DATE February 16, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Paul Pillar, "Terrorism and US Foreign Policy" author,
discusses article in journal Foreign Affairs accusing Bush of
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
A former senior CIA official Paul Pillar has just written that the Bush
administration "publicly misused intelligence to justify decisions that were
already made, like invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein." Pillar
says, "The administration went to war without requesting and evidently without
being influenced by any strategic level intelligence assessments on any aspect
of Iraq." These are quotes from Pillar's article in the current edition of
Foreign Affairs. The article was described in The Washington Post as the
first time that such a senior intelligence officer has so directly and
publicly condemned the administration's handling of intelligence.
Paul Pillar was the national intelligence officer for the Middle East, in
charge of coordinating all of the intelligence community's assessments
regarding Iraq from 2000 to 2005. He joined the CIA in 1977. He is now on
the faculty of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.
In its report on prewar intelligence concerning Iraq weapons of mass
destruction, the Senate Select Intelligence Committee said that it found no
evidence CIA analysts had altered or shaped their judgments in response to
political pressure. But you say their investigation would have caught only
the most crude attempts at politicization. What did you face that was more
subtle in terms of how you think the Bush administration politicized
Mr. PAUL PILLAR: Well, the underlying reality was the awareness among people
working throughout the community, dating back to at least the middle of 2002.
One could say perhaps early 2002 that the administration's course had been
set, that we were going to war. Bear in mind, you're dealing with a bunch of
intelligence analysts here who are paid and trained to figure out the policy
intentions and course of government, and they would be pretty obtuse, to put
it bluntly, if they hadn't figured out by say early summer of 2002 that this
particular government was going to war.
And against that backdrop and the awareness that any analysis or products that
would help to support the rationale for the decision to go to war would be
welcomed, but ones that did not would either be ignored or frowned upon. That
is the basis for subtle forms of influence that really have nothing to do with
GROSS: You say that you were asked again and again to look for a link between
al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.
Mr. PILLAR: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: Did you find one?
Mr. PILLAR: Well, what was found--and this has been the pretty consistent
story all along with regard to intelligence coverage of that topic--is there
were various data points that were relevant to that issue, even some
encounters or meetings held years ago in Sudan, other kinds of coincidences or
two different names appearing in the same place. What it all added up to in
the view of the judgment--in the judgment of the intelligence analysts working
those particular issues was that you had two entities, one the Saddam regime
and the other al-Qaeda, that were kind of feeling each other out, trying to
stay aware of what they were doing, what each other was doing, but no
indication of anything that could be described as a patron-client relationship
or a sponsor-client relationship or an alliance. There were some of these
coincidences and contacts, but that's hardly anything out of the ordinary and
not something that adds up to state sponsorship.
GROSS: You say that the CIA kept being asked over and over again to look for
the link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. What's wrong with being asked
over and over again? I mean, after all, the Bush administration was
considering going to war. As it was, it would certainly want to find out as
much as possible. So what's wrong with searching over and over again until
you know you've left no stone unturned?
Mr. PILLAR: Because this was not an intelligence work that was designed to
support operationally as opposed to mustering public support back home for it.
It was not designed to try to uncover threats that had not yet been
discovered. It was certainly not designed to inform a decision that had not
yet been made. Instead it was, in effect, research centering around one
particular angle, that is to say, this whole idea of an alliance, which in
turn was being used to justify one particular policy decision, the decision to
go to war in Iraq.
But let me hasten to add that the intelligence community needs, thrives on,
welcomes as many questions and tasks and queries from the policy-maker as
possible. But then the community's task is to take that wherever the evidence
GROSS: So you think the reason why the CIA was asked over and over again to
find a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda was because the Bush
administration wanted to link an invasion of Iraq to the war on terror, wanted
to link Saddam Hussein to the war on terror.
Mr. PILLAR: The whole thing that made the expedition in Iraq politically
feasible back here in the United States was the sudden and enormous change in
the public mood after 9/11. After that shock, the American public was
inclined to take many more risks and assume many more costs in the name of
national security than they were before 9/11. So it provided the mood, the
context that made it possible. And if that context were to be exploited and
used for that purpose, then it follows that this linkage between this horrible
event of international terrorism and Saddam Hussein in Iraq would have to be
established, emphasized as much as possible. So that's really what that was
GROSS: Do you think that the Bush administration misrepresented the
information that the CIA found on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program
and its weapons capability?
