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Interview With Robert Pelton; Panel Discusses War in Afghanistan; Retired Generals Choose TV Over Obscurity

Aired December 22, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

The world got an up-close and personal look at a wounded John Walker this week, the young American Taliban fighter who remains in U.S. military custody, but whose fate is still undecided.

The interview, which was touted as a CNN exclusive, was conducted by author Robert Pelton.


ROBERT PELTON, AUTHOR: I have known very few Americans that had fought jihad. And I'm just wondering, just personally, because I've been in jihad in Chechnya and in southern Philippines, I'm just curious, is this what you thought it would be? Was this the right cause, or the right place?

JOHN WALKER, AMERICAN TALIBAN FIGHTER: It's exactly what I thought it would be.


KURTZ: And joining us now from Los Angeles is Robert Pelton. You were described in this interview, despite your relatively brief association with CNN, as a CNN contributor. Do you consider yourself a journalist?

PELTON: No, I'm an author. I've never had aspirations to be a journalist because it's a tough job, pays very little, and basically I travel around the world, meet interesting people, and try to find out more about what makes people tick.

KURTZ: Well, we'd pay a little better if we could get you to be an anchor. But let's move on to your interview with Walker, and let's take a look at one thing that you told John Walker during that session.


PELTON: I've traveled with jihad groups to various places and...

WALKER: Are you yourself Muslim? PELTON: No, unfortunately, I'm not. But I respect the cause and I respect the call. But I'm just interested to find an American, because when I met the other prisoners, who are in very bad shape, they seemed to be from a number of very poor countries.


KURTZ: What did you mean, Robert Pelton, when you said "I respect the cause" of Islamic jihad?

PELTON: Well, I didn't say Islamic jihad. I said I respect the cause. One of the pillars of Islam is jihad, or struggle, and like many religions, it is a foundation of their belief. So, I do respect that.

Secondly, the call, which is a newer form, which is sort of part of the caravan, which is people going to help other people in need.

KURTZ: Do you think that one of the reasons perhaps that John Walker agreed to talk to you is that he had the impression that you were sympathetic to Islam or sympathetic to what he was doing?

PELTON: Well, the reason John Walker talked to me is because is I think I was a human being who was interested in his plight. Obviously, you don't see the entire tape, but if you looked at the beginning of the tape, what I'm asking him simply is would he like to send a message to any loved ones, or his parents.

Secondly, I ask him would you like attention from an American- trained medic.

KURTZ: You, a few years back, interviewed the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar. So, this is not an unfamiliar subject to you, the Taliban, jihad, Islam and so forth.

PELTON: Well, I set up an interview of Mullah Omar and the other leaders and I was with the Taliban in 1995. I've been with a number of military groups and fundamentalists groups. But, no -- I understand why John Walker was there.

KURTZ: You asked him a number of questions and you certainly got some interesting answers, and that footage has been played around the world. But why did you not ask John Walker what he thought of the September 11 attacks, or whether he felt that he'd betrayed his country?

PELTON: Well, first of all, you don't get a lot of news coverage when you're out in the front lines in a place like Takhar province.

Secondly, I wasn't there to politicize or ask his opinions about politics. I wanted to know, first of all, how he was doing physically, because he was in very bad shape when I first met him. And secondly, I was just asking him questions that I personally was interested in.

KURTZ: But you say you don't want to politicize the interview, but isn't that the question that every American would want to know the answer to: How does somebody who grew up in Marin County, California end up fighting for the Taliban and whether he feels like some kind of traitor to America? It's not a political question, it's a factual question.

PELTON: No, I think the conversation we had is pretty straightforward. Here's a man in the hospital receiving medical care while I'm talking to him. Toward the end of the interview, obviously, he was under the influence of morphine. But the bottom-line is, I had a conservation with him. I wasn't trying to muck-rake or set him up in any way.

KURTZ: "The New York Post" reported the other day that during an online discussion recently, you said that you didn't think there was any such thing as terrorism. Can you explain a little bit about your views on that?

PELTON: Well, terrorism is a label used by a variety of groups, whether they be American or Palestinian or Chechnyan or whatever, to simply demonize the actions of other people. I think you have to look past that statement and you have to look at the acts as being either criminal, political, religious, or otherwise.

KURTZ: So, flying planes into the World Trade Center is not terrorism in your view? Terrorism is not an appropriate label for killing thousands of innocent civilians?

PELTON: Well, I think you're putting words in my mouth. I didn't say that. I think flying airplanes into the World Trade Center is the ultimate act of criminality and that strikes terror into the hearts of many people.

