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INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS

INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS

Aired December 6, 2002 - 19:30:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

SHEILA MACVICAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Sheila MacVicar, in London. Welcome to INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS.
In this edition, under fire, the Saudi government goes on the defensive amidst accusations of supporting terror.

Plus, LIVE FROM BAGHDAD, a new movie on the coverage of the Gulf War is released, and while it echoes the past, it may have an eerie foreboding for the future.

But first, drip fed a diet of dossiers as both the United States and Britain build their case against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. This week, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw presented his evidence against the Iraqi leader in a 23 page document chronicling Baghdad's human rights abuse.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JACK STRAW, BRITISH FOREIGN SECY.: It's the most detailed account the government has ever published about Saddam Hussein's human rights record, and it includes intelligence material, first-hand accounts of Iraqi victims of torture and oppression and reports by non-governmental organizations. And the aim of the report is to remind the world that abuses of the Iraqi regime extend far beyond its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, in violation of it's international obligations.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MACVICAR: This sparked an outcry from human rights groups, like Amnesty International. They questioned the government's motives for putting out a document that contained no new material, but what are the media making of this?

I'm joined now by Richard Norton Taylor, defense editor at the "Guardian," and Marc Champion, of "The Wall Street Journal."

Richard, let me begin by asking you, in your view, is Amnesty International correct in saying that there was nothing new in this and that this was simply an exercise in manipulation on the part of the government?

RICHARD NORTON TAYLOR, "GUARDIAN": Well, Amnesty International was in a sense correct. It also felt aggrieved. I mean, it made the point that the government, they've been saying what the government this week, the British government have been charging, about what's happening, the torture and human rights abuses in Iraq for many -- a long time.

Amnesty claims that the British government ignored it at the time, it's now producing this document when it suits it. And so Amnesty feels aggrieved. I don't think they have necessarily played it's card very well, to be honest.

There's another, I think -- the main criticism one could make of the government's dossier is that it's sort of, so sort of superficial and transparent a piece of propaganda that it could have almost rebounded on them, and indeed almost did in the House of Commons, with even Conservatives, when are pro-war, laughing at the government.

MACVICAR: Isn't there also the point here, Marc, that many of these abuses, for instance the gassing of the Kurds in the Iraqi town of Halabja, took place at a time when both Britain and the United States where close allies of Iraq and of Saddam Hussein?

And at the time the incidents took place, they basically either chose to deny the regime's responsibility for them or choose not to hold them responsible -- the sense that they paid not even a diplomatic price, you might say.

Then here we are, a decade later, it seems to suit their purposes.

MARC CHAMPION, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": No question about that.

I think that the government, the point that the government made cause to say, well, we're not here, the Labor government of 2002, to defend what the conservative government 10 years ago did.

The other point that they make is to say, whatever the rights and wrongs may have been at that time, we're dealing with the time right now, and it's right right now to bring these things into the open, and that's a sort of real politick case, if you like.

And it was quite interesting that they wheeled out an Iraqi dissident the launch, and he made a number of points against the government at the time. He said that he was disappointed that this hadn't been done years ago, and he said all this stuff. Clearly the government knew he was going to say it, and clearly they had taken that onboard, but decided, their case is, this is to support what we're doing now, under resolution 1441, the new U.N. resolution, and the rest is history.

MACVICAR: Richard, in terms of, as you said, I mean, this very nearly ended up with the government being laughed out of parliament. What do you think the lessons are that the British government takes forward, or the American administration for that matter, takes forward as we go forward into a period of what may be a phony war, perhaps eventually leading to a real war?

TAYLOR: I think, I mean, I think the readers, our newspapers readers, let alone the journalists themselves, who are writing for papers, have a slightly more sort of, sort of, more of a sort of sense of the rights and wrongs, of most sort of controversial issues in a country like, a dictatorship like Iraq.

And I think, you know, if it's sort of, if it's a mixture of who have maybe looked down to, patronized, in a sense, and for a journalist, knowing that one's government is using this in I would say a rather crude way -- and there's either no story, I mean in American papers there wasn't much of a story at all, or you've got to actually treat the story skeptically and put it in a kind of context.

For example, there's one example which the government used, and Tony Blair almost apologized for using it, which was -- it had come out already -- of course we get things wrong. All the time.

