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Aired December 20, 2002 - 19:30:00   ET


In this edition, with the eyes of the media fixed firmly on Iraq, are we ignoring a potentially greater threat from North Korea?

Plus, covering al Qaeda: how hard is it for the media to piece the puzzle together? And are we getting the story straight?

But first, the clock is ticking and it's ticking fast. That's the message from Washington to Baghdad after seeing a preliminary analysis of Iraq's 12,000 page arms declaration.

Chief UN Inspector Hans Blix and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammad al-Baradei, say that the document leaves many questions unanswered.

The United States has declared Baghdad is violating the United Nations resolution.


COLIN POWELL, U.S. SECT. OF STATE: It should be obvious that the pattern of systematic holes and gaps in Iraq's declaration is not the result of accidents or editing oversights or technical mistakes. These are material omissions that in our view constitute another material breech.


AMANPOUR: Still, the United States says that it's not an automatic trigger for war, and so what are the White House press making of this?

I'm joined now by Bill Plante, long-time White House correspondent for the American TV network, CBS NEWS, and Dana Millbank, White House correspondent for "The Washington Post."

Bill, thank you very much indeed for joining us. Tell me something, what now? Does the White House believe, despite its public words, that it's firmly headed towards war?

BILL PLANTE, CBS NEWS: The suspicion here is very much that the United States will eventually go to war in Iraq, but they're trying to get all of the pieces I place, and this has been as much about public relations internationally as anything else from the very beginning.

It's one reason President Bush decided to seek multilateral support, decided to go to the United Nations. What they've just done is deliberately ratchet things up one more notch. There's another last chance here for Saddam Hussein to capitulate or be disposed of in a coup or whatever by extending it and saying, well, maybe by the end of January we'll make our decision, after Mr. Blix reports a second time to the United Nations Security Council.

The idea immediately is to get pressure on the United Nations to interview Iraqi scientists outside of Iraq. That's something that's allowed under resolution 1441 of the Security Council and something the United States very much wants the inspectors to do, and they've been a bit reluctant so far.

So I see this as a graduated pressure, very deliberate.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you, Dana, obviously there was sort of a double- trigger mechanism in the resolution. Iraq seems to have pulled the first trigger. Is the second trigger active non-cooperation? or what do you think this administration will take as a second trigger?

DANA MILLBANK, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, they're being deliberately vague about that, and the fact of the matter is they didn't want triggers to start with. They wanted to be able to pursue this action as they did from the beginning, and this -- we heard about this first during the campaign, even before the September 11 attacks.

So I think they're being deliberately vague at this point, not wanting to identify exactly what that trigger will be. Many of us thought that would occur yesterday if they were declared in material breech, but in fact that has not set off the trigger.

So it's very much, as you were saying earlier, it's ambiguous and it's deliberately so, and it's almost as if we're going to war in sort of a slow motion, like we know how it will turn out eventually, but we're not exactly sure how we get there.

AMANPOUR: Well, you just raised that question, so I want to ask both of you. Certainly, the perception overseas is that much of the American media, including and perhaps especially 24-hour stations, cable stations, like my own, are in fact beating the drums of war and that the media is ahead of even the hard-liners in the administration, assuming that war is a fate accompli.

Is that justified, Bill? Do you think the media is banging the drums of war?

PLANTE: We talk about it all the time. It is the most likely subject on any given day, both on the broadcast networks, like my own, and the 24- hour networks, such as CNN.

You can certainly make the argument that this is very important. If America is going to war, the subject certainly deserves to be discussed, but I suppose you can view it also as drum-beating or advocacy, although from here it doesn't look that way.

AMANPOUR: Dana, quickly, do you think it's -- can you understand how it's seen that way over here?

MILLBANK: Yes, but it's almost the reverse perception over here. Our main story of the year was this sniper who was shooting people in the Washington suburbs. We've been covering the election, covering the economic recession, corporate scandals. To me, it doesn't seem that Iraq breaks through the news all that much at all.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you another questions, also based on perceptions. There is a perception overseas that this administration is sort of dismissive of international sentiment, and, you know, people overseas get very worked up and very afraid by some of the rhetoric that comes out of the administration.

Do you think this administration has any idea how negatively it's perceived in many, many parts of the rest of the world?

MILLBANK: I think it very much does have an idea of that, and that's behind a lot of the disputes between Colin Powell at the State Dept. and the other folks.

