The presidential candidates are squaring off on foreign policy, but how does the reality on the ground in Iraq compare to the political rhetoric in Coral Gables? Bill Moyers asks journalist Hannah Allam, who has spent almost a year in Iraq since the war started. Before she heads back to the frontlines, Allam, who is the bureau chief in Baghdad for Knight Ridder, tells Moyers about her personal experiences and gives us an eyewitness account of what it’s like to be up-close to the fighting. And with two Presidential debates left, what should we be asking the candidates? Bill Moyers gets perspective on the showdown from former WASHINGTON POST reporter and veteran investigative journalist Morton Mintz. Mintz is the former chair of the Fund for Investigative Journalism and has been a reporter for almost 60 years.
Why are the political and social conditions in Iraq so ripe for the rise of insurgents like Muqtada al-Sadr, and why do they hold legitimacy among so many Iraqis? David Brancaccio gets historical and political context to the current conflict in Iraq from Vali Nasr, a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, CA. Nasr is the author of several books on Islam.
Are new government energy policies threatening Montana’s pristine landscapes? NOW’s David Brancaccio travels to the Rocky Mountain Front, one of America’s last great wildernesses, which could be opened to drilling because of the administration’s efforts to fast track the extraction of oil and gas. The program looks at the work of well-known environmentalist Gloria Flora, and her fight to save the Front. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.
BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.
During the last 48 hours, we’ve been caught once again between the rhetoric about Iraq and the reality in Iraq. Here’s the rhetoric from the debate last night.
BUSH: The enemy understands a free Iraq will be a major defeat in their ideology of hatred. That’s why they’re fighting so vociferously.
KERRY: The critical component of success in Iraq is being able to convince the Iraqis and the Arab world that the United States doesn’t have long-term designs on it.
BRANCACCIO: That’s what the candidates are saying. Now here’s the reality since just yesterday. As a U.S. convoy was passing through the streets of west Baghdad, bombs began to explode. Soldiers blocked off the area.
But 35 children who’d been at a neighborhood celebration for the opening of a new sewage station were dead. Dozens more were injured. The children had rushed to get candy from the American soldiers.
Overnight, the U.S. launched an attack on Samarra to take the city back from insurgents. It’s the site of one the holiest shrines in the Shiite world.
MOYERS: For those American troops, David, the death toll has risen for four straight months. Yet even as we speak, Hannah Allam is flying right back into the chaos of Iraq. She’s Knight Ridder’s Baghdad bureau chief and has spent the last year in the most dangerous sectors of the war. Hannah Allam is one of the few Arabic-speaking reporters from the west and that’s let her move freely among the Iraqi people, even among the insurgents.
On her way to the airport this today, she stopped by our studio here in New York. Thank you for joining us.
ALLAM: Thank you.
MOYERS: You’ve been there over a year. Since the invasion itself was over, and the occupation, liberation began. Do you become suspicious of everyone? I mean, when you’re in your car in Baghdad, crowded with traffic today, and you look out the window, and you see two or three folks in the next car looking at you, what do you think?
ALLAM: A chill runs down your spine. And yes, you’re always sort of on edge. There’s an undercurrent of fear whenever you venture outside your hotel. And now as we’ve seen with the kidnappings of, and subsequent killings, beheadings of the two Americans and the unknown fate of the third hostage, the British man, you don’t even have to go outside to encounter insurgents. Now they’re coming to you.
MOYERS: What do you mean?
ALLAM: They infiltrated their compound, and abducted them from the safety, relative safety of their home in Baghdad. So, that really was a turning point for journalists who lived outside a heavily guarded compound.
MOYERS: I looked at this photograph of you in Sadr City. Standing next to this masked man with an automatic weapon. I mean, does he hear you, and say, “This is one of us?” Or does he hear a western accent in your Arabic?
ALLAM: That photo, which I like to call my, “Let’s give mom a heart attack photo.” Yes, that definitely they feel more comfortable when they see me in the traditional Islamic coverings. When I give them a traditional greeting, and can make conversation with them in Arabic, definitely they’re less suspicious of me than probably someone going in, who’s blond-haired, or blue-eyed.
Although I must stress, I mean, they’ve taken plenty of Egyptians hostage, plenty of Turkish workers hostage, Kurdish people. People who are also Muslim, or of Middle Eastern descent. These days, the lines are really blurred and if you’re seen being any sort of tentacle of the occupation, or of the U.S. presence there, then you’re at risk.
MOYERS: Tell me about the time a few months ago you were arrested by the police. What was that about?
ALLAM: I was in Najaf, covering the stand-off around the Holy Imam Ali shrine there. I happened to be in my hotel room one night.
And I heard a loud bang. I thought we’d come under mortar or rocket attack. And I peaked over, sort of an indoor balcony. And I saw a masked gunman running up the stairs.
And I thought we were under an insurgent attack. And you know, that was probably it for me. And then I noticed they were wearing Iraqi police armbands. And so I thought maybe the insurgents were dressing as police and I just couldn’t figure out what was going on.