There was, ages ago, a report that Saddam Hussein ordered the Iraqi World Cup football team for losing a match, and then tortured them by burning their feet and so on.

MACVICAR: That's a pretty notorious story. It's recycled frequently.

TAYLOR: Except FIFA, the World Football -- said it's all rubbish as far ask they're concerned.

More important, I think, when an antiwar Labor MP asked Tony Blair in the Commons whether it was true or not, Tony Blair said hemmed and h lair in the Commons whether it was true or not, Tony Blair said hemmed and hawed and said, basically, well, I don't know. And that is when the Conservative front bench laughed at him.

So I don't think it was a clever thing. Fine to drop leaflets over Iraq, you know, saying these people, that, you know, we're the goodies and Saddam's a baddie. Fine.

Very different to aim this kind of propaganda on a pretty sophisticated, I suppose, Western democracy, which Britain is.

CHAMPION: I think you have to say one thing about this, which is quite -- the FIFA thing was quite right.

On the other hand, Amnesty didn't suggest that what was in the document was generally disinformation, and I think that's an important distinction between, you know, if a document is put out by a government, and it's disinformation, we should get upset, as the media, we should be extremely upset.

If a document is put out by a government in order to make its case for what it wants to do, we should accept that that's what governments do. Even if we think that their motives are very utilitarian, or even cynical, that's what governments do. So I don't think we should get so upset about that sort of thing.

I think the second point is, if you believe that Saddam Hussein is a seriously appalling dictator, and if you believe that these kinds of things Amnesty International has been saying for a decade are true require some kind of response, then we should really be arguing about who it wasn't done, who nothing was done for the last 10 years.

MACVICAR: Well, as we go forward in the coming weeks, we'll probably be talking about this again.

Marc Champion, of "The Wall Street Journal," Richard Norton Taylor, defense editor of the "Guardian," thank you both very much.

CHAMPION: Thank you, Sheila.

MACVICAR: Up next, are the media perpetuating an anti-Saudi sentiment, when we return.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MACVICAR: Welcome back.

Some say it's going from bad to worse, relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States hang delicately in the balance.

This follows accusations by some US lawmakers that the Kingdom may be financing terrorism. They say that charitable donations given by a Saudi princess may have wound up going to two September 11 hijackers.

The Saudis are attempting to do their bit of damage control, publishing a 9-page report outlining what they have done and what they plan to do to track the terror trail, but many Saudis say this incident is being used to bash them and that the US media are not without blame.

I'm joined now from Washington, D.C., by Michael Isikoff, investigative correspondent for "Newsweek." He was one of the first to break that story.

And here in the studio, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, editor of the Pan-Arab daily "Al-Sharq Al-Awsat," a Saudi journalist.

Michael, let me begin by asking you -- this was your story, the story of how Princess Haifa, a member of the Saudi royal family, wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United States, had somehow found herself connected into the terror financing trail. What, in your mind, are the implications of the story?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, "NEWSWEEK": Well, the most significant implications relate to the individuals who had ended up with some of the money that had been extended by Princess Haifa, and her husband, Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

There were two Saudi students in the San Diego area, one by the name of Basnan, Osama Basnan, the other one Omar al-Bayoum, who had multiple interactions with the two hijackers, Saudi hijackers, Khalid Almihdar and Nawaf Alhazmi, who were living in the San Diego area.

Bayoum is a critical figure, somebody who's been under FBI scrutiny for quite some time. He had met the hijackers when they landed in San Diego, when they landed in Los Angeles, brought them to San Diego, arranged to get them an apartment, helped them pay their rent, and was widely suspected among Saudi students in the United States of being a Saudi government agent who's job it was to monitor the activities of Saudis in the United States or in the San Diego area.

If in fact he was connected in that way to the hijackers, or had some role, and knew who they were, then -- and he, of course, has denied that. He has denied that he had any idea that they were al Qaeda members plotting a terrorist act. But if in fact they did, then that raises a whole host of questions about the adequacy of the initial FBI investigation into the connection and whether or not there were in fact others who were assisting the hijackers in the United States.

And then thirdly, with the money flow from Princess Haifa and Prince Bandar, whether there were people in the Saudi government who were, for some reason, encouraging that kind of financial assistance for some official purpose.