But the fact of the matter is, the people who seem to be in command for the most part are these very hawkish neo-conservatives who generally have a view that it's nice to have world opinion behind us, but it's not really necessary, and the most important thing is for America to act in its own interest.

So there are a lot of people advising the president who are not really concerned about what the world reaction is. They know what the reaction is, but it's not something that's going to be driving their behavior.

AMANPOUR: Can I ask you also about all these leaks and various battle plans that we keep reading about and seeing on various American media organizations. What is going on? I mean, there just seems to be so many different battle plans being spread around. What is going on -- Bill?

PLANTE: If you look at it -- if you look at the leaks that have come out about what troops would be deployed, when they would go, what you see are the Pentagon planners talking about what they do on a daily basis.

I don't think these leaks are deliberate in the sense that they are disinformation, although that is possible. This is what anyone who covers the Pentagon or anyone who deals in war can sit down and pretty much figure out. It's not really all that complicated, and it certainly probably isn't news to anybody in Iraq, although the timing and exact methods, I'm sure, will remain secret until the very end.

AMANPOUR: Gentlemen, thank you both very much and certainly this is the issue that everybody over here is watching, so we appreciate your insight. Thank you for joining us.

And up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, should the greater danger of North Korea be getting greater media attention?


AMANPOUR: Welcome back.

It could prove to be more dangerous than Iraq, and yet it seems that revelations about North Korea's nuclear effort is not in the headlines. Last week, North Korea decided to resume its nuclear fuel program and reopen nuclear facilities that it had previously agreed to shut.

Joining me now to discuss this are Ron Brownstein, national political columnist for the "Los Angeles Times," and CNN senior Asia correspondent, Mike Chinoy.

First, let me ask you, Mike, what is happening in terms of the latest developments regarding North Korea's decision?

MIKE CHINOY, CNN SR. ASIA CORRESPONDENT: Well, the North Koreans have been fairly quiet the past few days. The major drama has been in South Korea where, after a very tightly contested election, a moderate, Roh Moo Hyun, has been elected president. He campaigned on the platform of continuing to engage North Korea, and he was sharply critical of the Bush administration for calling North Korea part of the axis of evil and for refusing to engage in negotiations on the nuclear question.

So going forward, we'll have to see how the North Koreans respond to that, whether that will in any way shape what they do in the coming days. And of course it presents a major foreign policy problem for the Bush administration. The north continues to signal that while it is prepared to restart its nuclear program, it still would like to keep the door open to a diplomatic solution, but that requires the two sides talk to each other, and so far that's not happening -- Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Ron, the two sides aren't talking to each other, and it seems indeed that there's not even that much news about this rather dramatic story being given to the people of the United States.


I think it is fascinating and revealing how little attention this story has received. There has been some coverage, but not nearly of the magnitude you'd expect, given the magnitude of the story.

I think there are a couple of reasons. One is something that's larger than the specifics of this, and that is an increasing tendency in the media, I'd say over the last 15 years, and the rise of the cable networks has something to do with this -- to concentrate more exclusively on whatever happens to be the largest story of the time, you know, whether it's Chandra Levy or O.J. Simpson or impeachment or today Iraq.

Whatever is number one is garnering, I think, a larger share of the overall amount of attention, if there is such a thing, than it used to.

Now, secondly, I think also the fact that the White House has not played this up has also contributed to the lack, the relative lack, of coverage. If the president was out there banging the gong on it, inevitably we would be, I think paying more attention.

And finally, the fact that we are not in North Korea as the media probably affects this, although less, I think, than those first two factors.

AMANPOUR: Exactly. Let me just go to Mike on that. We are not in North Korea. It's impossible, or virtually impossible, very rare, for people like yourself and very few others, to get in.

CHINOY: That's right. It's a big problem. If you can imagine what coverage of Iraq would be like if there were no foreign journalists in Baghdad, there were no Iraqi officials to provide sound bites, and all the coverage of what Iraq was doing had to be by deciphering official media pronouncements, you would get some idea of the difficulties we face with North Korea.

I've been there a dozen times over the last 13 years, but in this current crisis, they're not letting in any foreign journalists, and so we're faced with the very difficult task of figuring out what in fact the North Koreans are doing. We rely on the official Korean central news agency, and that's a very, very tricky job, because their store, rhetorically, is full of bombast, full of rhetoric.

