Dangers to Civil Liberties and Learning from the First Iraq War

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In this episode of NOW With Bill Moyers, Bill interviewed legendary columnist and longtime civil rights advocate Nat Hentoff about civil liberties and the war on terror. Hentoff’s next book at the time, THE WAR ON THE BILL OF RIGHTS – AND THE RISING RESISTANCE, examined the growth of organized resistance as more citizens realized their rights were endangered.

American newspapers, TV and radio stations answer to fewer and fewer corporate bosses. NOW considered what would happen if the last barriers to further consolidation crumble at the hands of the FCC and giant media companies.

Finally, Bill Moyers interviewed Ambassador John Wilson, the last senior diplomat to meet with Saddam Hussein, about his views on the Administration’s war plans in Iraq. Wilson was the Deputy Chief of Mission to the US Embassy in Baghdad from 1988-1991 and the acting ambassador in Iraq during Desert Shield, the lead-up to the Gulf War.


MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. On a recent broadcast, we reported on the Justice Department’s ambition to greatly expand the government’s police powers.

We showed you this draft legislation obtained by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington. It contains proposals for secret arrests, increased spying, search and seizure, even the power arbitrarily to take away an American’s citizenship.

All of this would add to the broad authority already given the government under the Patriot Act passed six weeks after September 11. And it has led to new concerns that President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft are “rewriting the constitution” to undermine the protections of the Bill of Rights.

No one has followed this story more closely than Nat Hentoff. He’s the prolific writer and journalist whose great passion is civil liberties.

Among his many books are FREE SPEECH FOR ME, BUT NOT FOR THEE, SPEAKING FREELY: LIVING THE BILL OF RIGHTS and THE NAT HENTOFF READER. Nat Hentoff earned a graduate degree from Harvard and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris as a Fulbright scholar.

He has been a columnist for the VILLAGE VOICE here in New York since 1957, and also writes regularly for THE WASHINGTON TIMES. Thank you for joining us.

HENTOFF: Thank you sir.

MOYERS: Does the Constitution extend to terrorists who want to kill us?

HENTOFF: You know, I’m glad — that leads right into my favorite Supreme Court decision. In 1866, after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, during the Civil War he suspended Habeas Corpus…

MOYERS: Meaning?

HENTOFF: That is, if the government puts you in prison, you have a right under Habeas Corpus to go to court and have them justify why you are there. It is the oldest English-speaking right. It goes back to the Magna Carta. He suspended it.

He also set up military tribunals. And the military put into those tribunals editors, reporters, just plain dissenters to his policies. And he arrested at least a quarter of the Maryland State Legislature because they disagreed with him. This was his time…

MOYERS: Some would say that was a justified…

HENTOFF: Well, Mr. Ashcroft might think so. But finally when the Supreme Court decided it was safe to say something about this. In a case called “Ex Parte Milligan,” they declared what he had done was unconstitutional. He says — they said the civilian courts were still open.

And there’s this wonderful phrase, “The Constitution of the United States is a law for rulers and people equally in war and peace. And covers with the shield of it’s protection all classes of men at all times and under all circumstances.” So that means that the Constitution applies to anybody.

MOYERS: Including terrorists who are trying to kill us?

HENTOFF: Suspected terrorists. If you have somebody you believe is a terrorist under our system of law, you have to prove it.

MOYERS: But here’s the issue. None of us have ever lived through the kind of war we are experiencing right now. The war against terrorism is not like any war we have ever fought.

We don’t know where the enemy is. You and I and every civilian in this country are targets. The threat doesn’t go away. Secrecy is essential to fighting it. And it’s possible we can never announce victory. Now what does this do to the Bill of Rights in a strange war like this?

HENTOFF: As soon as the President, the Secretary of State, everybody in the administration, including the Attorney General address this, told the nation about it. And repeatedly, every one of them said, “Whatever we do for security,” and they mentioned everything you’ve said, “We will do within the bounds of the Constitution.” That’s a direct quote.

Because what we are fighting to preserve in this war and Colin Powell said it was a war for civilization. What we are trying to preserve are our freedoms which they’re trying to destroy. So how can you then say, despite all — and then, true, we’ve never this sort of situation. That’s when the Constitution, as the Supreme Court said, has to stand for all of us.

MOYERS: If you were in government now, what would you do about the mosques where you have some reason to believe extremist ideas are being encouraged?

HENTOFF: What I would do is what William Sessions, former head of the FBI, former head of the CIA said in criticizing the Attorney General’s dragnet approach to this sort of thing. “You do what you always do. You investigate. You have a lead. And you follow the lead.”

“If you go in on the premise that everybody who is in a mosque or anybody, everybody who is in a church is suspect, then we are all suspects. And this is not longer a Constitutional democracy.”

MOYERS: But isn’t there…

HENTOFF: Because you know the Attorney General said, “There is no expectation of privacy in a public place like a church or a political gathering.” But there is no expectation that the person next to you is an FBI agent recording what you’re saying and the fact that you are there.

MOYERS: Isn’t there some natural selectivity, though, of suspicion when say all of the hijackers on 9/11 came from the same faith, came from the same part of the world.