In the end, they did turn out to be police. But sort of this renegade police force that went inside our hotel where a number of journalists were staying, both foreign and Arab journalists. They shot up the hotel, took us out at gunpoint, loaded us on flatbed trucks, and carted us off to the police station in the middle of the night. Very, very dangerous. This was in the middle of the siege, with the, you know, roads lined with bombs, homemade bombs, improvised explosive devices, as they’re called.
And we were told that we were going to report their side of the story, sort of by hook or crook. And that they’d come under mortar attack that night. And we were going to just sit with them, and see what it feels like to be in their shoes. So—
MOYERS: How long did they hold you?
ALLAM: Only for a couple of hours.
MOYERS: Were you afraid?
ALLAM: Oh, I was terrified at first. I remember my legs turning to jelly at one point. I just thought I can’t walk. It was, I was very frightened.
MOYERS: Is the chaos an effort, in your judgment as a reporter, analyst, to prevent the elections from taking place in January?
ALLAM: I think so, sure. There have been a number of, well, just about every deadline that the U.S. and the new Iraqi government have set on the path towards elections has been delayed so far.
Everything from the census, to the national assembly process and on down the line.
MOYERS: One of the reports overnight says that the children who were killed yesterday, who were out standing in line for the candy that the Americans were passing out, would have been in school at this time of the year, except for the chaos. Is that an extent, is that a little picture of how the chaos has upset— upended normal life in Iraq?
ALLAM: Yes. You know, when I first arrived in Iraq, I remember looking out, and seeing all these fathers walking their daughters to school. And I remarked to my translator, “Oh, how sweet. You know? Is that an Iraqi tradition? The fathers, you know, walking their daughters to school? How sweet.”
And she said, “No. Actually, it’s just because of the kidnappings. This is something new.”
MOYERS: So, are there big stories that you can’t cover because of this?
MOYERS: Such as?
ALLAM: Fallujah. Fallujah breaks my heart. I used to drive to Fallujah for a kabob restaurant there. And now, you know, I don’t know what it would take to get me to go to Fallujah. But—
ALLAM: It’s just, you don’t know who you’re dealing with there. The U.S. military can’t say who we’re dealing with there for sure. It’s just such a mixture of foreign fighters, and native Iraqi insurgents that, you know, it’s sort of a free for all there, an insurgent free for all.
And if you get unlucky, and get captured by the wrong group, you won’t be going home to write a story. You’ll be sitting somewhere on a ground, you know, on a dusty floor with a video camera in front of you and three guys with rocket-propelled grenade launchers standing behind you. And I don’t— I can’t tell my mother that that video was worth the story I was there to do.
MOYERS: Why is Fallujah so important to what’s happening in Iraq? Why is that a big story?
ALLAM: It’s really— this is the Sunni heartland. This was the bastion of support for Saddam’s regime. Not just Fallujah but the entire Anbar Province. It’s a very large province northwest of Baghdad. And it represents something like 25 percent of the population, of Sunni Muslims. Whose fortunes have really been reversed with the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
So if you don’t have stability in a place like the Anbar Province, how can you have voter drives there? How can you have a census? How can you really prepare for an election that is intended to include everyone?
MOYERS: You know, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said the other day that, “So you don’t have voting in every part of Iraq. Nothing’s perfect, including democracy.” What are your thoughts on that?
ALLAM: Well, you know, I’ve heard people say, that’s like saying, let’s have elections that just forget Oklahoma and New York. You know, and you can’t, and especially somewhere like Iraq which is— it’s extremely diverse.
Especially, you know, in relation to other countries in the Middle East. I mean, there’s Kurds and Christians, Syrians. You know, obviously Muslims. Two or three different sects of Muslims. So I mean, to lop off a couple of major provinces is to really to leave out a large important segment of the Iraqi population.
MOYERS: So, what are we readers and viewers back here missing?
ALLAM: Well, certainly I’m sure there are good news stories out of Iraq with different, you know, reconstruction projects. I don’t know the pace of reconstruction in—
MOYERS: You can’t find out?
ALLAM: Well, it’s difficult. I mean I can’t go certainly as a reporter and see it for myself in these sort of primary sources. So, you know, it’s difficult.
MOYERS: Just this week, the Pentagon instructed one of its private contractors in Iraq, the firm Kroll Security, to stop giving out factual information about the number and frequency of these attacks. How are you going to find out from official sources what’s happening with reconstruction when they’ve been told by the Pentagon not to tell you?
ALLAM: Yes, it’s always been very difficult to get those kinds of figures from the private companies that are doing contracts. But I mean, it’s hard. It’ll be hard to find out the scope of attacks. But it’s not hard to look at the figures on reconstruction and find out the pace of reconstruction.
And so far, of the I think 18 and a half billion dollars that Congress approved for Iraqi reconstruction, just over a billion has been spent. And even most of that, as recent reports have shown, doesn’t even reach Iraqis. A lot of that is eaten up in overhead costs and security costs.
