Photo of Bill Moyers Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Watch & Listen The Blog Archive Transcripts Buy DVDs

July 27, 2007

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal. You may have thought the best theatre in Washington this week was the confrontation between attorney general Gonzales and the Senate Judiciary Committee -- well it was a lulu: the attorney general saying he was going to clean up the mess that only months ago he denied existed, and Senators Leahy and Specter rubbing their eyes in disbelief. But on the very day that drama unfolded, there were also fireworks on the floor of the House that weren't to be missed.

Tempers flared, not over the the constitution, executive privilege, immigration, or even the war in Iraq. Tempers flared over the most sacred ritual on Capitol Hill: slicing up the pork. I'm not making this up. Threaten to take away a member's funding for pet projects -- what we've come to call "earmarks" -- and you might as well have set off Armageddon. It happened on Tuesday when one member tried to kill off an earmark of money sought by another member for a housing program for native Hawaiians. The offended congressman seemed almost to threaten fisticuffs. We're learning a lot more about earmarks because of the diligence and vigilance of some people you're about to meet. They call themselves Taxpayers for Common Sense.

BILL MOYERS: Look out Congress - there's a bird dog on your trail and he's trying to sniff out how you're spending our money.

STEVE ELLIS: Nobdy wants to see their dollars wasted. Nobody. I don't care whether you're liberal or conservative. And if you show directly to - people that their members of Congress are wasting their taxpayer dollars or worse, feathering their own nest, then that starts getting people's attention

BILL MOYERS: Steve Ellis was once a sailor at sea - a member of the U.S. Coast Guard. Now he works for the public interest group, Taxpayers for Common Sense.

STEVE ELLIS: Hi, Steve Ellis, Taxpayers for Common Sense.

STAFFER: Very nice to meet you.

STEVE ELLIS: Nice to meet you. I was here looking to see the earmark request letters.


STEVE ELLIS: And part of what we are trying to do is to get the populace to demand more. To demand their members of Congress to be accountable and to show them where their tax dollars are going.

STAFFER: A few rules that we do have are that you cant photocopy them. You also may not take pictures of them.

BILL MOYERS: Do you ever get the impression they're trying to make it hard for you to do your job?.

STEVE ELLIS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, essentially, information is power. Congress knows that. And they're trying to control the flow of information which then helps them maintain their power.

BILL MOYERS For years, Ellis and his colleagues have been trying to pry open the secret of how Congress uses earmarks to pass out money. Think of earmarks as individual pipelines of public funds allowing members of congress to designate money for whatever purpose they choose, without hearings or oversight. For a long time they could do it anonymously. A single member could add a few words to a bill - without attaching a name - and bingo! Hundreds of millions of dollars go barreling down the pipeline to a waiting recipient. No debate... no scrutiny. And remember all that money -- flowing through those personal pipelines to favored causes -- is public money... your money.

STEVE ELLIS: You could even have an earmark, for instance-- there was one in the Defense Authorization this year. Seven members of Congress requested ten additional C-17s, the big cargo aircraft, $2.4 billion, so it's a big ticket item.

BILL MOYERS: Thats an earmark?

STEVE ELLIS: That's absolutely an earmark. It was not requested by the Pentagon. And the fact is, is that the members of Congress who requested it all had a local interest, a vested interest in it.

BILL MOYERS: And they've earmarked how much money?

STEVE ELLIS: $2.4 billion

BILL MOYERS: That the Pentagon didn't ask for?

STEVE ELLIS: Correct. I'm sure the Air Force would be happy to have 'em, but the Pentagon didn't ask for them.

BILL MOYERS: And they can do this without a hearing, without - without consulting with the - the Executive Branch?

STEVE ELLIS: Yeah, absolutely. Because they essentially work it out with the chairman and the ranking member of the committee, and they write it into the bill.

BILL MOYERS: One Senator calls earmarks the "trading currency" of Congress - used to entice members to vote for a bill they wouldn't otherwise support...If you back my earmark today, I'll back yours tomorrow.

BILL MOYERS: What's the rationale in a democratic society for seven members of Congress being able to dictate the amount of money going to build these airplanes that nobody wants except the people who are building them?

STEVE ELLIS: There isn't a good rationale. Now, what the members of Congress will argue is, is that, hey, they know better what their district needs than some bureaucrat in Washington, and so therefore they should be able to dictate where the funding goes, this way or that way. And that's been the argument now for-- for years that we've heard

BILL MOYERS: Lawmakers like to say the money is going to worthwhile local projects - bridges, colleges, public agencies. But look at this analysis of the 2005 budget. It says most earmarks went to defense spending ... tax payer's dollars delivered without competitive bidding.

STEVE ELLIS: I mean, what we're having here is instead of having a process where we're picking projects for funding on the basis of actually merit, it's being done by political muscle. And so you have members of Congress who have either decided that this is their pet issue or they have campaign contributors who care about these, or other issues that are directing the funding to these particular projects.

BILL MOYERS: That's how earmarks travel - one favor at a time. Example: Congressman Don Young is Alaska's only representative in the House. Alaska is thousands of miles from Florida. So what is he doing earmarking ten million dollars for this proposed I-75 interchange at Coconut Road, near Fort Myers, Florida? Ten million dollars from an Alaskan congressman for a highway project in Florida that the county there didn't even want. THE NAPLES DAILY NEWS discovered that Young had earmarked the money shortly after receiving more than $40,000 in campaign contributions raised by a developer who owns 4,000 acres along Coconut Road. When THE NEW YORK TIMES updated the story last month, Young dismissed it as old news ... and he answered the reporter's questions with an obscene gesture. But for obscene gestures it's hard to beat "the bridge to nowhere." $223 million dollars earmarked for a bridge to a small local airport and fewer than 100 constituents living on island in Alaska. Taxpayers for Common Sense dug up the story and turned it over to the press. The earmark had been the work of Alaska's representative Young (then head of the House Transportation Committee), and his colleague in the Senate, Ted Stevens (then chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.) They figured they had the political clout to push their earmark through.

