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CNN'S AMANPOUR

Lord Prescott Interview; McClatchy Journalists Interview

Aired March 22, 2013 - 16:00:00   ET

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


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour. Welcome to the special weekend edition of our program. This week, President Obama made his first trip to Israel with no real progress in the long dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

In fact, talks between Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu focused heavily on Iran and whether or not the U.S. and Israel will go to war against Iran's nuclear program.

The visit also happened to be on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a war that most analysts say left Iran the big regional winner, with its Shiite allies dominating politics in Iraq since the fall of the Sunni Saddam Hussein. And analysts say the United States has emerged the big loser as the post-war political chaos has been a dramatic turning point, displaying the decline of American power.

The war itself was quick. Three weeks from invasion to the fall of Baghdad, which produced a declaration that will live in infamy. Mission was not accomplished, of course; a vicious insurgency came this close to civil war.

And the carnage continues to this day. It's killed hundreds of thousands in Iraq. Two trillion dollars were poured in, much of it, according to analysts, went to corruption and white elephant projects.

Ten years after President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain launched their "misbegotten and mendacious war," as one writer puts it, Iraq remains an object lesson of how not to do it.

Despite massive protests in Britain at the time, Blair steadfastly stood with Bush, even though he admits now that things didn't turn out as he hoped, he's still sticking to his guns about going to war.

Not so his deputy prime minister, John Prescott, who, back then, was publicly the boss' biggest cheerleader. He now acknowledges that there's been a terrible price to pay in loss of lives for which he says he accepts his share of responsibility.

But why is he only now speaking out? I asked him about it from our London studio.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: Lord Prescott, welcome to the program.

LORD JOHN PRESCOTT, FORMER BRITISH DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Hi.

AMANPOUR: Ten years later, you are regretting this invasion. Why was it wrong in your view?

PRESCOTT: We can see now that in the shock and awe, may have got rid of Saddam, but it certainly never brought peace.

And you have to ask yourselves, 10 years on, was it justified and was it really about regime change? And if it was about regime change, I'm afraid that didn't make it legal.

AMANPOUR: Now 10 years later, when you hear so many people talking about it -- and you must be reminded of the nearly 200 British service men who were killed, many more who were injured, you know, 100,000 at a conservative estimate of Iraqi civilians who were killed.

Do you feel responsible? Do you feel you had a share in that?

PRESCOTT: But of course I've got a share in the responsibility. It was quite clear from the discussions that Tony and Bush was having was that he was quite prepared to go into Iraq without the British support if necessary. But we actually agreed at the end of the day that we would support.

Now the consequences of that was an awful lot of people that died and the civilians who went into 100,000 -- I can't not think that that comes from a decision that I agreed as we went along in it. Then it got more and more difficult. What I'm more concerned about now is it's the same kind of thinking that is leading us into Syria and possibly into Iran.

AMANPOUR: Tony Blair has also been giving interviews on this 10th anniversary, and he admits that obviously it didn't turn out the way he hoped it would. But he's sticking to his guns about the invasion. Let me play you a sound bite from an interview with the BBC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY BLAIR, FORMER ENGLISH PRIME MINISTER: If we hadn't removed Saddam from power, just think, for example, what would be happening if these Arab revolutions were continuing now. And Saddam, who's probably 20 times as bad as Assad in Syria, was trying to suppress an uprising in Iraq. I mean, think of the consequences of leaving that regime in power.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: What's your reaction to that justification?

PRESCOTT: Well, it comes from his thinking of experience. In Rwanda, he always thought when weren't in power, it's terrible, all the ethnic cleansing that went on. And the world looked the other way. We intervened in Sierra Leone; it was right to. It was without the U.N. but we actually saved many people's lives and brought civility there.

When it got to Kosovo, we went in with the Americans and basically saved ethnic cleansing there. So Tony came to the view -- put in the San Francisco speech -- that if no leader of a country was entitled to treat his people like that, he then followed on. It was for all us then to intervene to stop that.