Mr. PILLAR: There's a substantial difference between that issue and the
issue we've just been discussing, which was the supposed relationship between
Saddam's regime and al-Qaeda. Weapons of mass destruction is really different
because, as is well-known and as the president has correctly stated, the
perception, not just among the US intelligence analysts but just about anyone
else who is following the issue in this country, as well as foreign
intelligence services and governments, that those perceptions constituted what
amounted to a worldwide consensus that, yes, there was something there. This
consensus that Saddam Hussein was doing something with unconventional weapons
programs was supported by, of course, his own behavior in making things
difficult for the international inspectors and so on. So in that regard, it
really was fundamentally different.
There were particular matters of emphasis on this or that data point, where
there would be problems in the minds of intelligence analysts. The one
example that is best known was the reference to the alleged purchases of
uranium ore from Africa, from Niger, that were mentioned in the State of the
Union address in 2003. The intelligence analysts who were dealing with that
had suspicions about the credibility of that report, which ultimately proved
to be totally fraudulent. Those suspicions and those concerns were made known
to the White House. The advice was given not to put it into public
statements. The intelligence community in its own unclassified products on
the subject kept it up for precisely that reason. But, as you know, the White
House then left it in the speech while sourcing it to British sources as a way
of referencing it without explicitly vouching for its viability. But, for the
most part, we should distinguish that issue from the terrorism one.
GROSS: You write that you thought that most of the intelligence experts
thought Iraq was probably several years away from developing a nuclear weapon.
Mr. PILLAR: Yes.
GROSS: And that Saddam Hussein was unlikely to use weapons of mass
destruction against the US unless his regime was placed in mortal danger.
Mr. PILLAR: Yes.
GROSS: So were the reports that you were issuing--would those reports have
given the Bush administration the impression that invading Iraq was an
important and essential and immediate way of preventing weapons of mass
destruction from being developed and from being used against us?
Mr. PILLAR: Well, first of all--and can talk more about this. I think the
Bush administration's main motives for going into Iraq had to do more with
political change in the Middle East. Some of the rhetoric we've heard more
recently from the administration is, in my view, pretty honest in that regard.
That this is one way to try to shake up the very scholastic and backward and
authoritarian and unliberal systems in that part of the world, which, as we
saw in 9/11, we do need to worry about. They can come back and bite us in a
But with regard to the nuclear weapons, you can look at, you know, what is not
public with regard to the intelligence judgments, and you can look at public
statements from people like the vice president and see that there was a simple
disagreement. Mr. Cheney, for example, in a major speech in August of 2002
noted correctly that intelligence analysts back before the 1991 Persian Gulf
war had underestimated how close the Saddam regime had been to developing a
nuclear weapon. He also observed in that connection that intelligence is an
uncertain business, and he voiced his own view that Saddam Hussein was fairly
close to acquiring nuclear weapons, which was not the view of the community,
the judgment that you just cited.
GROSS: Did the Bush administration ever ask the CIA for information about
what would likely happen if the US invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein?
What would happen as we try to create a democracy there?
Mr. PILLAR: We were never asked--and I say we, my colleagues and I on the
National Intelligence Council. I was the national intelligence officer that
covered the Middle East, so any request for an intelligence community
assessment or national intelligence estimate, any of that nature on that
subject would have come through me. And the answer is no, there was no such
We tried on our own initiative to be as helpful as we could and try to offer
some insights and analysis to respond to precisely those questions. There
were some members of Congress who are also, a few members, who were
asking--very few, in fact--who were asking those questions, in response to
which some of assessments we hoped would serve their needs.
But the short answer to your question is no, not at the policy-maker level,
anyway. You had, you know, people working very hard at lower levels initially
under General Garner's office, trying to prepare for this, and we did what we
could to provide insights and guidance to them. But, no, we were not asked
for any strategic level insights or assessments of that sort.
GROSS: My guest is former CIA officer Paul Pillar. His article is in the
current edition of Foreign Affairs. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Pillar. He was the
national intelligence officer for the Middle East in charge of coordinating
all of the intelligence community's assessments regarding Iraq within the CIA.
