
couple of times in the last few days, we went to some of the wrecked
buildings, buildings that had been looted. Some of them were bombed by the
United States in '91 and again earlier this year.
We found in the rubble of one of the buildings sand-covered documents in with
the rubble and strips of celluloid film. The film showed pictures, close up,
of men facing the camera, apparently alive, naked torsos, their heads, etc.
Some pictures, as I recall, of animals. Very difficult to see these things
because of the deterioration. The documents were filled with illustrations
indicating that there had been--seemed to be human and animal tests. It was
all in Arabic, and we're working through them right now to see exactly what
The American forces are aware that there are these documents and, of course,
they're very interested to know exactly what happened that that site. But
when you stand there in front of those towers in this desolate wasteland with
the wrecks of tanks and armored personnel carriers--I mean, Iraqi ones--that
were placed there. And there's a grim-looking reviewing stand set several
hundred yards back from the site. It's difficult to imagine that the area was
used for anything other than tests on human beings.
GROSS: Now you write in your front-page story today in The Times that the
looting of these nuclear capsules seems likely to become a parable for much of
the nature of the American occupation. What do you mean by that?
Mr. BURNS: I mean that the American forces are faced with an extremely
difficult, if not impossible, task. The American force is now limited to
130,000 men. This is a country of 25 million people as big as France. It's
extremely difficult to cover everything, and that's been a problem from the
start. So just as the surveillance of this site appears to have failed to
pick up the looting early enough to prevent these capsules being taken and the
radiation sickness that has resulted, so there are many other things that the
American forces in Iraq simply cannot get to.
One of the things they have to do, of course, is protect themselves. It's the
first task of any commander. Force protection in a situation where you're
being attacked on every expressway and in every dusty alley in every
town--it's an exaggeration because we can talk about that later, but in other
words it's an extremely dangerous environment--limits what they can do.
They're under attack.
There are, of course, occasionally mistakes made. The intentions, I think,
are good, and much good is being accomplished. But the balance sheet as seen
from America, of course, is a close-run thing. There's much good that's being
done. There's much that is ill to report, principally for America, of course,
the heavy casualties there. And I just saw this as another piece of that much
GROSS: You say that some defense officials who asked to remain anonymous told
you that this showed the Bush administration's error in sending too few troops
to secure Iraq. What are some of the other things that defense officials have
been telling you off the record? I mean--not off the record; I mean, under
Mr. BURNS: Well, I have to say there's not a lot of difference between what
they've said publicly and what is said privately. First of all, unlike, I
think, certainly in the latter stages of Vietnam, I don't detect in the
American forces at any level of responsibility much question about the
mission. I think there are serious worries about where the mission is going
to go. I think there are acute anxieties about the casualties that are being
But when they talk to us about issues like that, troop levels, of course, it's
in the face of the insistence of the commanders in Iraq, Lieutenant General
Ricardo Sanchez, the present commander, has said, as his predecessor, General
McKiernen, did, that they have enough troops for the mission. I think that
has to be understood in the context of how it came about that there was such a
relatively small force deployed there, as I understand it. It's not something
I report on.
But the Defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, taking somewhat his lead from what
happened in Afghanistan, believed this was doable with high-tech means and
local support, fast-moving Special Forces teams and so forth. And the war was
a tremendous success in that sense. I mean, it took--What?--21 days to reach
Baghdad. The casualties were, relative to other wars that America has fought,
relatively low. It was a success, but I think--and it surely is common cause
now--that to fight a war with a lean army of that kind is one thing. To make
a peace with it is another. And whilst the insistence is we have enough
troops for the mission, I think a lot of American officers and certainly a lot
of the troops would feel safer and more sure of success in the mission if
there were more boots on the ground.
GROSS: You covered the bombing of Iraq. You were in Iraq for several months
before the bombing. You left in early May, and you returned again in
November. What are your impressions of how Iraq has changed from before the
Mr. BURNS: Well, I think it would be honest to say that many of us who had
experienced, I mean, in the sense that you can without actually being the
victim of it, the repression of Saddam Hussein, who had lived in that ghastly
benighted country in the face of the bloodbath that he had carried out over a
period of 24 or 5 years, came to the conclusion that if it could be ended, it
should be ended, for the sake of the Iraqi people.
