BRIAN LAMB, HOST, C-SPAN/Q&A: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, what is the ”Imperial Life in the Emerald City” all about?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, AUTHOR, ”IMPERIAL LIFE IN THE EMERALD CITY”: Well, the ”Imperial Life in the Emerald City” is a book about the first 15 months after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government. It’s about – it’s a book about the American occupation.
But it’s a book unlike everything else out there. It’s not a bang, bang I’m with the military book. It’s not a autobiography of my days in the desert as a journalist. It’s a book about the civilians who went to remake Iraq, to rebuild and govern and how they fared and, in many cases, how they failed to bring about elements of reconstruction, of stability and governance that Iraq so desperately needed.
And it’s told through the bizarre world of the Green Zone, that American enclave in the center of Baghdad. It was a bubble where the Americans lived and worked. And I tried to tell the story of the place and the people that inhabited the place.
LAMB: Why do we not see a lot of the Green Zone on television?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, because journalists just can’t enter at will. You have to be escorted in by a press officer. In fact, just sort of basic images of the Green Zone in many cases are restricted because of security reasons. They don’t want to show on television where certain buildings are in relation to others.
And, quite honestly, in the first many, many months of the U.S. presence there many journalists were more focused on military operations, on the lives of the Iraqis, all good stories. But there wasn’t a whole lot of attention paid to the civilians who came with the very, very important job of trying to govern and rebuild the country. And that was just sort of ignored by a lot of people.
LAMB: If you walked around the Green Zone how long would it take you, say, to walk from the front gate to the – is there a back gate?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes. There are about three or four main gates. It’s a good long walk. It would probably take you an hour to go from one end to the other or even more than that. I mean, it’s a seven square mile enclave. We’re not talking about a little tiny area here.
And it actually feels a lot like a nice subdivision. This was built by Saddam Hussein years ago as the area to surround his republican palace. And so, there are other smaller palaces that were built for his children, his wife. There are other buildings that used to house government ministries and villas for the homes of his ministers and cronies.
So, all of this made for a very secure and self contained area for the Americans to set up shop when they arrived in Baghdad in April 2003.
LAMB: What kind of wall is around it?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, initially in the days of Saddam it was just sort of a brick and concrete wall, probably 10, 12 feet high. But there was a big deterrent effect. When Iraqis would drive by, strangely enough, they’d speed as they were going around it because they were worried that if they were sort of caught gawking they’d wind up in the Abu Ghraib prison.
When the Americans came initially they just sort of kept Saddam’s walls and put some tanks at the entrances. But over time, as threats increased, the walls grew. So, now they’re 17 foot high reinforced concrete blast walls, barbed wire, sentry posts, and other such things that ring the entire zone.
LAMB: How often is some kind of ordinance lobbed into the Green Zone?
CHANDRASEKARAN: These days fairly regularly. It didn’t start until late 2003, but then it became a fairly regular occurrence. And so, some nights multiple times. Other days it doesn’t happen. But it’s a favored target of the insurgents. It’s such a large area.
But to date, thankfully, they have not been very accurate because the Americans have counter fire radar in there. So, they can determine where the shots are coming from. And they can return fire or at least send helicopters there. So, what the insurgents do is they don’t shoot from the same place. And because they’re not shooting from the same place, they have no way to really calibrate their shots day after day.
LAMB: When were you there?
CHANDRASEKARAN: I was there for six months before the war for almost the whole time. I did have some breaks back and forth. And then I returned on September 10th – excuse me, April 10, 2003. That was the day after the statue of Saddam was felled in front of the Palestine Hotel.
And I stayed there pretty much nonstop until the end of September 2004. So, a good 18 months I lived in postwar Iraq. And I ran ”The Washington Post’s” bureau at that time.
LAMB: How big is the bureau?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, at its height we probably had six to eight American correspondents, a photographer or two, and several dozen Iraq staffers, translators, drivers, bodyguards. And they’re some of my real heroes, Brian. I mean, these are people who put their lives on the line every single day so that we can report, that we can work there, and that Americans can be informed about what’s happening in Iraq.
LAMB: You see this all the time with the bureaus that they have locals that they’ve hired. How do you hire people and entrust them with all the insurgency that’s going on there?