And he held that position from 2000 to 2005. And he's now at Georgetown
University, on the faculty of the Security Studies Program. And he has an
article in the new edition of Foreign Affairs called "Intelligence Policy and
the War in Iraq."
You write in your Foreign Affairs article, "What is most remarkable about
prewar US intelligence on Iraq is not that it got things wrong and thereby
misled policy-makers, it's that it played so small a role in one of the most
important US policy decisions in recent decades."
What do you mean by that `intelligence actually played such a small role in
the decision to go to war'?
Mr. PILLAR: Well, first of all, in terms of the importance of it, it's hard
to think of anything more important as a national security decision than
initiating war, especially initiating an offensive war. But I think the key
point to make is this, there was a broad and, as it turns out, mistaken
consensus which the US intelligence community shared about the state of
weapons of mass destruction, the programs in Iraq or programs and stockpiles.
And precisely because it was so widely shared by Democrats and Republicans in
this country and, indeed, by European allies and many others who had a very
different policy preference from the policy that was decided upon, that is to
say position that was against the war but in favor of using other
means--sanctions, inspections and so on--to try to deal with Saddam Hussein.
Clearly, the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, flawed though it
was, was not the thing that drove the policy, because people who shared that
same flawed view had much different policy positions.
And so if one were to ask, `Well, what else would have, or should have, or
could have gone into a decision to go to war,' it gets to these other things.
The issue of how likely would he be to use any weapons of mass destruction he
did have, without a war and with a war. And, in particular, what the
aftermath of that war would be and what we would have to deal with after
overthrowing him. And how messy would be the transition to a more stable and
more liberal system in Iraq? Now those were the sorts of things where, in
fact, intelligence assessments were offered. They could have very easily, if
you look at the judgments, you know, pointed policy in a different direction,
but clearly they did not.
GROSS: So you think that if all those questions were answered with the
information that you provided, that these answers would have led against an
invasion of Iraq?
Mr. PILLAR: I'm under no delusion that whatever wisdom or insight we were
able to produce in the intelligence community would have diverted, you know,
this particular set of decision makers from some course that they had set.
What I'm saying is if one were to draw any policy implications from those
judgments that the community offered, if there was a policy implication at
all, it was more likely that going to war was not the best way of dealing with
GROSS: While you were at the CIA, did you feel that you could speak out about
how you thought the Bush administration was misusing and misrepresenting the
intelligence that you were giving it?
Mr. PILLAR: Well, you know, my job like everyone else's as a serving
intelligence officer was to continue to provide the best possible intelligence
and assessments we could. And that's what we tried to do. And sometimes it
was not done well with some of the errors with regard to weapons of mass
destruction. In other cases, I think it was done pretty well, such as with
most of what was anticipated in the messy aftermath of the invasion.
It's not--and I guess I would balk at the way you phrased the question, Terry,
in that it's not the job of serving intelligence officers to speak out. I
mean, there are mechanisms inside the community and ombudsman and so on in
which concerns can be expressed and senior management can hear those concerns,
and such channels were used. But we are really talking about something much
bigger than what any one manager in the intelligence community can deal with.
GROSS: Well, speaking of going through channels, did you feel that George
Tenet would have been your advocate in wanting to make sure that intelligence
was accurately represented? Or did you think that George Tenet was more
representing the Bush administration in wanting to use intelligence
selectively to bolster the case for?
Mr. PILLAR: I don't think one should approach this issue in terms of
individual leaders or individual personalities. I have been privileged during
my 28-year career, which ended last year in the intelligence community, to
work with and for some outstanding officials, highly dedicated men and women
of high integrity doing the best they can in what is sometimes often very
difficult and high-pressure circumstances.
You know, I think someone like Mr. Tenet, others who have filled senior
positions, John McLaughlin who was Mr. Tenet's deputy and for a time was
acting director of Central Intelligence, is another one--are people who have
served this country honorably and have been in those positions where, I have
to tell you, many days when I went to work, I would have to tell myself, `I'm
glad I'm not in their jobs, being the one to have to go down to the White
House every day and really deal face-to-face with people with strong policy
inclinations. So we are dealing with a structure and a situation and not with
the problem that devolves down to individual personalities.