KURTZ: OK. Based on the time that you spent with John Walker, what impression did you have? Do you believe that he was a traitor? Or do you believe, as some have speculated, that maybe he was just a confused 20-year-old kid?

PELTON: Well, first of all, when I met John Walker, I had no proof he was an American. He actually sounded Austrian to me. He has a very strange accent, and my questions were really more about how he got there and why he was fighting with the Taliban.

In terms of him being a traitor, you know, that's irrelevant to me at that point, because I was trying to find out if he was an American first of all. He might have been a citizen of another country.

KURTZ: So, did you form any judgment as to his motivation in doing this rather unusual thing of going to fight for the Taliban and perhaps al Qaeda in Afghanistan?

PELTON: Well, it wasn't that unusual. What's unusual is that he's an American. There are thousands of Muslims who fight...

KURTZ: Well, that's what I meant. PELTON: OK. There are thousands of Muslims who fight in wars around the world. What was interesting about John is he's actually very gentle, sort of unassuming person. He's not a militant person at all. I've known many fighters, and most of them tend to be rather bellicose. He was not.

KURTZ: Robert Pelton, congratulations on the interview and thanks very much for joining us.

PELTON: My pleasure.

KURTZ: And joining us now in the studio, Arnaud de Borchgrave, who is recently back from Afghanistan. He's an editor-at-large at "United Press International" and at "The Washington Times." Tom DeFrank, Washington bureau chief for "The New York Daily News." And Mark Thompson, national security correspondent for "TIME" magazine.

Tom DeFrank, CNN's been reporting in the last couple of hours, late Saturday, that a plane was diverted after leaving Paris to Boston's Logan Airport. Authorities say a man on board had explosive in his shoes and was trying to detonate that. We don't know a lot about it. How do you cover a story when you have so few facts, but it is of such a potentially inflammatory nature?

TOM DEFRANK, "THE NEW YORK DAILY NEWS": Well, Howard, even in normal times, reporting is taking a tile here and a tile there and hopefully by the end of the day you come up with something that looks like a mosaic. It's going to be even more difficult now, given the news blackout, for the most part, that the government has clamped down on all these alleged terrorists, suspected terrorists, many of these folks who are in detention since September 11th.

So, I'm hoping we'll know more 24 hours from now than we do today, but maybe not a whole lot more. But, what you do is saturation bombing. You call everybody you know, FBI, Treasury, Logan Airport, the CIA, the Pentagon, and hopefully you come up with something.

KURTZ: I myself would avoid the phrase saturation bombing in this context.

DEFRANK: I know.

KURTZ: But let's move on now to the coverage of Afghanistan and let's take a look at some of the recent coverage of Osama bin Laden.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The world's attention, of course, is focused on Pakistan today, this amid rising speculation that Osama bin Laden may well be there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And U.S. military officials say they still don't know where Osama bin Laden is, but they also say, wherever he is, they will find him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's plenty of evidence he was there, but no clues as to where he is now.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Do you think there's any way Osama bin Laden is still in one of these caves in Tora Bora?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In the search for Osama bin Laden, the Pentagon now is saying for the first time that it's anyone's guess where he is.


KURTZ: There was this media drum beat, Tom DeFrank, he's there, we have heard his voice on the radio, he's got to be in one of these caves. And then, boom, we have no idea where he is. Maybe he's dead. Maybe he's escaped to Pakistan. Was the press kind of taken for a ride in this denouement?

DEFRANK: Well, I think it's the problem that you always confront, Howard, in a situation like this. We're there, but we're not there. We don't have access, who knows where he is. And I think it's the story of the day every day, and the story changes. And it's really hard to get your arms around it.

KURTZ: Mark Thompson, you're at the Pentagon. How do you separate reality from wishful thinking on the part of U.S. officials when nobody really knows where the guy is?

MARK THOMPSON, "TIME": Well, that's the key thing, Howard. I mean, the secretary of defense, Don Rumsfeld, made clear right from the top, we don't know where he is. Yet you kept hearing week after week, the noose is tightening...

KURTZ: The noose. Where was this noose?

THOMPSON: Well, the noose -- once it gets tight enough to be a knot, if Osama's neck isn't in there, you know the noose really wasn't tightening. And I think that's the problem we're confronting here.

Nobody really knew where this guy was. He could be dead now. He could be in Australia. And that is the fundamental truth.

KURTZ: And, for example, in the last 24 hours you had the U.S. bombing of a convoy in Afghanistan. United States officials saying that al Qaeda fighters were in the convoy. Afghan saying this was a bunch of tribal elders going to the swearing in of the new government. How do you find out who is telling the truth?

