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Aired May 23, 2003 - 19:30:00   ET


WALTER RODGERS, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Walter Rodgers, in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we exam how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
An explosion at a caf‚ in Turkey, arrests in Saudi Arabia and a new video tape calling for, quote, "horrible acts against innocent people."

They've all been pinned on al Qaeda, but why is it so important for the media to make this connection? Would the same incidents get as much coverage without the al Qaeda brand name?

Joining me now, in Washington, D.C., Michael Isikoff, investigative correspondent at "Newsweek" magazine, and here in studio, Hala Jaber, reporter at Britain's "Sunday Times."

Hala, incidentally, just received the Amnesty International Journalist of the Year award. Congratulations -- so you get the first question.

Do you think the media does a disservice to its viewers and to its readers by leaping to blame al Qaeda for everything? I mean, isn't this a much bigger issue? It's an ideology that's indigenous to young Muslim men, from Indonesia to Morocco, even to the United States.

HALA JABER, "SUNDAY TIMES": I agree with that, but I don't think it's the media's fault totally.

Whether it's the media or the government, usually someone has to blame something, and it's easier to blame an organization or a name or a leader, because it contains the fear to something that people can maybe feel that, you know, they have something physical they can associate with something like that, instead of saying we don't know where it's coming.

However, this is not to say that al Qaeda has to be behind everything. At the moment there are cells growing all over the world, in the Middle East, definitely, amongst militants and Islamic fanatics. It takes about 10 people who are disappointed with something, angered by something or upset by another to create a cell and to carry out on attack on something.

Al Qaeda gave them an example of what can be achieved. It showed them the way. All it has to do now is lay out headlines, and people on the ground will interpret it in different ways and manners.

RODGERS: Mike, essentially the same question to you. We're in the accuracy business. Don't we do a disservice if there's a rush to blame al Qaeda for every bomb that goes off everywhere in the world?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, "NEWSWEEK": Sure, if we don't have the evidence for it, but I think in this case we do.

Certainly, if you look at the Saudi bombing and you look at the suspects who have been identified by the Saudis, some of whom -- one of whom's passport was found that the safe house which was adjacent to the compound that was blown up, there's very clear evidence that this was not done by some disparate Islamic group. This was done by al Qaeda with instructions, most likely, from senior al Qaeda leaders who are in Iran.

One of the top suspects is a Canadian passport-holder, Abdul Rahman Jabara (ph), who has been a known al Qaeda operative for sometime, who worked in the camps, who was dispatched by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to the Middle East to organize this operation.

So, no, I actually don't agree with the premise of your question at all. This is a known -- these are known al Qaeda operatives and they are responsible for certainly the Riyadh bombing and now there's some evidence that perhaps the Moroccan bombing as well.

RODGERS: Let me go back to you, Hala. How does the West get out -- get young Muslims to get out of the blame, damnation and destruction business? You used the phrase blame earlier. It's a serious problem, isn't it?

JABER: Yes. I mean, the West's foreign policy -- we have to go back to that issue -- is not just or fair or right where certain issues in the Middle East are present, and therefore you have a lot of young men, or women for that matter, who are watching the West behave in one manner in a certain country and totally in a different manner in a second country. So what's allowed here is disallowed there.

You're getting a lot of anger. They're supporting regimes which are - - then they're claiming...

RODGERS: Excuse me, but why is the United States being blamed for hundreds of years of European colonialism, British, French and so forth, when the United States only recently has gotten into the superpower game?

JABER: Well, the United States, to start with, is a country that has old government. It has been propping and propping up regimes in the Middle East, that it's then claiming these regimes are becoming a security threat to the international world, like the Iraqi regime, for example, or in Saudi Arabia or in Egypt or in other areas of the Middle East, where they know there's human rights abuse and there's all sorts of things going on there.

It's being totally biased where Israel is concerned, which is something which is a very, very passionate issue amongst the Middle Eastern people and Muslims in general, and they cannot see, on the one side, you know, the Palestinians being killed on a daily basis and then the United States talking about democracy and freedom in other areas.

So all of these issues have to be, have to be looked into. The United States -- if it's going to be involved, it has to play fair with every country.

RODGERS: Mike, do you subscribe to that? For example, there are many in Europe who are saying that there are going to be a thousand new bin Laden's because of the Bush administrations war in Iraq. How responsible is the United States for this scourge of terrorism, Islamist terrorism?

ISIKOFF: I think the Islamic terrorist are responsible for this scourge of Islamic terrorism. The United States is responsible for what it does, and clearly, you know, it will be evaluated on that basis.

You were there in Iraq, you can speak better to that than I can.

But I'm really a bit at a loss here to understand what, you know, what the point it. We do know that there are orchestrated, organized terrorist groups, al Qaeda being the foremost one, who have proclaimed that it is the duty of all Muslims to kill the infidels, and all you have to do is listen to the Zawahiri tape that was released this week, in which he exhorts Muslims to rise up and murder Westerners, and you realize the nature of the enemy.

And I don't think this has much to do with the equities of the war in Iraq or the equities of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Certainly those are festering problems that have to be addressed on their own merits, but that's not the cause -- that's not the reason that terrorists are committing murders against Westerners.

