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INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS

INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS

Aired 09/19/03 - 19:30:00   ET

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

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Christiane Amanpour, in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we bring together leading journalists from around the world to examine media coverage around the world.
Could terrorists smuggle uranium into the United States? Well, ABC NEWS just did it, trying to prove that U.S. ports are anything but secure.

A team of investigative journalists shipped a container containing 15 pounds of depleted uranium from Jakarta in Indonesia to Los Angeles. The substance is harmless in this form and it is allowed to be shipped. Still, the container managed to get into the United States virtually unchecked.

The U.S. government is taking this very seriously and they're threatening to investigate ABC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You don't know whether someone is posing as someone for ABC NEWS or not. There's been instances of.

BRIAN ROSS, ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Well, you identified me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's been instances in the past in which someone has posed as a journalist that has actually carried out terrorist acts.

ROSS: Your agents identified me as being involved almost immediately. Did you think that I was a terrorist?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Of course I don't think you're a terrorist. I think you're a news reporter -- I think you're a news reporter that is trying to carry out a hoax on our inspectors.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: But how far should journalists go to get a story?

Joining me now, in New York, is Brian Ross, the correspondent who did this report from ABC NEWS, and from Washington, Howard Kurtz, media reporter for "The Washington Post" and for CNN.

Brian, first let me ask you, are you surprised at the level of criticism and investigation that you've merited from the government?

ROSS: Well, someone once told me, Christiane, that nothing is more dangerous than an embarrassed United States government, and this was the second time, the second year in a row we did this, and each time U.S. customs failed to detect the depleted uranium, which, as you say, is harmless.

They then began this huge investigation, even though they knew it was us and they knew it was depleted uranium, sending agents all over the country, five different cities. They tried to get a hold of our outtakes of our tapes. They showed up at midnight at the ABC headquarters in Los Angeles, without a warrant or a subpoena or anything, demanding to see me, demanding our material.

And they even went after the people we interviewed for our story, one of them, a nuclear physicist in Washington. As he was backing out of his driveway on Saturday morning, customs agents pulled up, blocked his car, demanded he get out of his car. His wife thought he was being robbed. And he was simply somebody who helped us on the story.

They have reacted very strongly and they are furious and most of all they're embarrassed.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you, of course you know that you've got some very strong critics, not just the government but some others in the press. One person who writes for "Slate," Jack Schaeffer (ph), has basically said that it was a stunt and that you shouldn't have broken the law to commit journalism. How do you answer that? Because you did not fill in the appropriate customs form or something.

ROSS: Well, we don't think we've committed a crime.

First of all, as you said, this material is harmless. It is legal to ship into the U.S., it is legal to own.

What we did was we followed up on what Secretary Ridge of Homeland Security and others had been saying, that the new first line of defense to make U.S. ports safer were things being done overseas, in overseas ports. That's why we went to Jakarta, an al Qaeda hotspot if there is one anywhere in the world, and we essentially found a shipper.

We didn't sign the documents. The shipper said but anything you want in the container. It didn't matter. They offered what they called door to door service to Los Angeles. And that shipping company since our report has now said they're reviewing their own practices and procedures.

We think we provided a valuable public service. I wouldn't call it a stunt. This was, you know, a serious piece of business that was approved at the highest levels within ABC after being checked by our lawyers. We're quite comfortable with what we did.

I think it's valid to talk about it, but we're comfortable with what we did.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you, Howard Kurtz. You look at the media in great depth. A valuable public service? How far should journalists go to get the kind of investigative report that Brian just did?

HOWARD KURTZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I have some reservations about what Brian Ross and ABC NEWS did, which I'll come back to in a moment.

But the most striking thing to me, Christiane, was when I got word that ABC was about to break this story, and I talked to the top spokesman at the department of Homeland Security. They really came on hard, talking about how this was a violation of law, how they were referring it to the U.S. Justice Department, how ABC might be prosecuted.

And I'm thinking, here's the United States government, faced with an obvious weakness or hole in it's much wanted security system, and instead of addressing that, they're talking about going after journalists, maybe putting Brian Ross in jail. That would have been a public relations debacle, and so I was surprised that they engaged in such a blunt approach of blaming the messenger rather that addressing the underlying problem.