Now what worries me about that -- and he did at the time when we talked about it-- are you justifying regime change in those circumstances?

AMANPOUR: To your point, let me play that other part of the interview from Tony Blair, where he talks about potential future model.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLAIR: My point is to people -- is this. I've long since given up on trying to persuade people that it was the right decision.

In a sense, what I've tried to persuade people of now is understand how complex and difficult a decision it was because I think if we don't understand that, we won't take the right decision about what I think will be a series of these types of problems that will arise now over the next few years.

You've got one in Syria right now. You've got one in Iran to come. The issue is how do you make the world a safer place?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: Is that a road map for future intervention?

PRESCOTT: (Inaudible) -- well, that's what he seems to be saying. Look, when we first started, we're all agreed. We didn't have U.N.; we hoped that we could get a U.N. resolution, but we didn't.

What Tony's now saying is it's quite legitimate to go in if certain leaders are doing terrible things to their people. And I deplore that. But do you think you help it by a military intervention? Not by troops, because in the same interview, Tony says more diplomacy, but no boots on the ground. And I think that's the problem in America. They feel the same.

So what are you developing a drone policy now that selects those leaders, kills them off on the assumption you got rid of the baddies and the goodies are left? I'm afraid in Iraq it doesn't seem that way, even now 10 years on.

And it certainly doesn't look that way in Syria. So what do you do? Kill more civilians, but you're satisfied you're right to intervene?

AMANPOUR: Was there any doubt in your mind when you talked to the Americans that this was about weapons of mass destruction or was it about regime change, getting rid of Saddam Hussein?

PRESCOTT: Well, I think the weapons of mass destruction, Tony certainly believed that. He had used gas against people. So this was a terrible man. But at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself, was it legitimate to go in?

I was convinced in America you were already preparing for war, despite us talking about the U.N. You were getting your military machine ready. You were going to do it before the hot summer. So there's no doubt in America -- and I told Tony, the Yanks are going in whether you agree or not.

And the -- actually, Cheney almost made it clear to me, play around with the U.N. if you want; we're going in. And the big question then comes, did Bush have that understanding from Tony?

Tony, a pretty honest guy; I have a great deal of respect for him. But as he's shown later, he's not saying this policy isn't wrong. He wants to do it now in Iran, possibly, and Syria, absolute bloody crazy, in my view.

AMANPOUR: So you believe Tony Blair internalized what you said about regime change and didn't mind about it and went ahead anyway, knowing that that was the Americans' primary mission?

PRESCOTT: Tony, as I came back, didn't deny that the military were preparing. And I think Tony must have rather convinced them that he could probably carry Europe. He didn't. And so we end it with what the real American reason was, was unfinished business, because the father didn't take him beyond the Kuwait borders. Unfinished business meant regime change, meant Saddam.

Now if you're going to continue that in Syria and you're going to continue it in Iran, you've got to ask yourselves, what are you doing it for, just to get rid of the evil men around the world? Because I've got to tell you, there's been more killings in Iraq since they've left, and still continuing.

The divisions between the religion, it almost means that what we're getting in these countries and repeating now is the old Crusades business, that the Western forces fight them terrible Muslims. And that's what's beginning to develop now. It's no coincidence the interventions seem to reflect that.

AMANPOUR: Have you talked to Blair himself about your criticism? You've written it in the newspaper; you're on television. Have you had a conversation with him?

PRESCOTT: Yes. This is everything he knows from our personal conversations as it went on. The only thing he doesn't know is I've come to a conclusion the justification for the intervention was wrong. I thought and said that to him at the time that I was worried about it.

Ten years on -- and I've been trying to get contact. He just moves around, Tony, a lot. And I hope I'll see him before he comes out at the weekend.

AMANPOUR: Lord Prescott, thank you for joining me.

PRESCOTT: Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: Despite all the horror, there is one bright spot on the horizon: Iraq's booming oil sector. Yet even massive revenues from that have so far failed to trickle down to the people and boost their standard of living.

When we come back, the propaganda war: here in the United States, the American journalists who were ready to charge into battle and those who were not. Lone Rangers for the truth, next.