GROSS: I'm sure some people listening to you and reading your article in
Foreign Affairs are thinking, `This guy is covering his behind. The CIA got
some things wrong. Like, for example, back in 2001, they didn't see 9/11
coming. So now he's just kind of shifting the blame to things that the Bush
administration got wrong.' So what would you say to people who are thinking
Mr. PILLAR: Well, first of all, may I get on the record with regard to 9/11?
Although every terrorist attack that occurs is at the tactical level of
intelligence failure, the strategic intelligence with regard to the threat
from al-Qaeda and the possibility of large-scale terrorist attacks in the
United States was quite strong. And that not only took place at the
classified level, but at the unclassified level. I would just refer you to
any of the last--before September 11th--two or three last statements by George
Tenet when he was DCI, on the subject in which he highlighted threat from
international terrorism and al-Qaeda in particular and the possibility of such
attacks in the United States as right at the top of his list of security
threats to the United States.
There is no question that on the issue of weapons of mass destruction, there
were flaws in trade craft. I think, in most respects, the commission led by
Judge Silverman and former Senator Robb did an excellent job of addressing
this subject. They went about their work in a very professional way, issued a
very thorough report, with many excellent ideas. They weren't wedded to any
one solution like the 9/11 commission was. That's a matter of public record.
I don't think anybody can dispute that.
My intention and my purpose is not to blame this party or that party. It's to
highlight an issue that I'm afraid, you know, hasn't been highlighted and
hasn't been addressed in a straightforward, nonpartisan way, in a way that
isn't just a matter of this is pro administration or that's anti
administration. We've had so much attention in this country over these
last--especially since 9/11--these last four and a half years or so on
intelligence. And that's all very important. It's all very good. But
intelligence will only be as good as its relationship with our policy-makers.
And until that's fixed, then no matter what you do to the community and no
matter how much reform you attempt, it's not going to have the effect you hope
it to have.
GROSS: Paul Pillar is a former CIA officer. His article is in the current
edition of Foreign Affairs. He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Paul Pillar. During the
run up to the Gulf war--to the Iraq war, he was the CIA analyst in charge of
coordinating the intelligence community's assessment regarding Iraq. He had
worked at the CIA since 1977. In the current edition of Foreign Affairs,
Pillar criticizes the Bush administration for misusing intelligence and for
politicizing the intelligence community's work.
Now, please correct me if I'm wrong here. I believe in August of 2004, you
completed an assessment that warned that the insurgency in Iraq could become a
guerilla war, a civil war. And then, I believe it was also in 2004, you
addressed a dinner that was supposed to be like an off-the-record private
dinner. You were allowed to...
Mr. PILLAR: Yeah.
GROSS: Reporters were allowed to comment just on the substance of your report
but to not really quote anything from it. And I believe in that speech you
were critical of the Bush administration's decision to go to war. So correct
me if I'm wrong on any of this. My understanding is that you were basically
accused of trying to sabotage the president's policies after that.
Mr. PILLAR: Well, the premise of your question, and this has come up by
others as well, is all based on one columnist version of one leak of one
informal talk, which I would suggest is not very good sourcing to the...
GROSS: And the columnist you're talking about is Robert Novak.
Mr. PILLAR: Robert Novak.
GROSS: He's also the columnist that reported that Joe Wilson wife...
Mr. PILLAR: Yeah.
GROSS: ...Valerie was a CIA agent.
Mr. PILLAR: The very same columnist, yes.
Mr. PILLAR: You know, one thing that intelligence analysts, the more senior
experienced ones especially, and certainly former national intelligence
officers, as I was at the time, do from time to time for the sake of
maintaining our links with expertise in the outside world, is go out and speak
to groups, participate in seminars, that sort of thing. And I did give a talk
to a small group, a private group in which I offered some informal views about
where things were going in the Middle East and Iraq. And was asked some
questions, answered some questions. But I would not describe that as an
attack on the administration.
