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Ben Rhodes

As deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Rhodes is one of Obama's top foreign policy advisers and was involved in the discussions that led to his decision to send U.S. troops into Pakistan to pursue Osama bin Laden. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on Aug. 24, 2012. (30:52)

As deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Rhodes is one of Obama's top foreign policy advisers and was involved in the discussions that led to his decision to send U.S. troops into Pakistan to pursue Osama bin Laden. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on Aug. 24, 2012.

  1. Ψ ShareThe administration's decision to undertake a new, 'cooperative' direction for U.S. foreign policy

    Let's start with the conversations that you began with the president and the other people at the White House about how you wanted to appear to the rest of the world. ... What was the attempt that the administration really wanted to do when it came to communicating and dealing with the rest of the world?

    Well, I think there were a dynamic, both in the United States and around the world, that we wanted to break, which is the war in Iraq in particular had soured the American people's view of our foreign policy, but also some of our alliances, some of the perceptions of the United States around the world had taken a serious blow over the course of the previous several years when we took office.

    So we set out in a very deliberate way to signal a new direction for U.S. foreign policy, one in which the war in Iraq was not going to be the dominant factor in what we did, one in which we showed through our actions that we were moving into a new chapter, and we were ending the war. We were reaching out to other countries and trying to rebuild a global consensus around a set of issues, whether it's terrorism, nuclear proliferation or dealing with a global economy.

    So right off the bat, the president did a lot of speaking and a lot of outreach, both in the United States but also to publics around the world, to say that this is a new beginning, and we want to start fresh and chart a new direction for dealing with the challenges that we have.

    Why was that important?

    It was important because the standing of the United States had suffered, and that was making it harder to get cooperation on issues that were important to us. We need cooperation to deal with the global economy. We needed the cooperation to deal with stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. We need cooperation to deal with terrorism. And we felt that we needed to clear the air and signal that we're moving into a new phase and a new direction that we could build back out U.S. leadership in the world, and essentially restore the luster that came with the United States globally. So the president had to do a lot of that himself in his early months in office.

    Very different message than what had been coming from the White House during the Bush era?

    Yeah. It was a message of inclusion, a message of genuine commitment to coalition building, a message that said we were going to listen just as much as we were going to articulate our views. And that was necessary, again, to get buy-in for U.S. foreign policies and to get the legitimacy and credibility of U.S. leadership restored once again.

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    So let's talk about the bin Laden story here. So Abbottabad, UBL. What had to be weighed in the decision to move forward with the operation? ...

    Well, first of all, the president had come into office saying that he was going to prioritize bin Laden. So very early in the administration, in March, he brought [then-CIA Director] Leon Panetta into the Oval Office and said, "I want an update on where our efforts against bin Laden stand." And he wasn't satisfied with the report he got back. And he memorialized, in a directive to Leon Panetta, that this was going to be the top priority of the agency going forward and that they were to dedicate more resources and more focus on the effort to get bin Laden.

    That led us to, again, a process in which they brought back to the president this compound in Abbottabad. And that was in the second part of 2010, in August-September time frame of 2010.

    Then there were two phases. The first phase was doing everything that we could to get better certainty that bin Laden was there, because the intelligence case was entirely circumstantial. Nobody saw Osama bin Laden, had a full ID on him. So we were dealing with a case in which we were trying to deduce the fact that bin Laden was an individual who was at this compound, and we never got that certainty.

    So one of the factors the president had to weigh is that he was never going to have certainty that Osama bin Laden was actually in this compound. It was ultimately going to be a 50/50 call as to whether bin Laden was there.

    Then you think about what are the consequences of different types of actions that we could take? When you talk about a raid option, the president pressed the national security team hard on what would be the consequences of taking this type of action.

    So we had discussions in the Situation Room about both the risks of sending the U.S. forces that far into Pakistan, the risks to those U.S. forces, but also the risks to the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. If we went in and Osama bin Laden was not there, and we had launched that aggressive an operation inside of Pakistan, it could have had overwhelming repercussions for the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, which is critical to our counterterrorism goals more broadly.