MACVICAR: Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, I mean, that -- all of those sound like pretty good questions to me. They sound like the kinds of questions that we should be posing, both about the United States and its investigative arms and about the Saudis and the Saudi government.

ABDULRAHMAN AL-RASHED, "AL-SHARQ AL-AWSAT": Well, I mean, it's so difficult, really, to, for example, if you meet somebody, you have lunch with, and this somebody has somebody else within the same restaurant, at the same table, you can say you are connected to the third person.

The third person here is somebody completely doesn't know, we assume, of course, doesn't know the Princess Haifa.

You can't really -- if someone asks, let's say, the embassy for help, and the embassy gave a check, money, for this one, and he wrote this check out to somebody else, you can't really accuse them of financing the third person.

The issue of the third person is quite, you know, it just doesn't make sense, to me, without proof.

I'll give you two things. One, the FBI took both Basnan and his wife, they put them in jail for two months, each of them, in different cells. The FBI investigated the whole thing. They came up absolutely with no information about the connection between the embassy and the hijackers.

MACVICAR: But as Michael Isikoff has suggested, that in fact may indicate that even though they had these people in prison for a long time, and under interrogation, one assumes that their investigation was flawed.

Michael, do you feel like this -- I mean, I've seen the stuff that's been written in some of the American papers. I mean, they're going so far as to call your story a ludicrous degree of Saudi basing. That doesn't seem to be particularly fair.

ISIKOFF: Well, I think the people who have said that actually didn't read our story, because we made no -- we certainly didn't accuse Princess Haifa or Prince Bandar of knowingly funneling money to the hijackers. There's simply no evidence of that, and we have not suggested there was.

What we have said is that there were concerns by congressional investigators and within the United States government that the adequacy of the FBI investigation into the hijackers in San Diego and their connections to Bayoum and whether or not the financial flow of money that ended up through Bayoum was for any official purpose that the Saudi government had in mind.

One really interesting fallout from the piece was an interview that Prince Bandar -- it's the only interview that Prince Bandar has given about this, to "The New York Times," in which he said for the first time that the two hijackers, Almadar and Al-Hazmi, were on a Saudi government watch list, that the Saudi government knew about these two guys, Almihdar and Alhazmi.

Well, if that's the case, it raises a couple of questions. How did they know? What did they know? Did they know they were in the United States? Was Bayoum the source of information that the Saudi government had about these hijackers? And was that information passed along to the United States government?

MACVICAR: Just to broaden this out, perhaps, for a second, Abdulrahman, is it -- what is the Saudi view at the moment of relationships with the United States and of the kind of reporting, not just this story, but other reporting that's taken place in the United States, since 9-11?

AL-RASHED: I think there is really no problem to investigate like Michael did. Nothing wrong, really, if "Newsweek" or "The New York Times" comes up with a story the next morning saying, you know, someone gave a check, or somebody did this and did that. This is information gathering and I think this is really the job for a journalist.

The biggest problem we are facing right now is the bashing. Taking the information, making conclusions, and making the conclusion out of this information to say the Saudis did that -- jumping, you know, to a very conclusions, saying the Saudis, in general.

MACVICAR: But isn't part of the problem here Saudi Arabia's failure to be more open about the events around 9-11, about the recruitment process, about who these people were, about who was the talent-spotter that found them, that sent them on their way, and about the money?

AL-RASHED: I think you are right. I think this is, of course, a problem for, I mean, for journalists in general in dealing with Saudi issues.

The Saudi government does not have a good habit of giving information. It's the system, really. It's different from the American system. They are not really -- don't believe sharing information with a journalist.

But I do believe the FBI, maybe I'm wrong, the FBI knows a lot of information from its counterparts, which is the Saudi intelligence. I am certain that the FBI has, you know, got files on every single one of them.

MACVICAR: Thank you to Michael Isikoff, investigative correspondent for "Newsweek," Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, the editor of "Al-Sharq Al-Awsat." Thank you both for joining me to discuss this story.

Up next, on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have to go to Baghdad, secretary -- we're going to Bernard Shaw in Baghdad.

MACVICAR (voice-over): Revisiting the Persian Gulf War on the small screen. Stay with us.

BERNARD SHAW, FMR. CNN CORRESPONDENT: Something is happening outside.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MACVICAR (voice-over): This is Baghdad under fire in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It forms the backdrop for the new movie "Live From Baghdad" on the HBO cable network in the United States, a timely retelling of how CNN won the media war with a live 24-hour coverage.