It was pumped up as some kind of deliberate leak of assessments and national
intelligence estimates. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mr. Novak
portrayed it as my sitting there before a group reading a memo with the
intention that it would somehow leak out. I wasn't reading any memo. I'll
take that as a compliment to my skills in speaking off-the-record to a small
Really what you point to and what the Novak column was just part of, and as
you recall this was right in the middle of an election campaign, about a month
before the elections, and so all of this was highly partisan, highly
political. Was one of the tougher things that I mentioned in my article was
just how nasty the relationship had gotten and how the public perception of
the nastiness of that relationship, how far that had gone between the
intelligence community and the policy community. And no matter what the issue
and no matter who the administration and no matter what party is in power,
that cannot be good for the republic. If you have an unhealthy relationship
between our leaders making a decision and the public who are supposed to
provide them with the facts and analysis on which to base that decision, when
you have that kind of ill will, it cannot help the decision-making process.
GROSS: Let me read you something that New York Times columnist David Brooks
wrote. He's a conservative columnist at the Times, and this is a column from
November 13th, 2004. Now, he agrees with you that the relationship between
the CIA and the Bush administration had become dysfunctional. But he reaches
a different conclusion than you do about why that happened. He writes that,
quote, "Many in the CIA bureaucracy have waged an unabashed effort to
undermine the current administration. The White House-CIA relationship became
dysfunctional, and while the blame was certainly not all on one side, Langley
was engaged in slow motion, brazen insubordination which violated all
standards of honorable public service. If we lived in a primitive age, the
ground at Langley would be laid waste and salted, and there would be heads on
spikes. As it is, the answer to the CIA insubordination is not just to move a
few boxes on the office flow chart. The answer is to define carefully what
the president expects from the intelligence community, information."
What was your response to this when you saw it?
Mr. PILLAR: Well, I agree with that last line. I think it's pretty
consistent with what we've just been talking about, Terry, and what I've
described as the proper function of the intelligence community.
I enjoy reading Mr. Brooks. He's got a very colorful rhetoric. I really
don't know what he's talking about in terms of insubordination. The proper
role of the community as I describe it before, and not trying to substitute
for the decisions reached by our leaders who are elected by the American
people, is very important. It's taken to heart by the overwhelming majority
of people who put on a badge as an intelligence officer, whether they are
collectors or analysts or managers. And I just chalk that up in terms of my
reaction as one more of those brick bats that you have to put up with if
you're going to go to work in this field.
GROSS: Another thing that you're critical of is some of the oversight
committees. I mean, you think that even oversight committees in Washington
have become too partisan like the rest of Washington. What is an example of
that and how do you think it should be fixed?
Mr. PILLAR: There are a lot of--first of all, let me say, I think the
oversight process as a whole has worked very well. The House and Senate
Intelligence Committees, for example, have an excellent record with regard to
safeguarding the secrets that come their way. They perform a very important
function, particularly with things like covert action and issues of just what
the rules ought to be. Some of these controversies that have come more
recently with regard to communication intercepts and so on. There is no
substitute for having, you know, committees of the American people's elected
representatives serve as a kind of surrogate for the people themselves in
making sure that everything the community is doing passes the smell test, if
you will. You know, what would be acceptable to the American people if we
didn't have to keep all this stuff secret? So that's the first point I want
to get on the table.
But there has been heightened partisanship on all kinds of things on Capitol
Hill, but the one specific thing is this very issue I'm raising. We have not
had an open, free, unabashed, not poisoned by partisanship discussion of the
relationship of policy and intelligence, particularly on this whole Iraq
issue. The Senate Intelligence Committee has said they've been working away
on this. There have been various news reports over the last several months
that it got bogged down at this time, it got bogged down later. And, you
know, we are still waiting for the so-called phase two reports. Senator
Roberts said the other day it, you know, should be coming out soon.
I--you know, I think that's just become a fact of partisan and political life
on the Hill because everything on this issue--and that's one unfortunate thing
about it and why I'm trying to phrase it in more forward looking nonpartisan
terms--is that just about everything you say is immediately translated in
Washington into, `Well, that's pro-administration or anti-administration, or
it's Republican or Democratic.' I think it's a big mistake to think of this
issue that I've tried to direct attention to in those terms.
GROSS: How do you think our invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein
has been affecting the war on terror?