AMANPOUR: Do you think, though, as you examine the media, do you think that there are any ethical issues that need to be pursued? Because, as Brian says, and I think the criticism, main criticism is, that not only do they embarrass the government, perhaps rightly, but that they didn't fill in the correct customs form to declare what they were shipping.

KURTZ: Yes. Look, as in many undercover investigations done by journalists, there is an inherent amount of deception involved in order to get the story. You don't show up and say, "Hi, we're with ABC NEWS. We're here to test your security system." You, to some degree, are deceiving the people involved, and there have been other cases like this, sometimes it's ended in litigation, and that makes me uncomfortable.

I understand that journalists, you know, have this view that the ends justify the means. It's OK for us to lie or cheat or deceive just a little bit so we can get the story. But the degree of deception here does give me pause. I understand it's a very important issue. I'm not sure that I would have done it.

ROSS: I would just say, in our case, Christiane, we never actually lied about anything. We were going to see, and we did see, what would happen if you showed up in Jakarta and how far would the shipping company do.

If this indeed is the first line of defense, it was a pretty thin line of defense. We never at any point signed any false declaration or anything of the sort. We tried, we thought, to thread the needle here, keeping in mind the very points that Howard makes.

In the end, we thought we had done something which was valuable.

KURTZ: But, Brian, weren't you dishonest about the existence of the depleted uranium? I mean that was hidden inside a lead case, correct?

ROSS: It was put in a lead case, in a suitcase that went in a trunk. And, essentially, it could have been anything, Howard. The shipping company said put anything we want in there. If that's the first line of defense, there really isn't one. And to that extent, yes, that's true.

And I guess we can debate that. We just felt that if the terrorists were tried to ship something, the real thing, certainly they're not going to declare it, and we think we found glaring loophole in the system.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you, in your own report, Brian, you have an interview with the deputy of Homeland Security, who basically says, "Well, we actually passed the test, because we did" -- I think they stopped it when they found out what it was.

ROSS: Well, they claim they passed the test on two bases. One, that they did correctly, when the ship came into Los Angeles with huge numbers of containers, they did take that container and others from Jakarta and they targeted it, which is what you would hope they would do, and that shows their system may be working.

But then they put it through the very best equipment they have, which they have said in shows for the media and for President Bush, this will catch anything, even small amounts, like we had. And it simply did not. It went right through.

When we took the container, it cleared the port in Los Angeles. We drove it through downtown Los Angeles to the warehouse we had made arrangements with. It was at that point where the truck driver who had driven the container recognized me and said, "Well, what's going on here."

And we told him, "Well, keep this under your hat, but this is a story for ABC."

So then he then called his dispatcher and they talked about it, and that's how word got to authorities.

So I think it's fair to say maybe they have at least put out the word among the people on the docks that this is something to be alert for, and I would give them some credit for that, the ability to have citizens come forward and talk about it.

It was the reaction after that, when they knew it was us and they knew it was me. Christiane, they even had a sort of photo mug shot lineup with me and five others, I don't know who they had. And the truck driver, of course, identified me, and he asked the agents, you know, "Is this man a terrorist" and they said to him, "Well, he's got some serious problems."

AMANPOUR: Well, humor aside, what has your story said to you about the state of American preparedness? In other words, what is the conclusion of the substance of your story?

ROSS: My conclusion is that at the port, it is a huge, almost impossible job, and rather than admitting that and acknowledging it and trying to deal with it, there seems to be a huge public relations effort by Homeland Security to reassure us that that problem, that hole has been plugged. And I just don't think it's the case.

It doesn't seem to be, based on our example. Now, we did not and could not find any other examples of either the GAO doing these kinds of tests, which they have done with airport security, or of Customs or Homeland Security, if they did it themselves, they haven't made it public.

We thought the only way to actually check this and validate this was to do what we did. We had done it last year, and the material went from Istanbul to New York and went through the same machines and got right through. They told us they were changing things, and I think we felt duty bound to do it again.

Someone said to me, "I wish to heck you had done that at Logan Airport in August 2001."

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask Howard. Despite some of your reservations about the methods, do you think that there are enough journalists in America today putting the spotlight on all the claims, all the things that this administration is saying it is doing about the war on terror?

