Did the Bush administration distort Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction to drum up support for the war? NOW investigates in an exclusive television interview with intelligence insider Greg Thielmann. In September 2002, Thielmann retired from the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, one of the offices charged with tracking Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Why is he now accusing the administration of not accurately relaying intelligence information about Iraq’s weapons to the American people?
Next, Bill Moyers sits down with renowned author Isabel Allende to talk about her book MY INVENTED COUNTRY: A NOSTALGIC JOURNEY THROUGH CHILE, and about the writer’s life and imagination. The book is inspired by two different September 11ths – in 1973, she lost Chile to the military coup that would eventually drive her out of the country, and in 2001, she says she gained a country. Moyers talks to Allende about her life and her creative process, and shows us how a traumatic event can shape the prism in which we view the world.
Finally, NOW stays on the media beat after the June 2 Federal Communication Commission (FCC) vote, as some media companies are already acting on loosened ownership regulations. The debate has made strange bedfellows among members of Congress, where members of both parties have vowed to override all or parts of the of the FCC’s decision.
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BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW. Bill Moyers is reporting from the field. I’m David Brancaccio.
When it came to weapons of mass destruction, Ronald Reagan liked to say “Trust, but verify.” Many Americans trusted the Bush administration when it said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But now there’s the problem with the “verify” part.
Doubts are being raised over what American and British intelligence agencies knew about the presence of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq, and whether the information they had was exaggerated, massaged or simply ignored by the White House.
Was the American public deceived? Over the last few days, there’s been some fine reporting on this in places such as NEWSWEEK and U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT.
The administration has mounted a strong counter-offensive. Secretaries Powell and Rumsfeld, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice have made the media rounds, insisting that they will eventually have the proof.
In an interview on Polish television that you might have missed, President Bush himself said we had found the weapons of mass destruction. He was talking about those two trailers suspected to be mobile biological labs.
Now, some intelligence experts are coming forward publicly to question the weapons data and how it was interpreted. We have an exclusive television interview with a 25-year foreign service veteran whose expertise is in intelligence.
Here’s our report from Bill Moyers and producer Brenda Breslauer.
MOYERS: In the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration’s argument for going to war was constant and clear.
BUSH [1/28/03]: Saddam Hussein has gone to elaborate lengths, spent enormous sums, taken great risks to build and keep weapons of mass destruction.
CHENEY [8/26/02]: Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.
POWELL [2/5/03]: We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction, is determined to make more.
MOYERS: If we did not act, the argument went, Saddam Hussein might do to America what he had done to his own people.
RUMSFELD [9/19/02]: He has used weapons of mass destruction against his own people and his neighbors. He has stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and he is aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons.
MOYERS: In the Administration’s accounts, Saddam Hussein and those alleged weapons were a “clear and present danger.”
CHENEY [1/31/03]: Saddam Hussein’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction poses a grave danger.
MOYERS: But now, two months after the fall of Baghdad, no weapons of mass destruction have been found. Even the Commander of the U.S. Marines in Iraq is frustrated.
CONWAY [5/30/03]: We were simply wrong. It was a surprise to me then, it remains a surprise to me now, that we have not uncovered weapons. Believe me, it’s not for lack of trying. We’ve been to virtually every ammunition supply point between the Kuwait border and Baghdad, but they’re simply not there.
MOYERS: The search isn’t over and it is still possible, some experts think even likely, that chemical and biological weapons will yet be uncovered.
But there’s been a noticeable shift in the administration’s rhetoric. There are a lot of qualifiers in their statements. It’s not clear exactly what they are saying they will find.
BUSH [5/6/03]: One thing we know is that he had a weapons program. We also know that he spent years trying to hide the weapons program.
RUMSFELD [5/27/03]: It is also possible that they decided they would destroy them.
RICE [6/8/03]: There are sites to visit, we will put together this whole picture.
MOYERS: How then could the Administration have been so definite in the case it made for war? Questions are being raised by former intelligence analysts. Several recently wrote the President to express concern about “the intelligence cited by you and your chief advisors to justify the war against Iraq.”
Leaked documents are increasing the doubts. Just consider this September 2002 report by the Defense Intelligence Agency. It was unearthed by the investigative team at U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT.
POUND: At the very moment that the Administration is telling the Congress with a certainty that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, chemical and biological agents, his own Defense Intelligence Agency was saying that, “We’re not sure.” And, “We don’t have any direct information that the Iraqis have it.”
I’ll read from the DIA or Defense Intelligence Agency report: “There is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons or where Iraq has or will establish its chemical warfare agent production facilities.”
THIELMANN: I think the credibility of the intelligence community has taken a real hit because of the way the information has been used by senior officials.
MOYERS: Now, in a rising chorus of questions, one voice stands out. It belongs to Greg Thielmann, a career foreign service officer since 1977. He has served under three Republican and two Democratic Presidents. An advocate of a strong national defense, he rose to head the State Department’s Office of Strategic Proliferation and Military Affairs until his retirement last fall.
THIELMANN: We pretty much had full access to the whole range of classified information on those subjects.
MOYERS: Thielmann is the first member of America’s intelligence community with active knowledge of the case to come forward and publicly question the way intelligence was used to make the argument for war.
Would you have had access to the same kind of information that the C.I.A. and the Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon would have had?
THIELMANN: Yes. We were an all-source intelligence agency. Meaning we took information from everywhere.