THOMPSON: Well, I think interestingly enough, today, the Pentagon said, well, we're checking that. I mean, yesterday they were saying no, this was a legitimate target. And today there was just a bit of, well, we're going to check, again.

Lately, when they've had problems like this, they've come back within 24 to 48 hours, pretty hard, saying no, those were legitimate military targets. It'll be interesting to see what happens in the next 24 hours.

KURTZ: Well, if I was in the convoy, I'd rather they check before hand.

And Arnaud de Borchgrave, you spent about two weeks on the Afghan/Pakistan border. Was reporting difficult in the circumstances? What were the obstacles that you faced?

ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, "THE WASHINGTON TIMES": Well, we had a UPI party of three, plus a security guard. We had native dress on. We were wearing native dress and that pie-shaped hat that everyone wears, traveling in local buses. I saw Osama bin Laden's portrait, poster, almost everywhere. All these slogans, "Kill America," "Musharraf is an American agent" and things like that." That was really friendly territory for Osama bin Laden.

And if he could have gotten past the Pakistani military that had been deployed in the region, which wouldn't have been too hard to do, cause they only had about 5,000 men to cover 30 miles, he could easily have been smuggled out through Pakistan, through the network of pro- Osama, pro-Taliban people.

KURTZ: Who do you try to interview? How do you gather facts when you're in pretty hostile territory?

DE BORCHGRAVE: I was letting my Pakistani-American friend do the interviewing. I would tell him what kind of questions I was interested in, but I wanted to keep my mouth shut, because the minute they know you're not a local, you're in trouble.

KURTZ: So, you were very much in underground...

DE BORCHGRAVE: Oh, on the buses I didn't say a word.

KURTZ: Well, we're glad you're back.

Now, Tom DeFrank, there's been a lot of journalistic speculation, as we just made clear, in the last couple of weeks in this war. In fact, let's take a look at the cover of your newspaper, "The New York Daily News," which had three pictures of Osama bin Laden, talking about possible plastic surgery.

Now, that was a very entertaining cover, but it's entirely based on speculation. Who knows what kind of plastic surgery this guy may have had, what he looks like, whether he had plastic surgery at all.

DEFRANK: It's -- you're exactly right. We're all flying blind on this. "The Daily News" went to some experts and asked them...

KURTZ: Experts, excuse me.

DEFRANK: Well, some experts, yes. Some clinical experts, and said, if -- how would he look. And we're not the only publication that did that either. Others have speculated. It's an interesting proposition, but we don't know.

DE BORCHGRAVE: Does that mean he would have had the surgery in a cave, then? Because surely he appeared on al-Jazeera looking himself quite recently. DEFRANK: Well, that's exactly right. Well, we don't know. Well -- the al-Jazeera tape was supposedly made on the 9th of November, Arnaud. But, again, there is -- we don't have a lot of news.

KURTZ: Speaking of speculation, Mark Thompson, a lot of reports about Iraq is next. Somalia is next. Sudan is next. You name it, you've read it; maybe you've written some of it. Is this on some level -- since perhaps some of these decisions haven't even been made by the Bush administration, is there level of media irresponsibility here?

THOMPSON: I don't think it's irresponsibility so much as it is -- if you talk to folks in the Pentagon, there's a great sense of, gee, we've got momentum on our side now. If there's a break in the action, we're never going to gin it up again. So, gee whiz, Mr. President, if you want to go after Iraq, you better do so before Afghanistan goes totally kaput and fizzles out. Because to get the country back in the mood again that they had on September 12th is going to be exceedingly difficult.

KURTZ: These are people giving advice through the media?

THOMPSON: Right. I mean, well, there's a sense of you don't want to miss an opportunity...

DE BORCHGRAVE: You would agree, though, Mark, that there's a sort of pro, let's go for Iraq camp inside the administration that's pushing for it all the time?

THOMPSON: Oh, yes. Since before September 11.


KURTZ: But is there also a fair number of armchair generals in the press who are leading the charge, let's bomb Baghdad and so forth? And does that give you any pause?

DE BORCHGRAVE: There are certainly columnist who are in favor of going after Iraq. Old Middle Eastern hands like me say that if we were to do Iraq today, we would lose all support throughout the area.

DEFRANK: I don't think it's so much armchair generals in the press, Howard, although there are some. I agree with Arnaud. But it's the, it's what we do. Afghanistan is winding down militarily, one way or the other. And so the press has got to fixate on something. And I think we're now going to start fixating on where next, and I think where next is not Iraq.