HENTOFF: That’s all the more reason to be very careful in your investigating procedures to find out what’s going on.

MOYERS: You wrote a chilling column the other day about what you call “designated killers.”

HENTOFF: Yeah. There was story in the New York Times last November I believe which said that the President had authorized the CIA to set up a target list of terrorists — suspected terrorists — who they were authorized to kill. And there was a bombing of — by a robotic airplane.


HENTOFF: The Pres… a CIA airplane of a car in Yemen. They killed everybody in the car. Turned out one of those killed was an American citizen. His name was Kamal Derwish.

MOYERS: From upstate New York.

HENTOFF: Upstate New York.

MOYERS: Right.

HENTOFF: Now as David Wise, who was a veteran reporter on security in intelligence said in Time Magazine, this is a man who was killed, an American citizen. Afterwards the government said, “Well, he was in enemy combat.” He never appeared before a court. There were never any charges against him. We don’t know whether he was or not.

MOYERS: There were actually six people in the car. All of them were killed…


MOYERS: …including this American citizen…


MOYERS: …under suspicion.

HENTOFF: But the other thing is, so long as we are functioning under the Constitution, we have to have a reason to kill. And that means the Bill of Rights applies as the Supreme Court said in 1866, to all men, using the term generically. And that includes everybody within our power to either arrest or kill them.

MOYERS: Let me show you something that I brought to the studio on this very subject. This is an excerpt from the President’s State of the Union message in January. And listen to the reaction he got when he says what he says.

PRESIDENT BUSH (FROM TAPE): All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Let’s put it this way — they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies. (Applause.)

MOYERS: What the President is saying is that we have identified certain people who are threats to this country. We’ve put ’em on a list. We want them to be captured if they can, but if they can’t be captured, in effect what he’s saying is we want them killed.


MOYERS: …and they applauded.

HENTOFF: I know. They… Now this either indicates one of two things. They rose out of respect for the man who’s holding the office or, more likely, like most of the populace, they have not been educated as to what kind of country we are — why we are different from those countries that do engage in targeted assassinations of people they suspect are terrorists.

MOYERS: But this is a savage world, someone would say, Mr. Hentoff. This is a savage world.

HENTOFF: What do we stand for, then? Are we going to, as the Attorney General and the President kept saying from the very beginning, are we preserving our liberties as the most — the oldest Constitutional democracy in the world which is based on not targeted killing, but defending ourselves proactively without assassinating people who may not be guilty.

The President, whatever his education was, it did not concern civil liberties.

MOYERS: But the Bush people would tell you, I think, that this is a new kind of war as you and I were discussing. These are enemy combatants, not protected by the Bill of Rights, who can be picked up and held in a military prison on the President’s orders or killed if necessarily.

That the Bill of Rights always expands and shrinks in times of crisis. Take the first World War. The Palmer Raids against the suspected terrorists. Take what happened in the Japanese in the beginning of World War II. That extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. What’s your response to that?

HENTOFF: Well, in retrospect, many Americans regretted deeply what happened when our liberties were crushed during these times. But the other part of that is if indeed, and I believe this to be true, as you said we don’t know when this war will end. This war on terrorism.

So that means that what seems extraordinary now will become customary. And that means that the next generation, kid now, will grow up feeling these are the normal restrictions. Then what happens to the liberties that we are defending?

MOYERS: Well, but this is a war and the President is Commander-In-Chief.

HENTOFF: The President — and I say this with respect, because I don’t disagree with everything George Bush does. The President, whatever his education was, it did not concern civil liberties. When he was governor of Texas, he not only was the chief executioner of the United States under a system whereby the appellate courts were barely functioning, if at all.

There was a moment when the Texas legislature, which, as you know, is usually very factious and divided, was united unanimously. They wanted to put in for the first time in the state-wide legal defender system so that people who have no resources could get decent due process representation. George W. Bush vetoed that bill.

So I’m not surprised that he says what he says. He believes it. Ashcroft believes it. Ashcroft went to the University of Chicago law school, very good law school. But the Bill of Rights never quite reached him.

MOYERS: Let me ask you, for the sake of our viewers, to be very specific. What concerns you most right now about our civil liberties?

HENTOFF: What concerns me most is two things. One, most people do not know, even to this day, what is in the USA Patriot Act.

And the reason is how do we find out these things? The media, cable, broadcast television has been very remiss. Most of these stories become one or two day stories. So how are people going to know, most people, that their liberties are in danger?

Now there is a subtext to this, which I’ve been obsessed with for years. The teaching of why we are Americans, why we are different from other countries in terms of our liberties against the government, any government, is taught so badly in the schools, from middle schools through graduate schools. You can tell that by Jay Leno’s questions on the Tonight Show. You can tell that by the surveys.

Most Americans don’t know about the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment. All these amendments that are being vitiated by these acts.

But that’s why we need the press. And the press, whether it’s because they’re caught up in the 24 hour news cycle or their editors, their assignment editors get distracted by carjackings and murders and such, we do not — the people do not know what’s going on in terms of their own liberties and what’s happening to them.

When the find out — now the Bill of Rights Defense Committee…

MOYERS: What are they?