It was our job to be aware of the important pieces of information that were coming to the U.S. government, no matter what the source was.
MOYERS: After retiring last fall, Thielmann became increasingly concerned by the way the administration was handling intelligence his office had analyzed. Like the report of Iraq’s attempt to buy uranium for nuclear weapons, an allegation that made its way into this year’s State of the Union address.
BUSH [1/28/03]: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
MOYERS: That was based on documents purportedly showing that Iraqi officials had attempted to buy uranium from the African country of Niger, documents Thielmann says his office had already evaluated a full six months earlier.
THIELMANN: Part of our job was to try to sort out what was credible and what was not. There were just too many things that didn’t seem right in it.
We found that this was not a credible report. And so advised the senior leadership at the State Department.
MOYERS: Didn’t the documents in those reports turn out to be forgeries?
MOYERS: And yet the President used that report months later in his State of the Union message.
THIELMANN: It seems that that’s the case. And so that, to me, is one of the most enduring mysteries here. Usually when the President uses intelligence as the expectation that it’s thoroughly scrubbed and—
THIELMANN: Well, scrubbed in that… Vetted. You have to make sure that both you’re not revealing sensitive sources and methods. And that you can be confident that information is solid. That would suggest a certain level of care behind researching that information which apparently in this case didn’t take place.
MOYERS: What Thielmann says his office had found almost a year ago, has recently been confirmed by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
ELBARADEI: Based on thorough analysis, the IAEA has concluded, with the concurrence of outside experts, that these documents — which formed the basis for the reports of recent uranium transactions between Iraq and Niger — are in fact not authentic.
MOYERS: It must have gone through your mind, you say, “Here’s a report we’ve proven was a fraud, a forgery. And the President of the United States before millions of people is repeating it as if it were a fact.”
THIELMANN: This was dispiriting. I felt anger and it wasn’t the first time in seeing administration figures summarize and explain to the American people what the intelligence indicated.
MOYERS: The Administration had been wrong; but had they intentionally misled the public? Consider what National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said last weekend on MEET THE PRESS.
RICE [6/8/03]: The president quoted a British paper. We did not know at the time. No one knew at the time, in our circles. Maybe someone knew down in the bowels of the agency, but no one in our circles knew that there were doubts and suspicions that this might be a forgery.
THIELMANN: You can’t quite accurately describe this as somewhere in the bowels of the intelligence bureaucracy. I mean, this was not very many layers from the Secretary of State. And this was information that I had to assume Secretary of State brought with him to meetings with other Cabinet officials and the President.
MOYERS: But she says, “No one in our circles knew that there were doubts and suspicions that this might be a forgery.”
THIELMANN: I find it hard to believe that no one at that level knew that there were serious questions raised about this information.
RICE [6/8/03]: Of course, it was information that was mistaken. But it was a relatively small part of the case about nuclear weapons and nuclear reconstitution.
MOYERS: If it was such a small part of the case would the President use it in his State of the Union message to the American public and the world?
THIELMANN: If it was only a small piece and not terribly significant then I don’t see why the President would do what’s very unusual which is to declassify sensitive information and announce it to the world. I mean, that’s— you don’t do that casually.
MOYERS: And equally puzzling was the story of Iraq’s aluminum tubes, another intelligence report that had become part of the administration’s case for going to war.
September 8th, last fall, front page of THE NEW YORK TIMES. Saddam Hussein is secretly importing aluminum tubes that could be used to make enriched uranium. Condoleezza Rice and Vice-President Cheney go on the talk shows to confirm this story.
RICE [9/8/02]: We do know that he is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon. We do know that there have been shipments going 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.
CHENEY [9/8/02]: And the centrifuge is required to take low-grade uranium and enhance it into highly enriched uranium, which is what you have to have in order to build a bomb.
MOYERS: What did you think when you read this story and when you saw them on the talk circuit defending it?
THIELMANN: Well, this made me both disappointed and angry at the time when the most knowledgeable experts in the U.S. government believed that this was not the kind of aluminum that the Iraqis would have been seeking to use in centrifuges for uranium enrichment.
MOYERS: And just last week, NEWSWEEK reported that the purchase order wasn’t even a secret, it had been posted on the Internet.
THIELMANN: And that would belie the idea that it was a secret acquisition.
MOYERS: So although no hard and reliable evidence had been offered to support the claim, by the time the President spoke to the nation on the eve of war, the term “weapons of mass destruction” had come to include nuclear weapons.
BUSH [3/17/03]: Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq Regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.
MOYERS: I remember watching him say that on television. And I thought nuclear weapons.
THIELMANN: I think that’s exactly the reaction that anyone would have hearing that statement. I mean, the most lethal weapons ever devised ever by far are nuclear weapons. It’s not a good way to inform the public if, in fact, he was talking about biological and chemical weapons.
MOYERS: In your mind though, you know, the President takes an oath of office to defend the Constitution, as did you. And if he is weighing this evidence of whether or not Saddam Hussein has or doesn’t have, is or hasn’t started up his nuclear program again, you could understand why the President would come down on the side of not giving this horrible despot the benefit of the doubt.
THIELMANN: If one assumed that the threat was that imminent. The intelligence community as a whole in our considered wording and advice did not give the President the impression that there was an imminent threat.
