Inside Baghdad with John Burns
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
MARGARET WARNER: John Burns, welcome. The last time we spoke with you was March 31, and then radio silence. What happened?
JOHN BURNS: Well, at least in my case — and I wasn’t alone — but perhaps that was the worst case of any amongst us, the western reporters here. The ugly face of the regime became suddenly, fully apparent. The mask was stripped away.
A group of men burst into my room one night toward midnight, told me that I was under arrest, that I was a CIA spy. They gathered all my equipment; they took away or stole all my money. They said that the most serious consequences awaited me; that I had… the only chance I had was to cooperate with them.
JOHN BURNS: Subsequent to this, I entered into a kind of fugitive or pimpernel mode. I was never quite sure… although I was sure that the people who came were from the intelligence agencies — and they declared themselves to be. I wasn’t quite sure whether it was simply a shakedown, a robbery, or something more serious than that.
For some time before this, one of the principal officials of the regime who was accessible to us had been addressing me in public places in front of other officials and other correspondents as “the most dangerous man in Iraq,” and he said it in a rather merciless way.
And I had responded on a number of occasions to him by saying, in effect, “that’s either a tired joke or it’s serious.” And after they burst into my room and told me I was not to leave, I did leave my room.
And I went downstairs and I saw this official, and I said to him that I had already spoken with some of my colleagues, and that if anything happened to me, that he would held personally to account. And, that he should know that if any serious harm came to a correspondent of the New York Times, he could be sure that the United States government would hold him to personal account.
This was a director general of information, an intelligence official himself who previously served in western Europe. My impression was that he was frightened by what had happened. He said he understood what I was saying, that he would see what he could do.
But over the subsequent two days when I was mostly hiding in stairwells, he would not talk to me. He subsequently disappeared the night before the Marine Corps tanks drove up the street just behind me here past the mosque, which was — as you may imagine for me, as it was, to be honest with you, most of the western correspondents here — a moment of liberation, as it was in my view for the people of Baghdad.
But the director general of information had in the meantime — true, I think, to the character of these people — had been around all the television feed points on the roof where I’m now standing, and insisting on payment of certain fees that are due to the Iraqi government, to the Saddam government.
It has collected — so we’re told — something in the region of $200,000 in cash, which he then put into his pocket without receipts, and he has now disappeared like so many of them.
MARGARET WARNER: So was this the information minister that we kept seeing, al-Sahhaf, or his boss? Who was this?
JOHN BURNS: The director general of information would be perhaps the number-three man in the ministry of information.
We, as you, saw a great deal of the minister of information, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, appropriately now, I think, dubbed by the British tabloid press “Comical Ali,” one of the strangest — weirdest, if you will — people in this whole very strange regime.
The director general was an official of that ministry, and a particularly unpleasant person who made the life of many of us who were here very unpleasant indeed. The ministry was extremely corrupt. The endgame, the stealing, was only a kind of culmination of something to which we had been subject… subjected for a long time.
This is a government of thugs and gangsters. And they behaved like that in their dealings with us.
MARGARET WARNER: So go back now to the days right after that confrontation in your room. You said were you hiding in stairwells. Were you… were you really in fear? And were you able to continue to do your work at all? And if so, how?
JOHN BURNS: Well, I think the answer to that the latter question — was I able to do my work? — is yes.
I found ways to work around this problem. This government, in addition to being extremely corrupt and full of thugs, was oddly inefficient.
As I say, it may have just been a shakedown, but they made mention of Abu Ghraib, which was the principal prison in Saddam’s gulag, a place where I had spent some time last October when Saddam amnestied tens of thousands of prisoners.
That was in itself absurd because by the time they told me that they would take me to Abu Ghraib, we knew that American troops were on the highway near Abu Ghraib, which is about 20 miles west of where I’m standing now.
I found ways to work around it. My principal concern… and I’m not much of a believer in the journalist as hero. In these places, whatever pressures we are subjected to, they are in no ways to be compared with the pressures to which ordinary people are subjected, ordinary Iraqis.
They’ve lived with this system for 30 years. I’ve always felt that as a correspondent of the New York Times, I come to places like this with a suit of armor, which is to say that to take action against me would have serious consequences and that gives us a considerable leeway.
So my principle concern at that time was to stay in play. Having taken, if you will, the hazard, the risk of staying here through the war, I was determined that I was not going to fall at the last fence.
I wanted to be in the paper every day, and I think I was in the paper every day, except for that one night when, without equipment and literally living in a darkened stairwell, it was just beyond me to file.
But after that, I relied on friends of mine, Americans and Europeans, who at some risk to themselves…other correspondents allowed me to use their computers, their sat[elite] phones, and I got out and around the city as much, I think, as most people could. We were pretty restricted at that period.
JOHN BURNS: I’ve heard just in the last 24 hours that the director general is now back in Baghdad. It’s a curious situation. He’s not on the pack of cards, the 55 wanted men. I think that the United States would be interested in talking to him because his intelligence background.
I was approached last night by somebody who asked me if I’d like to see him, and I said I would very much like to see him because I’d like to understand what in fact they had in mind. You know, I came through this okay. I chose to be here, and I’m glad I did. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. And I wouldn’t go to see him now to gloat, now that, if you will, the relationships of powers have inverted and I have standing, in manner of speaking, at my back the United States Marine Corps.
I would go because I want to understand what people like that thought they were doing. What did they think at the last, with the United States Army about 1,000 yards away from me where I’m standing here in the Republican Palace? What did they mean by doing these things? Did they really intend us any harm? Did they simply intend to frighten us? Were they frightened? What was it all about? And I’d like to know. So I’m going to see if I can find him and sit down and talk to him about all these things.
MARGARET WARNER: In the days that the American troops have been there finally, how have your relationships changed, if they have, with Iraqis you knew and with Iraqis in general? What’s that been like as a reporter to suddenly have this complete change in the power relationship in the city you’re covering?
JOHN BURNS: Well, of course, you know, we’ve been through several phases. Initially we saw the cheering of the American troops, the sheer jubilation at their liberation. That’s been pretty quickly discounted. Now people are worrying about electricity and water and security and the museums, of course, and the libraries and so forth. And now we hear more demands and frustrations than we hear appreciation.
But if you stop and ask these people would they want Saddam back, only the most hardened Baathists will say yes. I think people have been deprived of freedom throughout their lives don’t really know what to make of it. I don’t think there is yet an appreciation of what the potential of this freedom is. They’ve seen very little of it to begin with. They started out, if you will, in the period of the American imperium here, far worse off in… purely in terms of their living standards than they were under Saddam. That of course will change. We know that. But they haven’t seen much of this yet.
There’s a tremendous flow of conspiracy theories around the town. And we now begin to see the people who made our lives so difficult, in some cases, persecuted us with tremendous pleasure, returning it to this hotel, fighting their way through the marine corps security outside, and petitioning us for jobs, which I have to say was something that in the worst period before the war began and during the war, we used to amuse ourselves with the thought that some of these rather unpleasant people would turn up and ask for jobs.
And it’s, if you will… the wish has proven farther to the reality that they are now turning up and sending me, amongst other people, I’m sure, notes through the Marine Corps security saying —
MARGARET WARNER: We’ve just lost our satellite picture, but John, if you can hear me, thank you.