    If we had dropped a significant amount of ordnance on this compound, it could have led to significant civilian casualties in the area. And one of the options that was early in the process developed could have led to that type of collateral damage, of civilians in the area. That, too, could have had huge repercussions on the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

    Ultimately, the president had three options in front of him in the final meeting, on the Thursday before the operation. The three options that were in front of the president in that meeting were go with the raid, the option that we ended up pursuing; go with some type of standoff strike against this compound; or wait and try to gather more intelligence and get more certainty that bin Laden was there.

    There were risks associated with each of these options. The raid obviously has the greatest risk to U.S. forces, U.S. personnel. And also, again, the risk that bin Laden is not there was significant. Second, on the strike option, the risks are that you don't know that you really got bin Laden. We wouldn't necessarily know for sure ever. We'd have to try to wait and see and deduce whether or not Al Qaeda was reflecting the fact that bin Laden had been taken out. There were also risks associated with collateral damage. The most precise you can be is with forces on the ground. So there were risks associated with the strike option.

    Then, of course, the risks associated with the third option of waiting. While that's attractive -- let's try to make sure we know bin Laden is there so the president has that certainty in his mind. While, again, that was attractive in some respects, every day that we didn't go is a day that that compound could have been emptied out. And then we could have been left there knowing that we had the best chance at bin Laden since Tora Bora, which is how the CIA was characterizing this, and didn't take that chance.

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    When the president green-lit the bin Laden operation

    So take us into that meeting, that final meeting. What were the advisers saying? What was the demeanor of the president? And what was the outcome of that meeting?

    Well, it was characteristic of how he makes decisions, the whole process was. So the process started with him getting a full analytical understanding of what the factors were in front of them, and that had taken place over many weeks. And then we had refined these options in the lead-up to it. And that's how the president likes to make decisions. He likes to work problems through all the way until he fully understands what the costs and benefits of action are.

    The president came into the meeting, and he said to his national security team in the Situation Room: "I'm not going to make a decision in this meeting. I'm going to have to think about this tonight. But I want everybody to tell me what your view is, what you would do, what your recommendation is." Ironically, the meeting began with a pretty extended discussion of the negative consequences of action. And the president was pressing on that, because I think he was leaning toward going, but he wanted to make sure he fully understood the risks -- again, the risks to U.S. facilities in Pakistan, potentially; the risks of the relationship with Pakistan; the risks of the military operation.

    And then he went around the room and asked each of his principal national security advisers what their take was, what their advice was, and he got a very mixed response. I think of the people in the room, it was probably 50 percent roughly were in favor of the raid option that we ended up taking, and 50 percent were in favor of either taking the strike or waiting and gathering more intelligence.

    The next day, what happens?

    Well, you know, he went around the room, and he got that mixed response. But I think he wanted that. He wanted to know where everybody stood. And he wanted to, again, take very seriously the arguments of the people who were against this. He went back that night, and he thought about it in the residence. And I think he thought about it for several hours. And the next morning, he emailed Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, to meet him at the Diplomatic Room where he goes out to get onto Marine One. He was leaving to assess the tornado damage in Alabama that day.

    And he met with his senior-most staff, [White House Chief of Staff] Bill Daley, Tom Donilon, [foreign policy adviser] Denis McDonough, [chief counterterrorism adviser to the president] John Brennan, and he told them that it's a go. And they started to explain to him some of the latest information. He said: "I've made up my mind. This is a go." So that was a very short conversation.

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    Were you in the loop during this period of time?

    I was. I was in the meeting on the previous Thursday and then, of course, was involved in planning for different contingencies that could come out of the operation.

    Conversations you had personally with the president about it?

    What he was focused on is, at that point, he was very focused on being as prepared as we could. There wasn't a lot of emotion involved. It was, "Let's make sure we're ready for any possible contingency." So, from my vantage point, that meant we needed to have something that had been kept incredibly secret -- even within the government, almost nobody knew about it -- and suddenly be prepared for different contingencies where the entire world would know about this.