Our judgment was that Iraq had not reconstituted its nuclear weapons program in the sense that that’s generally understood. And that it was a long way from posing an imminent security threat. It was not on the verge of acquiring enough fissile material to use in weapons. It was not— it did not have long range weapons of mass destruction that could pose even a threat to our allies in Europe or to the United States.
MOYERS: So you concluded that there was no immediate or imminent threat from Iraq?
THIELMANN: From Iraq. Across the board, that’s right.
MOYERS: No imminent nuclear threat.
THIELMANN: No imminent nuclear threat. But in terms of biological and chemical weapons threats, these were not what I would call an imminent security threat to the United States.
MOYERS: So, when the Vice President of the United States says, “There’s no doubt Saddam has weapons of mass destruction,” he is lumping together nuclear weapons, which are clearly—
MOYERS: —weapons of mass destruction. And chemical and biological weapons, which may not be.
THIELMANN: Well, that’s my view of it. And in fact, the one thing that we should have made clear to the American people was that Saddam had no nuclear weapons.
MOYERS: So why after twenty-five years in the foreign service has Greg Thielmann gone public now, especially since the United States has taken out one of the world’s most brutal dictators?
THIELMANN: I would certainly acknowledge that the departure of Saddam is something to feel very good about. That, to me, is not the issue. To me, the issue is speaking truthfully to the American people. And I’m not sure that I’m willing to accept the notion or I’m not that cynical to say that in order to get the citizens in a democracy to defend themselves, you have to distort the information provided to them, in order for them to do what needs to be done. I don’t think that’s a justified point of view.
ANNOUNCER: There’s more to come on NOW. Writer Isabel Allende on storytelling and time, memory and imagination.
ALLENDE: I know that the character is somewhere in the room. I just have to allow them to show up and become people. And that’s my job.
BRANCACCIO: There’s a vote coming up next Thursday that’s worth paying attention to. The Senate Commerce Committee, headed by Republican John McCain, will vote on a bill that would roll back at least part of last week’s Federal Communications Commission decision that allowed even more consolidation of the media.
Before and after the three-to-two FCC vote, Capitol Hill was flooded with protests from constituents. The phone calls and e-mails reminded Senators that Congress oversees the FCC and has the authority to reverse its decisions.
The bill in the Commerce Committee would prevent big corporations from buying even more television stations. Congress-watchers expect the vote to be a bipartisan repudiation of what the FCC decided.
The sailing may be a lot rougher for the legislation on the floor of the Senate and House, but an intriguing momentum is building. Here’s an update.
If you watch NOW regularly, you know that this show has been keeping a close eye on the issue of who owns the media — who determines what Americans read, hear, and see. That story reached a decisive point last week. The Federal Communications Commission gave the big media companies the green light to get even bigger.
COOPER: The rule change will determine above all else how people get their news and information. Especially their local news and information.
BRANCACCIO: Mark Cooper is the director of research at the Consumer Federation of America. He was on the losing side, arguing before the FCC that the new rule changes would hurt consumers.
COOPER: If you let a lot of mergers take place, there will be less news and information. There will be fewer viewpoints about important issues like whether to have public money support a stadium, for example.
BRANCACCIO: The decision last week did not surprise many people. The three Republican commissioners had indicated in advance that they supported rules that would allow greater concentration of ownership; the two Democrats were opposed. But Washington was not prepared for what happened when the decision was announced. From the Senate came a torrent of protest. From Democrats:
DORGAN: Billionaire enterprises won, hometowns of America lost with this decision.
BRANCACCIO: And from Republicans:
LOTT: When you allow this type of concentration, where you could have a market where one company could own and dominate the print media, could theoretically own one of the dish networks, could own the local cable, could own the local television station or two stations, where is the limit?
BRANCACCIO: Here’s what had the Senators up in arms. The decision by the FCC means a single company could wind up owning the newspaper, three television stations, the cable company, and eight radio stations in the same market.
That would come on top of the consolidation that’s occurred since Congress last deregulated big media with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. According to the FCC itself, there are at least seventeen hundred fewer radio station owners in America today than there were seven years ago. That’s mostly thanks to large companies swallowing smaller ones.
In almost half the nation’s radio markets, 80% of the audience already listen to outlets controlled by just three companies. And in the television industry, seven companies now control 98% of the audience — and 98% of advertising revenues. And as for cable TV, deregulation was supposed to increase competition. But 99% of Americans still have only one choice in cable operators while cable rates have gone up three times faster than inflation.
And under the new rules announced last week by the FCC, a handful of the conglomerates will be able to conglomerate even more.
But when FCC chairman Michael Powell defended the decision on TV, he said it would increase competition.
POWELL: We believe that small but modest increases in ownership opportunities at the local level would increase the ability for those stations to compete against cable, against satellite, against the internet, against satellite radio.
BRANCACCIO: Critics of the decision disagreed. They say democracy needs more, not fewer, owners of information outlets, and of the news media in particular.
COOPER: It’s this democratic debate, diversity, that our republic thrives on. When you let a handful of corporations at the national level, and one company at the local level, control the flow of information, you really are strangling the oxygen for our democracy.
BRANCACCIO: And barely 24 hours after the decision, critics had their fears confirmed. MediaNews Group — a big newspaper chain and owner of the only paper in Fairbanks, Alaska — said it would now purchase the NBC television affiliate in the same town, something it couldn’t have done a day earlier.