STEVE ELLIS: Then Katrina hit and people started realizing that federal spending has consequences. That if you don't spend the money wisely, if you spend it frivolously in places where you don't need it, you often don't spend it where you actually do - like levees in New Orleans.

TOM COBURN: It is my understanding this amendment is going to be vigorously opposed I understand that, by the home State Senators.

BILL MOYERS: Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma proposed using the money earmarked for "the bridge to nowhere" to repair a hurricane-damaged bridge in Louisiana.

TOM COBURN: This has nothing to do with my respect for them but has everything to do with my respect for our country and our desire to change the way we put our priorities on spending.

BILL MOYERS: The earmark for the bridge in Alaska was now the symbol of spending priorities grotesquely out of whack... but the message on the floor of the Senate was entirely different - don't mess with the gentleman's pork.

TED STEVENS: This is not the time to start this process. I urge my friend from Oklahoma to reconsider this, reconsider what he is getting us into. The amendment may pass, but if it does the bill will never pass. If it does, I will be taken out of here on a stretcher.

BILL MOYERS: No one had to call 9-1-1. The move to shift the funds to Louisiana was turned down, although all the controversy put construction of the bridge on hold. Don young is still shocked - shocked! - that anyone would think he wasn't acting in the noblest tradition of pork barrel politics.

DON YOUNG: I was not going to say anything, but when you referred to the bridge-to-nowhere as a scandal, when you voted for it four times, most of the people in this room voted for it four times. It was always transparent. I was always proud of my earmarks. I believe in earmarks, always have, as long as they are exposed. But don't you ever call that a scandal.

BILL MOYERS: OK, maybe not a scandal, but earmarks can sure lead you to, well, to jail.

RANDAL "DUKE" CUNNINGHAM: In my life I have had great joy and great sorrow, and now I know great shame.

BILL MOYERS: That's Randy "Duke" Cunningham, former Congressman Cunningham. He's now in jail for exchanging earmarks for bribes. Earmarks were also at the core of the crimes committed by the super lobbyist Jack Abramoff, now prisoner number 27593-112 at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland. And earmarks are the common denominator behind a slew of federal investigations and ethics inquiries.

NANCY PELOSI: The Democrats intend to lead the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history.

BILL MOYERS: All that corruption contributed to Democrats winning control of Congress last November. Some Republicans don't want their party to forget what happened.

JEFF FLAKE: Mr. Speaker, I rise today out of concern for what earmarks are doing to this body.

BILL MOYERS: Conservative Republican Jeff Flake has long been a relentless foe of earmarks.

JEFF FLAKE: Those of us on the Republican side understand very well the political perils of this practice. Unfettered earmarking, and the corruption that accompanies it, was a major factor in putting us right where we are today: squarely in the minority.

BILL MOYERS: This summer Jeff Flake took on the man often called the king of earmarks - the powerful democrat, John Murtha. Murtha's district in Pennsylvania has blossomed with earmarks... and he keeps coming back for more.

JEFF FLAKE: This amendment would strike funding for the Center for Instrumented Critical Infrastructure . The center is to receive 1 million dollars in taxpayer funding in this bill. When searching on the Web, my staff and I were unable to find the center's Web site. I'm not sure whether the center currently exists or whether this earmark creates the center. I would appreciate if the sponsor of this earmark would clear that up.

PETE VISCLOSKY: It is my understanding that it will go to the Center for Instrumented Critical Infrastructure.

JEFF FLAKE: Does that center currently exist?

PETE VISCLOSKY: At this time, I do not know, but if it does not exist, the moneys could not go to it.

BILL MOYERS: Flake also went after an earmark for the home of the perfect Christmas tree, a project in Spruce Pine, NC. It was only for $129,000 dollars, but Steve Ellis says don't sneeze at an earmark just because it seems so trivial.

STEVE ELLIS: There's a lot of these small business incubators, and that's exactly what this is. It's a popular children's book called The Year of the Perfect Christmas tree. The author is from Spruce Pine. And so they've now got a bunch of artists who-- who make-- Christmas tree ornaments, plates, books, all sorts of stuff that are located there. But once you start talkin' about spending taxpayer dollars to try to encourage the business here you start losing sight of where our money should be going. And then essentially, why is this project in Spruce Pine better than a project in another town? In Ohio, or in-- in Texas?

JEFF FLAKE: Perhaps the most frequent justification for the contemporary practice of earmarking is that, quote, 'Members of Congress know their districts better than some faceless bureaucrat in Washington' But, let's face it: when we approve congressional earmarks for indoor rainforests in Iowa or teapot museums in North Carolina, we make the most spendthrift faceless bureaucrat look frugal.

BILL MOYERS: In 1996 there were 300 earmakrs attached to the Federal Budget...By 2006 there were 12,000. there are now - get this - 32,684 earmark requests up for approval in the House of Representatives.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain the explosion?

STEVE ELLIS: It was a couple different factors that I would say you could look at it. One was Mikey Likes It. Originally Republicans had decried the Democrat's use of the purse. But once they got their hands on power they decided, "This isn't too bad. We maybe wanna do a little bit more of this." And then, Speaker Gingrich, at the time, noticed that this was a good tool to help protect endangered incumbents. And that essentially they could direct earmarks to not just the politically powerful, which has been done before, but actually to those that are politically vulnerable to try to help keep them in office.

BILL MOYERS: Something else ... lobbyists have swarmed to Washington in ever increasing numbers - more than doubling since the year 2000. But it's hard to know which comes first: the lobbyist - or the largesse.