    A success we'd obviously have to explain. But we also had to prepare to explain going in and having bin Laden not be there. So we had to have a whole contingency plan ready for the reality of doing this operation and finding that bin Laden wasn't there. We also had to be prepared for very catastrophic scenarios, where we could lose U.S. personnel or even have a situation where there was some kind of standoff on the ground.

    And we wanted to have a playbook ready for each of those things. So the conversations with the president were him pressing us on making sure that we were prepared for that. Had we thought through what we would do in those types of situations? In fact, the most direct impact he had on the planning was that he wasn't satisfied with the ability of, for instance, the special operators on the ground to be able to fight their way into that situation, so he pressed on that option so we could refine it. But on every element of this, we had a playbook for the different scenarios that could play out. And that's what he focused on in his conversations with us.

    What was his demeanor like? Could you tell he knew that he was betting the farm? Basically, he was betting his presidency on this decision?

    You know, it's interesting. In the meetings, often different examples from the past came up, and they tended not to be the good examples. Black Hawk Down and Desert One came up a lot. And we all knew the ramifications of those, above all for the people who were involved in that operation, but also, of course, for the president. So that was kind of a lurking specter.

    But the president was incredibly calm, analytical and focused on executing the task as best we could. The day of the operation, you know, I think he himself would say that he was incredibly concerned, nervous above all about the safety of the people carrying out the operation. And so I think that was one of the longest days that he's had as president. I mean, he said to us at the time that the minutes were feeling like hours as we waited for the operation to begin, and then, of course, as we waited for them to get to the compound in Abbottabad, and then those very intense minutes when they were there.

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    Inside the Situation Room during the bin Laden mission

    Take us in as much detail as you want of that day in that room, in that Situation Room. Who was there? What was it like? And sort of take us to the point where there was a conclusion.

    Well, we had all the principals, all the Cabinet-level people and the national security team come to the Situation Room at the middle of the day, to basically be prepared to monitor it throughout the day. We had to have the utmost secrecy, so we shut down the West Wing. People came in not with their kind of big entourages and their big black SUVs, but very low-key.

    And we were in the Situation Room. And there's a large conference room that was essentially the base of operations where we were running the White House piece of it. But there's also a smaller room where there was the ability to more directly monitor what the special operators were going to be doing on the ground. And in the room that we were in, the Situation Room, we had two feeds. You know, we're sitting around the table, and the president is, of course, at the end of the table. And Leon Panetta is at CIA headquarters on one screen. And Bill McRaven, Adm. McRaven, who was the commander of the operation, was on the screen as well. And they were essentially narrating what was taking place when the operation was under way.

    So there was updates as to how close they were to the compound. And then, as soon as they got there, I think what was most concerning was the first news was that this helicopter had some kind of problem. And of course that's the worst-case scenario that everybody is afraid of. So there was kind of a weight in the pit of everybody's stomach in that room, because all we knew was that there was a problem with the helicopter.

    And it was roughly in that time where they were still trying to sort out getting this helicopter landed and getting people safely off of it that the president got up and left the large room and went into the smaller room where he could have a more direct ability to monitor what was taking place. As soon as he did that -- it's a small room -- he went and sat in the corner. He didn't want to disturb the person who was, again, closely monitoring the operation.

    As soon as he went in and sat in that corner of that small conference room, everybody else filled in after him. And they're the ones who filled around that table in that photograph that, again, has become so iconic. And they sat there, again, not making any direction, not providing any guidance, but just listening to the reports from Bill McRaven and Leon Panetta, and again, monitoring as best they could what was taking place on the ground there in Abbottabad.

    Now, Bill McRaven was an incredibly cool figure throughout this. He remained completely calm, even through the situation, obviously, with the helicopter. There was great relief when he reported that everybody was out safe and that this was ongoing. And then there were periods of silence. And they were interrupted then by Adm. McRaven saying that they had identified the call sign "Geronimo," which was the call sign for bin Laden.

    So as soon as he said that, one of the huge mysteries was solved for us, which is the relief that bin Laden is actually there. And then it was not much longer after that that he provided the call sign "Geronimo KIA" -- killed in action. And at that point, people kind of started to make eye contact. And there was this sense of not just relief but great pride and admiration in what had taken place.