So, I mean just from those figures alone, you can see that indeed, the pace of reconstruction is slow and you don’t even have to do that. You can look out my window in Baghdad and you can see there’s very, very little difference in the landscape now than, you know, from when I moved there just over a year ago.
MOYERS: What do you see when you look out that window? You’re in a hotel.
MOYERS: In the heart of the city.
ALLAM: That’s right.
MOYERS: What do you see?
ALLAM: I see a lot of coiled razor wire. I see high blast walls, thick concrete walls. I see children playing. And there’s sort of normal street scenes mixed in with the rumble of a Bradley fighting vehicle or the whir of a helicopter’s blades outside my balcony.
So it’s really, it’s sort of two competing images. You can see Iraqis eating ice cream and then a second later, their conversation is drowned out by a tank rumbling by.
MOYERS: And you’re heading right back into the belly of the beast.
ALLAM: That’s right.
MOYERS: Well, we wish you continuing luck while you’re there. Thank you very much for joining us on NOW.
ALLAM: Thank you.
BRANCACCIO: There’s more to come on NOW. Executive orders from the White House put prized wilderness areas on the fast track for drilling.
FLORA: Energy development here, the search for natural gas here, I say is trivial because of the minute quantity of natural gas that’s likely to be found.
BRANCACCIO: With the price of energy going through the roof, wildcatters see dollar signs in these slopes.
There’s a DVD of a classic film being released this month by the Criterion Collection that may be instructive after that assessment of Iraq.
The list of groups that have learned from the film could not be more divergent, from the Black Panthers to the Rand Corporation thinktank. It’s called THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, a film former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski said, quote, “deals with a reality which is very similar to that that we confront today in Baghdad.”
The images you are about to see are disturbing but they’re also revelatory. In fact, over the last year there was a screening for Pentagon people with the invitation reading: “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas.”
THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS is a 1965 film about the violent push by nationalists in Algeria for independence from France. The film focuses on an urban guerilla war fought by local insurgents against an occupying power that had overestimated its popularity and underestimated its opposition.
It’s the 1950’s. Early in the film we meet young Ali La Pointe, a petty criminal. In prison, he’s radicalized against the western occupiers when he witnesses, among other things, the official beheading of a political prisoner.
Upon his release, Ali is drawn into the shadowy world of the Algerian insurgency, which feeds on the powerlessness and humiliation felt by ordinary Arabs living under western rule.
Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s drama draws heavily on the tactics and strategy of the real-life insurgency. Further complicating the distinction between docu and drama is that fellow playing Ali’s terrorist commander. He’s Saadi Yacef, a former director of the actual Algerian insurgency and a co-producer of the film.
The director’s artistry and sympathy is especially apparent as Arab women working for the insurgency make themselves look western, blending into the population in order to hide bombs.
But at key moments, the film raises profound moral questions about the rebels’ tactics. We see the faces of those about to become innocent victims of terrorism.
Viewed through the prism of Iraq, other scenes are especially resonant, like the random suddenness of the insurgent attacks. They are both low-tech and lethal.
Then there’s a scene that’s painful to watch at any time, but especially now, after the abuses in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. This commander of French forces in Algeria is confronted by a reporter about human rights.
COL. MATHIEU: We’re neither madmen nor sadists. Those who call us fascists forget the role that many of us played in the Resistance. Therefore, to be precise, it is my turn to ask a question. Should France stay in Algeria? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the consequences.
BRANCACCIO: If you answer “yes” to staying in Algeria, the colonel says, then you must accept the consequences— that is, a military policy to use torture to extract information about terrorists.
There are two endings. The military campaign against the rebels wins. The soldiers track down key members of the insurgency and wipe them out.
The French win the Battle of Algiers but lose the war for hearts and minds.
On July 2, 1962, the other ending: Algeria’s independence from France.
It’s worth noting that a real French officer fighting the actual Algerian National Liberation Front was a man named Jacques Chirac, who became the French president who warned the Bush administration before the outbreak of war that Iraq could become a mess.
But how valid are these comparisons to Iraq and what do they tell us about the larger forces at play in the Middle East?
Who better to answer those questions than the man the military depends on to teach young up-and-coming officers about the intricacies of Iraq and the Middle East? Vali Nasr is an expert on the politics of Islam and a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
He’s also the author of THE ISLAMIC LEVIATHAN: ISLAM AND THE MAKING OF STATE POWER. Vali Nasr, welcome to NOW.
NASR: Good to be here.
BRANCACCIO: How far can we go with this Algeria-Iraq comparison? I mean, the French colonized Algeria for 130 years, there were many French settlers in that country. There are differences certainly.
NASR: Yes there are. The United States has not made it its policy that it wants to stay in Iraq for the long term. And its objective is to bring Democracy and stability to Iraq. But, at least in the minds of the Iraqis, what happened in Algeria, the examples of the colonial period, are very powerful frameworks through which they understand their reality today.
And the power and the emotive appeal that it has to the people comes from this call for independence, sovereignty, nationalism, which is an old call.