STEVE ELLIS:It's become a vicious cycle where you start getting more earmarks. Well, that's like chum in the water for lobbyists. And you get more lobbyists which are then pushing for more earmarks, which then gets more lobbyists. And so we've created this feedback loop that is essentially feeding this increasing number of earmarks in the parochial pork barrel spending. Every member of Congress walks around with a Blackberry now. Lobbyists and-- and special interests had real-time communication with members of Congress and were able to push and notice whether they got their funding or not.

NANCY PELOSI: The House will come to order...

BILL MOYERS: When Democrat Nancy Pelosi was elected Speaker of the House in January, she put earmark reform on the agenda. She's called for cutting the number in half. And the House has now approved new rules:Members must put their names on each earmark; they must disclose the beneficiary and purpose of the earmark; they must declare that they and their spouses have no financial stake in the project; and earmarks must be open for public inspection. But this transparency is still opaque. For one thing, the information is not posted on the internet.

STEVE ELLIS: If you happen to be a constituent that lives in Peoria or in Texas or in California, you were gonna have to hop on a plane to get that information from your-- from your members of Congress.

BILL MOYERS: And that's not the only obstacle.

STEVE ELLIS: You can flip through the letters and see what the-- what people asked for. But you can't remove a copy of that or have any other copy of that. You can't make any photocopies. But you can feel free to take notes." If you have any questions, I'll try to help. But y'know

BILL MOYERS: In each committee office - the rules for accessing the information can be different.

STEVE ELLIS: You go to the transportation committee, another committee that also does earmarking, the committee that brought the bridge to nowhere, they just have a file box there. And you can just flip through the file folders by congressional district and look at the letters. But again, they sit there and watch you while you're doing it. And you can take some notes, but that's it.

BILL MOYERS:We were allowed to film when Steve Ellis called on the House Transportation Committee, but because exact copies of this ... public information are forbidden, we were required to blur the text. Only the house appropriations committee hands out copies of earmark requests attached to its bills.

KEITH ASHDOWN: We gotta be really supportive of the House at releasing these because the Senate's been awful in what they've done for disclosure.

BILL MOYERS: Undeterred, the team at Taxpayers for Common Sense keeps at it.

RYAN ALEXANDER: The undisclosed earmarks - is there a lot in this bill?

STEVE ELLIS: we do the very sexy, glitzy thing of databasing all of these earmarks, actually putting them into an Excel spreadsheet where it makes it transparent to the public.

KEITH ASHDOWN: I like to call us forensic earmarkists where we go up there and we comb the public records and we get everything that we can on one lawmaker, and then we help reporters decipher that.

RYAN ALEXANDER: And this year, because there is this disclosure, we're doing these databases before the bills go to the floor, so that we can get that information up, you know, before the vote. We're not finding that the lists that they're providing are 100 percent complete, but it's certainly way more information than we've ever had before.

BILL MOYERS: Sometimes they strike pay dirt. Ellis' colleague Erich Zimmermann helped the LOS ANGELES TIMES analyze the record of Representative Ken Calvert who was angling last year for a seat in the ear-marking factory known as the Appropriations Committee.Zimmermann spotted $5.6 million dollars earmarked for a transit center in Corona, California. When he looked closer, he found that the Congressman owns seven nearby commercial properties that stood to benefit.

ERICH ZIMMERMANN: Right here is where the Transit Center is gonna be built. And you can see some of these properties are actually very close to the Transit Center. The pins represent the properties that he owns. When we see a pattern where somebody's property so clearly surrounds a project it just raises questions. And we ask those questions of other people that may be interested in those questions as well and we try to get a sense is this abnormal? Is this normal? Is this increasing property values?

BILL MOYERS: Congressman Calvert appealed to the House Ethics Committee. The committee cleared him on the grounds that other nearby property owners stood to benefit too. In other words, the tortured ruling meant that if Calvert's neighbors gained from his earmark, so could he.

STEVE ELLIS: So, essentially, we would have to be having the taxpayer build a new bathroom in Representative Calvert's house for it to be determined to be actually an earmark that benefits him.

BILL MOYERS: But his is no isolated case. A few years ago, Taxpayers for Common Sense came across arcane language in one bill that referred to several million dollars to fund a provision in another bill passed by a previous Congress.

STEVE ELLIS: Well, what that happened to be was to do a dredging project on the Dog River in Mobile Alabama, which also happened to be in the back yard of Sonny Callahan, Republican Congressman, chairman of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee which has got control over the Core of Engineers.And so, essentially, he was directing the Core of Engineers to dredge the river in his backyard, and so, we did a little more research. And lo and behold, there's even a memo within the corps and it says, "This is Congressman Callahan's personal initiative. The dot on the map below represents Congressman Callahan's residence in relation to the project."I mean, so this is a case of where a member of Congress was essentially hiding his tracks - of getting funding for a project that was literally in his back yard.

BILL MOYERS: Sometimes it's all in the open. Democrat Charles Rangel, of New York, has been upfront about wanting a $2 million dollar earmark for a center in Harlem to steer "low-income and minority students into politics." As chairman of the all-powerful House Ways and Means committee it should be easy. But he wants the center named after a prominent U.S. Congressman - himself. And that doesn't sit well with some of his colleagues.

CONGRESSMEN CAMPBELL:And so, you don't agree with me, or see any problem with us, as Members, sending taxpayer funds in the creation of things named after ourselves while we're still here.

CHARLES RANGEL: I would have a problem if you did it because I don't think that you've been around long enough that having your name on something to inspire a building like this in a school - it might be that it would in order for you to get publicity and to get reelected. But since I've been here 38 years and have not really had any opposition from the other side, it doesn't serve any function for me, except to try to encourage people to participate with government, local government, teachers, in order to keep our kids in school. So, I am proud of the fact that they're using my name in order to create this.

JEFF FLAKE: I just want to commend the Democrats. We always said that names should be placed next to the earmarks. This earmark is going beyond the spirit of the law. The name is on the earmark.