DORGAN: In a conflict between the public interest and the big interest, the majority of the FCC did not have the strength to stand up for the public interest.
BRANCACCIO: That’s Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, at a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee. The hearing was held because Senators had some tough questions to ask the five FCC commissioners. For one thing, they were out to remind them that Congress has the power to oversee — and overrule — regulatory agencies like the FCC. And that elected officials weren’t necessarily going to rubber-stamp new rules adopted by unelected commissioners.
DORGAN: So, what’s the basis — especially given what we now know about concentration and mergers in radio and television — what’s the basis for suggesting this substantial change in the rules will not lead to greater concentration? I’ve heard you suggest, “Well, this may not lead to greater concentration at all.” What’s the basis for your belief in that?
POWELL: I think there will be an increase in mergers. I think there will be not an extensive increase in concentration to the levels which would cause great public policy concern, because we did draw significant and meaningful limits.
HUTCHISON: In Dallas, Texas, a major market in our country, the one newspaper in Dallas also owns the number one television station — sometimes it’s number two. But it’s always in the top two. I don’t want to see other cities get into that kind of concentration and you have allowed that with your proposed ruling, and it concerns me greatly.
WYDEN: I believe the Federal Communications Commission’s decision rings the dinner bell for the big media conglomerates who are salivating to make a meal out of the nation’s many small media outlets. And I think the question now is whether this Congress is going to stand up for the public interest.
BRANCACCIO: At one juncture, Senator Dorgan read a letter from an investment banking firm to a major newspaper, suggesting that once the FCC made its decision, there was big money to be made from the buying and selling of media properties.
DORGAN: “As you know, the FCC is considering the elimination of the ban on cross-ownership of media properties within a daily newspaper publisher’s given markets. If you are considering broadcast acquisitions to bolster your market presence, we believe the time to act is now. We would like to be your broker.”
BRANCACCIO: Republican Senator John Sununu of New Hampshire said no one should be concerned by the letter.
SUNUNU: I don’t think we should be surprised that investment bankers are communicating with newspaper stations that may be given the legal right to buy a newspaper, and saying “If you are thinking about making an acquisition, we would like to work with you.” That’s what these people do for a living.
BRANCACCIO: But Senator Dorgan wasn’t buying.
DORGAN: Would you not agree with me that today those who most aggressively celebrate your decision are the biggest economic interests in broadcasting in this country? Are they not the ones that are celebrating your decision?
POWELL: I have no idea who’s celebrating our decision.
DORGAN: You really don’t? Are you kidding me?
POWELL: Senator, I also know that there’s a handful—
DORGAN: No wait, let me— are you kidding me? You really don’t know who’s celebrating that decision?
POWELL: I’ll tell you what. Me and the staff are celebrating being completed with the decision.
BRANCACCIO: And there was another disputed issue: how the FCC had made the decision and what’s known about who influenced the decision.
SNOWE: I think certainly that these changes will alter news as we know it. And given the enormity and the magnitude of what was at stake here, I think it required the fullest public disclosure.
BRANCACCIO: Public disclosure and public participation — or lack thereof — caused dispute among the commissioners themselves in the months leading up to the decision. The two Democrats on the Commission, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, called for public hearings to be held throughout the country. The three Republicans, Kathleen Abernathy, Kevin Martin, and the chairman, Powell, agreed to only a single hearing. It was held in Richmond, Virginia, in the dead of winter, less than two hour’s drive from the capitol. It was the only public hearing which all five commissioners attended.
POWELL: I reject with every fiber of my being that anybody was foreclosed from an opportunity to inform themselves about the proceeding or that anything internally about it was decisional.
BRANCACCIO: According to Chairman Powell, the commission simply didn’t have the travel budget for public hearings.
POWELL: And as I explained to the commissioner and others who asked me about that, I just don’t see the resources or the funds to have the 10 to 15 to 20 hearings outside of the Washington area that would involve the commission, but that I welcomed that any individual commissioner could expend their personal travel budget to attend such hearings. Each commissioner was forced to make a judgment about how to use their limited allotted set of resources under the appropriation statute.
BRANCACCIO: The two commissioners who would eventually vote against the new rules, Copps and Adelstein, did attend several more public hearings without their fellow commissioners. Those hearings helped to generate an outpouring of letters, phone calls and emails.
ADELSTEIN: Three quarters of a million people contacted the FCC, the likes of which we’d never seen. 99.9 percent of those people took their time to contact us oppose further media consolidation. Of course the FCC can’t make these decisions according to popular opinion, but our statutory mandate is very simple: it’s to do what’s in the public interest.
POWELL: The commission does not have the luxury of always doing what is popular. Thus I must reject the sensationalists’ claims that our effort is nothing more than gratuitous deregulation. I believe we did our job, and I believe we did it well.
BRANCACCIO: If the three commissioners who voted for more consolidation did not attend the public hearings, just who did have their ear? That became a story only on the morning of the decision, when this article appeared in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. Reporter Mark Wigfield disclosed that Victor Miller, a top media analyst at the investment firm Bear Stearns — whose clients include media companies that stood to benefit from the new FCC rules — actually helped shape the rule changes in ways, quote, “that favor his firm’s clients.”
And, according to the WALL STREET JOURNAL, Victor Miller was not alone when he met with the commissioners and their staff. He was accompanied by this man, Richard Wiley. And just who is Richard Wiley? Well, thirty years ago he was chairman of the FCC.