HENTOFF: …is an example of the resistance that’s growing in this country. In North Hampton, Massachusetts, in February of last year, a group of people, retirees, students, lawyers, doctors, stud— whatever, they got together and they formed a Bill of Rights Defense Committees to protect North Hampton from what John Ashcroft was doing.

And they eventually got the city council to pass a resolution which has now been passed — its equivalent — in 40 towns and cities around the country. From Tarboro, North Carolina — it’s a small, working-class town — to Seattle, one of the most recent big cities to… and all these resolutions say essentially the same thing. They say to their Congressmen, “We are aware of what’s happening to our liberties. We wish you would tell us how this these bills are being implemented in our communities.”

MOYERS: So what should citizens today do?

HENTOFF: Well, if they want to find out about how to join these committees, they have a web site: www.bordc.org. Bill of Rights Defense Committee.org. They can tell you how to — what they do, how to connect, et cetera.

And again, these are people across the political spectrum. These are not just liberals. When the ACLU put together a coalition to fight — unfortunately they failed — the USA Patriot Bill, they had the people for the American Way, the Gun Owners of America, the Free Congress Foundation, Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum.

Conservatives in Congress, conservatives who are Libertarians have been much more important than the Democratic leadership. Bob Barr, Dick Armey, who unfortunately are no longer there.

MOYERS: Both of them are gone now.

HENTOFF: Both of them are gone.

MOYERS: Barr was a Republican from Georgia. Armey was a Libertarian Republican…


MOYERS: …from Texas.

HENTOFF: And it was Dick Armey, when he was the House Majority Leader, who stripped from the Homeland Security Bill something that had been put in by the Justice Department and approved by the President. It was called Operation Tips.

MOYERS: Oh, yeah.

The most — you know what the difference between this administration and all others is that no administration in our history has had the technological capacity to spy on all of us.

HENTOFF: And that would have allowed servicemen, people who get into your homes, truck drivers. People who you see in your ordinary day of life. If they had any suspicion, otherwise undefined, that you were somehow connected to terrorism, there was a hotline in Washington they’d report you. And you’d wind up in a database.

And Dick Armey said, “I am not gonna allow Americans to spy on other Americans.” To, you know like Cuba or China where they’re in neighborhood committees. Not Dick… not Tom Daschle, not Dick Gephardt. It was Dick Armey who said that. And he stopped it.

MOYERS: Now you know about the Total Information Awareness System?

HENTOFF: Yes, indeed.

MOYERS: Run by General Admiral John Poindexter of Iran Contra fame who was convicted of lying to Congress and destroying documents 15 years ago. He’s returned to be put in charge of this new agency.

HENTOFF: The most — you know what the difference between this administration and all others is that no administration in our history has had the technological capacity to spy on all of us. Now this is an example. Total Awareness Information System means that in the Department of Defense, they will have data mining. They will take the data, these huge collections of information from private commercial databanks, from all our intelligence backs, which are now converged under the Homeland Security Act.

And they will be able to track every American, in terms of your medical records, your credit card records. Even the movies you pick out on Pay Per View or the EZ Pass, et cetera. I mean it’s… this technology is awesome.

And what are the protections against this? And it was stopped — it has been stopped, which shows you there is resistance. Temporarily and…

MOYERS: Temporarily.

HENTOFF: …temporarily I… the…

MOYERS: The Senate decided not to fund this program.


MOYERS: But there’s still contingency money that is running it at this moment.

HENTOFF: Oh, yeah. And it went into the conference committee in the House. This I found interesting. Even the conservative Republicans who are not Libertarians said, “Hey, this is troubling. We’re not gonna — we’re gonna go along with this suspension.”

I think some of them of a certain age may have remembered that J. Edgar Hoover had private dossiers on members of Congress. They too would then have been part of the Total Information Awareness System.

MOYERS: Do you think someone’s watching you right now? I don’t mean our audience out there?

HENTOFF: Well, well, listen, when I wrote my memoirs, SPEAKING FREELY, I didn’t remember what towns in Russia my parents had come from. And they were dead, I couldn’t find out. I do remember the name of the first job I had when I was 11. I got my FBI file.

It was right there. I was thinking of dedicating the book to J. Edgar Hoover. I mean they had all kinds of incorrect information. Wildly incorrect. Oh, sure. Anybody who dissents, especially these days, is likely, especially when you have this technology, to be in a file. I expect you are.

MOYERS: Last question, what writers influenced you? What made you what you are? What writers did it for you?

HENTOFF: Well, I think two people especially. Charles Dickens, who was by the way a reporter before he was a novelist. And that explains why his novels are so detailed. Dickens had great, great suspicion of authoritarian government.

And the key person who influenced me was George Orwell. I read 1984 and I’ll quote Orrin Hatch, who was a conservative who told me the…

MOYERS: From Utah?

HENTOFF: …the other day… right. Orrin Hatch said to me, “When I was reading 1984 I could never rememb— have imagined that it would ever become real.” And then he said, “Here we have the Total Information Awareness System.” And Orrin Hatch said, “That’s going too far.”

And there was one other person who influenced me greatly. I read him when I was 15. Arthur Kessler wrote a book called DARKNESS AT NOON about Stalinist Russia. It was a novel but it was a real case novel.