We'll be doing something of a military nature in Iraq in three or four months, but it won't be in two or three weeks.

DE BORCHGRAVE: Well, the big threat, you would agree, though, Tom, is that this campaign against trans-national terrorism could lapse back into a state of sort of war against drugs mode, which would elicit more yawns than goose bumps. KURTZ: Let me write down what you said, Tom. The press has to fixate on something, because I think that might come in useful on future programs.

Now, there's continuing controversy, as you all know, about Geraldo Rivera and his role as a FOX NEWS war correspondent. Let's take a look at one of his recent reports earlier this month.


GERALDO RIVERA, FOX NEWS: ... walked over the spot where the friendly fire took so many of our men and the mujahideen yesterday. It was just, the whole place, just fried, really, and bits of uniforms and tattered clothing everywhere. I said the Lord's prayer and really choked up. I could almost choke up relating the story to you right now.


KURTZ: Now, "The Baltimore Sun" reported that Rivera was at Tora Bora for that report. The actual friendly fire incident involving Americans was hundreds of miles away, near Kandahar. Rivera told me this was an honest mistake, he had confused the two incidents, but that he did see an incident involving Afghan opposition fighters at that place. He says it's an honest mistake. Tom DeFrank, is it a serious mistake?

DEFRANK: I think it is a serious mistake. I think there's a pattern here with Geraldo. I mean, there's a big difference of opinion in the journalistic community whether he's even a reporter. I'm dubious.

KURTZ: They did not correct it on the air, although certainly they have corrected it to reporters who have called. But Mark Thompson, since no one else reported this friendly fire incident, again, involving Afghan opposition fighters that Geraldo says took place there, could that be that there could be such an incident where there would be serious fatalities or wounding and that no one else, no other journalists would find out about it?

THOMPSON: Well, allegedly, the one he was reporting on, not the Kandahar one, took place three days after he was on the air, on December 6.

KURTZ: He says this is a different incident.

THOMPSON: No, I understand that. Oh, a different Afghan...

KURTZ: A different Afghan incident in the Tora Bora region.

THOMPSON: ... up at Tora Bora. OK. I hadn't heard that.

KURTZ: Yeah.

THOMPSON: I mean, plainly, there are all sorts of conflicting claims. We've seen some in the last 24 hours about, hey, you hit friendly guys. No, we didn't, we hit legitimate targets. I just think that if you're on the scene, as Geraldo is, and, you know, the American friendly fire deaths occurred several hundred miles away, I don't see how you make a mistake like that.

KURTZ: Just briefly, is Geraldo Rivera part of a tradition of colorful correspondents or more of a showman?

DE BORCHGRAVE: He's a flamboyant journalist. He's a flamboyant foreign correspondent in the tradition of flamboyant foreign correspondents.

KURTZ: Well put, concisely put, and we have to take a break. When we come back, we'll take a look at, among other things, at the rock-star at the Pentagon.



Donald Rumsfeld is being described as some observers as not only a rock-star, but a sex symbol. He's been on the cover of "U.S. News," "Rum Punch" was the headline. Big profile in the style section of "The Washington Post." And of course the famous, or infamous, "Saturday Night Live" parody.

Mark Thompson, you cover the guy. What do you make of this media swoon? And is the press being a little too easy on the secretary of defense?

THOMPSON: I don't know. The fellow isn't giving out a lot of information. Once you get beyond the showmanship, you know, he's sort of an empty vessel.

KURTZ: I thought journalists hate that?

THOMPSON: Well, they do hate that. But he has -- he enjoys what he's doing, OK? And the press picks up on that. He's not, he's not some sort of insolent, sour person, you know. He's up there. He's having a good time. He plainly enjoys the interplay with the press. The press, in turn, enjoys that interplay, even as they're scrambling for morsels and crumbs of information from the guy.

KURTZ: I think he enjoys sticking it to the press, and you guys make a great foil.

Tom DeFrank, you can't buy this kind of publicity.

DEFRANK: Well, I'm just -- I've said it before, Howard. I covered this guy in the Ford administration when he was the White House chief of staff. He was a terrible interview. He hated reporters. He didn't like dealing with them.

KURTZ: What happened?

DEFRANK: Well, here he sees himself as the prime advocate of the policy, and I think he is a worthy advocate of the policy, and he is also a worthy adversary for the press. This is a good scrum (ph) here, and he's very effective.

DE BORCHGRAVE: I've known him for 35 years, Howie, and the persona is exactly the same that I've always seen, even when he was ambassador to NATO. We saw him frequently and off the record. White House chief of staff. Seen him through all these incarnations, and he hasn't changed.