BRANCACCIO: And the deep irony is, of course, that the United States and its Coalition of the Willing, are not saying that they want to do anything other than that. In other words, they’re saying, “Iraq, we want you to become a nation. We don’t want to stand in the way of that.” But yet still, nationalism rises up?
NASR: What the United States and the coalition wanted the Iraqis to think is a kind of a Japanese view of nationalism. In other words, we should vest our national aspirations in progress, development, modernization. Whereas, the kind of nationalism that the insurgents are appealing to, is that old nationalism of fists in the air, rejecting any foreign presence, demanding liberation at all costs.
So in some ways, it is a battle of two national aspirations on the ground. One way is by the insurgents, the other one is being promoted by the United States. And in the end, it would be which one would be listened to more credibly by the Iraqi population.
BRANCACCIO: Now, Professor, you’re saying a something a little different from what seems to be the major thrust of the Bush administration in terms of interpreting the insurgency in Iraq. The Bush administration seems to emphasize foreign fighters linked to Al Qaeda spreading Islamic fundamentalism. They don’t use this nationalism word that often.
NASR: Well there are foreign fighters in Iraq. There’s evidence of it. There is foreign support even for local fighters in Iraq coming from the other countries.
BRANCACCIO: General Abizaid told the WASHINGTON POST this week about 1,000 was his estimate of the foreign fighters.
NASR: That’s true. But, they might be very effective 1,000 fighters. But, it’s a mistake to think that that’s the beginning and end of the insurgency. In other words, the insurgency supported by social movements, by tribal elements, by disgruntled youth, by gang elements, criminal elements, that had been festering in Iraq during the Saddam period. After the fall of the Saddam regime, there was a vacuum during which they were able to organize, recruit, gather arms, spread their wings.
And they are essentially arguing for a free space politically. They want to assert their power. They have a claim to power in Iraq. But, also their emotive appeal to the population is fighting against a, quote un-quote, occupation force.
BRANCACCIO: I have to ask you something else about Iraqi Democracy. Often people talk around this. You talk about this move toward a “real Democracy.” Yet, since the Shiites are the majority, it’s gonna put them in power. You’re originally from a Shia family in Iran. This is the— don’t the Sunnis look at this? And don’t the Kurds look at this and get very suspicious of what Democracy really means? When in fact, if you look at the population, it will disenfranchise them to some extent.
NASR: Absolutely. I mean, part of the problem in Iraq is that regime change in Iraq had winners and it had losers. The winners were the Kurds and they the Shiites. And the losers were the Sunnis. They were an absolute minority. The Sunni Arabs, that is, I mean.
They were an absolute minority which had a disproportionate that amount of power during the Saddam regime. They see themselves as marginalized in an electoral process. This has brought to the fore, if you would, a big debate in Iraq about what should be the shape of the Constitution and the Democracy. Should it be somewhat of a, if you would, controlled Democracy, more like Lebanon, in which certain guarantees would be given to minorities? Or that they would be given a certain proportion of the Parliament?
Or should it be, as Grand Ayatollah Sistani insists, one man, one vote, and let the chips fall where they may. And some of the dilemma the US faces is that it cannot satisfy every community in this. And at some point in time, it has to choose. That whether it’s going to side with what the Shiite aspiration is. Or to side with what the— or give the Sunnis some of what they want. And potentially, we cannot satisfy everybody in Iraq.
BRANCACCIO: So you have this swelling of nationalism as you describe it. And you mentioned youth. That is a major component, one important component of what we’re seeing in Iraq. I hear that for instance, the followers of the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, there may be 100,000 young supporters. What is the significance of the youth component of this nationalism?
NASR: Well, all of the Middle Eastern countries are now saddled with what is called the youth bulge. In other words, the majority, or a good portion of the population are in their 20’s or under 25. And that represents first of all, economic challenges. In other words, there are no jobs for them. They are not integrated into a local economy. They are essentially hanging around the neighborhoods. You could say the youth are the most mobile, the most energetic elements of the population. The one that is most likely to pick up arms, to engage in risky behavior, political behavior. It’s the one that is most likely to be swayed by ideological, militant views.
It’s not tied down, if you would, to economic relationships. And all of these play a role in why these movements are able to recruit, are able to organize. And why some of the militant arguments find a fertile soil on the ground.
BRANCACCIO: So where are we in the curve of the Al Qaeda type movement?
NASR: We are at divergent curves. In other words, there are different trends in the Muslim world. You can look at Indonesia, Turkey and Iran and say that the populations in these countries are looking for ways in which they could have Islamic values in a democratic, open economic setting. And then you have areas of the Muslim world where you have these sort of militant, nationalist, anti-western ideology that is promoting violence: war against the state, war against the west, around against the United States. And one of the challenges to U.S. foreign policy is how to follow policies that encourages the first trend and not the second trend. Although on our radar, we all the time see the second trend. That’s the main, if you would, animus for policy making.
BRANCACCIO: It’s one picked up by TV cameras.