BILL MOYERS: Yes, Democrats do it, too - and they'll be doing more of it now that they're the majority. In fact, of the 309 earmarks in the Defense Appropriations bill now being considered in the Senate four of the top five earmarkers -are Democrats. That's just one committee in the Senate. Over in the House, remember, there are more than 32,000 earmarks to consider. And that has Chairman Dave Obey of the Appropriations Committee is pulling his hair out - frustrated by the process of vetting them.

DAVE OBEY: The reason I hate earmarks is because they suck everybody in. they suck them into the idea that we have to be ATM machines for our districts, and so they focus on the tiny portion of most bills that are earmarks instead of focusing on the policy that is represented by the legislation that we produce.

BILL MOYERS: On This issue Democrat Obey and Republican Flake find themselves on the same side. It seems to be the losing side.

DAVE OBEY: But let me ask the gentleman one question. The gentleman has offered a lot of motions in the past 2 years to strike earmarks. Could I ask him how many of them have been successful?

JEFF FLAKE: Not one. I came to the floor 39 times and was beated like a rented mule every time.

BILL MOYERS: So Steve Ellis and the self-proclaimed geeks at Tax Payers for Common Sense, their work is never done. Another day, another hunt.

BILL MOYERS: Do you have to be a geek to do this?

STEVE ELLIS: You have to have-- I guess so. I mean, you certainly have to have a passion. And I think even more importantly than being a geek is actually being committed to democracy. To actually deciding that you want to have transparency in government because you really believe what the Constitution said about a government for the people and by the people. And the best way to do that is to let people know where their dollars are being spent.

JEFF FLAKE: The truth is, we can try all we want to conjure up some sort of noble pedigree for the contemporary practice of earmarking, but we are just drinking our own bathwater if we think the public is buying it. It seems that over the past few years we've tried to increase the number of earmarks enough so that the plaudits we hear from earmark recipients will drown out the voices of taxpayers all over the country who have had enough. It hasn't worked, thank goodness. For every group that directly benefits from earmarks, there are hundreds who see it as a transparent gimmick to assure our own reelection.

BILL MOYERS:But now, at last, Congressman Flake can claim an earmark victory - his very first. Out of those thousands and thousands of requests this year, he has persuaded his colleagues to kill one - the perfect Christmas tree project -- saving taxpayers $129,000 dollars. Speaking of Christmas. You can't blame Don Young and Ted Stevens for thinking Santa Claus has come early. For all the controversy it now looks as if Alaska is free to use the $223 million dollars for the bridge to nowhere.

STEVE ELLIS: As one grizzled lobbyist told me when I first started doing this work in Washington, you have to kill, kill, kill until it's dead, dead, dead. And so, it's not quite dead, dead, dead yet, but we're still watching.
BILL MOYERS: So who is the enemy in Iraq and how can we even be sure? I'll put those questions to myguests who know there's a lot riding on the answers.

Fawaz a. Gerges just returned this week from yet another ofhis many journeys into the Muslim world. On the ground is where he does his scholarship. And from that fieldworkhas come two highly acclaimed books, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global; and just this year, Journey of theJihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy. Here in New York he teaches international affairs and Middle Eastern studiesat Sarah Lawrence. But he's currently a Carnegie scholar and visiting professor at the American University inCairo.

Brian Fishman is part of a team at the U.S. Military Academy whose mission is to train young officers whomay find themselves up against those Muslim militants. The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, where BrianFishman is a senior associate, does just what its name implies. It was established to make sure cadets get thebest possible education in global terrorism. Let's start with you, Brian. Assume I'm one of those cadets at WestPoint who may well be in Iraq a few months from now. What do you want me to know about al Qaeda in Iraq?

BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, I think the first thing we want you to know is that al Qaeda in Iraq is not the only problem in Iraq. In fact, it's a small sliver of the insurgency there. Our cadets, when they go out as officers, as platoon leaders, need to know more than just how to move their platoon on an objective and fight the enemy. They need to be able to operate strategically. They need to understand who their enemy is because there's so many different factions operating in Iraq. They need to be able to decide, "Well, do we need to fight these guys? Do we need to be diplomats? Do we need to build them a bridge?" Not everybody with a gun in Iraq needs to be confronted violently. And our cadets need to have the tools to make those differentiations.

FAWAZ A. GERGES: In fact, if you ask any American soldier in Iraq, "Who is the enemy?" he would tell you al Qaeda. And this has done a great deal of damage to relations between the American military and the Iraqi population.

BILL MOYERS: How come?

FAWAZ A. GERGES: The overwhelming number of insurgents or resistance fighters are Iraqis. They are not al Qaeda. al Qaeda is a critical component, is a tiny, small, critical component in the Iraqi equation, less than five percent of all insurgents and resistance fighters. So, while al Qaeda is very lethal, is very deadly, it has carried out some of the devastating attacks in Iraq, in fact, the United States is facing a highly complex and determined resistance or insurgency numbering in the tens of thousands, most of whom have nothing to do with al Qaeda.

BILL MOYERS: Just the other day-- the United States launched an offensive about 30 miles north of Baghdad. And helicopter attacks killed-- 17 of what the military said-- were al Qaeda gunmen. But after the military left, the BBC went in and the villagers told the BBC that these were not any way connected to al Qaeda. They were village guards trying to prevent attacks from the very insurgents he talked about. What do you tell those young men--

BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, we-- we-- we have to prepare our cadets to try to make those differentiations.

BILL MOYERS: But how do they on the ground?

BRIAN FISHMAN: It's very, very difficult because, at the end of the day, man of the insurgents operating in Iraq are operating because of very local concerns. Not even concerns of just about the occupation. They're concerned about local neighborhood security. If they're a Sunni group, they're concerned about overt Shiite pressure. They're concerned about another tribe that they have a history of problems with. I mean, many of these people are operating for reasons that can't be described from far away. We have to prepare them to understand those local issues.