KURTZ: I would...

DE BORCHGRAVE: The kind of game he's playing with the media today is exactly the kind of game he was playing 30 years ago.

KURTZ: I would simply add that it helps when your war is going well.

THOMPSON: And it also helps when you, when your presidential aspirations have sort of gone, when you're a multi-millionaire, when you've had all the jobs you want to have, when you're doing this job for the second time. This basically, I think, is his final act. So, he's enjoying it. He's doing it well. And I think that translates into what people see.

KURTZ: Arnaud, you've been a foreign correspondent for decades...

DE BORCHGRAVE: Fifty-five years.

KURTZ: Fifty-five years. So many decades. Where was the press before September 11 in terms of serious coverage of Islam, Afghanistan, and a lot of countries that Americans seemed tuned out about?

DE BORCHGRAVE: Howie, you know that better than anyone. We were treated to the constant melodrama of constant trivia, going all the way from Tonya Harding, who got more airtime in a comparable news period than the fall of the Berlin Wall, on to Gary Condit and O.J. Simpson and Monica Lewinsky. Now, finally, we're focused on what's important.

KURTZ: Tomorrow morning, very dramatic, "TIME" magazine is going to announce its "person of the year." Osama bin Laden is under consideration. I think it would spark quite a backlash. We'll find out soon. Tom DeFrank, if "TIME" puts Osama bin Laden on the cover, aren't a lot of readers going to be really unhappy?

DEFRANK: I think they're going to lose a lot of advertising. I think they'll lose a lot of subscribers. Frankly, though, he fits their definition. The definition is the person who, for good or ill, has affected the world most.

I, if it were me, I'd put him on the cover, but only with the headline "Madman of the Year."

KURTZ: You'd put him on the cover and run for cover. More like...

DEFRANK: But, "Madman of the Year."

KURTZ: More like Rudy Giuliani, New York City firefighters, are these all reasonable competitors?

THOMPSON: I have a C-4 explosive strapped to my chest, and if I say the name, I blow up and mess up your set?

KURTZ: Oh, so you know the answer but you can't tell us.

THOMPSON: I'm not even going to tell you that.

KURTZ: Can't even go there. He sounds like Rumsfeld.

DE BORCHGRAVE: No, I would go for Osama bin Laden if I were the editor of "TIME" magazine.

KURTZ: Because of the impact on the world this year?

DE BORCHGRAVE: Absolutely. And, as Tom says, that's the only criterion.

KURTZ: The only criterion. I think we'll have to leave it there. Arnaud de Borchgrave, Mark Thompson, Tom DeFrank, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, old soldiers storm the airwaves. Bernard Kalb's "Back Page."


KURTZ: Time now for the "Back Page." Here's Bernard Kalb.

BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It happened 50 years ago, one of the country's greatest generals went before a joint session of Congress to say farewell and got it all wrong.



GEN. DOUGLAS MACARTHUR: Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.


KALB (voice-over): That was General Douglas MacArthur, hero of World War II, who took the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri, who led the troops in the Korean War, until he was fired by President Truman.

But enough history. Let's hear that line again.

MACARTHUR: ... they just fade away.

KALB: Well, let's just say that MacArthur was a better military strategist than he was a prophet. The old boy may have faded away, but not lots of generals who followed him.

Once their stars are retired, they promptly re-enlist into the ranks of television. Instead of fading, they're simply multiplying, proliferating, giving the nation a course on war 101 based on their own experience and explaining what the Pentagon is saying, and sometimes isn't saying.

And how does all this sound to their one-time buddies at the Pentagon? A "New York Times" article put it this way: "There is resentment that some retired officers are being paid to provide fodder to another traditional enemy of the Defense Department, the press."

The Pentagon is more diplomatic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are pundits and there are retirees who can offer their opinions about how they might see it, which isn't necessarily how General Franks has articulated it to our national command authorities.


KALB: The fact is, TV generals are here to stay. All they need is a war and the world always seems ready to lend a hand. But it's really too bad that TV came too late for some of the country's great military leaders. Ex-General George Washington, live; ex-General Ulysses S. Grant, live; ex-General Dwight D. Eisenhower, live.

When you look back half a century, you can see that MacArthur and television were out of sync. TV news was then in its infancy, he was at the end of his career. But it's hard to believe that a theatrical, publicity-driven general like MacArthur would have chosen obscurity over punditry.

Old soldiers never die, they re-up on TV.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb with the "Back Page."

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern.

CAPITAL GANG is up next.




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