KURTZ: Probably not. This is probably a more important issue than just about any one that I can think of. But, you know, we've gone a couple of years between attacks now, these things kind of fade out of the news and journalists sometimes cover things less important.

Look, as an American, I'm very glad that ABC NEWS exposed this apparent weakness in the U.S. security system. As a media reporter, I'm still made uncomfortable by the inevitable level of some deception involved. But as a citizen, I was just stunned that the Justice Department and other U.S. authorities are more interested, apparently, in harassing and blaming journalists who are trying to illuminate problems with American security than they are in perhaps fixing the problem that Brian Ross and his colleagues exposed.

AMANPOUR: A fascinating topic. Both of you, thank you so much for being with us on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS.

And up next on this program, the lighter side of the news. We'll have a look at some editorial cartoons when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

AMANPOUR: Welcome back.

Now to a couple of other media stories in brief.

A new twist in the row between the British government and the BBC. The radio journalist at the center of the controversy conceded on Wednesday that he had made mistakes in his original broadcast.

Andrew Gilligan had accused the government of sexing up an intelligence dossier on Iraq. The British government denies the allegations.

And in Zimbabwe, the last remaining independent newspaper is fighting for its survival. This week, security forces of President Robert Mugabe's government raided the offices of "The Daily News" in the capital of Harare. They confiscated equipment and shut down production.

The regime accused the paper of operating illegally, but on Thursday in a surprise move, the Supreme Court ordered the police to end their week- long closure. But the paper is still not out and we're still waiting to see if the journalists are allowed to operate. The government still is trying to keep them off the presses.

Now every week we hear opinions from leading print and broadcast journalists, but so often the truth is in laughter in the cartoonist's pen, and I'm joined now by Steve Bell, the editorial cartoonist from "The Guardian" to talk about today's cartoons from around the world.

We talked about Zimbabwe and this is one. "No news is good news."

STEVE BELL, "THE GUARDIAN": Yes this is a nice one from Shapiro (ph) in "The Suwetan (ph)," which is a South African paper. It's very nice. It's simply a nice caricature of Mugabe, and it's a dead simple idea. "No news is good news." He's just shut the shop up. But, you know, Jonathan Shapiro (ph) is a very good cartoonist.

AMANPOUR: Let's look at another one. OK. Well, we know what that is, right?

BELL: This is Arnie Schwarzenegger, which I think, hasn't played too well over here, but it seems to be a huge story in America.

This is somebody saying, "I just love what this guys says," and he's saying absolutely nothing, which is quite funny.

AMANPOUR: The rap on Arnie, yes. Big goon, not a lot of political brain.

BELL: Yes, they've made his shoulders a bit slight there, and made the head too big. I think that's a slight problem with that cartoon. But apart from that, it's very good.

AMANPOUR: Next one.

BELL: This is from Wilhelm (ph) in "Liberacion."

AMANPOUR: The French newspaper.

BELL: The French newspaper, "Liberacion." And it's -- I think it's Rumsfeld saying to Bush, "How are we going to get out of this mess." They're up to their necks in I don't know what.

And Bush is proposing, saying, "I propose we recount the votes in the state of Florida.

AMANPOUR: In other words how do we get out of this, maybe if we're not in office.

BELL: Just roll back and undo it all, which is a.

(CROSSTALK)

AMANPOUR: Referring to the Iraq situation.

BELL: Yes, it's obviously the mess in Iraq which is up to their necks. It's a very nice cartoon. Wilhelm (ph) is an excellent, very biting Dutch cartoonist working in France. He's one of the best.

This is Tom Tolls (ph), "The Washington Post" cartoonist. This comes on the arrival of General Wesley Clark in the list as a potential Democratic candidate. It's rather kind to Clark, who gave a rather bumbling performance, but it's imagining the confrontation between Clark.

AMANPOUR: A real general.

BELL: A real general, and the would-be play general, which is George Bush in his flight suit, or getting his flight suit out of the dressing up room, which is a nice touch. There's a little side comment there, Bush saying, "I'm commander-in-chief of the world's biggest deficit."

AMANPOUR: So you have been doing quite a lot of needling of Bush. Let's have a look at some of your cartoons. And you've really been taking him on quite significantly.

So here we are. Bush coming to somewhere.