Their negotiating style has been one of brinkmanship, and to sort of sift through all the boilerplate rhetoric and the sound and the fury of North Korean propaganda to decipher what their true intention is is a real art, and frankly a lot of journalists who don't have a lot of experience take some of the more extreme North Korean pronouncements at face value and go with them, when in fact the real meaning, the real message, is buried, and it takes a lot of work to figure out what that may be.

AMANPOUR: Well, exactly, and certainly that begs the question, perhaps, that it's not -- if the countries themselves aren't talking to each other, and if there's no really reliable media interlocutor there, then is there a potential threat that this could spill out of control, Mike -- and then I'll ask Ron, too.

CHINOY: I think there is a real threat that it could spill out of control.

What you have is a dynamic where the North Koreans are angry at the United States because Pyongyang feels Washington has never lived up to commitments made in an earlier agreement in 1994 to freeze its plutonium- based missile program.

The United States, under the Bush administration, is angry at North Korea both because of its violations of its pledges not to pursue nuclear weapons, but more broadly because of an overall policy of hostility towards this regime, part of the axis of evil, and the media seizes on each North Korean pronouncement, each North Korean threat, and builds it up, and then there's a dynamic of Washington reacting and then North Korea reacting.

And with the two sides having no avenue to talk directly to each other, it could easily spiral out of control when in fact my sense is that the Bush administration would like to handle this cautiously, and the signals from North Korea, when you cut away the fire-breathing rhetoric, is that they too don't want this to get out of control. They'd like a negotiations solution.

AMANPOUR: So, Ron, here you are, a powerful political columnist at a powerful United States newspaper, are you going to present this dynamic, this dilemma?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, that and a dollar will get you on the subway.

I think that there is a moderating factor on the other side, I just want to say quickly, which is, in a way, the single-mindedness of the Bush administration.

Really, throughout his career, Bush has preferred to focus on one issue at a time, domestic or foreign, and his focus, clearly, is on Iraq now, and in all of the public statements, the key policymakers have gone out of their way, I think -- Rumsfeld, Powell especially -- to sort of push this down, not out of -- tamp this down -- not out of any sympathy for the North Korea government at all, but out of a desire not to be distracted from their principle goal, which is keeping the pressure on Saddam Hussein.

AMANPOUR: Yes, but Ron, there's clearly a cry for something from North Korea, and news doesn't wait, events don't wait, while an administration focuses on one problem or one issue. How much of a responsibility do you think, and people like yourself, despite the current trend in the United States, to just put that front and center and say, hey guys, this is going on too?

BROWNSTEIN: You know, I agree with you. I mean, I think that, you know, many of the American press outlets have been covering this effectively from their reporters in the region to the extent they have them, especially with the larger outlets, but what we really have not done is put a lot of focus on the domestic policy side of it, the policymaking inside the Bush administration, what's going on.

And I think we have been deficient on that front, because the focus has been so much on trying to discern where they are going on Iraq, what is the next move. That is where the energy is among the people at the Pentagon and the State Dept. at the various news publications.

AMANPOUR: Gentlemen, we have to leave it there; we're running out of time. Ron, thank you very much, and Mike as well, thank you for joining us.

And still ahead on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the al Qaeda connection. We look at some of the challenges facing journalists who are trying to cover the terrorist network.


AMANPOUR: Welcome back.

This past week has seen the arrest of numerous suspected Islamic militants with alleged links to al Qaeda. First, in Paris, four people were taken into police custody after they were allegedly found to be carrying chemical materials and a special chemical warfare suit.

Separately, in the UK, seven men said to be of North African origin were arrested in early morning raids by anti-terror police. They are also thought to be connected to al Qaeda.

There are many unanswered questions, though. First and foremost, are these all connected? How hard is it for journalists to insure that their information is accurate and credible?

Joining me now to talk about this are Frank Gardner, security correspondent at the BBC. He covers the war on terror and is joining me here in London; and in Paris, Frederic Helbert, senior correspondent with EUROPE ONE radio.

Let me ask you first, Frank, how difficult is it to, if you like, connect all the dots? I think all the journalists assigned to the kind of beat you are are trying to find the big picture, but is it possible right now?

FRANK GARDNER, BBC: It's very difficult to join them all up, and for many reasons.