But if there is a new conflict, the media will deal with a very different set of circumstances.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

I'm joined now by Robert Wiener, former CNN senior executive producer, and author of the book, "Live From Baghdad," and Ingrid Formaneck, CNN senior executive producer and a CNN producer in Baghdad during the conflict, and the movie features a character based on her.

All right, so this is not to sound our own horn here, too much, but let's -- it is true, Robert, it is fair to say, that the kinds of decisions that you made, the kinds of relationships that you built with Iraqi officials before the Gulf War in 1991, really led to CNN clearly hands down winning the media war.

ROBERT WIENER, AUTHOR: Absolutely, Sheila. And that took a lot of work and a lot of perseverance, and I might add, unfortunately, the role of Eason Jordan, who's now the chief news executive at CNN, was sort of marginalized because Eason certainly contributed to our success there.

But I agree with you that I think this time around, I think things are going to be incredibly different with regime change seemingly the endgame for the US administration. I don't see there's any incentive whatsoever for the Iraqis to cooperate with the media, and I'm fearful that those journalists who are in Baghdad could potentially find themselves at great risk, hostages or worse.

MACVICAR: Well, that's pretty gloomy.

Ingrid, you are one of those journalists who has been recently in Baghdad. You say that you are probably going back there also again as a senior executive producer.

The key to CNN's success the last time out was this little device called a four-wire, right? What's a four-wire?

INGRID FORMANECK, CNN SR. EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: Correct. Well, the four-wire, and I'm not a technical person, as you know, Sheila, but it's basically a phone -- it works on phone technology, it's a bit more complicated, but it bypasses normal circuitry and establishes a line of communication that's open at all times.

And we bypassed the normal telecommunication systems in Iraq which enabled us to get out and be able to report.

This time around, it will be very different, whether we can get a four-wire box or a satellite dishes in there, whether they will work. The American military is sure to jam all communications out of Baghdad when and if the war starts, and it will be very, very different than the last time around.

Coverage of war has changed. The way wars are reported has changed. And the way the media works and what access they have is very, very much changed. So it will be a very different ballgame.

MACVICAR: I mean, Robert, if -- you're the person who, the last time, realized what four-wire technology could do for you and, more particularly, do for CNN at that moment, what would you do this time?

WIENER: Well, I would certainly try to put in a four-wire, which I know CNN is trying to do. I would probably be most concerned about the security of my people over in Baghdad. I really believe there's no sense staying there unless one can report.

Now, some intrepid report, probably a French photographer or a writer or possibly someone from National Public Radio, who is intrepid and knows Baghdad and will take the chance and can possibly hide out, stands a much better chance of surviving and reporting than a whole TV operation, especially those that are based at the Ministry of Information, which, as you know, will probably be a prime target.

MACVICAR: And TV operation, obviously, involves a lot of people, a lot of equipment, and a little hard to hide a three ring circus.

But, Ingrid, what Robert is raising there is a very interesting questions. I mean, you will remember, 1991, before the last Gulf War, there was tremendous pressure exerted by the US administration for journalists to leave Baghdad. I think there were phone calls made from the White House to news organizations, basically saying "get your people out, get your people out."

You were one of those who, at that time, chose to defy that, and CNN chose also to defy that request. What happens this time?

FORMANEK: As Robert was saying, the rules have very, very much changed. The stakes are much higher, because the Bush administration speaks about regime change, and this will make the Iraqis also deal with journalists in a very different way.

I think this time around, if war happens, there will be many more dangers, not only from American bombs. You have the chemical, biological and nuclear risks. But also there is the possibility of hostage-taking.

Journalists are also perceived in a very different way. Journalism -- the nature of journalism has changed in recent years, and to many of us, our dismay, journalists now speak in terms of we, which makes people think that journalists represent countries or organizations. It makes journalists seem less impartial. And therefore the perception is that we perhaps do represent somebody or some government, and this creates a new danger.

MACVICAR: Ingrid Formanek, senior CNN executive producer, Robert Wiener, author of "Live From Baghdad," and former CNN senior executive producer, thank you both very much for being with me.

That's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. I'm Sheila MacVicar in London. Thanks for joining us.

END

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