FAWAZ A. GERGES: It's one thing to say that we have to prepare our soldiers and officers to fight a highly complex and nuanced war, but when you have the president himself, day after day, time and again, keep saying that this war against al Qaeda, yes, there is al Qaeda. But, in fact, according to American military commanders, the bulk of attacks that are taking place in Iraq are basically carried out by Shiite and Sunni militia in revenge attacks against each other. Yet the administration keeps telling us it's al Qaeda, al Qaeda, al Qaeda.

BRIAN FISHMAN: al Qaeda in Iraq is an organization that has tied itself to the global al Qaeda movement.

BILL MOYERS: It's connected to Central al Qaeda?

BRIAN FISHMAN: It's connected ideologically and it's connected in name only. It has attempted to brand itself as al Qaeda because that improves its position. That allows it to sort of up its stature. It's taken on a brand name. It's a franchise. It's-

BILL MOYERS: By fighting the Americans and fighting for--

BRIAN FISHMAN: By fighting the Americans-- but-- but really their goal, again, with all of these al Qaeda movements-- and this was the goal of Zarqawi in Iraq -- is to purify, in their terms, the Islamic world.

BILL MOYERS: Zarqawi was the terrorist who came in and actually organized al Qaeda in Iraq?

BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, no, when he first arrived in Iraq, he was not connected to al Qaeda. In fact--

BILL MOYERS: When was that?

BRIAN FISHMAN: He arrived there probably 2002. And didn't sign on with al Qaeda until October of 2004.

BILL MOYERS: After the war was going on.

BRIAN FISHMAN: After the invasion.

FAWAZ A. GERGES: You know, Bill, the question on the table is not whether al Qaeda in Iraq exists or not. It does exist. It has carried out some of the deadliest, lethal attacks against mainly civilians. I would go further and say based on everything that we have seen, in fact, according to American military commanders up ‘til the last few months, even if al Qaeda in Iraq were to be removed entirely from the Iraq equation, if tomorrow, Bill, we said, "We remove al Qaeda," the strategic predicament of the United States would not change dramatically.


FAWAZ A. GERGES: And that's the question? If our reading of the situation is correct that the United States is facing a complex and a highly determined insurgency or armed resistance, then the question is you're facing tens of thousands-- with probably millions of supporters in terms of families and neighborhoods. And this is why unless we understand that this is basically a political problem and, in fact only Iraqis can defeat al Qaeda. That's the irony. The president keeps saying we need to stay in Iraq in order to defeat al Qaeda. In fact, the evidence shows that al Qaeda in Iraq can only be defeated by Iraqis, chased out of Iraq by Iraqis. Iraqis are beginning the task now to do it.

BRIAN FISHMAN: I agree completely. And-- but I think that we are starting to see a trend in Iraq where some of these Sunni insurgent groups are starting to do that. And the reason-- they're making a very complex strategic calculation. The Sunni -- insurgent groups, they don't like the U.S. occupation. They fear Shiite power. And they despise al Qaeda who wants to come in and tell them what to do. And their calculation right now I think is that they expect the U.S. occupation to end. And so they feel they can work with the United States against al Qaeda, at least temporarily.

BILL MOYERS: And are we arming them?

BRIAN FISHMAN: I don't know if we're arming them or not.

FAWAZ A. GERGES: Some of them, yes. We are arming some of the Sunni tribes and--

BILL MOYERS: So are we becoming hostages to the local parties no matter who's there?

BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, it-- in some senses, I don't think this is a bad strategy, though. I think it's possible that there will be negative repercussions down-- in fact, I think it's likely there'll be negative repercussions down the road.

FAWAZ A. GERGES: As a historian to me, what happened to Britain in 1920, as you know, Britain was in charge of Iraq. And it put Iraq-- glued Iraq together in the 1920s. And by the end of this, Britain became really a hostage to local players in Iraq. And in fact the United States is finding itself in the same place as Britain did in the 19-- at the mercy-- at the mercy of local players initially Shiite political leadership. And now the United States has gone against the wishes of the Iraqi government and trying to arm some Sunni tribes to fight al Qaeda.In fact, the American military presence in Iraq, the preponderant American military presence has become a liability, a liability against America's vested interest. The American presence in Iraq, Bill, and for a person like me who lives for long periods of time in the Middle East, is not just--

BILL MOYERS: Born in-- in Beirut, right?

FAWAZ A. GERGES: Born in Beirut. And I have spent several years doing field research in the last years. The way the American mission is perceived in the Muslim world is that this not about democracy. This is not about the fight against-- al Qaeda. This is a fight to subjugate-- to subjugate the Arab and Muslim world and control its resources. And that's why what I find most really alarming, Bill, al Qaeda's ideological claims basically are finding receptive ears in that part of the world because al Qaeda is telling Muslims the United States is waging a war against Islam and Muslims. And, in fact what the war itself has done, it has radicalized and militarized a tiny segment of mainstream public opinion.

BILL MOYERS: Tell me who are these young people you've met -- the fourteen, fifteen year olds that you've been interviewing. Give me a vignette of one of them.

FAWAZ A. GERGES: 14-years-old kid, unemployed. No religious education. No formal education what-- whatsoever. His name is Hamad (PH). He's telling me he's trying to raise $100 to take a bus ride to the Syrian/Iraqi border --


FAWAZ A. GERGES: --and fight the Americans. From Syria.

BILL MOYERS: From Syria?

FAWAZ A. GERGES: From Syria. And--

BILL MOYERS: And to go and fight the Americans?

FAWAZ A. GERGES: Yes, to fight the Americans. --and I asked why. And he said, "You're asking me why? You're asking me why I want to go to Iraq? Muslim land is being occupied by the United States of America. It's my duty, my personal duty-- and he's not the only one. Most of my interviews, most of my interviews show that these young men had nothing to do with al Qaeda, had nothing to do with militants, even though-- even though there's ideological mobilization.

BILL MOYERS: What's inspiring him?