RODGERS: Mike, thank you very much. Hala, thank you very much for your insights.

Coming up on the program, fact or Hollywood-style fiction? Did the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch happen like these pictures suggest? Find out when we come back.


RODGERS: It's a script straight out of Hollywood and a story that gave America an injection of patriotism. A raid in the dead of night under enemy lines where U.S. soldiers daringly rescued one Private Jessica Lynch, held captive in an Iraqi hospital.

But a BBC reporter here in Britain is challenging the Pentagon's version of the story.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We hear the noise of helicopter, the sound of helicopter, and I think that the helicopter land here, on the grass.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Like a film of Hollywood, they cry go, go, go, shout go, go, go, with guns with blanks, without bullet, blanks and sound of explosion, and walk in the door. We are very scary.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are surprised at that time. Why they do this? There is no military, no Iraqi soldier in the hospital.


RODGERS: Well, the reporter of that program, John Kampfner, joins me now. And at the Pentagon, Brian Whitman, deputy assistant secretary of defense.

John, I saw parts of your documentary. The part on Jessica Lynch appeared a bit of an indictment. How exactly do you believe the Pentagon misrepresented her rescue?

JOHN KAMPFNER, BBC: Well, what we're saying, what the purpose of this film was, was to paint a picture of how the whole war media strategy was managed, was managed by Washington, was managed by London, and was managed by Central Command, in Doha. The whole idea was to give a sort of holistic approach.

The Jessica Lynch affair was one of only several examples we cited of this incredibly sophisticated media management. What we...

RODGERS: Well, that's true, but you very strongly suggest that the Pentagon lied in its representation of the Jessica Lynch rescue.

KAMPFNER: What we were saying was not that in any way the military, the American military acted in any untoward fashion. And then two points need to be said at the outset.

It's the job of any military to get its soldiers out of behind enemy lines. It's the job of any military, and that may well include a hospital.

It's also the job of a military to prepare for any worst-case scenario. And that means when you're planning any kind of raid, any kind of mission, you should expect the worst. We would never have suggested, nor did we suggest, that the military should have gone in there in civilian clothes, with their hands up, and say can we please have Jessica Lynch back.

Our contention, however, and what the doctors in the Iraqi hospital were saying to us was that after the event, the Pentagon should have said, rather than portraying this as a great act of heroism, soldiers in great danger, coming under fire, they should have said that is watt we expected, that is the information that we were led to believe before the raid, but actually we could have just gone in there, opened the door -- they spent two hours in the hospital, the American forces, having got in there. They did not encounter any form of hostile action whatsoever.

RODGERS: Brian Whitman, your response.

BRIAN WHITMAN, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: Well, there's a lot to respond to there.

First of all, it sounds as if John might be back pedaling a bit, but let me tell you that this was a courageous mission that these troops went on.

They went into a contested area in combat, in a hostile environment. They did receive fire going into that area. And this was a mission that was very well planned, excellently executed, and accomplished its mission of being able to bring out one of our POW's.

And the insinuation, while there are many allegations in John's piece, I guess the most egregious insinuation or inference is that we would have conducted this operation for anything other than the intended purpose of bringing home one of our own.

KAMPFNER: There are various responses to that.

First of all, we're not back pedaling in any shape or form. We stand by the story. The reaction we've had to our story has been very passionate on both sides, but the journalism in this story is something we stand, we stand by completely.

Our only question to the Pentagon is simply this: fine -- the mission itself was conducted in a way that it should have been done -- the way it should have been, but what the Pentagon should have said afterwards was, we didn't -- you may well have come under fire outside the hospital, but the doctors inside the hospital, I don't think anybody is even disputing this version, treated Jessica Lynch well.

She was in good hands, two doctors and one nurse. There was no sense that she had been beaten, that she had been mistreated in any way once the Fedayeen had left the hospital, there was no danger to the America forces. And what the Pentagon should have said afterwards was, we prepared for a bloodbath, the bloodbath did not happen. This was a clean, safe rescue mission and there was no hostile encounter whatsoever.

So what I'm trying to say is that there was no particular heroism. There was a professional mission, but it should have been basically spun very -- in a low-key fashion.

RODGERS: Brian, it seems to me he's suggesting the Pentagon exaggerated to create heroes at a time when American needed heroes. What's your response?

WHITMAN: Well, first of all, I don't think that America needed heroes. There were certainly heroic acts that were done throughout this campaign.

But John, again, is just ignorant of the facts here, and the facts are that U.S. forces came under fire when they went into that compound area. That's an indisputable fact.


WHITMAN: It's also -- let me finish, please.


WHITMAN: Please, let me finish.


WHITMAN: Give me the same courtesy.


WHITMAN: It's also indisputable that on the following day, when the media asked about this at a briefing in Qatar, General Brooks specifically indicated that U.S. forces did not come under fire inside the hospital, but that they did come under fire in the surrounding compound and from buildings around the hospital.

Furthermore, he went on to detail exactly what the intelligence had shown about this facility and that it was being used by the Saddam regime as a command post. There was ammunition, mortars, maps, terrain models that showed positions of U.S. forces in the basement.