NASR: The one picked up by TV cameras. So we look at Al Qaeda, we look at terrorism, we look at kidnapping in Saudi Arabia, in Iraq, across the Muslim world. And that’s the one that leads us to think that we need to follow certain aggressive policies against it, which we may very well have to. But the issue is that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there are also other important trends in the Muslim world, and that Al Qaeda should not overshadow those. Ultimately, Al Qaeda’s real victory will be if it can derail that process.
BRANCACCIO: What does this moment in history in Iraq mean for U.S. relations to the rest of the Middle East? Has it redefined the United States relationship with the rest of the region as well?
NASR: Yes it has, in very profound ways. First of all, although we don’t often and acknowledge and talk about it, we are now a Middle Eastern country. We are sitting in Afghanistan, we are sitting in the Persian Gulf, we are sitting in Iraq. When I was in Turkey, the Turks would joke, “our neighbors to the South, the United States.”
So we are part of the region. Every government in the region now looks at the United States, its potential power, its interest in the region. The way in which the United States looks at the region from the vantage point of this reality.
For instance, the Iranians make their strategic calculations now based on the fact that they’re facing a very powerful U.S. military presence on three sides. To their South in the Gulf, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq. So, we’ve, if you would, we’ve deeply disturbed and changed the strategic balance of power in the region.
Secondly, when we went into Iraq, we liberated the Shiite population in Iraq, from Sunni rule. Now particularly the hard-line, militant fundamentalists in the Arab world, which are equally anti-American and they are anti-Shi’a. They view this development as a religious challenge.
The United States’ help with regime change in Iraq has empowered the other sect of Islam, which the hard-line Sunnis, particularly the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia, view as un-Islamic, as non-Muslim, as heathen. And this is a huge animus for the anti-Americanism among the hard-line Sunnis. And then thirdly, you have the images coming out of Iraq. The notion that this is a war against Islam has been fanning anti-Americanism which is becoming a constraint on many governments that are pro-American or trying to engage in globalization and the like.
BRANCACCIO: In governments that already have some trouble for themselves. In which they’re deeply unpopular, throughout the region.
NASR: Absolutely. So any leader in the region or all the way to Southeast Asia, or Africa, who looks at political costs and opportunities like any politician would, now has to sit down and look at again what the risks and opportunities that confront them. And you have their oppositions being silenced. Many of the pro-Democracy forces don’t feel that it’s the right time to be engaging NGO’s and foreign governments. Because they can be very easily branded as as Trojan horses of the United States.
In other words, what the war in Iraq has done, is that it’s created a huge wedge issue in the Muslim world, a sort of a black and white situation. And the images you see is of this force engaged in battle against much less well-equipped resistance force.
Now the details of what the insurgents do or don’t do, or kill children or the like become vaguer and less important as the news travels all the way, say to Indonesia.
With the Indonesians they see is a conflict between, you know, grenade toting youth running around in Najaf or in Sadr City, and U.S. tanks and Humvees and the like. And this creates, if you would, an Islam versus the West, Islam versus America kind of an image. And in the broader Muslim world, this will have an impact on U.S. foreign policy and also on local governments.
BRANCACCIO: Given this, what should the U.S. do to have some sort of positive impact in the region?
NASR: Well, there are no easy solutions. There are no easy exits. Iraq, as the President said, is now a very complicated process. Bringing stability to it requires a lot of resources and patience. But it requires us to also not lose sight of the ball. In other words, we need to focus on bringing a legitimate independent government to Iraq that is accepted by Iraqis as an expression of their voice. Once that has occurred, that would be probably the best testament to the fact that U.S. has good intentions or had good intentions to begin with towards Iraq. And if that government is viewed as legitimate by Iraqis, it can put Iraq’s house in order, with the help of the international community. And that will help, if you would, reduce the tensions that have been flared as a consequence of the war in Iraq.
BRANCACCIO: Indeed, a long term challenge for the United States in the Middle East. The book is called THE ISLAMIC LEVIATHAN: ISLAM AND THE MAKING OF STATE POWER.
Professor Vali Nasr, thank you very much.
NASR: Thank you for having me.
MOYERS: So from the reality of Iraq back to the rhetoric of the campaign. There’s nobody who knows more about how to cut through that rhetoric than Morton Mintz.
He has been a reporter for 60 years, 30 of them at the WASHINGTON POST where he was one of the country’s premier investigative journalists. His by-lines topped one important revelation after another, from the story of the dangerous drug thalidomide to General Motors’ spying on Ralph Nader. Because of his long career as a reporter asking tough questions, we asked Morton Mintz to compose a list of things he’d like to put to President Bush and Senator Kerry at the next debate a week from tonight in St. Louis.
Morton Mintz is with us now via satellite from Washington. Welcome.
MINTZ: Thank you.
MOYERS: What was your overall impression last night of the debate?
MINTZ: I had much higher impression— much better impression of the questions. They were strong, bold sometimes. The answers were a mixed bag as one would expect.
One of the problems was that each of the candidates said things that cried out for answers from the other. And there were no answers many, many times.