    And nobody spoke until the president said to everybody around him, "Looks like we got him." And people kind of then started to -- not, you know, slap each other on the back, but I think there was some kind of relieved eye contact of everybody in the room.

    Then, of course, they had to do a number of things at that compound. So there was an additional period of time before they took off. And what the president said is he stood up, and he said, "I'm not going to relax until I know that those guys are out of Pakistani air space and back safe in Afghanistan." He went back up to the Oval Office, and he said, "I want you to keep me updated until they're out of there, and then we'll have to make a series of decisions."

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    Tell us about this president. Some people say he's a risk taker. Some people say he's cautious. Some people say he's too cautious. Some people say he's too much of a risk taker. When you went through this with the president, what did you see, and what does it say about his leadership?

    Well, a few things. First of all, I think you can lose sight of the fact that he had always said that he would do this. As someone who had worked for him for several years, I remembered the arguments that were had in the campaign, when he said he would go into Pakistan, on our own if we had to, to get bin Laden. That was a hugely controversial statement.

    And he had laid his credibility on the line that, if he had this type of shot, that he would take it. So one, I think it demonstrates that he does what he says he's going to do. And that evening, when we were working on the speech, we left the Situation Room and went up to the chief of staff's office to talk through what would go in the remarks. We had very little time. And I looked at him, and I said, "I couldn't help but think of when you said in the campaign, in that speech, that you would do this," and he said that thought had crossed his mind as well. But I think, in the first instance, it shows that he'll do what he says he's going to do.

    Secondly, he is willing to take big risks for big rewards, but only if he feels like things have been completely worked to the ground. So, in other words, we were going to understand this compound as best as we possibly could. We were going to make sure that this raid was as well developed as possible.

    So he was willing to take the risk, but only if he knew that essentially we had done everything we possibly could to set it up as best we could. And then he would, again, take that risk knowing, of course, that the biggest risk is on the people carrying out the raid.

    And then the third thing I think it says about him is he has extraordinary confidence in these special operators, and that's something he's gained as president. He said to us something that he said publicly, which is that it's a 50/50 call on bin Laden being there, but he had 100 percent confidence in these special operators. And that came from experience. It came from dealing with piracy and a risky operation early in his presidency to rescue an American hostage. It came from getting to know, day in and day out, what these people do on the ground in Afghanistan to keep us safe.

    The president knew Bill McRaven well. He had met with some of these special operators. So I think, when you stack it up, he did what he said he was going to do. He worked it as best he could with his national security team. And ultimately, he, as commander in chief, has developed great confidence in our special operations community and the ability of the U.S. military to get something done if there is a well-thought-out plan and a clear goal.

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    The debate over expanding the drone program

    Tell us a little bit about the debate that went on about expanding the drone programs. There was something that surprised a lot of people. I'm not quite sure if it should have. I mean, we had talked to other people who sort of said that this was something he had always talked about. But tell us a little bit about the debate. And was he conflicted at all about the decision to move forward on this part of the war effort?

    Now, in the first instance, he had been very forward-leaning in the campaign in advocating a greater target of action against Al Qaeda. He basically made an argument in 2002 that we were taking our eye off the network of terrorists that hit us and moving into a large-scale military deployment in Iraq. And in the campaign he said we needed to expand the use of targeted tools against terrorism. And he explicitly referenced drones in campaign speeches. So it was something he was familiar with and something that he had committed to doing as president, which is making greater use of targeted action against terrorist networks, including Al Qaeda.

    There was a broader concept, which is that we are going to move from these large-scale deployments, big U.S. military footprints abroad, and focus on Al Qaeda, so that this is not a global war on terrorism; it's a war against a very specific group of people, Al Qaeda and their affiliates.

    And so what you look at the trend line of our administration is, the number of U.S. service members in harm's way has gone down dramatically, from 180,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan when he took office down to 68,000 by the end of this summer. At the same time, we've shifted to a much more aggressive and targeted use of force against Al Qaeda.