Mr. PILLAR: In my judgment, it's been a net minus in regard to
counterterrorism. Mainly because of the inspiration that it has given to the
more extreme variants of political Islam, jihadism. Iraq is not the biggest,
most prominent, most salient jihad. We see it being waged every day as we
hear about the latest car bombs going off. It clearly was incredibly
unpopular, particularly in the Muslim world. It has tended to play into some
of the most effective propaganda points that the likes of al-Qaeda have used
in regard to the erroneous accusations that the United States is out to
oppress Muslims, kill Muslims, take over their resources, all those sorts of
things. Very much untrue, but some kinds of events and some kinds of efforts
tend to play into those propaganda points more than others. Yes, Iraq today
is filling some of the same role that the jihad against the Soviets in
Afghanistan filled back in the 1980s. In addition to providing the propaganda
points, it provides inspiration, being able to, you know, fight a superpower
to a standstill. It provides training, expertise and the kinds of
terrorist-related matters such as firearms and explosives that could be used
elsewhere. And it provides the ultimate extremist networking opportunity,
just as we saw in Afghanistan, and the effects of which we are still seeing
today with al-Qaeda and its other brethren.
So although there are, you know, things obviously to be said on the other side
of the ledger, on balance, I'm afraid that's the consequence. I would just
add the one major caveat, that there are many chapters still to be played out
in the Iraq story. Even though we're almost three years into this effort,
there are a lot of variables that can still go different directions. Critical
will be in the several months ahead how the political story plays out.
Whether the Shia Arabs and the Kurds will be genuinely inclusive with regard
to Sunni Arab interests, for example. And how this goes and how much
statesmanship Iraqi leaders show will help determine whether we have more of a
morass and mess there or whether we make some progress toward a more stable,
as well as more liberal society.
GROSS: You wrote this article, and then you went to Europe and you just got
back from your trip.
Mr. PILLAR: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Is anything surprising you about the reaction that you've gotten in
your absence? Because you're returning to the reaction.
Mr. PILLAR: In the article I just wrote, there is actually very, very little
that's new, any kind of new revelation. That's why I'm a bit surprised some
of the reaction has been along the lines as if it were some kind of
whistle-blowing revelation and an attack on the Bush administration.
It's--it's not intended to be any of those things.
You know, I'm a political scientist. This is the sort of thing that I'm
trained to write about. That's what I tried to do with this article. It
happens to be on a subject where I had some insights to add based on my
previous career. And while I was doing that previous career, my job was, as I
described before, try to provide the best possible intelligence to the
policy-makers of the day. That's the best way I can describe it. And my hope
is that whatever did not go right with Iraq, whether it relates to the
intelligence itself, the policy itself or the concern that I'm trying to
highlight, how the intelligence relates to the policy, that the next
comparable national security issue that comes along, or the next several that
come along, that we'll do it better, that this relationship will be healthier,
that the best insights that the community has to offer will be used and
listened to, although, of course, the ultimate decisions will still be our
elected leaders to make. That there will not be the kind of rancor and
obvious ill will between these two communities that grew up so much over Iraq,
that there will not be selective use of intelligence publicly, that in some
cases really goes against the grain of what the government's own experts are
judging. So I'm looking forward, not backward.
GROSS: Paul Pillar, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. PILLAR: My pleasure, Terry.
GROSS: Paul Pillar is the former CIA national intelligence officer for the
Near East and South Asia. His article on intelligence, policy and the war in
Iraq is in the current edition of Foreign Affairs.
In response to the Iranian Holocaust cartoon contest, an Israeli cartoonist
has started his own anti-Semitic cartoon contest. He'll explain why after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Israeli cartoonist Amitai Sandy talks about the
anti-Semitic cartoons contest he launched in response to an
Iranian newspaper's competition for cartoons on the Holocaust
TERRY GROSS, host:
In response to the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, an Iranian
newspaper started a Holocaust cartoon contest to see how the West really feels
about free speech. In response to the Iranian contest, an Israeli has started
his own anti-Semitic cartoon contest, and you have to be Jewish to enter. He
says, `We'll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive
Jew-hating cartoons ever published. No Iranian will beat us on our own home
The creator of the contest is the 29-year-old Israeli cartoonist Amitai Sandy.
He published alternative comics through his group Dimona Comix. We called him
in Tel Aviv to find out more about his anti-Semitic cartoon contest.
Would you describe one of the cartoons for us?