KERRY: And so today, we are 90 percent of the casualties…
MINTZ: When Senator Kerry said repeatedly that there were— that we are taking 90 percent of the casualties and paying 90 percent of the cost of the war in Iraq. That cried out for an answer.
When President Bush kept praising President Allawi of Iraq, one would think that he’d been a freely elected president and we had nothing to do with it. Senator Kerry never picked up on that.
BUSH: We’ll be implementing a missile defense system…
MINTZ: When the President said, “My opponent opposed the missile defenses.” He’s referring, of course, to National Missile Defense.
MOYERS: Star Wars?
MINTZ: Star Wars. And here we have a program that is on the road to costing at least $100 billion. It’s unproved, and that’s a generous phrase, and the threat is unreal.
Why are we spending all this money? Well, we never heard from Senator Kerry why he’s opposed, why some of that money isn’t going to protect the tunnels and the bridges and the subway systems and so forth that he spoke about. And the President never responded to that. Why is so little money being spent on infrastructure, protecting chemical plants, nuclear plants?
MOYERS: If you had been asking the questions last night, what’s the first question you would have put to President Bush and to Senator Kerry?
MINTZ: Well, I think I would have asked the President, “What did you do on August 6th, 2001 on receiving the Presidential Daily Brief that included the CIA article headlined, “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S.?”
MOYERS: So, what’s your question to Senator Kerry that you’d like to ask?
MINTZ: What leads you to believe that you could persuade France, Germany and other European countries to send troops to Iraq?
MOYERS: Now, why do you make that your first question to Kerry?
MINTZ: Well, because he has created the impression that he has the ability to persuade our allies to really pitch in and help us in that God awful mess we’re in over there. I think it’s a position that’s open to challenge.
MOYERS: Well, next week the focus will be on domestic issues. What is the first question you would put to these two men if you were leading off the debate next week?
MINTZ: Here’s one for the President that I’m sure he would not particularly welcome. But I’ll try to find one for Senator Kerry similarly. In August, you called the idea of a national sales tax an interesting idea that we ought to explore seriously. The quote drew criticism. And after that, you said on LARRY KING LIVE, people put words in your mouth. Who put the words in your mouth?
For Senator Kerry, Democrats up to and including former President Clinton have faulted the way you’ve run your presidential campaign. Does your campaign management generate public confidence in how you would run the White House?
MOYERS: What do you think President Bush does not want to talk about? And what do you think Senator Kerry does not want to talk about?
MINTZ: I think that President Bush does not want to talk about the continuing explosive, exploding disasters in Iraq. Look what we had yesterday. 34 children, at least 34 children killed. 139 people wounded. I don’t think he wants to talk about that.
He wants to talk as if we’re having great success. I think that Senator Kerry does not want to talk about the fact that he has, as the President devastatingly almost put it, sends mixed messages. If, for example, he had opposed the war, we would have had a clear cut issue. We don’t have that.
We have an issue about who would fight it better. I don’t think that the President wants to talk about what happened in Afghanistan where Bin Ladin, we believe was within reach. And as Senator Kerry said, we had American troops who were well trained, equipped who could have gone after him.
And instead we outsourced to the warlords.
MOYERS: Now, next Tuesday night, there’s the debate between Vice President Cheney and Senator John Edwards. What would you ask those two men if you were leading off that debate with the first question?
MINTZ: Well, I would ask the Vice President this, the administration budget provides New York State with $5.47 per person from the anti-terrorism budget. Wyoming gets $38.31 per person. Why are seven times more security dollars per person going to a remote prairie state that happens to be home to Vice President Cheney.
MOYERS: What would you ask Senator Edwards?
MINTZ: Would you urge Congress to raise the minimum wage? And if so, by how much?
MOYERS: Why is that a question for him?
MINTZ: Because by asking how much, it seems to me we pin down a question that’s just floating out there and it will rally some people to him and make others oppose him.
MOYERS: Well, Morton Mintz, this has been very interesting and helpful to me. We’re going to post all of the questions that you sent us, and there are a score more of them, on our pbs.org website.
Thank you very much for joining us on NOW.
MINTZ: Well, thank you, Bill. It was a pleasure to be here.
BRANCACCIO: One thing the candidates are not talking much about on the stump is the environment and the legacy we leave our children.
This week, as the price of a barrel of oil gushed to the $50 mark, wildcatters and big energy companies are eyeing millions of acres of wilderness in the west. At these prices, they don’t need a big oil or gas strike to make a profit.
And they have powerful friends in Washington more than willing to clear the way for them, as producer Bryan Myers and I found on a recent trip to Montana.
Take a look at this. It’s called the Rocky Mountain Front, a place unlike any other on earth. In western Montana, it’s where the long line of the Great Plains hits the Rocky Mountains right in the shins.
The Rocky Mountain Front announces its presence in dramatic fashion. This sight has awed and inspired humans since Native Americans first settled this area thousands of years ago. Gloria Flora knows these mountains well.
FLORA: This area is just where the Rocky Mountains literally crash into the Great Plains. That’s why you have these large, these huge reefs of limestone cliffs that are literally thrusting up and over the Plains.