Back then, he was on the other side, arguing against media consolidation. But then he passed through Washington’s revolving door — out of government and into lobbying. He’s now the top media lawyer in town, and his firm lobbies for some of the big conglomerates.
Richard Wiley has close ties to the commissioners who voted for more consolidation. He recommended Michael Powell’s selection as FCC chairman. And commissioner Kevin Martin was once an attorney at Wiley’s firm.
BOXER: Media lobbyist Dick Wiley, whose clients include numerous large media companies and partners at his firm held at least 34 meetings with FCC officials, according to the record — the open record at the FCC.
So the point I am making is: Do you understand why the people out there are upset? They’re upset because they do not feel that this decision was made with their best interest in mind, because they hear comments that dismiss what they say as fear and they see these things, 34 meetings with one lobbyist, and they had one meeting.
BRANCACCIO: The third commissioner who voted for more conglomeration is Kathleen Abernathy. Abernathy was a top executive in the telecommunications industry and a lawyer with the firm of Wilkinson, Barker, Knauer whose clients include radio and television companies. On its Web site the firm says it helps those clients in “mergers, acquisitions, and sales of stations.”
ABERNATHY: Our decisions were based on facts rather than fears. That is what the Communications Act requires, that is what the courts require, and that is what the First Amendment requires.
DORGAN: Commissioner Abernathy, you said that the Congress— you took a swipe at those of us in Congress, saying we were acting out of irrational fear instead of hard facts with respect to the issue of consolidation. Is there any evidence that you see with respect to consolidation, particularly with respect to radio in recent years, and also television, that would suggest we have an irrational fear of consolidation?
ABERNATHY: I would never call Congress irrational. I think that what you have to balance here is you have to balance the First Amendment rights of the licensees against the rights of all the public to have diversity, localism and competition. We put solid protections in place to ensure that there’s multiple voices out there for consumers.
DORGAN: Well, just as an observer, in my final moments, I think diversity, localism and competition are fast expiring here. I mean, I think it’s time to press our black suits for a funeral for those issues.
BRANCACCIO: Several Senators say they’re going to try to overturn the new FCC rules.
But the industry has spent over $100 million in recent years on the kind of lobbying and campaign contributions that buy access and influence in Washington.
It’ll be an uphill fight for those politicians and citizens who want to keep big media from getting bigger. So as the TV guys like to say, “Stay tuned.”
ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW, ex-convict David Lewis breaks the cycle of crime and addiction with a message of recovery and possibility.
LEWIS: If I walk away, if I make a decision to do something else that’s not violent, that’s not aggressive, that’s not putting my hands on you, I get the opportunity to walk out of this damn jail.
ANNOUNCER: That’s next week on NOW.
And connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS Online at pbs.org.
Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: examine the evidence. Congress fights over the FCC’s new media ownership rules: get the inside story. Read an excerpt from Isabel Allende’s new book, MY INVENTED COUNTRY. Connect to NOW at pbs.org.
Once again, David Brancaccio.
BRANCACCIO: The United States is paying renewed attention to South America, signing a major trade pact with Chile just a week ago.
But this year marks the 30th anniversary of a much darker time in U.S. relations with that nation.
In 1973, a military coup, encouraged by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, overthrew Chile’s democratically elected government and assassinated its leader, Salvador Allende.
For Allende’s niece, Isabel Allende, the coup was a shattering experience that led her into years of exile and a new life as a novelist.
Her first book, THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS became a worldwide bestseller.
Her latest book, MY INVENTED COUNTRY: A NOSTALGIC JOURNEY THROUGH CHILE, returns Allende to her native land and memories of the events that took place so many years ago.
The date of that coup d’etat shares its anniversary with a tragic day in recent American history.
That’s where the conversation began just a few days ago, when Bill Moyers spoke with Isabel Allende.
MOYERS: What a coincidence. Two great acts of violence. One against your government, and one against this country, occurring on the same day of the week, at almost the same time.
ALLENDE: Yes. On a Tuesday, September 11th, 1973, we had the military coup in Chile that forced me to leave my country eventually. And then, on a Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, we had the terrorist attack in the United States.
MOYERS: You said that on the 11th of September, 2001, “I gained a country.”
ALLENDE: Yes. Because for the first… I have been living in the in the United States for 16 years. But feeling very foreigner. I came to this country because I feel in love with a man, not because I was following the American Dream.
And I always felt very foreign, very alien. And then, on September 11th, I could relate to the feeling of vulnerability, of fear, of let’s get together, and try to cope. Before, I always felt that there was this almost childish optimism, this sort of also childish arrogance about the a little bit the idea that nothing bad can happen here.
And we had that in Chile. Before the military coup in Chile, we had the idea that military coups happen in Banana Republics, somewhere in Central America. It would never happen in Chile. Chile was such a solid democracy. And when it happened, it had brutal characteristics. And it lasted 17 years.
MOYERS: So, the 11th of September, 1973 was the day you lost your country. Do you remember that day vividly?
MOYERS: Tell me about it.
ALLENDE: I left my house early in the morning. I went to my office after my children left for school. And I realized that the streets were empty. There were some people stranded in corners in the streets, waiting for transportation. There was no public transportation. And military convoys were passing, and airplanes, military airplanes.