Now I'm not in the business of advocacy. That's--the brutality was palpable.
America had its other reasons for doing this, but I think that we felt that
the scenes that all Americans saw on April the 9th when the statue came down,
the jubilation, were absolutely a true reflection of the way that the
overwhelming majority of Iraqi people felt.
So to go back months later and find that the enterprise has become so complex,
so difficult and so costly in terms of American and Iraqi lives, to find Iraq
a less safe country by a long way to move about in for people like myself;
indeed for everybody, and especially the American troops, was a very
dispiriting thing. And, of course, you ask yourself the questions that I
suppose the overwhelming majority of Americans are asking, which is, you know,
is the price too high? And only time will tell that.
But I think it's fair to say that even Iraqis who now clamor in protest
outside American military facilities, if you go in amongst the crowds, even at
truck bombing sites, and you ask them for their bottom line when all of the
clamor is spent and say, `Look, we are messengers. Do you want us to pass the
message back to America that the troops should go home now?' the overwhelming
response is, once people feel safe--this is very important; Saddam Hussein is
And so you have to try and understand the context in which these people are
talking. And you'll have a conversation which begins with people saying,
`Americans go home. Saddam, Saddam, Saddam,' etc. But if you talk long
enough, as they grow more confident that you're not from the CIA, that, you
know, you're not partisan, then the truth become--coming out. And the bottom
line is, `We don't want American troops to go.'
They're not very comfortable about the rapid hand-over of sovereignty because
they're afraid that could descend into chaos. And that message is quite
insistent, and I think the American public should know that, whether the
American public now has to make its own decision now on its bottom line. Of
course, it's America that's paying a very high price here. Does America feel
that it wants to persist with this? That's a wholly different question which
I'm not in a position to answer since I work in the distant world.
GROSS: My guest is John Burns, The New York Times' chief foreign
correspondent. We'll talk more about Iraq after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: John Burns is my guest. He's chief foreign correspondent for The New
York Times. He's covering Iraq. He's in New York very briefly to accept this
evening an award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
You were staying at the Palestine Hotel, which was where one of the two
hotels--it was one of the two hotels that was struck last week by rocket
launchers hidden on donkey carts. Were you in the Palestine during the
Mr. BURNS: I was. I was. It occurred at 7:15 in the morning. And let me
set the scene very quickly. The Palestine and Sheraton hotels where we spent
the war have become one of the principal facilities for the occupation in the
sense that not only journalists are staying there but they are outnumbered now
by people who are working for reconstruction agencies like Halliburton,
Kellogg Brown & Root and, although it's difficult to say who exactly they are,
a large number of American civilians who are heavily secured within the
hotels. I think that your listeners can probably make a guess as to which
agency some of these people represent.
So these are endangered facilities, and they have surrounded them with two
rows of 20-foot-high concrete blast walls. And you look down from your
balcony at the Palestine and you're constantly looking for weak points in
those barriers. And there is a weak point which I don't need to go into. But
it leaves me a little concerned about whether or not the hotels are completely
secured against truck bombings.
So 7:15 on Friday morning, I was just waking for the day, and there was the
most horrendous, satanic explosion and my room filled with heavy, heavy smoke,
grime. The whole building shuddered for minutes. I assumed it was a truck
bomb and, to tell you the truth, I thought I should have listened to others.
Everybody said that the Palestine is unacceptably dangerous. I went there
because that's where I spent the war. I felt comfortable. The staff are very
friendly to me. It's my home in Baghdad.
When I got out into the corridor and was able to see, what I saw was that one
of these rockets, which is a battlefield rocket--it's got a range of about 10
miles; it has a pretty heavy warhead on it, and they're designed to hit troop
concentrations and tanks and things of that kind--that one of these rockets
off the donkey cart, which was placed perhaps 200 meters away from the point
of impact, had entered the hotel about 40 feet away from the room on the 16th
floor where I was in bed at the time.
GROSS: You were on the 16th floor?
Mr. BURNS: Yes, I was. Yeah. So it was a serious wake-up call. I'd been in
the hotel in April, I think it was April the 7th, when an American tank shell
hit about 70 feet away from where I was at that time. And I don't want to
waste your time or the time of your listeners with what my children would call
my sermons about how journalists are not heroes. That's not my point in
telling stories like this. We choose to be in those places. The rewards for
us in very personal terms are pretty high in terms of being where the story
is. I chose to be in that hotel.