BRANCACCIO: During her 22 years with the U.S. Forest Service, Flora made it her mission to protect this land and others like it. And now she may be facing her biggest challenge yet. The energy industry, supported by the White House, is pushing hard to open the front to drilling. They could get the go ahead as early as next spring.
FLORA: You can see the small cat-track that sort of carved up the front of the slope here. That is following the route of the road they intend to improve and that is supposed to haul 100 semi-truck loads of material up to the top of the plateau.
BRANCACCIO: These mountains are as rich in wildlife as they are beautiful. In them lies a modern day Garden of Eden — as pristine as the day Lewis and Clark first set eyes on it two centuries ago.
FLORA: There are literally hundreds of species of animals that are thriving here. Antelope, deer, elk, the largest big-horn sheep population in the United States, also grizzly bear, black bear, wolves, lynx, wolverines, and mountain lion, just to name a few!
BRANCACCIO: As a young government employee, Flora learned a lot about the energy industry’s interest in public land. In 1995, she was named supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, an enormous swath of land one and a half times the size of Delaware. Much of the Rocky Mountain Front lies within the Forest.
FLORA: When I first came into the position of supervisor of Lewis and Clark National Forest, the Forest was just embarking on an analysis, an environmental impact statement, reviewing the feasibility of leasing for oil and gas, the lands of the Lewis and Clark National Forest. And the public was resounding in their response. They did not want to see leasing and oil and gas development on the Rocky Mountain Front.
BRANCACCIO: So in 1997, as supervisor of the Forest, Flora put a halt to any new leases for oil and gas. In her decision, she cited what she calls the area’s “sense of place,” the emotional bonds people have for these mountains.
FLORA: That hadn’t really been done before in the Forest Service for a major decision and the response was so exciting. I received flowers. I received over 400 letters and phone calls. People on the L.A. freeway would call me: “I’m stuck in traffic, but I just heard about your decision. I love it. Thank you.”
BRANCACCIO: Not everyone was so enthusiastic. The energy industry thought Flora’s ideas about “sense of place” were nonsense, so it appealed the ban all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the Court refused to hear the case, and the ban still stands.
What though, is the wilderness good for?
FLORA: You know, I have to laugh when people ask me that, because I do get asked that on occasion. “What is it not good for?” is my question in return. The wilderness represents the land as it was, and as it can and will be into the future. And it provides us not only the understanding of an undisturbed ecosystem, but it also provides a beautiful opportunity for people to reconnect with nature. And that is a fast disappearing commodity in the world.
BRANCACCIO: Flora has since left the Forest Service, but finds herself fighting the energy industry once again. The industry is making a new push to get in here, encouraged by the Bush administration and motivated by high energy prices. Flora now represents a coalition trying to stop them.
Here’s the dilemma: Flora’s 1997 ban on new leases only applies to areas of the front under the Forest Service. But some of this land is overseen by another government agency — the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM. And the BLM is dancing to a different tune.
In May of 2001, just four months into office, President Bush issued two Executive Orders designed to speed up approval of drilling on public land. In fact, these orders largely mimic language provided by the energy industry. And they seem to have worked. Over the last four years, the number of permits granted for new wells nationwide has almost doubled — from about 3000 to 6000 a year.
There may be somebody watching this who says, look, I understand the need to preserve beautiful public land. But it’s clear that we need more energy sources in this country.
FLORA: On the surface, that makes a rather sound argument, doesn’t it? However, if one looks just below the surface, we can see that through experience, that conservation — just more intelligent use of the energy we have — would save us millions of barrels of gasoline on a daily basis, and untold quantities of natural gas. We also have to remember, we’re relying on a non-renewable resource that every indicator is showing that it is in ever dwindling supply, and will be more and more costly to extract.
BRANCACCIO: Flora thought that point had been made clear before. In 1990, under the first President Bush, the government did a study on the potential for energy exploration in the front. It found the chance of drilling a productive well was, quote, “—very low,” possibly less than 3%.
FLORA: Our lives do not depend on a smattering of additional natural gas. I put forward that in the simple terms of supply and demand, what is going to be in very short supply in the future are landscapes like the Rocky Mountain Front. That will be what people are clamoring for.
BRANCACCIO: What about the economic development argument? I mean, jobs in this country are not exactly falling from trees. And natural gas development might create some jobs here.
FLORA: Well, I’m glad you asked that question David, because very interestingly, when pressed, the company that is a proponent of development has admitted that what they’re talking about is five to seven jobs.
BRANCACCIO: Five to seven jobs total?
FLORA: Period. That’s it. Yeah, five to seven jobs.
BRANCACCIO: The public appears to be solidly behind Flora once again. According to the Wilderness Society, the BLM has received almost 50,000 responses to this latest effort to allow drilling in the Front. An extraordinary number, more than 99%, oppose development. So why does the BLM continue to move forward with the permit process? Flora has a theory.