FAWAZ A. GERGES: You go to any café, Bill, outside any mosque in Algeria, in Yemen, in Syria, in Egypt, and you hear the same-- in Jordan-- you hear the same talk that basically look what the Americans are doing. Not just the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, the subsequent revelations, reports about the abuse, the human rights abuse. I mean, I have-- I am shocked sometimes some of the kids are telling me American soldiers are raping Iraqi women and Iraqi children. I mean, this is not just one-one narrative. Multiple sources, including intelligent, intelligent people who believe in those reports that American soldiers are humiliating, insulting, and raping Iraqi women and children.

BRIAN FISHMAN: With the cadets in class, we walk through some of the jihadi chat rooms that are used to spread propaganda against their fellow soldiers. And they need to understand-- there's a photo out there, a very famous photo that's on all of these chat rooms. It's a picture of a bunch of American soldiers taking a rest in a mosque with their boots on. And it's everywhere. And because it's just a symbol of sort of insult to Islam. And the cadets need to understand that even if they are doing something that they think is completely benign, that they don't mean any sort of insult, it can be used against them. And it's that kind of awareness that they need to get to the point where they understand that they could accidentally do something extraordinarily insulting. That photograph is more of the strategic defeat than any sort of tactical engagement on the battlefield. And we need to understand it and the cadets need to understand that.

FAWAZ A. GERGES: I mean, yes, Bill. I mean, I-- I worry about the so-called cultural misunderstandings. I mean, in terms of-- I mean, going to a mosque with their boots, trying, you know, to insult, go into certain homes, the bedrooms. But I think lets also look at the firepower that's being used in Iraq. Look at the number of civilian casualties. When you tell 19-year-old kids, American soldiers, "You are fighting evil, the evil doers in Iraq"-- and you tell them you have basically-- you can use all the firepower at your disposal, no wonder why the number of civilian casualties in Iraq is overwhelming. So while I worry a great deal about the cultural misunderstandings, I also worry about the bigger problem. The problem is, I mean, Muslim public opinion is basically bombarded on a daily basis with images of hundreds of Iraqis-- being killed on daily basis. And guess what? I-- I hardly met a Muslim, a devout Muslim who believes that somehow the Iraqis are doing the killings. It's either the Americans or the Mossad, who are basically perpetrating sectarian violence in order to dominate--

BILL MOYERS: They're saying this--about Israel-- about Israel's--

FAWAZ A. GERGES: And the United States.--American intelligence-- and this tells you about the strategic predicament that we are facing. We are an empire. We are seen as an empire. We are playing empire. And these are the costs of empire.

BILL MOYERS: What would you want the cadets at West Point to know about these young people?

FAWAZ A. GERGES: I would like them to know that most of them don't really have two hundred dollars to take a bus ride to the Syrian/Iraqi border and join the fight. In fact, really, Bill, if it was not for logistical reasons or the fact that the United States is putting a great deal of pressure on Arab government and the lack of resources, the flow of young Muslim men to Iraq would exceed the flow of young Muslim men to Afghanistan in the 1980s. I would tell our American officers that, in fact, this particular fight in Iraq has created a bigger problem, a bigger headache for the United States.

BILL MOYERS: So Iraq has become the new Afghanistan? A breeding ground for terrorists?

FAWAZ A. GERGES: Iraq has the potential to become an Afghanistan. In fact, I would go further and say that Iraq has the potential to become a bigger headache than Afghanistan. Iraq is the in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world, Bill. Iraq was the caliph-- the Muslim caliph for 500 years. Iraq is at the center of the Arabian Islam. And you can imagine how this particular matter resonates in the region.

BRIAN FISHMAN: Not only that, but one of the real dangers coming out of Iraq-- in Afghanistan, the 1980s, just in terms of the skills that Mujahideens that had gone there to fight learned, they learned a couple of different things. They learned how to organize. They learned how to communicate and work in sort of a multicultural setting and that people are coming from all over the world. They learned how to ambush Soviet columns in mountain valleys and occasionally shoot down helicopters. In Iraq, the fighters there are learning much more relevant skills, much more dangerous skills.


BRIAN FISHMAN: Because they're learning how to build IEDs. They're learning how--

BILL MOYERS: The IEDs are those explosives--

BRIAN FISHMAN: Explosive devices. They're learning how to operate in urban settings rather than mountainous settings. They're learning how to communicate covertly when there is a powerful, well-equipped, sophisticated force trying to catch them. In some ways, individual fighter coming out of Iraq scares me a little bit more than that fighter that came out of Afghanistan 15, 20 years ago because I think they're going to have more relevant skills to apply to places that we care about, whether it's major cities in the Middle East, Europe, or potentially the United States.

BILL MOYERS: Both of you remind me that the Administration lately has been talking less and less about the global-- the war on global terrorism and more and more about, quote, the long war. What do you make of that?

BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, we don't call it a war against terrorism. We call it a war against al Qaeda- you know, our class on terrorism starts 2,000 years ago and moves forward. We don't get to al Qaeda until the last third of the class. There's a lot to learn before you get to al Qaeda. And we think that that context is important because they need to be able to compare al Qaeda to something. They need to understand how and why it's similar and how it's different. And so what we tell these cadets is, look, this war is-- against al Qaeda cannot be won or lost in Iraq. Ultimately what this is -- is a fight for hearts and minds around the Middle East. And that's a cliche but it's true. And that's why these cadets, they can't win that fight with an M-4.

BILL MOYERS: They can't-- what do they win it with?