One is that al Qaeda is an extremely shadowy organization. It has no publicity office. You can't go in and wring up a PR officer for al Qaeda and say look, are these your people or not? They don't tend to make claims immediately afterwards. The names change. Al Qaeda uses a lot of false identities, a lot of false passports. That's how its operatives are able to move so easily through Europe.

The security forces and intelligence services themselves are struggling to keep up with all these names. What they do know is that there are -- there is an international network, particularly in Europe, that are all inked in some way or another, but I think what you do have to do is to divide up al Qaeda into two categories.

On the one hand, you've got the support networks, people who are providing safe houses, money, passports, perhaps credit card fraud, sometimes without even knowing that they're helping terrorists.

On the other hand, you've got the active cells, the operational people, and these are the people who were caught in Paris.

AMANPOUR: So let me ask you, Frederic, you broke this story. Who are these people who were caught in Paris? And what is now the proven, if there is such a thing, link to al Qaeda?

FREDERIC HELBERT, EUROPE ONE RADIO: They are considered as the real operatives, cell operative network. They were here to plan and make an operation, and the material which has been found, the material is chemical product and also some other components to make classical bombs, and so it shows that they were next to an operation.

They were preparing, they were planning, and in fact if they have been arrested, it is because the authorities and the French security services decided not to take any risks.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you, because risk is what it's all about, and certainly we've seen over the last year and more these pronouncements or these leaks or these intelligence sort of findings that have been published, saying that there's going to be a massive attack here, or a massive attack there. I mean, doesn't that also complicate your job, trying to sift through? Because clearly the officials don't want to be caught off guard, and are playing to an extent cover your back.

GARDNER: I think they are, and I think particularly the British officials, but also the Australians and the Americans, are struggling to keep up with the massive amount of intelligence that they're getting on al Qaeda.

There has been a quantum leap in intelligence gathering on this organization since 9/11. Really, the CIA and the FBI were pretty much at a standing start. They should have been a lot better.

I spent a lot of time in Washington, and I've seen the gaps in security there in intelligence gathering. Part of the problem is they don't have enough human intelligence gathering. They've never managed to penetrate al Qaeda.

But just here in Britain, for example, where Britain shares United States intelligence, most of it, they get between 100 and 150 pieces of intelligence coming across their desks every day. A lot of it is false leads. A lot of it leads nowhere, it's nothing. But, of course, they've got to try and catch the big one. A terrorist only has to be lucky once.

AMANPOUR: Exactly. Frederic, how often do you find yourself chasing false leads, or do the authorities find themselves chasing false leads with the incredible increase in the amount of intelligence that is being gathered and processed now?

HELBERT: Well, Christiane, I must say that we are doing a very specific job, and it's very difficult sometimes to do the job we are doing, because we have to fight with the authorities to find the real information. We have to fight with the security services, and we have to deal with them.

I mean, terrorist is a very specific matter, and it's very difficult to get the right information at the right moment. It's really difficult in France because there is no communication service. There is no spokesman here from the intelligence service, no spokesman in justice court.

So you have to find your contact, you have to find your specific sources to get good information at the good moment.

AMANPOUR: Can I ask you, what about some of these stories that have been chased down, huge headlines. You remember the one about the tube, the potential so-called chemical or biological attack on the underground railway system here in England, and it amounted to nothing. How does that get past the sensors, so to speak?

GARDNER: Well, they don't really have censorship in Britain, of course, but those kind of stories I think are quite irresponsible, because there's a risk of a cry wolf situation, where people think, Crikey, this is really big, and then it turns out to be nothing. Wow, it's huge, and it turns out to be nothing.

Eventually, the terrorists, we're warned, will get through. Eventually, somebody will carryout some massive attack, unfortunately, in Britain, or somewhere else in the West, and then people's guard will have been lowered.

I think there is an inevitable desire to sell newspapers, to get stories on air, to sensationalize it, to, you know, to improve ratings or whatever.

People should really check their facts. In the case of the tube story here, it turns out that it was one possibility, allegedly, of several scenarios that some of the accused might have been possibly looking at, but people put two and two together and made 16 to make a bigger story out of it, and there is this risk that eventually something big will happen and our guard will be lowered.

AMANPOUR: We have to watch this one very carefully, Frank. Thank you very much for joining me here in London. And Frederic, thank you for joining me from Paris.

And that's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in again next week for another in-depth look at how the media are handling the big issues.

I'm Christiane Amanpour. Thank you for joining us.



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