And I remember that I stop at a friend’s house, and I ask, “What’s going on?” And she said, “A military coup. This is a military coup.” But we didn’t know what it was. And we didn’t know that it could be awful.
So, she said, “My husband left early in the morning to go” — he was a teacher — “to go to the school. And I haven’t heard from him.” So I said, “I am going to go and pick him up.” And I went downtown Santiago to the school that is two blocks away from there, Presidential Palace. And I was there when they bombed the palace. And so, I saw it very close.
MOYERS: This was… and your uncle was in the palace.
MOYERS: Your uncle Salvador Allende.
ALLENDE: But I didn’t know that he had been killed. Because I didn’t learn about it until 2:00 in the afternoon, when one of the firemen that put off the fire of the palace, they took the body out. And so, he was married to a friend of mine. And they called me and said that he was killed — dead.
MOYERS: So, you left when?
ALLENDE: I left a year and a half later.
MOYERS: So, you’ve lived half of your adult life as a foreigner.
ALLENDE: Almost all my life. Because I was the daughter of diplomats. I have been a foreigner always.
MOYERS: Well, is it…
ALLENDE: But somehow, when I think of myself, my roots, my deepest roots must be in Chile, because if I think of a place where I blend in, that would be Chile, sort of.
MOYERS: Why do you call it MY INVENTED COUNTRY?
ALLENDE: Because it’s a subjective memoir. It’s not an essay about what Chile is. It’s about what I remember and the things I loved about it, and the things I hate about it. And it’s also a… everything is very subjective. Memory — it’s very subjective always.
MOYERS: Do you trust your memory? I mean, you referred somewhere to memory as smoke. Very tentative, very ephemeral. Can you trust something that smoke-like?
ALLENDE: Not much. But it doesn’t matter. At the hour of verification, who cares? I love the story. I love the legend.
MOYERS: Is it true that Chile, when you were growing up, was a machismo country, that culture, that parents raise their girls to serve and the boys to be served?
ALLENDE: Yes, maybe not like in a Muslim country today. But there’s much of the male chauvinism in Latin America, and everyone in the world, is because the mothers educate their children to be boys. In Italy and everyone else. A Momma’s boy.
MOYERS: So, what did this mean practically to you? You were a girl.
ALLENDE: I rebelled against all form of authority, against my grandfather, my step-father, the Church, the police, the government, the bosses. Everything male that was there, and was determining my life.
MOYERS: And yet, I don’t sense any malice in you.
ALLENDE: Against men, you mean? No, I like them. I like them a lot.
MOYERS: So, it was the culture that you were…
ALLENDE: It was the culture. But I think that men are also victims of the culture.
MOYERS: Was there scorn for the intellect of a woman?
ALLENDE: Yes. There was scorn for the feminists, and hatred. And we had to put up with that, a lot of that. But if I would have to live again, I would do exactly the same.
MOYERS: Nothing intrigues me more than what makes a life. Why were you able to escape the culture that had surrounded and imprisoned you, that held you in the same grip that it held so many other young women who didn’t get out?
ALLENDE: Because it was a time. You know, things reach a point when they are ripe for change. And what I was feeling was like the echo of things that were happening all over the world. Women in Europe, in the United States, were writing, were fighting, were getting organized. We didn’t know that there.
But it’s like the critical mass. There is a point when things are ready for change. And I was one of them. I was lucky enough to be born in that generation, and not in my mother’s generation.
MOYERS: The emotions in here, they’re very powerful. The humor is very sharp. The sorrow is very deep. Are those emotions you are remembering of how you felt then?
ALLENDE: I still feel them. I still feel the anger, and the laughter. And the desire to change. Not only Chile, and women and men, but the world. I want to change the world.
MOYERS: Is that why you wrote this?
ALLENDE: No. I wrote that because I just… I wrote that because of a comment that my grandson made. My grandson saw me scrutinizing the map of my wrinkles in the mirror, and he slapped me in the back and said, “Don’t worry Grandma, you are going to live at least three more years.”
I thought, well, where do I want to live those three more years, and how? And that reflection was the starting point for the book. And it started as a choice. I had to choose between Chile — the imagined Chile — and my life in the United States. And at the end of the book I realize I don’t have to choose. I can have both. And I can be totally bicultural. And I can get the best of both cultures, and use both.
MOYERS: Is it true that you start writing every January 8th?
MOYERS: Without fail?
ALLENDE: Without fail.
MOYERS: How long do you write? Until it’s finished?
ALLENDE: I write until the first draft is finished, and then I feel that I can get out. But, during the time of the writing of the first draft, I don’t go out. I’m just locked away, writing. It’s a time of meditation, of going into the story.
You know, I feel that there’s a dark space, and I go into that dark space where the story is. And I just have to show up every day with a candle, and slowly, it will start to unfold.
MOYERS: A candle?
ALLENDE: With a candle. The idea that there’s a little light that will illuminate only parts of the story until it’s all done.
MOYERS: Is this a metaphysical candle, or do you actually–
ALLENDE: Both. It’s a real candle, but it’s also a metaphysical candle. In my mind, that’s how I envision the story. I know that the characters are somewhere in the room. I just have to allow them to show up, and become people. And that’s my job.
MOYERS: But do you truly write with a real candle burning?
ALLENDE: Yeah. Yeah.
ALLENDE: Because I don’t like clocks. And if I have a candle, for as long as the candle is burning, I write. And then, when it’s over, when it burns off, I can have dinner and get out, and do things.