Mr. AMITAI SANDY: Sure. We have Moses coming down from Mount Sinai. And
he's holding the commandments. The caption says, "Moses bringing to the
people of Israel the secret 11th commandment." And the commandment says,
"Don't forget to take over world media."
GROSS: That's good. How about another one?
Mr. SANDY: Well, let's see. We have--this is a used-car garage or whatever
you call it. And we've got two guys standing near a car. And the guy says,
"Look, this looks like a pretty nice car. But how many of my Jewish friends
do you think I could put in there?" And the salesman says, "Look, you can put
two in front, three in the back, and six million in the ash tray."
GROSS: Oh, gee! Oh, boy! That--no, I'm trying to decide if this contest is
like incredibly smart and funny and a really great way of proving the point
that you want to make or whether it is really kind of sick.
Mr. SANDY: I guess it's both. Look, we have received, I think, hundreds of
e-mails from Jews all over the world. I mean, most of the responses we get
are from Jews. And they all say in different words probably more or less the
same thing. They all say this is a great idea. This is fighting fire with
humor. And this is the reasonable sane way for Jews to react. And most of
them also say, `Look, you made us feel proud to be Jews.' There is also one
guy from the US who wrote on our Web site in the comments, `I live in the US.
My father is Iranian. I really like your idea. I've heard the Jews are
planning to take over the world. I hope this happens soon.'
GROSS: That's pretty funny, assuming he meant it to be funny, that's pretty
Mr. SANDY: Yeah. yeah.
GROSS: You know, on the other hand, I read in the Jerusalem Post that the
head of Simon Wiesenthal Center office in Israel says that, you know, it's not
such a good idea, that initially a lot of Jews ridiculed Hitler, and it might
have been funny at the time but it wasn't an effective response.
Mr. SANDY: No, I thought he was like--he wasn't that negative to our idea
because he did say that we do have a history of self-ridicule. And, you know,
we did a bit of research before we started the competition. We went here to
archives of newspapers, and we found many Jewish newspapers from the beginning
of the 20th century, around the 19s. We read and even we have it here copies
of newspapers in Yiddish from Poland and all over Eastern Europe. And Jews
have a really long tradition of self-joking and self-ridicule. We're just
continuing the tradition.
GROSS: What was your reaction when the Iranian newspaper decided to hold a
cartoon contest lampooning the Holocaust? This is their response to the
Danish cartoons. They are going to see, you know, what do we really think of
freedom of speech. So what was your reaction when their response to the
Danish cartoons was `We're going to mock the Holocaust.'
Mr. SANDY: Well, I can understand their reason. You know, the original
Danish cartoons were published as an example of free speech. And I honestly
believe many of those Danish cartoons weren't so funny to begin with. And I
don't mind the Iranians doing Holocaust jokes. I mean, I don't think it's in
very good taste, but I don't care. I mean, it's not what's going to matter.
I just think that's cowardice because, of course, they would never do an
anti-Arab cartoon contest on themselves. I just think it takes a bit of more
courage to joke about yourself. It takes self-confidence, which they lack
GROSS: Would you have published those Danish cartoons?
Mr. SANDY: No, but not on the same grounds. I would just say that most of
them are not funny. But I do believe in their right to be published.
GROSS: Did it bother you that in a response to the Danish cartoon, the
Iranian paper is basically saying, `Mock the Jews.'
Mr. SANDY: That's nothing new. The Jews are always the easiest target to
blame for any--I mean, we are responsible for Katrina. We are responsible for
teams losing in sports.
GROSS: September 11th.
Mr. SANDY: We're always the easiest...
GROSS: September 11th.
Mr. SANDY: Of course. Of course. We knew in advance.
GROSS: So there's one cartoon that was published. I think I'm describing
this correctly. This was in response to the Danish cartoon. It's a cartoon
of Hitler in bed with Anne Frank, and Hitler is saying something like, `Well,
put this in your diary.'
Mr. SANDY: Yes, it's a classic. It's not even a new cartoon.
GROSS: It's not?
Mr. SANDY: No, it's been around for a long time.
GROSS: Is it funny?
Mr. SANDY: Yes. Yes, it's funny. Not hilarious, but it's OK. We've also
had one of the first Iranian cartoons published from their competition, I
think, is Spielberg calling Peter Jackson, saying, `I need you to help me on
this Holocaust film.' And Peter Jackson says, `I'm sorry. I don't have enough
imagination for this,' which is OK. You know, it's OK.