CHANDRASEKARAN: It’s funny. You know, at ”The Washington Post” we have a no nepotism policy. If I work there my brother can’t get a job there. Well, I flagrantly violated Donald Graham’s no nepotism policy. Everybody who works there is somehow either related or friends or former coworkers or neighbors of one another. You just can’t put an ad in the newspaper and say, ”Looking for translator. Come to ’The Washington Post’.” You want people who have various other connections so that you can feel sure of their loyalty. You can ascertain their pedigree.
And so, we sort of started to build it out with a few trusted Iraqis. And it just sort of grew from there. And sometimes that means when you’re looking for a new person you can’t find somebody right away, but it’s also meant that we wind up with a very good crop of loyal and dedicated and very brave Iraqis.
LAMB: You have – before almost each section or chapter – what would you call them, a scene setter?
CHANDRASEKARAN: I little vignette.
LAMB: I want to read, if I can find the one here. Well, where did I put it? I thought I had it marked. Let me find that.
In the meantime I’ll ask you this. When you went – how old were you when you first set foot in Iraq?
CHANDRASEKARAN: That’s a good question. When I first set foot in there I had to have been 29 years old because I remember on my thirtieth birthday it was in January 2003. The U.N. weapons inspectors were in Iraq. And I remember the late Peter Jennings buying me a birthday cake and his staff procuring two bottles of Bordeaux to toast my thirtieth birthday. And that was quite an accomplishment because it wasn’t easy to get nice red wine in Baghdad at that time.
LAMB: Where did you come from? What’s your past? Where did you grow up?
CHANDRASEKARAN: I grew up in Northern California, born and raised over there. I went to Stanford University. And then after my – I edited the ”Stanford Daily” while I was there. And after my – after graduation I wound up with an internship at ”The Washington Post.” And I’ve worked at ”The Washington Post” my entire adult life.
I started out as a metro reporter, covering cops and courts in Northern Virginia. Then I moved on to the ”Post’s” business desk, where I wrote about technology issues, eventually covering the Microsoft antitrust case in the late 1990s. And then in the year 2000 I moved overseas. I was the ”Post’s” correspondent in Southeast Asia first, based in Jakarta. I covered many of the nations in Southeast Asia.
Then after 9-11 I wound up becoming part of the team of ”Post” reporters to cover the war in Afghanistan, from Pakistan, from Afghanistan and India. And then in the summer of 2002 I moved to become the ”Post’s” correspondent in Cairo. And it was from there that I made my first trip into Iraq. And that was in about September of 2002.
LAMB: Let me read – this is the Green Zone, scene 10.
”American military personnel stationed in the Republican Palace rarely had a kind word to say about the CPA.” First, what’s the Republican Palace? And what’s the CPA?
CHANDRASEKARAN: The Republican Palace is that large 258 marbled walled palace that was sort of Saddam’s White House.
LAMB: Two hundred fifty-eight rooms?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Two hundred and fifty-eight rooms, an enormous Versailles type structure. That became the headquarters for the Coalition Provisional Authority. That was the American occupation government in Iraq. That was the administration that was headed by Ambassador Paul Bremer.
LAMB: ”The soldiers, many of whom were majors and colonels, had been in uniform for more than two decades and resented being ordered around by CPA staffers in their twenties.” Why were CPA staffers in their twenties allowed to order around majors and colonels?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Because the way the CPA was set up it was assembled and staffed with a lot of very young people, a lot of people who were selected largely because of their political fidelity. The process of selecting people back here involved some screening that sought to ascertain whether people had voted for President Bush in the 2000 election, whether they were members of the Republican Party. Some even were asked questions along the lines of whether they supported or opposed Roe versus Wade. Others were subjected to discussions about capital punishment.
And so, what happened was you wound up getting a core of people who were sort of very loyal Republicans out to work there. And in many cases, the people who were selected were younger, in their twenties and their thirties. And they wound up in supervisory positions there. And a lot of the other tasks that the CPA had to accomplish were sort of delegated to military units and soldiers, either soldiers who (INAUDIBLE) to the CPA or otherwise attached to it.
And so, it put these youngsters in effect of control over some of the soldiers or at least gave them some nominal authority over them. And that caused a fair bit of tension because you had people in the military who had served in the Balkans, in Somalia, in Haiti, who had been in post conflict zones and wound up essentially having to report to or take orders from in some cases people who were much younger, who didn’t have that breadth of experience.
LAMB: The name O’Beirne is well known by people that watch television because Kate O’Beirne is – works for the ”National Review” and does a lot of television commentary. Her husband’s involved in all this. How’s that?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Her husband is – played a big role in the screening process of people going out there. Her husband, Jim O’Beirne, is the White House liaison to the Pentagon. It sort of sounds like an obscure job.