    So I think he feels that's a better use of force. It's a better way to keep us safe. It's frankly better for the United States in terms of our own security. It's better in terms of the risk to our troops. It's also, frankly, better in terms of being more focused on our direct adversaries. You actually have ultimately less civilian suffering, civilian casualties if you're focusing in a very targeted way on a network of identifiable terrorists than if you're, for instance, launching the type of war we had in Iraq.

    So I think he's been comfortable moving to a very targeted approach against Al Qaeda. He's made sure that we know who we're targeting; that again, we're not just taking shots randomly, but this is a very methodical process that identifies who we think poses a direct threat to the United States and then uses force against them.

    And he's always said he has two standards when it comes to military action: If there is a direct threat to the United States in our homeland, we'll be able to act unilaterally against that target. If it's a broader global security challenge like we had in Libya, we're going to act with others. And that's going to be a different and higher standard for action.

    Was part of it also, I mean, the only tool that was possible to use? ...

    I think, you know, we're constantly looking at what is the best tool that we can use to accomplish an objective. We have a preference for capturing and detaining terrorists. And a lot of terrorists are detained not just by the United States but by coalition partners, counterterrorism partners like Pakistan, Yemen and others. So there's still, of course, the ability to capture and detain a terrorist.

    But then you get at, what is the best way that we can, again, take direct action against somebody who poses a threat to the United States? In Afghanistan we have, in addition to the broader military effort, there has been very aggressive targeted raids at Taliban leadership and potential Al Qaeda networks there, using a variety of tools, including special operations. But in some instances, the best way to, again, act on direct information and actionable information and time-sensitive information is going to be with a drone. But again, what we need to make sure we're doing is, if we use that tool, that we're subjecting ourselves to a very high standard in terms of who we're targeting and how we're doing it.

    Was there a debate over the possible blowback of use of drones? ...A debate within the White House that was intense about the fact of what does this mean?

    Well, remember, it's a tactic; it's a tool. There's a broader strategy, which is, again, to bring targeted force to bear on terrorist networks. I think that, number one, we evaluate these types of decisions about our counterterrorism operations, on a country-by-country basis, first of all. So if you look at a place like Yemen or Somalia, we act in concert with those countries. We act at their, frankly, invitation to be a partner of theirs. And a lot of what we do in those countries is strengthening their security forces. Some of what we may do is taking targeted action. So you're assessing it as one of a range of tools in whatever theater you're in.

    Now, with regard to the tool itself, you know, John Brennan has spoken in some detail about the fact that we make sure that we are setting rigorous standards for ourselves, that we're not, again, simply going to use something because we have the ability to use it, but rather, we're going to think in a very methodical and strategic way about when we take action, and that we're going to do so in discussion with other countries.

    We're also aware that the United States is often at the front end of certain capabilities. And it's inevitable that other countries ultimately will obtain similar capabilities. So our actions are setting precedents, and we need to keep that in mind. So we have been aware of that.

    The only other thing I'd say is, we have never lost sight of the hearts-and-minds issue. The president made a case, from the beginning -- he made it in Cairo -- which is that: "Look, we're going to take direct action against Al Qaeda, but we're going to define who that is. It's not Islam. It's not a global war. It's not multiple countries. It's a terrorist network. And we'll take direct action against them. But we're also going to stand for a broader set of values. So we're going to hold ourselves to higher standards. We're not going to torture people who are in our custody. We're also going to reach out to Muslim communities around the world."

    And one of the more satisfying things, frankly, that happened in the bin Laden operation is finding, in the sensitive intelligence that we were able to get there, and then ultimately declassify, bin Laden essentially feeling like the Al Qaeda brand lost. They were actually considering renaming Al Qaeda because they felt like they had become identified with killing Muslims, and they had failed to identify the U.S. as at war with Islam. The president found that to be one of the most satisfying pieces of information he's learned, because not only were we succeeding and going after bin Laden and Al Qaeda, but we're also succeeding in undercutting their narrative.

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    The other thing, the big question that keeps coming up is, the president is said to be involved in targeting decisions. I guess the question becomes, why is the White House so involved in this program?