And what he taught me was that means and ends are central. If your means are corroded, your ends will be corroded. And if you’re fighting to preserve liberty and you use end— means, rather — that eviscerate our liberties, the end will be corroded too.

MOYERS: Thank you very much, Nat Hentoff.

MOYERS: Twenty years ago there were 50 owners of America’s major media outlets.

Now that’s been reduced to a handful of companies.

How they came to exercise such control over what all of us see and hear, and came to determine who gets seen and heard, is one of the astonishing stories of our time, and one of the least reported by the news industry itself.

No wonder the companies many journalists work for don’t really want us to know what they’re up to in Washington. Because what they’re up to is more and more concentration of ownership and power.

Just this week the Federal Communications Commission is holding hearings in Richmond, Virginia, to hear what the public thinks about allowing big companies to get bigger. No matter what it means to democracy. Here is our report.

BILL MOYERS: The FCC was established in 1934 to see that the nation’s broadcasters served the public interest — making sure the airwaves were used for more than commercial purposes alone.

HISTORICAL TAPE: “The item is adopted…”

MOYERS: Things have changed over the years. Just listen to FCC Chairman Michael Powell:

FCC CHAIRMAN MICHAEL POWELL (FROM TAPE): This is the most unique period in the history of the Federal Communications Commission. Every single area that we have regulatory oversight for is in the midst of its most profound revolution ever.”

MOYERS: That revolution has brought new technologies, like the Internet, cable and satellite television. But it has also brought on the greatest concentration of media ownership in American history.

Now the FCC is considering dismantling the last rules that would prevent even more consolidation. That’s exactly what media giants have been lobbying for…in the name of economic efficiency.

SHAUN SHEEHAN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE TRIBUNE COMPANY: In Chicago, we have 650 people on the editorial staff. In LA, in Los Angeles for the LA Times, it’s well over 1,000.

MOYERS: Shaun Sheehan is Vice President of the Tribune Company, one of the country’s largest broadcasters and newspaper publishers. The Tribune is pushing for an end to the rule that prevents a company from owning a newspaper and a television station in the same market.

SHEEHAN: If you take that reportorial talent and put it to use on television, Internet, what have you, get the words out over multiple platforms, you better serve your audience.

MICHAEL COPPS, FCC COMMISSIONER: If you take this to its logical conclusion, you could end up with a situation where one company owns the newspaper, the television station, the radio station and the cable system.

MOYERS: Michael Copps is the lone Democrat on the FCC.

COPPS: That may have some economic efficiencies attached to it, but I daresay it also has some profound democratic and social and political considerations that we ignore only at our own tremendous peril.

MOYERS: But consolidation is the trend. In 1975 there were some 1500 owners of full-power TV stations and daily newspapers. By 2000, that number had dropped to about 625.

And remember the Telecommunications Act of 1996? It led to a wave of mergers. There are now 1,700 fewer owners of commercial radio stations — a one-third decline. Today, just a few players dominate. One conglomerate alone – Clear Channel – owns more than 1,200 stations and controls 11 percent of the market.

And by the way, that legislation was also supposed to lower the rates you pay for your cable service. Instead, costs have increased almost 30 percent. Why? Because the big giveaway of ’96 did not increase competition – it increased monopoly. The nation’s seven largest cable operators control more than 75 percent of the market.

Yes, it’s true: the typical cable consumer today receives about 60 channels. But those so-called “choices” are determined by a handful of corporate giants … companies like Viacom, AOL-Time Warner, Disney, and News Corp.

But do we hear about all this from the mainstream media? Hardly.

Of the major broadcasters, only ABC reported the FCC’s recent decision to review media ownership rules … and that report was at 4:40 in the morning. While the big newspapers did somewhat better, only the LOS ANGELES TIMES mentioned that its corporate owner, the Tribune Company, was actively lobbying for deregulation.

GENE KIMMELMAN, CONSUMERS UNION: Those broadcasters and newspapers are whom we rely upon to tell that story and allow the American people to have that public debate. And they don’t want to have that debate. They want a deregulatory minded administration just to get out of their way, eliminate ownership limitations, let them join together. And the American people unfortunately may find out about this on the back end after its all happened.

MOYERS: And while the giant the FCC has set a January 2 deadline for public comments on the proposed changes, Commissioner Copps wants more debate and more time for it:

COPPS: I think we need to go out across the country and talk to all of the stakeholders in the great American communications revolution of our time. And in point of fact, every American is a stakeholder.

ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW: What’s happening to America’s children?

EDELMAN: There are children who are dying in this country when we have the capacity to save them.

ANNOUCNER: Marian Wright Edelman on the real challenge to our country. Next week on NOW.

ANNOUNCER: And connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS Online at pbs.org.

Free speech during wartime — what are your rights? Find out about your civil liberties and the Patriot Act. Learn about American diplomacy and Saddam Hussein. Connect to NOW at pbs.org.

MOYERS: With war in Iraq more imminent than ever, we’re going to talk tonight to the last senior American diplomat to meet with Saddam Hussein. Joseph Wilson was the Deputy Chief of Mission, the acting ambassador at the US Embassy in Iraq 12 years ago during Desert Shield, the lead-up to the first Gulf War.