Now some people would say that's a warning. Surely if it happens twice, it's
time to go elsewhere or consider a different line of work. I would say, and
I hope this isn't seen as being a conceit, but I would say that if it happens
twice, the chances of it happening a third time statistically are
overwhelmingly against. And in any event, it's not just being in the
Palestine Hotel, it's being in Iraq that's dangerous. It's simply the most
dangerous environment for journalists, as it is for all foreigners,
Westerners, that I have ever seen by a very, very long margin. I was not in
Vietnam, so I can't speak to that, but in a career of 30 years and more as a
foreign correspondent, I've never seen anything approachably as dangerous as
this. And there aren't a lot of things you can do to make it safe, and I
think we better prepare ourselves in our profession, my profession, for bad
GROSS: You've written a little bit about the dangers of travel now in Iraq,
and you've described how even the turboprop plane landing at the airport has
to take special precautions against surface-to-air missiles. Would you
describe what it's like just to land at the airport now?
Mr. BURNS: Well, all flights have now been canceled for the period because a
DHL cargo flight going to Baghdad Airport was hit by a surface-to-air SAM-7
missile on Saturday. So now the in and out is by road a thousand kilometers
across the desert. I think personally that's more dangerous because it takes
you through the badlands of the Sunni triangle. I would prefer to fly, and
flying in is an interesting experience. You come in over Baghdad at 19,500
feet in a twin-turboprop aircraft, which takes three wide circles as it comes
down into the airport. So you're exposed below the 15,000-foot ceiling of the
SAM-7's range for quite a long time as you come down, and you just look down
on the southwestern suburbs of Baghdad and the desert stretches that lie
beyond, which are many of them Sunni areas, including the area around Abu
Ghraib, where the notorious prison was, and you think, `Is there somebody down
there in a palm grove with a shoulder-fired missile?'
Now we don't know what precautions the United States military are taking.
There are many things that they can do and they no doubt do do. But we know
from the incident on Saturday that whatever they do, there's still a
significant risk of a missile being fired. And again, there are no
exemptions. The flights that we take, it's Royal Jordanian Airlines, it's a
civilian aircraft, and there are no, as far as I know, military people on
those aircraft. I don't think that matters one little bit to the fellow down
there in the palm grove. I think all he sees is a sort of talisman of the
GROSS: It sounds like you think Iraq is more dangerous now than it was during
Mr. BURNS: Oh, yes, I have no doubt about that, and I don't think that any of
my colleagues would dissent from that. You know, there may have been and
probably were mistakes made in the targeting of their cruise missiles and
bombs, but they were relatively few. I think that even critics of the war
have to concede that the American aerial attack on Baghdad was done with
extraordinary, extraordinary precision. So, you know, you could stand on the
balcony of the Palestine and watch this extraordinary fireworks display every
night. I don't want to be flippant about it because people were dying under
those missiles and bombs. But you could watch this every night with, I felt,
reasonable security that that cruise missile that you saw coming up the river
was not going to hit you.
GROSS: What indications do you have, if any, about who is behind the
Mr. BURNS: Well, of course, you know, with the American military commanders
saying that the big deficiency is not in numbers of troops but intelligence,
and it's getting better, but it's going to take a very long time to--remember,
Saddam Hussein and his people came out of a clandestine background. Saddam
Hussein started as an assassin on the streets of Baghdad back in 1959 or
thereabouts. They're very good at this kind of thing. He used to move
around, so we're told, when he was in power, sometimes in the back of taxis,
alone, to evade American detection. He's very, very good at this. So to say
we don't know exactly who's doing this is one thing. To presume that Saddam
and Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, his number two, and other acolytes are somewhere
in that mix and probably right at the heart of it is not hard. You might ask
yourself who else would be directing this. The attackers are overwhelming the
Iraqis. The American command says there may be 200 foreign fighters there.