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(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. Continuing our coverage of the Iraq War and lessons learned 10 years on.

It'll always be remembered as a war built on false premises. Top American officials continuously made claims that were either flat-out inaccurate or exaggerated. In late 2002, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice made this claim to CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We do know that he is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon. We do know that there have been shipments going into Iran, for instance -- into Iraq, for instance, of aluminum tubes that really are only suited to -- high-quality aluminum tubes that are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: After much digging, I later reported that while those aluminum tubes may have been used for Iraq's conventional weapons, they were not designed for centrifuges.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: Experts are saying that if, in fact, this turns out to be correct, that Iraq has tried to import aluminum tubes of the diameter and thickness that they are telling, then they could not be used for enriching uranium and they could not be used in any nuclear weapons program.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: And yet on the eve of the war, Colin Powell famously made this case to the United Nations.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLIN POWELL, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Saddam Hussein is determined to get his hands on a nuclear bomb. He is so determined that he has made repeated covert attempts to acquire high specification aluminum tubes from 11 different countries, even after inspections resumed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: So how could so many false assertions have been taken as fact? After the war, some of America's leading newspapers were forced to apologize for getting it wrong.

But two reporters consistently got it right, Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, two reporters who I am proud to call colleagues.

AMANPOUR: You, when you started reporting this, what did you find right after 9/11? You heard John Prescott say he was determined to have regime change. That's what he was hearing from Washington.

WARREN STROBEL, FORMER MCCLATCHY JOURNALIST: You know, Christiane, the very first thing we heard within days was that they were going after Iraq, even though it was self-evident to anybody who knew anything about national security and about the region that Iraq was not involved in 9/11. They had nothing to do with Islamic extremism.

Then about a month later, I wrote a story that said the Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, one of the boosters of the war, had sent former CIA Director Jim Woolsey on a Defense Department plane to Wales to try and get evidence for this crazy theory that Saddam had been involved in the original World Trade Center bombing.

(Inaudible) told us that they were gunning for Iraq.

AMANPOUR: They were gunning for Iraq and for Saddam Hussein.

STROBEL: Yes.

AMANPOUR: Jonathan, how did it feel, therefore, to be the lone holdout in this pursuit of truth and fact?

JONATHAN LANDAY, FORMER MCCLATCHY JOURNALIST: Lone holdout is a good word, because, you know, even on some of our newspapers, we worked for a chain of 30 newspapers. Even some of our own newspapers wouldn't print our stories. Why? Because they said it wasn't in "The Washington Post;" they hadn't seen it in "The New York Times."

So how could we, as Knight Ridder journalists, have (inaudible) the same thing? So it was very lonely.

And what made it actually one of the ironies is that, every time we would write something, the White House would say nothing because we realized after a while that that would have been the best advertising for our stories we could have possibly asked for.

AMANPOUR: We have, on our magic wall there, some of your headlines. And they point out the skepticism from the very beginning, some in the Bush administration have misgivings; CIA report analysts split, lack of hard evidence, Bush has decided to overthrow Saddam.

You were raising these questions. You heard about the aluminum tubes. This was like their smoking gun, so to speak.

What did you find out about that?

LANDAY: Two days before the -- the aluminum tubes was a setup story. It appeared first in "The New York Times."

That allowed administration officials, like Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Cheney, to talk about an issue that was a top secret. It was highly classified. But since it had been in "The New York Times" somehow, they were able to refer to the story in "The New York Times."

Two days before "The New York Times" story, I had written a story, saying top military, diplomatic and intelligence officials had seen no looming threat, had seen no intelligence that indicated a looming WMD threat from Iraq.

AMANPOUR: And again, of course, we do have all those "New York Times" and other headlines, illicit arms kept till eve of war, U.S. says Hussein intensified quest for A-bomb parts, Iraqi defector tells of work on at least 20 hidden weapon sites.

Again, how did you get it right? All the other reporters were going to the White House, going to the top levels of the administration, getting all these exclusives.