He was a member of the American Foreign Service for 23 years. Our ambassador to two African countries. And served as the political advisor to the Commander in Chief of US Forces in Europe. He now heads his own international business firm and is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. Thank you for joining us.

WILSON: Oh, it’s my pleasure.

MOYERS: Here we are, what one could reading our papers, say is the eve of war. What do you think is going through Saddam Hussein’s mind this weekend?

WILSON: Well, I think Saddam Hussein is probably if the Gulf War is any example, I think has probably resigned themselves at some point that the war is going to happen. There may be one or two more games that they’ll try and play, give out a few more missiles, allow more U.N. inspectors, or offer to allow Peacekeepers and inspectors in.

But ultimately, I think they’ve probably resigned themselves to the fact that they’re going to be attacked. I suspect Saddam, being the survivalist he is, hopes that he will survive to fight another day. And I think that he probably believes that if he doesn’t survive he will want to go down in history as somebody who actually confronted the West.

Because you know, in the Arab world, it has been enough to confront the West. You haven’t had to defeat the West. You’ve just had to confront the West to achieve a certain status in the Arab world.

MOYERS: But if the United States attacks, he’s a dead man.

WILSON: Well, I’m not sure about that. He’s been preparing his security apparatus for 30 years. He knows his country. He may well have an out.

As the senior American diplomat 12 years ago in Iraq, did you support the effort to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait by force?

WILSON: I supported the effort to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. And I understood fully that in order to get him out of Kuwait you had to have the credible threat of force. And in order for that force to be credible, you had to be prepared to use it.

MOYERS: Diplomacy had failed there as because he was so intransigent.

WILSON: That’s right. That’s right.

MOYERS: He’s still just as intransigent.

WILSON: And I fear diplomacy is going to fail again.

MOYERS: What is the trip wire in your opinion for the use of force? What is your trip wire?

WILSON: Well, I’ve always said it’s the first time he poses an obstacle to your conducting an inspection then you go in and you use force against that particular site. But you keep the use of force focused on disarmament. Let me give you an example.

When Colin Powell was up at the United Nations, he showed a couple of pictures of the site. He said, “This is a chemical weapons site and this is the trucks going out of that site just before the inspectors arrive at the front door. The trucks are going out the back door.” That becomes a legitimate target for additional action on the part of the United Nations and the US. For example, that truck convoy leaving the site, as far as I’m concerned, becomes a legitimate target as does the site itself.

MOYERS: You’re not against using force. So help me understand the distinction between the quantity of force you would use and the quantity of force that George W. Bush is proposing to you.

WILSON: Well, first of all, I think there’s a question of objective. I’m not against the use of force for the purposes of achieving the objective that has been agreed upon by the United Nations in the international community, disarmament. If and when it becomes necessary. I think that is legitimate. Essentially, you could a lot of that just by the air. You do…

MOYERS: Precision bombing?

WILSON: …precision bombing. They’ve got more surveillance planes out there now. You’ve got the U2s. The French or moving some Mirages on. You’ve got the place blanketed.

MOYERS: You are calling for coercive inspections.

WILSON: That’s right. Muscular disarmament, coercive inspections, coercive containment, whatever you want to call it. I don’t think containment’s the right word because we’re really talking about disarmament.

MOYERS: Does it seem to you that the President, George Bush, is prepared to accept a disarmed Hussein? Or does he want a dead Hussein?

WILSON: I think he wants a dead Hussein. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.

MOYERS: President Bush’s recent speech to the American Enterprise Institute, he said, let me quote it to you. “The danger posed by Saddam Hussein and his weapons cannot be ignored or wished away.” You agree with that?

WILSON: I agree with that. Sure. I…

MOYERS: “The danger must be confronted.” You agree with that? “We would hope that the Iraqi regime will meet the demands of the United Nations and disarm fully and peacefully. If it does not, we are prepared to disarm Iraq by force. Either way, this danger will be removed. The safety of the American people depends on ending this direct and growing threat.” You agree with that?

WILSON: I agree with that. Sure. The President goes on to say in that speech as he did in the State of the Union Address is we will liberate Iraq from a brutal dictator. All of which is true. But the only thing Saddam Hussein hears in this speech or the State of the Union Address is, “He’s coming to kill me. He doesn’t care if I have weapons of mass destruction or not. His objective is to come and overthrow my regime and to kill me.” And that then does not provide any incentive whatsoever to disarm.

MOYERS: All of us change in 12 years and obviously Saddam Hussein has changed since you last saw him. But what do you know about him that would help us understand what might be going through his mind right now?

WILSON: Well, I think, first of all, it’s important to understand that he’s a creature of his– of his country and of his region. His worldview is very limited. It is essentially what he sees from his palace and what his sycophants come and tell him.

So he does not have a broad vision of what’s going on around him. There’s, I think, a tendency to think of the world as rotating around not just Iraq but around his own palace. Secondly, he’s a coldly rational political actor. But given that his worldview is limited, there is a tendency to develop a logical argument where the premise is skewed.

MOYERS: Such as?