And the methods being used are so brutal that you have to think, you know, who
is there about who is that brutal? Well, the answer is Saddam Hussein is that
GROSS: John Burns is The New York Times' chief foreign correspondent. He is
now based in Iraq. Tonight he receives the lifetime achievement award from
the Committee to Protect Journalists. 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 most dangerous man in Iraq--that's what Saddam
Hussein's director general of information called New York Times reporter John
Burns. We'll hear how Burns was harassed by officials during the war.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with two-time Pulitzer
Prize-winning reporter John Burns, chief foreign corespondent for The New York
Times. He was based in Iraq in the months leading up to the war and covered
Baghdad during the bombing. He returned to Iraq early this month, but he's
briefly in New York, where tonight he will receive a lifetime achievement
award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Although he's risked his
life to report from war zones, Burns insists he doesn't want to glorify
journalists or pass himself off as a hero.
I ask you this not to try to make you into a hero against your will but rather
just to get a sense of the environment now in Iraq. While reporting from
Mr. BURNS: Oh, I understand.
GROSS: ...or thereabouts, you narrowly escaped six thieves with Kalashnikovs
on the highway. It sounds like this was a fairly typical experience.
Mr. BURNS: The Ali Baba, as they are called--and my sense of ancient Arab
myths and folklore is a little shaky here, but Ali Baba was a Baghdadian.
Some say he was a thief; some say he wasn't a thief. But, in any event,
that's why these chaps are called Ali Babas. Robbing the foreigner is a big
industry now out in the tribal lands of Iraq. So any journey between the
cities and, indeed, some journeys inside the cities is fraught with the risk
of coming across these people. Only rarely have they opened fire and wounded
or killed or anybody. Generally speaking, what they want is they want your
equipment, they want your money. But you can never be sure.
And in my case I was on my way to the bombing of the Italian military police
compound, the carabiniere compound--what are we talking about? Ten days ago
now, I think--in Nasiriyah in the south. And we had run into the dark to get
there. We knew it was dangerous; we didn't pass another vehicle, didn't see
another vehicle for about a half an hour before this incident happened. And
then, out of the desert on our side of the road, suddenly about 200 or 300
yards ahead of us came these men. It took me a minute or two to realize what
it was all about. They had masks on--three from the right, three from the
left--and turned their Kalashnikovs directly at us.
Now, had I been driving, I would've slowed and I think I would've made my
imprecations to Allah. Our driver, a former Iraqi tank officer--a brave guy,
a smart guy, hardened by years of a war, of the Iran-Iraq war--in a trice, I
mean literally before I could even register it, got the lights off--we were
already traveling about 100 miles an hour in a four-wheel drive vehicle--and
gunned the engine up to about 120 miles an hour, swung leftwards onto the side
of the road at the three on the left, and then swerved right at the three on
the right. And they jumped backwards, and we shot forward into the night and
traveled for about 10 minutes after that with our lights off.
And, you know, would we have done better to stop and give them whatever
dollars we had and give them our computers and satellite phones? Should we
thank the driver for our lives? We'll never know. On the whole, I think,
it's probably better in circumstances like that to keep going if you can keep
going, because there's no way you can know at which point Ali Babaism becomes
politically motivated. And I suspect that the line is a pretty narrow one.
There may very well be people who are robbing who will catch the spirit of the
times as they see it and who will then move on to killing.
In the end, I think that you praise the Lord and just hope--and I'm not a
particularly religious person, so I'm using that as metaphor. I think that
you just hope that your luck is going to hold.
GROSS: Your luck started running out actually under the Saddam Hussein
regime. You found out in early May that the regime considered you basically
the most dangerous journalist in Iraq because you had written very critically
for several months about the Saddam Hussein regime. Two people broke into
your room--I think it was two people--at the Palestine Hotel...
Mr. BURNS: Five.
GROSS: Five people, excuse me--on April 1st, warning you that if you didn't
kind of follow what they wanted you to do, they'd imprison you. What did
they tell you?
Mr. BURNS: Well, I had returned--getting visas is very difficult, to get back
into Iraq, and I was on a blacklist, but I got in about two or three weeks
before the war. I'd been in intermittently over the previous year. But I got
back. I knew I was an endangered person. The director general of information
had taken--whenever he saw me at news conferences, briefings, restaurants--to
saying mirthlessly with a pointed finger, `There's the most dangerous man in
Iraq.' And I had said to him on a number of occasions, in front of my
colleagues, `Now let's see if we can understand this. That is either a
warning or it's a bad joke. I'm going to treat it as a bad joke until you
tell me that you have the intent to injure me in some way.' So it was a close
call as to whether to stay or go.