What his office does – and most cabinet agencies have White House liaison offices. And their job is to vet prospective political appointees. And O’Brien’s office took charge of screening – recruiting and screening many of the people who went out to work for the CPA.
And what I write about in my book is that people in his office – people sort of nominally working for him in the Pentagon went about trying to recruit people largely based on political loyalty. So, that – having skills in Arabic language, having experience – past experience in the Middle East, having expertise in post conflict reconstruction were not seen as important as having political loyalty in some cases. And you wound up with people getting recruited from conservative think tanks in Washington, from GOP offices on Capitol Hill, from cabinet agencies.
LAMB: What kind of money would they make?
CHANDRASEKARAN: You know, it wasn’t that great. They made probably what a ordinary mid level civil servant in the U.S. government makes, plus a differential for being overseas as well as being in a hazardous zone.
So, people could make a fair bit of money, enough to come back and buy a car or maybe put a down payment on a house because you really weren’t having to spend a lot of money while you were out there. But I don’t think there were a lot of people going out there simply to pad their pockets, at least not those working for the CPA.
LAMB: How many Americans would you say are inside the Green Zone on a day-to-day basis?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Now or then?
LAMB: Well, both.
CHANDRASEKARAN: Back then the CPA had at its height probably 1,500 employees in Baghdad, but that wasn’t it. There were thousands of soldiers who were also stationed in the Green Zone. And then you had thousands of contractors – private contractors – working for firms like Halliburton and General Electric and Bechtel.
And then to guard them you had again hundreds upon hundreds of private security contractors. Not all of them were American, but you had many of them who were.
So, several thousand is probably an accurate figure for both back then and for today.
LAMB: Do they all live inside the Green Zone? Do they sleep inside the Green Zone?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Most of them do, yes, in trailer parks or in other buildings that are in there.
LAMB: This is from another Green Zone scene. This is scene 12. ”When Halliburton managers discovered the pets in their midst, they asked the Marines guarding the palace to shoot the cats on site, lest they spread illnesses.” Why is that in there?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, it was intended to help kind of describe some of the absurdity of the regulations in there. A lot of people who worked there homesick, had adopted feral cats. And they would feed them a little bit. It provided a fair bit of comfort to otherwise stressed out people in a war zone.
Yet Halliburton managers decreed that we don’t want any cats scampering about. And so, they issued an order for banning cats. So, what people did was they would sort of secret them away in their trailers and come take – steal a little milk from the lunch room and bring it to them.
But then Halliburton got wise to this and sent a bunch of cat killers on a search and destroy mission and went into peoples’ tents. And I recount how one woman, almost ready to return home, planning to bring the cat back with her, returned back to find a note saying her cat had been taken and killed and was sobbing in front of her trailer. It just – it seemed to be needless, gratuitous.
LAMB: In another scene, scene 13, ”After an hour or so a CPA” – that’s the Coalition Provisional Authority – ”press officer noticed two journalists in the crowd. She pulled them aside. ’Who invited you here?’, she barked. ’What are you doing here? No press is allowed here.’” What is that?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, that was a scene at the CPA’s farewell party. And there was always a very tense relationship between the people who worked for the occupation authority and journalists. They felt that the journalists weren’t going to tell their stories accurately, that we didn’t believe in the mission like they did.
To the contrary, I think that the journalists who were there really believed in telling the truth, being fair and objective. But we also want to tell both sides of the story. And so, those two journalists …
LAMB: Were you there for that party?
CHANDRASEKARAN: I was not there for that one. Those were two colleagues of mine. And they were pulled aside and, in fact, they were made to say on tape – a CPA press officer brought a video camera out and recorded them, making a videotaped – they had to make a statement saying that they would not report on the party. And they didn’t at the time, but they eventually told me for the purposes of this book.
LAMB: Now, Dan Senor was the spokesman for the CPA …
CHANDRASEKARAN: That’s right.
LAMB: … there. And he’s now back in this country. I think he’s married to …
CHANDRASEKARAN: Campbell Brown …
LAMB: … Campbell Brown of NBC. What was his reputation when you were covering the CPA?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, he had a mixed reputation, I think. Journalists respected the sacrifices he made for staying out there as long as he did. He came in the very early days and stayed till the day Ambassador Bremer departed.