BELL: This is an old one. This is when he first arrived -- this is pre-9-11. This is from June 2002, when he arrived in Europe for the first time. And it's just what I imaged he said. It was the view of him getting out of Air Force One.

AMANPOUR: This is Yurp?

BELL: This is Yurp? Where am I? Is this Yurp? Are those people Yurpeans? Can I show them my light saber.

And I think over here -- I don't know how Bush played over there. He was elected. But he plays very badly over here. Probably the way -- the thing that always strikes me about him is you can't deny that he looks like a monkey. He looks like a monkey. He walks like a monkey. He moves like a monkey and even talks like a monkey would if monkeys could talk.

AMANPOUR: And that's how Europe portrays him. Let's look at the other ones.

BELL: Yes. It's a gift from above as far as I'm concerned. I can't see why more people don't' do it. Because he does -- the guy does look like a monkey. There's no getting away from it. Apart from the fact he's sort of.

AMANPOUR: There's him with his closest allies.

BELL: This is the immediate build up to the Iraq War that's just been and gone, and it's Bush and Blair, the dynamic duo, and Blair saying to Bush, "Why won't they see things our way, George."

It's sort of self-explanatory. It's a sinister image of the cyclops, when in fact these guys were set on war. And that story seems to be coming through and actually being proved by all that's been going on since.

This is -- the essential Bush, if you like, is sort of the classic evolutionary picture.

I got a lot of stick over the Internet for this one, but it's sort of.

AMANPOUR: You got a lot of trouble for this?

BELL: I got a lot of hate male from various quarters and in America.

AMANPOUR: So what are you trying to say about Bush?

BELL: Well, Bush is, part of the problem is that he's ludicrous. It's sort of -- the Bush-Blair thing, it is a sort of policy of naked aggression.

I know the response to 9-11 has been, it has been sort of counterproductive. He has in a sense lost the sympathy of the entire world, which he did have when that terrible thing happened, and he's done it by just a series of blundering, and monstrous -- the arrogant blundering. Just sort of bulldozing away the United Nations and unfortunately Blair has gone and aided and abetted him in it.

AMANPOUR: What are you trying to say about Bush, his physical appearance? What are your cartoons and the monkey thing about?

BELL: Well, what I'm trying to say is he looks like a monkey, because he does look like a monkey. It's like is the sky blue, Bush looks like a monkey. There's -- you can't -- one of those things you can't -- he has simian features. He moves like a monkey. He walks like a monkey and talks like a monkey.

What I'm trying to say about him, his politics are brutal essentially. It's a kind of brutal neocolonialism. We're going back to that kind of thing.

(CROSSTALK)

AMANPOUR: You're an equal opportunity basher. Back many years ago when John Major was the prime minister of Great Britain, you had him constantly as the gray man in his underpants, and it stuck, didn't it?

BELL: I suppose it did. Major was a sort of unfortunately follow-up to the monstrous Thatcher. I mean, I spent years trying to metaphorically destroy Thatcher and failing miserably. Then she did go and was replaced by this astoundingly bland man who had these elements of uselessness about him. So the underpants became a sort of metaphor for uselessness.

He was like a useless perhaps superman if you like.

AMANPOUR: And is there anybody that you like? Are there any political figures that you actually portray as princes or kings or something nice?

BELL: No, because -- well, there are people I admire and I've got a definite sort of political view, but I'm not going to attack people I agree with. I'm not going to take the Mickey (ph) out of anybody, but I think political cartooning is an attacking medium. I think positive political cartoons are a really quite depressing prospect.

AMANPOUR: On that note, Steve, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

And if you want more of Steve Bell's wicked wit, his new book will be out soon, called "Unspeakable If."

Be sure to join us on the next edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. We'll be speaking with veteran journalist Walter Cronkite about the state of journalism and after the war in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WALTER CRONKITE, VETERAN JOURNALIST: Home security is believed by many here and is reported in the papers and broadcasting as not getting perhaps the funding it needs and it's not as efficient as it should be. So the whole picture is simply dark. It's very unfortunately. Of course, my goodness, nobody wants to see the United States in this shape. Part of the problem, quite obviously, is the arrogance of this administration and a certain arrogance shown in previous administrations, has lost for us the friendship that we had around the world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: That's all of this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. I'm Christiane Amanpour. Thank you for joining us.

END

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