In the end I stayed, but they had had a man who I knew to be a very senior
official of the Mukhabarat, the secret intelligence service of Saddam Hussein,
assigned as my minder--a very nasty piece of work, indeed. He predictably
disappeared when the cruise missiles started flying. These people are always
and everywhere cowards. And I didn't see him again until the night of April
the 1st at something like 2:00 in the morning when they burst into my room.
There were no lights in the hotel; we were working by candles. He said,
`You're under arrest. We know that you work for the CIA. We're going to take
you to a place from which you will not return.' They then started gathering
up all of my equipment.
And then the most encouraging thing was they started looting, they started
taking all the food that I had. And there were boxes of things called
Smarties--they're sort of a British M&M. And there was a kind of thrusting
into this box for these things. And I began to think, well, you know, are
they going to take me away to some hard place or are they just looting? I
said to this man--his name was Sa'ad Mutana, leather jacket. I said to him,
`Listen, you know, you call yourself an intelligence official. There's
nothing very intelligent about what you're doing, because if you think that
the United States would employ somebody as indiscreet as me as an agent in a
place like this, you're very foolish. That's the first thing. But assuming
that you were right, Mr. Mutana, then you'd have to think with American troops
less than a hundred miles away from Baghdad that if you do anything that harms
me, that you'll end up in front of an American military tribunal. And you may
very well end up at the end of a rope yourself. So you have to ask yourself,
does this make sense? Just from your own point of view.'
And there was a lot of shouting and nastiness. And then he said he was going
to away and talk to people. And he left. These thugs who accompanied him
stayed for about 20 minutes, and then they went out into the corridor saying,
`You stay here.' And nobody came back for about 10 or 15 minutes. And I
realized, if I stay here and they are in fact intending to take me away to
some very unpleasant place, I'm done for. So I'd better and try and get out.
And I did what anybody who went to an English boarding school would do. It
took me about three or four minutes just to turn the handle on the inside of
my hotel room door, to try and get it open without making any noise, and I
looked down the corridor. Iraqis smoke by the overwhelming majority, and I
thought that if these people are mounting guard, I'll see a cigarette butt
burning in the dark. I couldn't see anything, so I dashed for the fire
stairwell and went down from the 16th floor, and I didn't really know what I
was going to do, but to cut a long story short, I went into hiding, protected
by other journalists, for as long as the war continued. And I have never seen
Mr. Sa'ad Mutana again, but as you can imagine, I would like to have a
conversation with him.
GROSS: How did you work? They'd confiscated your computer, they'd
confiscated your satellite phone and you couldn't show your face, so how did
you get any work done?
Mr. BURNS: Well, you have to remember that, the American troops
notwithstanding, the information minister's increasingly comical performances
on the mezzanine roof of the Palestine Hotel saying that, you know, `We're
routing the Americans. We're killing them by the thousands. There isn't an
American soldier in Baghdad.' This was when we could see American tanks cross
the river 800 yards away in the Republican Palace. Notwithstanding that
foolishness, people had begun to recalculate by that time, power had shifted,
in effect, substantially by a week before the Americans arrived. So I knew
that there were people in the Information Ministry and the Mukhabarat who were
not going to go after me, whoever may have directed this.
So I lived a semiclandestine life. I had other journalists lend me their
computers. I tended to operate more by night than by day. Eventually I
gained confidence and started going out in full view, and I was not
re-arrested, but in the meantime, I had had some conversations with the
director general of information, who was a very unpleasant man indeed, had
been the principal enforcer under Saddam as far as the press was concerned,
and I think he had understood by that time that power was shifting. I mean, I
personally had no power, but by this time they began to understand that people
like me had also--you know, we had the American forces advancing fast on
Baghdad and that power would shift and that they would be accountable. And so
this opened up new opportunities for us and that carried me through until the
1st Marine Expeditionary Force arrived at the Palestine Hotel on the afternoon
of April 9 and they pulled the statue down.