WILSON: So he will, for example — four days after he invaded Kuwait when I saw him in August of 1990 — he said that the United States lacked the intestinal fortitude and the stamina to confront his invasion in Kuwait. And it was clear to me that he was drawing upon his interpretation of our experiences in Vietnam, Beirut and possibly Tehran. And he had drawn exactly the wrong lessons from that.

We, in fact, stayed in Vietnam far longer than we should have perhaps. We were there for 15 years. And we suffered 50,000 casualties. We did not cut and run. We did spill the blood of our soldiers for many, many years. Give you another example, the whole decision to go into Kuwait was, from his perspective, rational based upon his understanding of the region and of what the international community would do.

MOYERS: His decision to go…

WILSON: His decision to go into Kuwait. The only reason he had Ambassador Gillespie in to see him and then me in to see him four days after the invasion. Both were unprecedented meetings. He would normally meet only with senior diplomats resident in Baghdad when they were accompanying envoys from their respective capitals. So for him to have Ambassador Gillepsie and then me was really a first.

And it was clear that what he wanted to do in that is he wanted to deflect attention from what he really intended to do. And that’s what he did with April Gillespie. He lied to her. He lied to President Mubarak that he was going to allow the negotiating process to go forward.

And with me, he wanted to make sure that the United States would not respond unilaterally. And so that he would get this thrown into the United Nations. And the reason he wanted it in the United Nations was because his experience was with Israeli-Palestinian issues, specifically Resolutions 242 and 338, which related to occupation of Palestinian territories. And as most people know, the Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories has not taken place even though those territories were occupied in the ’60s and early ’70s.

MOYERS: So what does he conclude from that?

WILSON: He concludes from that that if it goes into the United Nations system, he’s got 25 or 30 years to occupy Kuwait during which time he can flag Kuwait City with Iraqis, pump all their oil, steal all their money and then submit it to a referendum which he would have stacked the odds for his victory.

MOYERS: So President Bush is not being naive to think that the UN may backfire on him. He’s not being naive when he thinks that Saddam Hussein is lying to us, deceiving us, right?

WILSON: One should never believe Saddam Hussein. We certainly have enough experience with his deception and his lies not to be too trusting with him. With respect to the United Nations, it seems to me that the United Nations has far more often acted in a way that is– that is consistent with our interests. And it has a obstacle to our interests. And it is our interests who have a broad international support for an objective.

And in order to get that broad international support, you have to frame your goals in such a way that you can get the allies as we did in the Gulf War.

MOYERS: So you’re saying that it is important to enforce United Nations resolutions.

WILSON: Absolutely.

MOYERS: You think war is inevitable?

WILSON: I think war is inevitable. Essentially, the speech that the President gave at the American Enterprise Institute was so much on the overthrow of the regime and the liberation of the Iraqi people that I suspect that Saddam understands that this is not about disarmament.

MOYERS: Most Americans, including yours truly, know very little about Iraq. You’ve lived there. Tell me what we should know about it.

WILSON: Well, first of all, it is a wonderful country. It is the heart of Mesopotamia and everything that everybody understands about Mesopotamia…

MOYERS: The old biblical culture.

WILSON: And the breadbasket of that part of the world for many years. Two of the great rivers of history flow through it.

MOYERS: Tigris and the Euph…

WILSON: Tigris and Euphrates. It’s got a population of about 25 million. Iraqis are wonderful people. They are imbued with a sense of their own history. They know who they are. They’re fiercely nationalistic. They’re a proud people.

They have tribal and ethnic cleavages that are difficult for outsiders to understand but which make up the fabric of politics and make it a very, very difficult place to govern as history has shown. That said they are educated. There is — was, when I was there, a vibrant commercial class, a vibrant educated class.

They grow dates. They produce oil. There was a wonderful construction industry. And, of course, we’ve seen from their ability to retrofit arms that they are active in the development of exotic weaponry. Which means that they’ve got engineering skills and science skills which have been put, unfortunately, to the wrong uses.

MOYERS: A great culture except that it’s ruled by a dictator.

WILSON: As it has been for way too many years, for sure.

MOYERS: Tell me what you think we should do about Baghdad, the city, because apparently the strategy will be for — Saddam’s strategy will be to defend Baghdad and make the war so bloody that he will create a worldwide reaction. And the United States is considering something called “Shock and Awe.” Have you heard of that?

WILSON: I have. Yeah. And I’ve heard American military officials talk about how Baghdad would not be a safe place to be during the first several days of the air campaign. From what I understand about shock and awe, it will be a several day air assault in which they will drop as much ordinance in four or five days as they did during the 39-day bombing campaign of the Gulf War.

MOYERS: Missiles, bombs…

WILSON: Missiles, bombs, precision bombs. I believe the President and our military officials, when they say they will do everything to minimize casualties to the civilian population. But it was difficult to imagine dropping that much ordinance on a population of four million people without having a lot of casualties that are unanticipated. A lot of civilian casualties.

MOYERS: As I understand this concept of shock and awe, the United States would fire 100, maybe thousands of missiles the first day to shock…

WILSON: That’s right.

MOYERS: …the Baghdad and the Iraqi population. And then wait to see what happens. Hoping that they might rise up against Saddam. Or the Republican Guards, his elite troops might flee in fear. Do you think that’s a viable concept given what you know?