GROSS: That's actually a really interesting cartoon because that one works
both ways. On the one hand, it's a Holocaust denial cartoon. On the other
hand, that's saying that the Holocaust is so unimaginable, the horror of it is
unimaginable. You could interpret that one almost either way.
Mr. SANDY: It's true. But, you know, one of the things I...
GROSS: I'm sure they didn't mean it that way, but...
Mr. SANDY: ...I'll tell you, one of the things that I have said in the last
few days is that the Holocaust did happen on earth and not on any other
planet. And I do believe that because there is a danger of the Holocaust
happening again, and it has happened again, in Africa--and we should talk
about the Holocaust. The Holocaust shouldn't be this holy matter that no one
can touch. We should talk about it. We should even joke about it. It's
important that we talk about everything because humor is probably one of the
most important tools for us to question our values, to question if something
is still valid or perhaps, you know, it's already obsolete and should be
changed. And humor causes people to think, at least those people who can
GROSS: Let's get back to the cartoon submissions you are getting for your
contest. How are Jews being drawn? Lots of big noses, I imagine.
Mr. SANDY: Yeah, most of the cartoons deal with stereotypes of the religious
Jews with the noses, with the yarmulkes and the black big Eastern European
hats and costumes. Yet, most of them are classics.
GROSS: Any Jews with horns?
Mr. SANDY: Let's see. No, no. Many of them with yarmulkes and stuff and
sharp teeth and fangs and nails, but no horns so far. We do have one
depicting the Pokemon phenomenon as a Jewish conspiracy.
GROSS: My guest is Amitai Sandy. We'll talk more about his cartoon contest
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest Amitai Sandy is an Israeli cartoonist. In response to the
Iranian Holocaust cartoon contest, he started an anti-Semitic cartoon contest,
and you have to be Jewish to enter.
Now, are you going to draw an anti-Jewish comic for the competition?
Mr. SANDY: No, probably not. I mean, we still think about it, but as I'm
the organizer perhaps it would be better if I wouldn't, though I did a couple
in the past, but I will have to sit this one out.
GROSS: Would you describe one of them for us?
Mr. SANDY: Well, I did stuff that was political and was more serious in the
intent. For example, I did one--I can tell you about a poster I did a year
ago. We've had an exhibition called Three Cities Against the Wall. It's New
York, Ramallah and Tel Aviv, artists from New York, Palestinian artists and
Israeli artists against the separation wall, built by Israel inside the
occupied territory. And we are all against this wall. We believe Israel
should retreat to the 67 line and let the Palestinians have an independent
state on all their territories. And so my entry wasn't directly linked to the
wall. It's more of a general comment on the Arab-Jewish-Israeli relationship.
What happens is when we left-wing people demonstrate here in Tel Aviv, there
are always passersby who shout, `You "F" with Arabs.' And so what I did is
depict in my poster we photo'd a white-skinned-looking girl with a
dark-skinned guy, holding hands, smiling to the camera, and the title says,
"Yes, I "F" with an Arab." So what I did was just take this statement and make
it into a statement of pride. Because there are mixed couples, for example,
today in Israel, mixed Arabs with Jews. But these people could never appear
on a public poster because somebody would murder them. So I dream of a day
where these things would be a nonissue. But before we can make it a nonissue,
it has to become an issue. Kind of like the pride of the homosexuals.
GROSS: Has it given you any more insights about Jewish humor to see the
submissions you're getting and comparing them to genuinely anti-Semitic
Mr. SANDY: Well, of course, we Jews make better self jokes than anyone could
from the outside. But I think you in the US should know all about Jewish
humor because we already control the humor business in US. So, I mean, from
Woody Allen to Seinfeld, and, of course, all the big movie studios, we are in
control already, so I think you're already familiar with our talent for a long
GROSS: Well, Amitai Sandy, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. SANDY: You're welcome.
GROSS: Amitai Sandy, you can find a link to his Web site on our Web site,
I'm Terry Gross.
GROSS: Richard Thompson has a new boxed set of live performances, outtakes
and previously unreleased material. On the next FRESH AIR, we hear Thompson
performing in our studio.
I'm Terry Gross. Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
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