And I say without any apology that it was my liberation, too. I think there's
a point at which non-partisanship, neutrality if you will, becomes a delusion.
The fact is that we, not just me but others who were very much endangered in
the dying days of the Saddam regime, as were, by the way, the Iraqi people for
24 years--and when we saw those tanks arrive--I was going to say `with flags
flying,' they didn't actually have any flags flying, but when we saw those
stars and stripes on the shoulders of the officers who entered the Palestine
Hotel, I have to say it was a very emotional moment for me.
GROSS: My guest is John Burns. He's The New York Times' chief foreign
correspondent. We'll talk more about Iraq after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: John Burns is my guest. He's the chief foreign correspondent for The
New York Times. He covered the bombing of Iraq. He was there months before
the bombing started. He returned to the States in early May. He went back to
Iraq in November. He's in New York very briefly. Tonight he accepts an
award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
One of the issues facing the United States now is how much de-Baathification
to try to put through in Iraq, how much should the new Iraq be purged of
officials who worked under Saddam Hussein's regime. I'm wondering if there's
any parables from your own experience that relate to that. Did you ever see
any of these guys again, any of the thugs...
Mr. BURNS: I did.
GROSS: ...or the Information of Ministry people?
Mr. BURNS: I did. I went to see the director general of information, the man
who had been the enforcer and the oppressor, and to be honest with you, I felt
very sorry for him. He had gone into hiding. He was with his weeping wife
and his late-teen-age son in an upper room in a building with no power. They
had practically nothing to eat. And a colleague who went with me, we took the
view that this was a thoroughly deserved fate. This man had been senior
enough that he'd headed the Iraqi intelligence service in Western Europe for
several years, from the late '80s on, until he was expelled from Paris in the
early '90s. And he had been very unpleasant indeed to a number of us. And I
went to see him. I think I went to see him because I wanted release from a
lifetime of hating him, or at least loathing him, for some of the things that
he had done. And I felt it would be better for me to meet him and to ask him
how much he'd had to do with with they did to me.
And, you know, hatred and loathing is a corrupting thing. He told me then
that `Not only was I not your principal oppressor. But for me,' he said, `you
would not have survived that incident.' He said, `When you spoke to Mutana
and you told him that his name, Mutana's name, was known to people in New York
and Washington, and that he would end up at the end of a rope if they did
anything to you,' he said, `I told him that was correct. I told him that he
should leave you there.' Now I don't know if that's true or not. I never
will know if it's true or not. But to tell you the truth, I want to believe
it. And I don't hate Uday el-Ta'i, the former director general of the
Information Ministry. He's a corrupt man. He was an opportunist. I don't
want to excuse anything that he did and I have no doubt that he was a
party--if not directly, indirectly--to lots of people going to the gallows, as
many senior officials of that regime were. But I don't like piling on, as
they say in rugby, and I would rather meet all that happened to me, which is,
by the way, only a fraction of what happened to Iraqis under this regime--I'm
sitting here in New York perfectly healthy, and as you know, hundreds of
thousands of Iraqis went to their graves under this regime. I just feel it's
better to purge that from my own soul, if you will.
GROSS: Well, what has this led you to think about de-Baathification in Iraq?
Mr. BURNS: I think it's a big problem for the United States with the collapse
in administration that occurred during the period of looting and lawlessness.
They've got to construct a new government from the ground up. And at the same
time, the Iraqi people will not tolerate the reappointment of people who they
know or suspect have been involved in the repression. How do you, as an
American administrator, distinguish one from the other, especially when you're
relying on Iraqis who may themselves be partisan to do it? It's a really
difficult thing to do. And a lot of the Baathists, as I read in a story in my
own newspaper the other day by Susan Sachs, have been busy demoting
themselves, or were busy demoting themselves before the American troops
arrived. That's to say, going into the records, the files, changing the
files, and demoting themselves from general to private. This is a really
GROSS: Speaking of the Information of Ministry, there's an interview with you
in a new book called "Embedded," which is a series of interviews with
journalists who covered the war in Iraq. One of the things you say in this
interview is that during the bombing, you had gotten word from The New York
Times that one of the targets for bombing that day or the next was the
Information of Ministry, and you warned a lot of people who worked there to
get out. These people were not your friends and they certainly weren't the
allies of America. Why did you do that?