WILSON: Well, I think that from everything that I know about Iraq, Saddam will probably be surrounded by between 80 and 100,000 hardcore Republican Guard fighters who are prepared to die with him and who understand that their future is with him, live or die. And so they will probably defend him pretty close to the bitter end.

Now, defending Saddam Hussein will give them license to take on anybody who attempted to overthrow Saddam. So you might well have a bloody uprising in Baghdad in which pits essentially the Iraqi population against the Republican Guard in Saddam’s palace. I think far more likely, is that most Baghdadis will just simply go into hiding and try and avoid getting hit by this American ordinance and/or getting killed by the Republican Guard.

Remember that Saddam Hussein, in his own mind, personifies Iraq. He is Iraq and Iraq is him. And so long as he’s Iraq…

MOYERS: Just as Hitler with Germany. Hitler saw himself as Germany.

WILSON: And that permits him — that permits, in his own mind, to send as many Iraqis to their deaths as necessary so long as he survives.

MOYERS: Knowing this about — why do you think knowing this that the President Bush is so eager for war?

WILSON: Well, that’s a — I think that’s a very good question. I think that there is a sense in the administration that the time has run out for Saddam Hussein and the only way that they can achieve the disarmament objective that they want is to go in. But more importantly…

MOYERS: And you agree with that, don’t you?

WILSON: Well, no, I don’t think that that’s the only way. That’s where I disagree. I mean, I think that there are several other steps that can be taken before you have to go to total war for the purposes of achieving disarmament.

MOYERS: Coercive…

WILSON: But I think disarmament is only one of the objectives. And the President has touched repeatedly and more openly on the other objectives in recent speeches including this idea of liberating Iraq and liberating its people from a brutal dictator. And I agree that Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator.

And I agree along with everybody else that the Iraqi people could — would well be far better off without Saddam Hussein. The problem really is a war which has us invading, conquering and then subsequently occupying Iraq may not achieve that liberation that we’re talking about.

MOYERS: So this is not just about weapons of mass destruction.

WILSON: Oh, no, I think it’s far more about re-growing the political map of the Middle East.

MOYERS: What does that mean?

WILSON: Well, that basically means trying to install regimes in the Middle East that are far more friendly to the United States — there are those in the administration that call them democracies. Somehow it’s hard for me to imagine that a democratic system will emerge out of the ashes of Iraq in the near term. And when and if it does, it’s hard for me to believe that it will be more pro-American and more pro-Israeli than what you’ve got now.

MOYERS: Tell me what you think about the arguments of one of those men, Richard Perle, who is perhaps the most influential advocate in the President’s and the administration’s ear arguing to get rid of Saddam Hussein. What do you think about his argument?

WILSON: Well, he’s certainly the architect of a study that was produced in the mid-’90s for the Likud Israeli government called “a clean break, a new strategy for the realm.” And it makes the argument that the best way to secure Israeli security is through the changing of some of these regimes beginning with Iraq and also including Syria. And that’s been since expanded to include Iran.

MOYERS: So this was drawn up during the ’90s…

WILSON: Right. During the ’90s, absolutely.

MOYERS: By men outside of all this?

WILSON: Outside of all this, yeah.


WILSON: Now, Richard Perle’s been outside of office since the Reagan years.

MOYERS: And this, you’re saying that this has become a blueprint for the Bush Administration?

WILSON: Well, I think this is part of what has been the underpinning of the– of the philosophical argument that calls for basically radically changing the political dynamics in the Middle East and…

MOYERS: To favor Israel?

WILSON: Well, to favor American national security interests and Israeli national security interests which are tied. I mean, we have…

MOYERS: How so?

WILSON: We have an important strategic responsibility to ensure the territorial integrity of Israel. It’s one that we’ve accepted since 1948. It’s one that’s been increasingly close. There are those who believe that perhaps we’ve confused our responsibilities with the slavish adherence to the Likud strategy.

MOYERS: Likud, the party.

WILSON: It’s the party in power right now. And certainly when the President or when Sharon comes — the Prime Minister comes to Washington and says that George Bush is the best friend that Israel ever had. And George Bush calls him a man of peace, calls Sharon a man of peace, there are those who wonder about the depth of our ties and the extent to which our national security responsibilities may somehow be confused with our support for the current government in Israel.

MOYERS: So help us understand why removing Saddam Hussein and expanding that movement, throughout the Middle East which would benefit Israel?

WILSON: Well, I think those are the sorts of questions that you need to ask to Richard Perle. The argument that I would make…

MOYERS: We asked him but he didn’t want to come on the show.

WILSON: Yeah. The argument that it seems to me — I’ve done democracy in Africa for 25 years. And I can tell you that doing democracy in the most benign environments is really tough sledding. And the place like Iraq where politics is a blood sport and where you have these clan, tribal, ethnic and confessional cleavages, coming up with a democratic system that is pluralistic, functioning and, as we like to say about democracies, is not inclined to make war on other democracies, is going to be extraordinarily difficult.

And let me just suggest a scenario. Assuming that you get the civic institutions and a thriving political culture in the first few iterations of presidential elections, you’re going to have Candidate A who is likely going to be a demagogue. And Candidate B who is likely going to be a populist. That’s what emerges from political discourse.