MOYERS: So, you write all day…
ALLENDE: I mean, I do have electricity in my house. I do have electricity. But the candle is like my clock.
MOYERS: I just was noticing a moment ago, you’re the first guest of mine who hasn’t had a watch on.
ALLENDE: No, I don’t like them.
MOYERS: You don’t wear them.
ALLENDE: I try not to.
MOYERS: So, you light the candle, and when it burns down, you quit for the day.
ALLENDE: Yeah. Now, as I get older, the candle is smaller, and smaller.
MOYERS: Yeah, you’re starting to count down. I know that. There’s another story you told the other night at Barnes & Noble here in New York about your granddaughter writing a composition?
MOYERS: Is that a true story?
MOYERS: What did she say?
ALLENDE: She wrote a story — the teacher called me because she was, at the time, seven or eight. And the composition was about the family. And her composition was, “My family’s not interesting. The only interesting person in my family is my grandmother, because she has a great imagination.”
And I asked her what a great imagination is. And she said, “You can remember what never happened.” And that’s my…
MOYERS: You can remember what never happened.
ALLENDE: That’s my job.
MOYERS: So, do you exaggerate when you write?
ALLENDE: Of course. But I exaggerate my life, too. I want to have an epic life. I want to tell my life with big adjectives. I want to forget all the grays in between, and remember the highlights and the dark moments.
MOYERS: Does writing about those subjects bring you pleasure?
ALLENDE: Yeah, well obviously, it brings me pleasure. But more than that, it explains life to me. It sorts out the confusion of life. Everything that I write is. If I don’t write it, it’s blurred, and it’s erased. So, writing is what makes me feel that things have happened, that I have lived.
I write a letter to my mother every day, because in that letter, I write down my day. And if I don’t write it down, then tomorrow I will forget it and it’s gone.
MOYERS: You mean, you literally write her every day?
ALLENDE: Every single day of my life. I have a closet full of her letters, because she does the same. And the idea is that if she or I die before the other one, the other person can open a letter a day for the rest of her life.
MOYERS: What have you learned about yourself from writing?
ALLENDE: I have learned that there is consistency in my writing, my ideas, my beliefs. And the way I conduct my life. There’s no discrepancy. So, that makes me feel good.
MOYERS: But, all of us have some contradictions. I mean, what was it Walt Whitman said, “I contradict myself, so I’ll contradict myself.”
ALLENDE: I’m not consistent with the things I say. If you interview me in 20 years, and remind me of what we’ve talked of, I will not remember a word. And I will say, “I made it up, Bill.” But…
MOYERS: So, people cannot believe this…
MOYERS: …interview any more than we can believe this book.
ALLENDE: But what can you believe? I mean, everything is subjective. Everything is emotional. And what is true for me may not be true for any of the listeners.
MOYERS: Well, now I understand. You didn’t write this so that I could learn about Chile. You wrote this so you could learn about yourself.
ALLENDE: No. I wrote this so that you can fall in love with Chile.
MOYERS: Fall in love with Chile?
MOYERS: I mean, this is a small country, a long way from here. Most Americans don’t even know where it is.
ALLENDE: But you can fall in love with it. And go and fall in love.
MOYERS: And the contrast there.
ALLENDE: Yeah, it’s fascinating.
MOYERS: Have you come to terms with the contradictions of the country and the culture that shaped you?
ALLENDE: Yes. Because I accept that. I don’t accept things that I don’t like about, for example, how hypocritical we are. How we have double standards for everything, how we hide everything. We’re so prudish. And yes, 58 percent of the women are unfaithful. So…
MOYERS: Are you prudish because you’re predominantly a Catholic country?
ALLENDE: We are more Catholic than Ireland. And certainly more than the Vatican. But we know that a celibate old man in the Vatican doesn’t know anything about contraception. So, we don’t pay much attention to that.
And on the other hand, we love the rituals of the Church, the ceremonies, the sayings. And the Catholic Church is so powerful in Chile that it is the only country in the world without divorce.
MOYERS: And yet, you say, what… 58 percent of the women are unfaithful? What does this do to the society?
ALLENDE: Bill, do you think that here it’s different?
MOYERS: Well, I’ve never taken a poll.
ALLENDE: Oh, well take a poll.
MOYERS: This is not a Catholic country.
MOYERS: Puritan, yes.
ALLENDE: Yeah, Puritan.
ALLENDE: Which is worse.
MOYERS: Oh, well that…
ALLENDE: At least the Catholics have the chance to confess and they are forgiven. Their sins are erased. But you have to carry your sins for the rest of your life.
MOYERS: Are you a religious person?
ALLENDE: No. I have a sort of funky spiritual practice. And I work a lot with mythology and with spirits and with coincidences and premonitions. Dreams. But I’m not Catholic.
MOYERS: I struggled for years with this whole idea of magical realism. How would you define it if someone asked you in a class? Or can you describe it?
ALLENDE: People think that it’s like a literary device that you find only in Latin American literature. It’s actually accepting that the world is a very mysterious place. The things happen that we cannot explain.
And if we just accept them, we can add them to our lives and to our writing in ways that are totally natural. For me, one beautiful example is in the novel A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE by Garcia Marquez. There is… what really happened in the town was that a girl got pregnant. And the family hid her in a convent. And she disappeared. And so the family said, that she was a saint and she had risen to heaven in body and soul.