Mr. BURNS: Well, I'll see if I can summarize that story very quickly. I did
get a call from New York on the basis of information passed from Washington
that the Information Ministry was going to be hit in the next 24 hours. We
were anchored by the Information Ministry by a Saddam rule that we could only
use our satellite transmitters and telephones from the ministry--on pain, they
said, of death were we to be discovered with secret satellite equipment
outside of the ministry, which we all did. I literally buried one of my sat
phones. I hid another one in a ventilation grill in the hotel.
Anyway, suffice it to say I got this call and I asked the editor of the paper,
`Is this information for me only?' and he said, `No such stipulation was
placed on this.' That is to say, the Information Ministry was going to be hit
and destroyed by, as it turned out, cruise missiles. I decided that were I
just to go ...(unintelligible) and tell the journalists in the Palestine Hotel
that this was going to happen, it would leave me open to an Iraqi charge of
causing alarm and despondency in a time of war and they could shoot me. So I
decided to do what I thought was the responsible thing and I asked to see the
information minister in the middle of the night. Eventually the director
general turned up at 5:00 in the morning. I told him what I knew, he asked me
how I knew it and I said, `I suppose there are people in Washington who are
friendly to me in one way or another or maybe simply they feel that I'm a
reliable conduit for this information. You've got to get everybody out of the
building.' `I'll see what I can do,' he said, and for 24 hours he did
absolutely nothing. There was a big sandstorm; the strike did not take place.
I got another call from New York saying, `Washington has said don't be fooled.
They haven't struck the building only because a sandstorm confuses
satellite-guided weaponry and they will destroy it.'
And so at that point I went to the ministry, I went to all the TV stand-up
positions on the mezzanine roof of the ministry and told all the crews--it was
at 7 or 8 at night, cold and wind-whipped, and there were not many Westerners
there, and I told them to get off as fast as possible. And I went floor to
floor within the ministry, and there weren't a lot of Iraqis there, either.
Most of them didn't speak English. And so I said, `Boom, boom. Get out of
here. Get out of here now.' And in the end, when the missiles did strike
that night, there was only one person lightly injured. Now I don't think that
had a lot to do with me because I think that people realized that this
ministry was going to go one way or the other. So there was only a skeleton
But the downstream consequence of it for me was that when they came for me,
the intelligence people, on the night of April the 1st, they cited this
incident as proof that I was CIA, that I knew where the targeting was going,
and I'd have to say I'm glad they made that allegation because in a situation
which was inherently rather frightening, it so angered me that they would turn
truth on its head in this way, that it emboldened me to strike back and it
emboldened me to say to them, `You don't seem to understand the realities
here. American troops are less than a hundred miles away. They are going to
occupy this city. Power has already slipped from your hands. Think about
what you're doing.' So the absurdity and deviousness of this charge enraged
GROSS: Knowing how your attempt to save people at the Information Ministry
was used against you and you were charged with being a CIA agent, would you
have done it again?
Mr. BURNS: Oh, God, I hope so. You know, I don't think you know until the
moment comes just how brave you'll be. My father was a fighter pilot during
the Second World War and he used to talk about this a great deal and how
difficult it was to tell who had the guts at the critical moments to do the
right thing at, you know, potentially terminal cost. To say that you would
know that you would do the right thing anyway, even if it meant being taken
away to the gallows, would be a pretty pretentious thing to say because, you
know, I've just not been in that place. Like all of us, I would hope that I
would do the right thing, you know. It's a far, far better thing I do, etc.
But whether I would or not, I don't know. I have been seriously frightened in
my life. I know how it changes behavior and how you sometimes fail your own,
you know, better instincts. So I just don't know what the cost of that is.
GROSS: My guest is John Burns, The New York Times' chief foreign
correspondent. We'll talk more about Iraq after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is John Burns, The New York Times' chief foreign
You're in New York right now to accept an award from the Committee to Protect
Journalists. As we mentioned, you covered the bombing of Iraq, you were there
months before that, you left in early May, you returned again in early
November and will go back at the end of the week. During part of the time
that you were back in the States and between being in Iraq, you were on a sick
leave. What was the problem?