Candidate A, Candidate B, the demagogue and the populist, are going to want to win elections of the presidency. And the way to win election is enflame the passions of your population. The easy way for a demagogue or a populist in the Middle East to enflame the passion of the population is to define himself or herself by their enemies.

And the great enemy in the Middle East is Israel and its supplier, the United States. So it’s hard to believe, for me, that a thriving democracy certainly in the immediate and near-term and medium-term future is going to yield a successful presidential candidate who is going to be pro-Israel or pro-America.

MOYERS: So you anticipate many unanticipated consequences to a war with Iraq?

WILSON: Not to anticipate unanticipated consequences is a dangerous thing to do. And my military planners used to always tell me, “Hope is not a plan of action.” So you don’t want to base things on how you hope the outcome is going to turn out.

MOYERS: Talk to me a moment about the notion of preemptive action and regime change. Preemptive action means an attack.

WILSON: That’s right. That’s right. We have historically reserved as part of our right of legitimate self-defense the authority to go in and take out an enemy before that enemy has an opportunity to take us out. Now what I worry about most is that we’ve lose focus on the war on terrorism where we’ve actually gone after al Qaeda and where we should continue to go after al Qaeda both in militarily as well as with our intelligence and our police assets.

We’ve got lost focus on that. The game has shifted to Iraq for reasons that are confused to everybody. The millions of people who are on the streets of our country and of Europe, as I said the other day, it strikes me as — it may prove that Abraham Lincoln is right. You cannot fool all the people all the time.

They have been sold. We have been sold a war on disarmament or terrorism or the nexus between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction or liberation. Any one of the four. And now with the President’s speeches, you clearly have the idea that we’re going to go in and take this preemptive action to overthrow a regime, occupy its country for the purposes, the explicit purposes of fostering the blossoming of democracy in a part of the world where we really have very little ground, truth or experience.

And, certainly, I hope along with everybody that the President in his assessment is correct. And that I am so wrong that I’m never invited to another foreign policy debate again.

MOYERS: You’re not likely to be after this. (LAUGHTER)

WILSON: Because if I am right, this could be a real disaster. If I am wrong and the President is right, and you do have the democratic state that emerges, and you do have the power of the United States there as an arbiter, and you have a renewed commitment, as the President suggested in his speech to moving the Israeli-Palestinian process forward, then it could go well.

But I do believe — and it could be good for Israel. But I continue to believe that the path to peace in the Middle East goes through Jerusalem far more than it goes through Baghdad.

MOYERS: To a peaceful settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis…

WILSON: Not just that. But that is the thorn that has to be pulled from the region in order for, in my judgment, the evolution of other governments in a more modern way. So long as you have the Palestinian — the Israeli-Palestinian problem there, any of these governments can use that…


WILSON: …as the external enemy against which they mobilize their own populations.


WILSON: And avoid responsibility for their own destinies.

MOYERS: Yeah. Joseph Wilson, thank you very much for this conversation.

WILSON: It’s my pleasure.

MOYERS: I wore my flag tonight. First time. Until now I haven’t thought it necessary to display a little metallic icon of patriotism for everyone to see. It was enough to vote, pay my taxes, perform my civic duties, speak my mind, and do my best to raise our kids to be good Americans.

Sometimes I would offer a small prayer of gratitude that I had been born in a country whose institutions sustained me, whose armed forces protected me, and whose ideals inspired me; I offered my heart’s affections in return. It no more occurred to me to flaunt the flag on my chest than it did to pin my mother’s picture on my lapel to prove her son’s love. Mother knew where I stood; so does my country. I even tuck a valentine in my tax returns on April 15.

So what’s this doing here? Well, I put it on to take it back. The flag’s been hijacked and turned into a logo — the trademark of a monopoly on patriotism. On those Sunday morning talk shows, official chests appear adorned with the flag as if it is the good housekeeping seal of approval. During the State of the Union, did you notice Bush and Cheney wearing the flag? How come? No administration’s patriotism is ever in doubt, only its policies. And the flag bestows no immunity from error. When I see flags sprouting on official lapels, I think of the time in China when I saw Mao’s little red book on every official’s desk, omnipresent and unread.

But more galling than anything are all those moralistic ideologues in Washington sporting the flag in their lapels while writing books and running Web sites and publishing magazines attacking dissenters as un-American. They are people whose ardor for war grows disproportionately to their distance from the fighting. They’re in the same league as those swarms of corporate lobbyists wearing flags and prowling Capitol Hill for tax breaks even as they call for more spending on war.

So I put this on as a modest riposte to men with flags in their lapels who shoot missiles from the safety of Washington think tanks, or argue that sacrifice is good as long as they don’t have to make it, or approve of bribing governments to join the coalition of the willing (after they first stash the cash.) I put it on to remind myself that not every patriot thinks we should do to the people of Baghdad what Bin Laden did to us. The flag belongs to the country, not to the government. And it reminds me that it’s not un-American to think that war — except in self-defense — is a failure of moral imagination, political nerve, and diplomacy. Come to think of it, standing up to your government can mean standing up for your country.

What do you think?

That’s it for NOW. Thanks for watching. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on March 24, 2015.

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