And so when Garcia Marquez, who had heard the story many times, tried to write it down, it didn’t work. And he wrote it several times. And it didn’t work because no one believed it. And literature has to be believable, while real life seldom is.
And so Garcia Marquez then added to the scene linen sheets. She was hanging the linen sheets and a wind came and took her away. And then it becomes magic realism. It’s something that because there is some kind of explanation there, you sort of believe it. You surrender to the mystery of it.
MOYERS: And that’s what you did here. You surrendered to the mystery of those emotions. Those conflicted emotions that you felt as a young girl, right?
MOYERS: I mean you… you don’t really answer the contradiction here?
ALLENDE: I don’t try to. Because there are no straight answers in life. I have lived long enough to know that most of time you walk in circles. And you can touch things here and there.
But the nature of life is change. And the nature of life is confusion and questions. I have lots of questions and very few answers.
MOYERS: I’m gonna ask you about this book, PAULA. Your daughter… she was how old when she died?
MOYERS: And she lived for a year in a coma?
MOYERS: What was the cause of it?
ALLENDE: Paula had a condition called porphyria which not fatal. But she was in Spain when she had a crisis. She was taken to the hospital with a medallion that said her condition.
And they gave her the wrong medication. They didn’t monitor the coma. And they provoked severe brain damage. By the time I got her back, she was in a vegetative state.
And I took her home and took care of her at home with my family. And it was a terrible year. But also a great year.
MOYERS: She was there for a year?
ALLENDE: For a year.
MOYERS: Terrible and great. What do you mean?
ALLENDE: It was terrible because it was so painful. It was raw pain. And hope, which can be sometimes more painful than anything else.
MOYERS: How’s that?
ALLENDE: Because you hope and hope. And then each day you realize that there’s nothing to hope except that she dies without pain. And it was great, because in that year, I threw overboard everything that is not necessarily to keep on walking.
And at the end of the year, I thought I had thrown overboard everything. That nothing was left. And I realize that that’s not true. I had what I had given her.
She was… she couldn’t… I don’t know if she received the love and the care. Maybe she didn’t, because she was like a vegetable. But what we gave her as a family made us so much stronger. And it united us in incredible ways. It took away all the fear.
MOYERS: The fear of?
ALLENDE: The fear of life. I’m not afraid anymore. What’s the worst that can happen, Bill? Death. And that’s going to happen to everybody.
MOYERS: And you’re not afraid of death?
ALLENDE: Not at all. Not at all.
MOYERS: You are an intriguing person in the sense so much of your life has been framed by violence. The violence of the 11th of September 1973. The violence of September 11, 2001. The death of your daughter, which was not violent but it was ultimate. And yet you seem to have so much mirth. So much gaiety. So much buoyancy, I would say.
ALLENDE: I have a good life. My life is about losses and pain. And great success and happiness and love. So it’s everything.
And I don’t dwell too much in the bad moments. And I don’t dwell too much in the good moments either. I’m not the kind of person that believes in my own celebrity. I think that’s stupid. So life is not bad.
MOYERS: So do you think of immortality?
ALLENDE: No. I think… I don’t want to be immortal in any way. I just want to pass that threshold and go back to whatever is there, some ocean of spirituality. And blend in there. And maybe someday I will take another shape. I don’t know. And I don’t worry about it.
MOYERS: It just occurs to me from time to time that I will live only as long as my grandchildren remember me.
ALLENDE: I remember my grandmother, much about her. And the rest that I didn’t know about her, I have invented. And she lives with me. And for as long as I live, she’s alive. But the same will be with me. My grandchildren will remember me because I have tortured them badly enough so that they will remember me.
MOYERS: You keep coming back to that term invented. So much of what you do is invention.
ALLENDE: It’s imagination. It’s imagination.
MOYERS: MY INVENTED COUNTRY: A NOSTALGIC JOURNEY THROUGH CHILE. Thank you so much, Isabel Allende.
ALLENDE: Thank you, Bill.
BRANCACCIO: A final note. We’ve heard a lot about David Brinkley since his death Wednesday night.
He was a pioneer and defining figure in television journalism. Many of you will remember Brinkley as half of the most famous anchor team ever. But let me take you back to one part of his career.
In the ’50s and ’60s, Brinkley traveled throughout the south reporting on the civil rights struggle for NBC News. Death threats were frequent. “Booker T. Brinkley,” the hate mail sneered.
And a television commentator in his home state of North Carolina targeted Brinkley’s reporting again and again. The man was Jesse Helms. Editorialist was his title, at WRAL-TV in Raleigh.
Helms had his eye on national political office, and race hatred was his ticket. “The newsmen sent south by television networks did not come to cover the news,” Helms said. “They came with both inclinations and, obviously, instructions, to produce explosive little film sequences to portray the south as the land of red-neck whites and frustrated, put-upon negroes.”
Helms had a special, acid term he used for David Brinkley: “Young Lemon Juice.” Sometimes, Brinkley admitted, after broadcasting a civil rights report, he was scared enough to sneak out the studio back door.
But he stayed on the story, relying on the best, the only weapon of journalists: the facts.
David Brinkley liked to keep it short and to the point. So we will, too. That’s it for NOW.
Bill Moyers will be back next week. I’m David Brancaccio. Good night.
This transcript was entered on April 7, 2015.