But Dan was also in some ways a political appointee. He was there much like – in playing a role much like Tony Snow plays at the White House. It was a very political role aimed at defending the actions of Ambassador Bremer, of promoting the work of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
It was very different, let’s say, from the role that press officers play at U.S. embassies. And those press officers are meant to be nonpartisan. They’re meant to obviously represent American interests, but not to be as political. And there was a feeling in the press corps that Dan and members of Dan’s staff approached things in a fairly political way.
His press office, the Strategic Communications Office, who was one of the most politicized departments of the CPA, most – many, many of the people who worked there were drawn from the press offices of Republican members of Congress or other political appointees within the administration.
I recount in another vignette in the book a man who worked for the Iraqi Media Network, an American, opening a care package from his mother in the press office. And as he opened it he found that his mom had sent him a book written by Paul Krugman, a liberal ”New York Times” columnist. And as the book was sort of unveiled from the packaging people around him stared. And he said, ”It was like I had unwrapped a radioactive brick.”
LAMB: And – but Klugman is a very anti-Bush columnist.
LAMB: It should be pointed out. So, all the people around him were very political, I assume.
CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes. And you could see in that office – there was one gentleman who had Bush/Cheney bumper stickers. There was a George Bush mouse pad. It felt a little like a campaign war room.
LAMB: You write on page 62, ”I found myself believing in Bremer.”
CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes. Let me tell you something. I was not one of these people who, from the very beginning, thought that Bremer was the wrong man for the job, who thought that Bremer did not possess the skills.
I met with Bremer extensively throughout his time there. I probably had more access to him than most other American journalists. And what I write there was from my first interview with him. And we were driving around Baghdad and we had – we were heading back to the Green Zone from Baghdad University.
And I started asking him about his agenda for reconstruction. He’d recently arrived. He had taken over from General Jay Garner. And Bremer was really conveying a sense of authority, of mission, of dedication. And he had such bold and grand ideas that, to me, he seemed like a breath of fresh air. I really felt like here was a guy who could make it work.
LAMB: What year was that?
CHANDRASEKARAN: That was in June of 2003.
LAMB: Jay Garner was the first person that the president and the Pentagon sent over there to run the CPA?
LAMB: What happened?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, Jay was sent over there with a particular mission, to prepare to deal with the humanitarian catastrophe after the war. That was Jay’s skill. Jay had been up in Northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, providing humanitarian aide to the ethnic Kurdish population.
So, they were expecting that Jay would lead up this massive effort to just help provide food and water to Iraqis. And that’s what he and his people planned for.
Well, they wind up getting to Baghdad and there is no humanitarian catastrophe, but there is certainly a power vacuum and there’s a need to start establishing interim governing structures. There’s a need to establish order. And Jay just hadn’t planned for it because that’s not what he was sort of asked to do. He wasn’t given the resources to do it. And he was led to believe that there were others there working on it.
In the book I tell a story about how Jay’s deputy, Ron Adams, had come back to Washington. And – because he had a lung infection. This was a few weeks after Garner and his team had gotten to Baghdad. And when Ron Adams went to the Pentagon before going back to Baghdad, he dropped by the office of Doug Feith, who was then the number three in the Pentagon under secretary for policy.
And all along Garner had been told there were no real plans for post war Iraq, for the political transition. And Adams talks to people and sort of stumbles upon the fact that, well, there is planning going on. And so, Adams calls Garner up and says, ”Jay, you wouldn’t believe it, but I’m here in the Pentagon and I’ve discovered that they are doing planning for what to do for the political transition.” And Jay says, ”Great. What’s it all about? Let me see it.” And Adams says, ”They won’t let me see it.”
CHANDRASEKARAN: Because – I don’t have a good answer to that, but …
LAMB: This is Feith’s office that had been planning?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes, planning done by Feith’s office.
LAMB: And there was a written plan?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, there was a lot of documents – there were a lot of documents in writing and there was also other stuff that was being talked about.
LAMB: How did Jay Garner get that job? And how long was he in country?
CHANDRASEKARAN: He was in country probably for six weeks or so in Iraq. He was in Kuwait for several weeks before that.
LAMB: And why did he – why the transition? Did he expect to stay longer than he did?
CHANDRASEKARAN: I think he did expect to stay a little longer, but I don’t think he was expect to stay any longer than maybe 90 days. He was always told that a senior level diplomat type would be brought in to help lead that political transition, but I think he was – he did not expect to be relieved of his duties as summarily and abruptly as it happened.
LAMB: You started out by saying, ”I found myself believing in Bremer.” Did you end that way?