BILL MOYERS: What-- in other words, what-- what the United--

FAWAZ A. GERGES: I mean, the question-- the question-- I mean, the war itself, the war-- the global war on terror. And if you really-- look what Brian said, it's a war against al Qaeda. It's a military campaign, a police campaign, a --this is what really-- what-- what's all about. What the administration has done and I think can keep coming back to the bigger thing. By expanding the war, the extension of the war on terror, in fact, has done the opposite from its intended consequence. It has proved to be counterproductive. If our reading of the situation is correct and you talk to any American intelligence-- officials in Washington, they would tell you, yes, we are losing the war for the hearts and minds of Muslims. If Brian says that I'm going to tell my officers, my cadets, basically to realize this particular war cannot be won on the battlefield, this particular war has to be war in terms of hearts and minds, we are losing this particular war, Bill. Because they expanded, the administration, the president's expanded the war by over reliance on militarism, on muscle. Military power instead of using--

BILL MOYERS: But these people-but these people, I mean, president says these were the people killing us on 9/11. How do you deal-- you don't-

FAWAZ A. GERGES: But no one is suggesting telling the president not to use military force against those murders who basically visited death and horror on our shores on 9/11. What did Iraq have to do with the war on terror? The administration's argument is that we have to stay in Iraq in order to win the war against al Qaeda does not make sense. In fact, the opposite is true. The longer we stay in Iraq-- the longer we stay in Iraq, the more we help al Qaeda spread its ideology and tactics. And al Qaeda ideology and tactics are truly spreading into many communities in the Arab and Muslim world.

BILL MOYERS: Do you agree that with the president who says repeatedly, has been saying for two months emphatically now, if we don't fight them there, we'll have to fight them here?

BRIAN FISHMAN: I think we're better off empowering Iraqis to take care of the al Qaeda inspired elements on the ground in Iraq today. I think it's likely that there are folks that have been inspired by al Qaeda's in Iraq's behavior in Iraq or that have even been in Iraq with al Qaeda in Iraq that are now outside of Iraq in a place like Lebanon or Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East.

FAWAZ A. GERGES: My fear is that the so-called al Qaeda centric approach, al Qaeda centric approach, Bill, is to lump all activists and militants together as al Qaeda. And since 9/11 in particular, the al Qaeda centric approach has really basically become the dominant model in the United States amongst some of us who work in the field.

BILL MOYERS: That it's all al Qaeda all the time.

FAWAZ A. GERGES: While al Qaeda in Iraq does exist and we know there are some major differences between the leadership of the al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda central. I would go further here and say that, in fact, while we have al Qaeda Central and we have some al Qaeda affiliates, it's al Qaeda ideology that's resonating in the Arab and Muslim world and in some communities elsewhere. And that's what we need to focus on. al Qaeda inspired ideologies.

BILL MOYERS: If you put that ideology on a bumper sticker, what would it say?

FAWAZ A. GERGES: It would say that the West is waging a war against Islam and Muslims and it's your duty to stand up and fight this particular aggression against Islam and Muslims.

BILL MOYERS: All right, but to try to state the administration's argument as I've been following it, the administration, the president is saying that, yes, we know we got a mess in Iraq. But if we leave prematurely, we'll create a new Afghanistan. If we don't stay and get rid of this ideological-- group of terrorists, the al Qaeda, then Iraq will become like Afghanistan after the Russians left. It'll be a rogue state and we will be dealing with Iraq as a terrorist--

FAWAZ A. GERGES: Bill, most of the insurgents and resistance fighters in Iraq have nothing to do with al Qaeda. In my interviews with the insurgents or resistance leaders in Iraq, basically they tell me al Qaeda is liability. al Qaeda-- al Qaeda represents a liability. Bill, there is civil war taking place today in Iraq--


FAWAZ A. GERGES: Between some of the Sunni tribes, Iraqis, and al Qaeda. And we are arming some of the Sunni tribes. And the larger argument about Iraq, in fact, if we succeed in convincing Iraqi public opinion and the larger Muslim public opinion that we are genuine, I mean, about leaving Iraq, this is where the beginning of the end of al Qaeda. That is, in fact, Iraqis are the only competent agents who can defeat al Qaeda. We are telling the administration, "Mr. President, you have a larger problem on your hands. And the larger problem is that your strategy, your-- your-- by being in Iraq, you are fueling the insurgency in Iraq. You are providing al Qaeda with motivation. You are radicalizing mainstream Arab and Muslim public opinion. Convince them that we will be out in a year or two and begin the process of fighting al Qaeda."

BRIAN FISHMAN: I don't disagree. The only solution in Iraq is a political solution.

BILL MOYERS: Agreement between the Sunnis and the Shiites and the other--

BRIAN FISHMAN: And between different Shiite factors, between different Sunni factions. And it's absolutely true. I am more hopeful that however the United States leaves in Iraq, al Qaeda will not be able to build a base there precisely of what Fawaz was saying. That not-- the Sunni community in Iraq wants nothing to do with them. These are people coming in trying to tell them what to do. And they want to run their own affairs rather than have al Qaeda impose-- or al Qaeda inspired groups is probably a better way to say it-- try to impose their vision of religious law.

BILL MOYERS: What's your worst nightmare about the long run?

FAWAZ A. GERGES: Well, I worry a great deal about the spillover effects of the Iraq War. I worry a great deal about the intensifying Sunni/Shiite divide.


FAWAZ A. GERGES: I mean, Lebanon, Bill, now stands at the brink of a major crisis between the dominant Shiite community and the Sunni community.

BILL MOYERS: But that existed before Iraq.

FAWAZ A. GERGES: But the escalation and the intensification and the blood, the spilling of blood in Iraq has really poured gasoline on this particular sectarian divide in the Gulf, in Lebanon, even in non-sectarian states, in Egypt, in Yemen, in Jordan. In my interviews-- I mean, even some radical Sunnis are telling me the Shiites now will represent a more existential threat to the Sunni community than the Americans.

BRIAN FISHMAN: And, again, that just demonstrates that this is a war for hearts and minds. It's not a shooting war.

BILL MOYERS: So-- neither of you make policy and I don't either. But what would you tell the president we ought to do? What do you think we ought to do now we're in this swamp, this quagmire, this mess?