STROBEL: There's a problem with journalism in Washington, which is access, and "The New York Times" and others had access to the top officials, who were spinning this line. We talked to those people as well, but most of our reporting, Christiane, was with intelligence, military and diplomatic midlevel --

AMANPOUR: Lower level.

STROBEL: -- lower level, the types -- and journalists don't -- really don't talk to or go after.

AMANPOUR: And were they worried by the leading newspaper headlines and the drumbeat towards war?

LANDAY: I think that's one of the reasons why some of these people were willing to talk to us about material that was classified, which, in theory, is a breach of the law --

AMANPOUR: Not in theory, it really is.

(CROSSTALK)

LANDAY: -- which is to talk about intelligence. But like -- I like to say that these people had taken an oath to preserve, protect the Constitution of the United States, not whatever administration happened to be in power or its policy.

And the problem with going to high-level officials is that they're political appointees. They are part of the administration spin. So that's what you're going to get from them. They're going to promote wherever policy the administration is promoting.

AMANPOUR: Talk to me a little bit about the climate of the time. It was obviously right after 9/11. I was a foreign correspondent then. So I sort of wasn't as tainted, I suppose, by the pressure of the -- of the -- of the trauma of what had happened inside the U.S.

But I do remember President Bush saying you're either with us or you're with the terrorists. And obviously he was saying that to other countries. But I think -- and I wonder if you do -- the journalists in the U.S. internalized that and felt that if they didn't go along, they were being disloyal or worse.

STROBEL: Absolutely. And, Christiane, you know as well as anybody that, for TV, if you say stuff that's out of -- with the sync of the -- of the common wisdom --

AMANPOUR: Party line.

STROBEL: -- that becomes a problem for your readers and your listeners. And there was a -- this war wouldn't have happened without 9/11, obviously. That was how those who wanted to invade Iraq sold it. It extended to the media; it extended even to comedy shows that were making fun of the president. And they got shot down by the White House. It was a very, very tough situation.

And I kind of worried that it might happen again, should there be another terrorist incident --

(CROSSTALK)

LANDAY: And can I just give a little credit also to the man who was our boss at the time, John Walcott, because he said, look. We have only one question to ask: is it true? Is what the government's saying is true? That's our job as journalists.

It doesn't matter what the atmosphere is. And when you start coming up with a line, discovering that, in fact, what they're saying may not be true, it's our responsibility to keep digging --

AMANPOUR: Well --

LANDAY: -- he pushed us and pushed us, and we did.

AMANPOUR: And I was going to ask you about exactly what reaction you had from your bosses, because it's great that you had that editor. But you also had people at the top of the newspaper chain, not very happy with you guys.

STROBEL: There was a little bit of unhappiness. But by and large, I think we had support.

The fact that we weren't a Washington news organization -- and an important part of this, too, which a lot of people don't realize, is that our newspapers served military communities throughout the United States, whose sons and daughters were going to go overseas. And we felt -- and John Walcott felt -- that we had a moral right -- I'm sorry; moral --

(CROSSTALK)

AMANPOUR: Duty.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- we had a duty to explain why they were going to war if -- and if they should go to war.

LANDAY: And, actually, the irony is that -- the one inquiry I ever got from people at corporate about our reporting was about a "Wall Street Journal" op-ed, talking about that there's evidence that there -- new evidence about a link between Saddam and Al Qaeda.

Well, I said, OK; let me look into this. And it turned out that it was completely false. And I got a great story out of it about how this new evidence, in fact, was not evidence at all.

AMANPOUR: And yet I remember the polls at that time, a vast number of Americans believed that propaganda, that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in 9/11.

LANDAY: Well, that's the way it began. I mean -- I mean, it -- it didn't begin like that. I mean, they needed to put a case together. And that's what this was.

This was a concerted case that was put together by the Bush administration to win popular support for a war that -- and they did it using cherry-picked intelligence, exaggerated intelligence and intelligence that was just not intelligence. It was just purely wrong.