CHANDRASEKARAN: I didn’t. I felt that Bremer squandered many valuable opportunities. I felt that Bremer became too ambitious instead of seeking to bring about a more sustainable occupation with a rapid transfer of authority to an Iraqi interim government with modest reconstruction, with incremental changes to Iraq’s economy and economic reform. We sought out to do what I would sort of call a big bang approach to sort of rebuild Iraq.
The Iraqis wanted – they wanted democracy and they also wanted to move forward. And, of course, Iraq was a shattered society. Its government was shattered. Its economy was shattered. So was its infrastructure.
But an analogy here might be an old broken down vehicle. And what the Iraqis sort of wanted was somebody to fix a few sparkplugs, pour some engine oil on it, and get it going. And if it was sputtering but it was moving forward, so be it.
Bremer’s approach was more akin to say, OK, we’re going to put this car up on the blocks, we’re going to take the engine out, and we’re going to start fixing it bolt by bolt, because at the end of the day we’re going to have a much better engine.
Well, that’s true, but the Iraqis really weren’t into that. Iraq was not a thoroughly defeated World War II aggressor nation like Germany or Japan where we could sort of have a moral claim to staying there for years on end and saying we are going to rework your government, your economy. The Iraqi people felt that, yes, Saddam was a bad man, he had to go, but then they wanted to get about their own affairs. They wanted to take charge of their own destiny. They wanted Iraqi leaders to help lead the way.
Now, admittedly, Bremer and his people would say, ”Well, look, there weren’t many credible Iraqis to hand power to, that the Iraqi exiles, people like Ahmad Chalabi and Iyad Alawi, were fairly de-legitimized in the eyes of their people. And Saddam had so assiduously gone after anybody who lived in Iraq who might be a potential opposition figure.
Yes, that is true. But at the same time what we did – what we told them within a few weeks of our arrival was that we were going to be the occupying power and we’re going to stay there for months on end. We didn’t tell them that we were going to stay there for a year or 15 months. We said we’re going to determine when we want to leave. And we didn’t even immediately give them a list of hoops to jump through.
We eventually did. Bremer said you have to select a committee to draft a constitution. You have to draft one. You have to have a national referendum, then a national election for a new government, then only we’ll give you sovereignty, his famous seven step plan.
That would’ve taken two years. The Iraqis didn’t have an appetite for that. They wanted to get on with things, even if it wasn’t perfect. They wanted to try.
And the same thing with reconstruction. They wanted their infrastructure fixed. But we came in with this very grand campaign with $18 billion to get 10,000 megawatts of electricity, to double the national production, to give clean water. All of these, again, noble goals. I’m not quibbling with that.
But instead of trying to build, for instance, small, sustainable power generating facilities in individual municipalities that local people would protect because they had interests in receiving reliable electricity, we thought we’re going to have some very big, massive American style power plants built, incidentally, by large American contractors. And then there’ll be large distribution lines and that will take them around the country.
Well, the problem with that is that it’s an easy – those distribution lines are an easy target for the insurgents. Those big facilities are lucrative targets for the insurgents. So, it didn’t quite fit in.
And to build those big plants you need lots of foreign engineers. You need resources and labor that you just didn’t – well, bringing them in then required additional security. It wound up being very difficult to make all of that happen.
LAMB: A couple little things. His name is L. Paul Bremer, but people call him Jerry. And you tell us why in the book. Why – where did the name Jerry come from?
CHANDRASEKARAN: He was named after his patron saint Gerome.
LAMB: Who did that?
CHANDRASEKARAN: His parents.
LAMB: You also – you mean that’s a nickname?
CHANDRASEKARAN: It’s his nickname.
LAMB: You also have a scene where Henry Kissinger meets with the secretary at the time, Colin Powell, about Jerry Bremer. What happened?
CHANDRASEKARAN: It’s a good story.
A few weeks after Bremer arrived in Baghdad and after he had issued his decisions to de-Baathify the government and to disband the Iraqi military, both of which have since been viewed as very controversial and in many quarters viewed as mistakes, Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, went to go visit Colin Powell, who’s then secretary of state. And Bremer had worked for Kissinger, first as his special assistant when he was secretary of state and later as a managing director of Kissinger’s consulting firm.
And by this point Powell was sort of beside himself. He thought that Bremer, being a former American ambassador, a man who had worked in the State Department, would be sort of the right guy out there, the breath of fresh air that we needed and be a take charge guy. But Powell didn’t quite understand what Bremer was thinking of when he issued the de-Baathification order and he dissolved the army.