    Well, I think the way to think about it is, the president as commander in chief, he's ultimately responsible for the actions that the United States takes around the world, and he wants to make sure that that accountability and that responsibility rests in the White House. Ultimately it's only the White House that can bring together the different elements of government.

    When you talk about our efforts against Al Qaeda, there are many different agencies of the government that are involved in that. The military is involved in that. The State Department is involved in that. The intelligence community is involved in that. And the only entity in the U.S. government that can bring those pieces together into a coherent whole is the White House under the leadership of the president. ...

    The critics, you know, including people like [Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James] Cartwright, who said, "But there's problems with the use of drones," and that the weakness is that, for instance, they can't surrender. There are other people that complain that we don't know if there are other people, civilians that are being killed and such. What's the response of the White House toward complaints that the drone is almost too easy a tool to use, and in fact we're too easily deciding just to kill these people instead of doing it in another manner?

    I think, again, you have to see it as a part of a spectrum of capabilities. So you have the ability to take targeted action with a drone against terrorists. We also spend a lot of time and resources training other security forces in Pakistan and Yemen and other places to go after terrorist networks themselves. We spend a lot of time and effort on our special operations capabilities, which have done everything from, again, operate in Afghanistan to take down bin Laden to have a hostage rescue situation in Somalia.

    And so what the president has is a range of tools in front of him that he has to choose from as commander in chief as to what the best strategy is. He has pressed very hard on us, again, to take a broader view. Yemen is the clearest example of that. We have very significant counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, including the ability to target Al Qaeda.

    At the same time, we have a very deep relationship with Yemen, and their security forces have done a lot in counterterrorism. But we also have a major development effort under way in Yemen in dealing with their humanitarian crisis. We were deeply involved in the process of political change that led to a new president in Yemen and a roadmap to democratic elections. So we're constantly trying to lift this up and see this tool as part of a broader range of options that the United States has, precisely because we don't want to just think that there's one answer to terrorism.

    And again, we would have a preference, in all these instances, to capture and interrogate and detain terror suspects. The fact of the matter is that in certain parts of the battlefield, that's just not going to be an option.

    You have been around this president now for quite a few years. You know him, therefore, better than most. So why is it so important as far as the national security side, do you think, your opinion of this man having a second term? Why is it important to continue on the policies of this president, from your point of view?

    I think that, by any measure, he has established an exemplary national security record and direction for the country. And it's almost impossible to go back and look at essentially where we were in 2007-2008 as measured against where we are today and not come to that conclusion. He inherited two wars that were fairly open-ended, with an Al Qaeda that was resurgent and had a safe haven in Pakistan.

    Within the course of three and a half years, we have completely ended one of those wars, in Iraq. We have put in place a transition plan so that we can have a handoff in Afghanistan and end the war there. And we have done so while devastating Al Qaeda. So this hasn't just been, "Let's end the wars for the sake of ending the wars." We have ended the wars in a way that has allowed us to achieve our objective far more so than we did in the previous eight years, in terms of decimating Al Qaeda's leadership and putting that on a path to a defeat for Al Qaeda.

    At the same time, what he's essentially done is begin to turn the page on this decade of war in a way that allows us to refocus on a much broader set of priorities around the world, so a nonproliferation agenda that secures nuclear materials and builds a broader national consensus to stop the spread of nuclear weapons in places like Iran.

    A U.S. focus on the world as it is. And we judge that Asia-Pacific region was the area of greatest opportunity for the United States to re-engage economically, diplomatically and through our security relationships, so that the U.S. is postured in a way that makes sense in the 21st century; that we're not completely weighted down in a place like Iraq or in one region, but rather we're repositioning the United States to lead going forward.

    So the president has shown that he can responsibly bring these wars to a close; he has shown that he can do so in a way that makes the United States stronger and defeats our adversary Al Qaeda; and he's shown that he can build relationships around the world that directly benefit our interests, whether it's on behalf of nuclear nonproliferation or on behalf of, again, getting the United States weighted and positioned in the place where it needs to be, which we see as the Asia-Pacific region right now. …

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