AMANPOUR: And we saw some of that in those sound bites and bits of interview that I just played from Condi Rice, from Colin Powell.

But there are also reporters who were invited on Sunday shows, on other political talk shows.

Why were you not? I mean, here you were, saying things that were really out there and different. What happened? You didn't get the calls to come on the Sunday shows?

LANDAY: Not at all.

STROBEL: Because we were saying -- we were reporting stuff that was unpopular. We were McClatchy newspapers and --

AMANPOUR: Who was McClatchy --

STROBEL: -- newspaper --

LANDAY: Knight Ridder.

STROBEL: And I have to say, 10 years later, as it stands, we're not exactly getting -- except for your kind invitation, you know, other people are talking about this. And they aren't the people who necessarily got it right. (Inaudible).

(CROSSTALK)

AMANPOUR: Would you say that we, as a profession, are not really good at mea culpas? Are not really good at looking at where we have gone wrong and try to set that record straight?

LANDAY: I think that's true. And I think if you look at the -- I mean, there's a reason why the credibility of the media, the news media today, is somewhere around 25 percent to 28 percent in the American public.

This episode in American history dealt a major, major blow to the credibility of the Fourth Estate, an institution that has a remarkable, a very important job in a democracy, and that is to be sort of the eyes and ears of the people, and to make sure that their government is telling them the truth.

The American media, for the most part, failed as miserably on this as the intelligence community failed in its case on WMD.

AMANPOUR: It's true.

STROBEL: And the U.S. Congress failed. I mean --

AMANPOUR: It was -- it was a big failure all around.

LANDAY: Absolutely. And we're still paying the price today.

STROBEL: New study, $2 trillion cost of the war eventually.

AMANPOUR: What's the price?

LANDAY: I mean, we still haven't seen the end of what we set -- of what the Bush administration, the train they set rolling in Iraq. It's not a democracy; it may have had democratic elections, but it's not a democracy. In fact, that region, which -- the Bush administration said, we invade Iraq ,we will bring stability to the Middle East.

Well, it is in greater turmoil today than it was 10 years ago. The cost to the American taxpayer and the economy, the cost to America's standing in the world. We did -- this country did things in the name of the American people, that government did things in the name of the American people that this country is paying the price for today. And I think, as I said, the costs are still mounting.

AMANPOUR: Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, thank you very much indeed.

STROBEL: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And after a break, of all the lies that led to the Iraq war, there was one terrible truth: weapons of mass destruction used by Saddam Hussein on his enemies and his own people. The story of Halabja when we come back.

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(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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AMANPOUR: And finally, in all the lies that led up to the Iraq War, there was one unbearable truth: Saddam Hussein had once used weapons of mass destruction against Iran in the 1980s and also against his own people in the closing days of that war.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR (voice-over): It happened 25 years ago in a Kurdish town called Halabja, a name that is now synonymous with genocide and a scene of unimaginable horror with images that are still disturbing.

Just as families were sitting down to dinner, Iraqi warplanes began to drop chemical bombs on their rooftops. Survivors said that at first the air was filled with the scent of sweet apples. They would quickly succumb to the truth. It was a lethal cocktail of nerve and mustard gas.

Some died inside their homes; other grabbed their children and sought fresh air outside. But there was no escaping the gas. And they died where they fell, 5,000 dead, 10,000 forever scarred. The first time since World War I that poison gas had been unleashed.

Today, Halabja's dead are remembered in monuments and memorials. But they cry out for more than tears. They want justice. In the cemetery, there's a headstone for everyone who died. But few are buried there because most of the victims were tossed into a mass grave.

The dead, though, may have the last word. Forensic experts hope to exhume the bodies and identify them by their DNA, not just to give them a proper burial, but to pinpoint the chemicals that killed them and the chemical manufacturers who sold them to Saddam and hold them accountable.

And meanwhile on Iraq's western border, another brutal regime, that of Bashar al-Assad of Syria, has stockpiled chemical weapons. Will he use them?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: That's it on this anniversary program. Meantime, you can always contact us on our website, amanpour.com. Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.

END