Mr. BURNS: (Laughs) Curious business, this. I--you know, most of us were
under pretty terrific pressure in Baghdad. I stayed on for about six weeks
after the war ended, and I left and I called my wife from the border as I was
crossing back into the other world and told her that I'd never been so happy
in my life to get away from a place. I felt terrific. And within half an
hour I didn't feel terrific, and by the time I got to Heathrow, I felt very
unterrific indeed, and she took me straight to a public hospital, where I
spent some time, where they diagnosed a case of heart arrhythmia. I have to
say immediately that this is an extremely common thing. Millions of Americans
have this problem. It's the broken ankle of the heart business. And the
first common cause is stress, and I saw a number of cardiologists as we looked
for a fix for this, which we eventually found, I'm glad to say.
And eventually I found myself sitting talking to a man who called himself `the
Electrician,' a specialist in the electricity of the heart, and he had a
report from another cardio saying, you know, `This chap's been near cruise
missiles and, you know, arrested by the secret police in Iraq,' and one thing
and another, `so it's not surprising that this would happen.' This fellow
looked at me and he said, `Tell me something, what were you eating in Baghdad
during all of this?' And I said, `There wasn't a lot to eat, which is good
for me because I need to lose the weight.' `What were you drinking?' and I
said, `Well, I'm not a drinker, a couple of vodkas now and then and that's
about it. So I was drinking tea.' `How much tea?' he said, and I said, `Oh,
25 or 30 cups a day.' And he put a big line through the report that said
`cruise missiles, secret police' and he said, `My friend'--he's an
Irishman--he said, `My friend,' he said, `if you had been a bank manager
sitting around here'--this conversation took place in England--he said, `you'd
be here right now,' that that amount of caffeine is one of the most reliable
triggers for heart arrhythmia. It never struck me that tea could be an
addictive, that it could be a narcotic, in effect.
Well, the problem is if you work for The New York Times, you're working as a
foreign correspondent, you're working hours and hours ahead of New York, which
means working deep into the night. The first-edition time for The New York
Times in New York is something like 4 or 5:00 in the morning in Baghdad, and I
was responsible at that time for running our operations there, so I never got
to bed before about 6 and I slept for two or three hours. And the tea kept me
going. And to tell you, a life without tea, would it be worth living? I'm
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BURNS: So I made a compromise with the Electrician. He said three cups a
day, I kind of double that and everything seems to be fine.
GROSS: What stories are you going to be working on when you go back to Iraq?
Mr. BURNS: Well, you know, we are driven by the winds as to what we do. You
wake up, you know, with a hotel being rocketed, all plans go out the door, but
in general, we've got to answer the big questions for Americans if we possibly
can. Of course, we can't, but we go as far as we can. We have to tell
Americans whether this is a doable enterprise. Are these young American men
dying for any achievable purpose? That's what we have to do. And I have a
particular interest in trying to connect the past to the present. That's to
say--you know, it's one thing to say that a lot has gone wrong since April,
but I think it's necessary, essential, to measure all of this against what
went before. To put it as its bluntest, it's true that something over, I
think now, in the region of 200 American troops have died, perhaps a little
bit more, since May, and that is an absolutely unbearable tragedy for each
family. And I have a son of military age and I can't imagine what it must be
like to bear that. But it's worth thinking also that if you multiplied the
number of Americans who have died by five, for the number of Iraqis who have
died, or even 10, and then you think back to what the situation was a year
ago, it's a society where, according to human rights reports, on one day in, I
think, 1999 Saddam executed 2,000 people. If the only measure you took of
this was human life, it's a pretty important measure.
Then I don't think it would be easy to conclude that things are worse now than
they were before. Freedom has a price. It's a very expensive thing, freedom.
It's going to take a lot of time for the Iraqis to adjust to it. Will America
bear that? How long is American prepared to see this through? I don't know,
but I think our job in Iraq is not to be political, but simply to help the
American readership reach its own conclusions about this.
GROSS: Well, listen, I wish you good health and safe travels. And I thank
you so much for talking with us. Thank you. And congratulations on your
award this evening.
Mr. BURNS: Thank you, Terry. It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: John Burns is The New York Times' chief foreign correspondent.
Tonight he receives the lifetime achievement award from the Committee to
Protect Journalists. He'll return to Iraq by the end of the week.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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