So let there be no doubt that this was a facility that was hostile, and could have potentially had a lot more resistance than what was encountered.

KAMPFNER: Walt, if I could just come in there. The Fedayeen had been -- let's get the tenses right -- the Fedayeen had been, Saddam Hussein's special militia, had been in the hospital.

American special forces who had been reckoning the hospital had ascertained 24 hours before the raid that they had left, in anticipation of an American advance.

The doctors when they were there told them there is nobody here. So there may well have been some sort of, in the approach to the hospital, some perception among the Americans that there was a hostile encounter. When they got to the hospital, there was no hostility whatsoever.

RODGERS: Brian, let me ask you, in a larger sense, do you think the British and the European media try to stick it to the United States throughout their coverage of this war?

WHITMAN: No, not at all.

I think the problem is that people are ignoring the facts here. And, you know, we wanted to make truth an issue in this campaign, and we have tried to be as careful as we can with all the facts.

And just to go back to John for a minute, it was not established fact that there was no longer a Fedayeen operating out of that hospital. We know that the Fedayeen was not in uniform all the time, that there were enemy combatants that were in civilian clothes, and I have to tell you that you would not expect the U.S. military to go in with any other kind of force, other than that which your assessment would insure that you would be successful and that would insure that you would minimize casualties, both friendly civilian casualties as well as your own casualties.

But, you know, I don't think that anybody is out to get anybody in the press. I think that truth needs to be an issue, though, and these allegations just are in complete disregard of the facts.

KAMPFNER: Nor are we out to get anybody, and we are as much in search of the truth as anybody else. The BBC has a long established history and reputation for that, and that is something we stand by, and that is something all the BBC executives completely stand by that point as well.

What you -- the Pentagon might well have said when it was presenting this raid afterwards was, we went in there. We anticipated hostile encounter. Not was forthcoming. We're very relieved and grateful for that, and we're particularly thankful to the two Iraqi doctors for looking after her to the best of their abilities in a hospital in the middle of a war. We salute their courage. End of story.

That was not the version the Pentagon came out with.

RODGERS: Brian Whitman, at the Pentagon, I'm sorry.

WHITMAN: John, still is.

RODGERS: We've run out of time. Brian, thanks very, very much -- John Kampfner from the BBC, thanks very much.

Before we go, let's take a look at some of the best international political cartoons from the past week.

I'm joined now by A.A. Gill, columnist and media critic of Britain's "Sunday Times."

A.A., the first cartoon, George W. Bush sitting there, in a Texas accent, proclaiming, "We will hunt the terrorists in every dark corner of the earth."

Does that have resonance for you?

A.A. GILL, "SUNDAY TIMES": Yes. I -- this is Steve Bell (ph), from "The Guardian," and I particularly love the way he's made Bush into the chimpanzee, into the monkey. This is an image that's rather taken off. You have other cartoonists who are now doing this, and you really feel that he's -- this is going to be his image. This is who he's thought of.

Yes, of course, it's Osama, and I like the fact that he's holding the microphone with his foot.

RODGERS: Next, Ari Fleischer, the president's spin doctor, Mr. Bush's spin doctor, announcing he's resigning, and everything's going well. Middle East peace, on track. Situation in Iraq, not bad. Weapons of mass destruction, who cares. War on terror, we're winning.

Did this make you laugh? And if so, why?

GILL: Yes. Up to a point.

I mean, I do -- it is like those notes that wives leave when they leave their husbands, saying your foreign policy is in the oven.

I mean -- Ari Fleischer was nothing like as good as his Iraqi equivalent. I think he's probably left because he couldn't stand the competition.

RODGERS: OK. And now this one. Obviously, the target is "The New York Times."

"Daddy, read me a fairy tale," a little girl says in bed. And he begins, "Once upon a time." reading "The New York Times," Jayson Blair.

Why do we laugh at this?

GILL: I just loved this story. I mean, I'm a journalist, this is home for me.

But "The New York Times" is such a pompous read, and they made this story much, much more funny by their incredibly (UNINTELLIGIBLE). How many pages of retraction did they print? Four pages of retraction when he finally resigned, and then the editor doing a mea culpa.

I mean, it was incredibly funny. I mean, I -- compared with, actually, I must say, with some of our own tabloids, where if they fired journalists who've lied, there's be nobody running the paper.

RODGERS: And finally, this from "Le Monde." You're looking for democracy in a garbage pail. "I'm searching, I'm searching."

And then in the far corner, Iraqi children thinking of a plate of food.

This has a bit more bite to it, doesn't it?

GILL: Well, this is a typical French cartoon in the sense that it's not funny. I mean, French cartoons are never funny. I mean, you know, this is -- this is essentially an illustration to an editorial.

And I think it's probably the most meaningful one that we've shown, because this is still a continuing, and is going to go on being a continuing story -- the difference between how France and its constituency views the world and how America does.

RODGERS: A.A. Gill, thanks for making us laugh this week.

That's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in again next time for another in-depth look at how the media are handing the big issues.

I'm Walter Rodgers, in London. Thank you for joining us.



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