BRIAN FISHMAN: I think we have very few good policy options.

BILL MOYERS: Well, thanks. That's a big help.

BRIAN FISHMAN: I wrote last summer and I stand by it that I think we need to be moving troops out of Iraq-- soon. And I think that what's very important in my mind, and this has been bandied about a little bit in the media recently, is that it's not good enough to leave 20,000 or 30,000 troops in Iraq because that's not going to do it. Because if we haven't established an Iraqi government that can control territory on its own, then 20,000 or 30,000 Americans isn't going to be able to control that territory either. And those 20,000 or 30,000 Americans are going to remain a sticking point and a propaganda tool for al Qaeda around the world. So I really worry about this option of drawing down to 30,000 or 40,000 troops. I think if we're going to draw down that far, you've got to go all the way. And what I was arguing last summer that-- that I think still holds is if you're going to stay, you really have to go in with everybody. And-- and I--

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, I would say it's almost not an option at this point with the state of the military, but you would-- we would need 300,000 troops, something like that, to really impose order. And that's simply not an option at this point.

FAWAZ A. GERGES: Bill, I don't think America's strategic predicament has just to do with Iraq. I think our strategic predicament is much greater than what is happening in Iraq. The extraction of American forces must be a priority. But we also need a grand strategy, a strategy that takes into account the multiple risks and the regional-- trying to resolve regional tensions in Palestine and Afghanistan and Kashmir, and also begin to shift the tide against al Qaeda. I mean, if we think-- if we all say that this war is about winning hearts and minds, the question is we need a grand strategy to basically hammer a deadly nail in al Qaeda's ideological--

BILL MOYERS: But can you win a battle for the hearts and minds when people, Muslims, are united by essentially their faith, their scripture, and their perceptions of America?

FAWAZ A. GERGES: Well, all the polls, all surveys show that Muslims believe that the United States is not there to promote democracy, is not to fight al Qaeda, but rather to subjugate Arabs and Muslims. And this is why it's a priority now for the American foreign policy to begin the process of extracting its forces from Iraq. It'd be balancing a complex grand strategy.

BRIAN FISHMAN: We teach our cadets at West Point, you know, we rely on Clausewitz a lot, the great Prussian military strategist. And he says the most important thing a commander has to do before going into a war is determine exactly what kind of war it is. And I'm not so sure we have done that yet in Iraq. And I think that's one of the reasons why we're having so much trouble. We still haven't figured out, collectively, exactly who we're fighting and exactly where we want to go at the end of the day. What does that look like? And it's very hard to fight and win that war if we haven't done that.

BILL MOYERS: To be continued. Brian Fishman, Fawaz Gerges, thank you very much for this very interesting discussion.
BILL MOYERS: For some days now, as I've been reading and seeing the news from Iraq and listening to the talk about it here at home, the same two sets of images keep playing over and again in my mind.

LeRon Wilson was laid to rest here in New York City the other day, with full military honors. He was 18 years old. At the neighborhood Roman Catholic church in the borough of Queens he was eulogized for a life of dignity and integrity - willing to do whatever was necessary to be an instrument of peace.

LeRon Wilson grew up on the Caribbean island of Trinidad where his father is a military officer. With his mother he came to Queens when he was 11 and dreamed of serving in the U.S. Army. After graduating from high school he enlisted.

Less than a month ago, July 6, Private First Class LeRon Wilson, and another member of his platoon were killed when their military vehicle hit a roadside bomb south of Baghdad.

I was thinking of LeRon Wilson a few days later as I came upon this internet video the independent journalist Max Blumenthal. He had gone to a gathering of young Republicans in Washington and interviewed some of them. Here are some excerpts:

JUSTIN YORK, UNIV. OF CENTRAL FLORIDA '10: We are all supportive of the war; we all believe that it is very important to win the war and to fight Al Queda in Iraq so we are not fighting them here in the United States.

DAVID CLARY, UNIV. OF ILLINOIS '09: I like the Republican standpoint, fight them over there not over here. That's what we're doing right now and we should keep doing it.

RACHAEL DAVIS, UNIV. OF ARKANSAS '09: Um, basically, what I don't think people understand is that, if it's not fought in Iraq, we don't win over there, it's going to happen here.

CLINT PETERSON, UNIV. OF NORTH TEXAS, '08: I think frankly we went there because Al Qaeda was already there, they may not have [had] the forces they have now but they were there and essentially if we leave there we give them a stronghold.

BLUMENTHAL: Why are you not fighting them over there?

DAVID CLARY, UNIV. OF ILLINOIS '09: Why am I not fighting them over there?


DAVID CLARY, UNIV. OF ILLINOIS '09: Because I'm in college right now.

BLUMENTHAL: Do you plan to enlist?

DAVID CLARY, UNIV. OF ILLINOIS '09: I haven't ruled it out.

BLUMENTHAL: Are you going to serve?

JUSTIN YORK, UNIV. OF CENTRAL FLORIDA '10: I've thought about it, thinking about it, haven't decided.

BLUMENTHAL: Undecided? Why aren't you serving currently?

JUSTIN YORK, UNIV. OF CENTRAL FLORIDA '10: Well I'm an undergraduate right now and I had a scholarship...I just didn't have any real urge...I just didn't have any strong urge...

RALPH KETTELL, COLBY '09: Why am I not serving? I don't know...I mean... I really support this country strongly and know... I didn't enlist. There is not much else I can say. I don't think that you can't talk about this issue if you're not serving.

BILL MOYERS: Private First Class LaRon Wilson has been posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He was the 30th 18-year-old American soldier to be killed in Iraq. That's it for the JOURNAL. I'm Bill Moyers.

Moyers Podcasts -- Sign Up for podcasts and feeds.
Our posts and your comments
For Educators    About the Series    Bill Moyers on PBS   

© Public Affairs Television 2008    Privacy Policy    DVD/VHS    Terms of Use    FAQ