FLORA: My sense is that the Bush administration is pushing to get into these areas, because they know if they can break through the barriers and the obstacles to develop in the Rocky Mountain Front, they can get in anywhere, now or in the future.
BRANCACCIO: The fact of the matter is that only a tiny percentage of people watching us will ever actually physically get to visit here. Why does this fight, would you say, matter to them?
FLORA: For one, this is public land. It belongs to the public, those alive, those who will be alive in the future. Secondly, that relationship and that yearning for a relationship with nature lies deep within all of us. I think we understand on a very deep level that the air we breathe, the water we drink, are dependent on natural systems functioning effectively.
BRANCACCIO: To get a better sense of what’s at stake, take a look from the air. This part of the Front is the most likely to be opened to industry. It’s called the Blindhorse Outstanding Natural Area.
FLORA: The BLM uses the designation “Outstanding Natural Area” when they find ecosystems that are a very unique combination of plants, animals, water, and these areas are supposed to be treated differently, with the special protections to preserve those outstanding natural characteristics.
BRANCACCIO: Flora can’t believe they’re thinking of drilling here — that designation was created by Congress for the explicit purpose of protecting areas just like this. Yet three wells could go up on this hillside as early as next spring.
Flying over the front gives you the bird’s eye view. But to experience the landscape in three dimensions, you have to go overland. It’s here that the scale of these ridges hits home, horses and riders dwarfed by the rocks rising thousands of feet.
We took a ride up into the Blindhorse Area. Chuck Blixrud was our guide. Blixrud has lived in the shadow of the Rocky Mountain Front for 50 years. He’s an outfitter, and for him, these hills are not just scenery, they’re his livelihood — a popular destination for tourists and hunters.
It took us about three hours on a steep, rocky path to get to the spot where a company called Startech Energy wants to drill. For Startech to get their equipment up here, they’ll have to make a road straight up the side of the mountain. They’ve already marked where they plan to put their rig.
BLIXRUD: This derrick is high enough here that it would show from the flat country coming in. They could probably see it for quite a while, quite a ways.
FLORA: Well, it’s hard to imagine with that lit up and making noise 24 hours a day, and the noise bouncing off those mountains, I don’t imagine much wildlife would stay nearby.
BRANCACCIO: Fly north from the Blindhorse Outstanding Area, and you can see one spot after another where wells might end up. In fact, some of the Front’s most spectacular natural features have been considered for drilling.
FLORA: One of the proposals was to come up this canyon.
BRANCACCIO: To get a preview of what the Rocky Mountain Front might look like if it’s opened to widespread drilling, just keep flying north to Canada. Just across the border, in the Canadian Rockies, almost every valley and canyon in sight has a well.
FLORA: As you can see, there is pretty serious roads up each drainage. Power lines. The tracks of pipelines. Quite a few wells scattered on the valley bottom, as well as on the slopes.
BRANCACCIO: And right in the middle of it all sits this. Known as a sweetening plant, it’s where the natural gas from the Canadian wells is collected and toxic elements are removed before the gas can be piped to consumers. Those big yellow mounds are piles of sulfur.
FLORA: To help you get the scale, obviously there’s a railroad that comes right into the middle of the plant. And that’s to load up the sulfur and move it off-site.
BRANCACCIO: People often think of Canada as a wilderness paradise, but it’s actually easier to get a permit to drill than in America. Flora says that is not without its costs.
FLORA: Animals do not use habitats directly adjacent to the road. Yes, you’ll see them walking through it, but it won’t be an area where they will eat, shelter, have their young, or feel safe.
BRANCACCIO: That’s more than just conjecture. A study released only a month ago found that grizzly bear populations in this part of Canada were in dramatic decline, a result of all this activity.
Some in Montana believe drilling on the U.S. side of the border would help the economy. But outfitters like Blixrud, who depend of the Rocky Mountain Front and its abundance of wildlife, say it would put their jobs at risk. Back at the ranch, he, Flora, and a local guide, Gene Sentz, took a moment to reflect before the evening dinner bell rang.
SENTZ: There are some places on earth, that even if there’s solid gold beneath them, they ought to be left just like they are. And the Rocky Mountain Front is such a place.
BRANCACCIO: As this story went to air tonight, we got word of a big victory for Gloria Flora and the thousands of people who wrote to save the Blindhorse area.
Interior Department officials contacted us to say that due to “the complexity of the issue” and after the “evaluation of the public comments,” they have decided not to approve drilling in that area — at least for now.
Gloria Flora says she’s delighted. But there are two dozen other leases nearby and over 44-thousand leases throughout the Rocky Mountains. Already this year, the government has given the green light for drilling in thousands of those sites.
MOYERS: That’s our report for NOW. David and I will be back next week. But check your local listings. This and other public television stations will carry the debate a week from tonight so that means some shuffling of the usual Friday night line-up.
Another program note: next Thursday night, the PBS show WIDE ANGLE goes inside the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the royal family and the suicidal terrorists who have brought their jihad home.
That’s next Thursday night on PBS. I’ll be watching.
Thanks for joining us. Good night.
This transcript was entered on August 20, 2015.