So, when Kissinger came up to visit Powell in his seventh floor office at the State Department Powell asked him in the course of the conversation, ”So, Henry, tell me a little bit about Jerry Bremer’s management style.” And Kissinger said, ”He’s a control freak.” And to Powell this sort of blew him away because of Kissinger, who is a legendary control freak, would call Bremer a control freak. To Powell that meant that Bremer had to be a control freak without parallel.
And it was an accurate description. If you talked to people at the National Security Council at the time they will say that Bremer and his senior staff at the CPA rarely sort of shared information back with them. In fact, there was one guy who worked for then NSC – National Security Advisor – Condoleezza Rice, who took to checking the CPA’s Web site on a daily basis to see what orders and regulations Bremer had promulgated, because that was a faster way to get them than waiting for them to come through the official channels.
Bremer assisted, even issued an edict, to all of his senior staff saying that they were not to accept task orders directly from the NSC, that they all had to be vetted by Bremer’s office.
LAMB: NSC is located where?
CHANDRASEKARAN: In the White House, the National Security Council.
LAMB: What relationship did Jerry Bremer have to the State Department?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, he didn’t have a direct reporting relationship. Bremer’s direct report was to Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of Defense. But Bremer also saw himself working directly for President Bush. He and the president and many other members of the war cabinet would speak multiple times a week in secure video teleconferences. So, he viewed himself having sort of two bosses.
But by the late – or the early fall of 2003 there was a view in the White House that this was getting untenable, that Bremer was sort of going off on his own and not really following, well, the White House game plan or, better put, that was doing things without properly vetting them through the official channels.
LAMB: Because the de-Baathification was constantly brought up in and an important issue, what can you tell us around how he made that decision? And who was in the loop?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, there was a decision made in the White House by President Bush and members of his war cabinet before the war to engage in limited de-Baathification, only the very top most levels of the Baath Party. It was meant to go after only like the top one percent. There was meant to be a truth and reconciliation process. It was not meant to be punitive.
But what had happened was the actual implementation fell to the Pentagon. And they took the decision and interpreted it in such a way that some critics, people who actually at that point worked in the White House, felt was over-broad, that that included people who shouldn’t have been included.
And so, before Bremer went out to Baghdad he saw what the Pentagon was doing and said, ”This would be a great initial order. This is a great take charge move.” And so, he seized upon it, he brought it with him to Baghdad, and he issued it a few days after arriving.
The problem was the way it was drafted. It caught a lot of people who need not have been kicked out of the government up in it. So, he wound up with 10,000 teachers losing their jobs just because they were at the fourth level of the Baath Party. I interviewed guys who worked as janitors in state run factories who were told they no longer had jobs because they had been prisoners of war in Iran, and upon their return to Iraq the government had promoted them in the Baath Party as a way to give them sort of monthly bonus.
And so, these sort of bedraggled guys who were clearly not high level Baathists were told they couldn’t work in government anymore.
LAMB: And did all this happen overnight?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Almost, yes. The order went out and then it sort of trickled down.
The other really important consequence of de-Baathification, Brian, was that a lot of the senior Americans who were running Iraqi ministries at the time were forced to make implementation of the order their top priority. So, instead of trying to figure out how to get their ministry back up and running, how to provide government services, they wound up having to devote a lot of time just to vetting people for party connections.
LAMB: Let me ask you about some people you write about and just have you tell us the background. Bernie Kerik.
CHANDRASEKARAN: Bernie Kerik, former New York City police commissioner, an American hero. He was the police commissioner during 9-11 and sort of a – along with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, I mean, was really one of the most visible public figures in New York after the terrorist attacks.
Well, he was brought out to Baghdad with the job of overseeing the Iraqi interior ministry. And what’s interesting here is that right after the war a assessment team from the U.S. Department of Justice showed up in Iraq and looked at Iraq’s police force and saw looted police stations, saw ill-trained police officers, realized that many police officers weren’t coming to work, and determined that Iraq needed 6,600 foreign police advisors to quickly rebuild its police force.
Instead, the U.S. government sent one guy, Bernie Kerik. And Bernie came in. And he saw his mission as really highlighting the progress that was being made. So, one of the first things he did was made the rounds of all the TV shows. He went on the Today Show, spoke with ”Time Magazine.” He was the public face.
And then he went on a lot of kind of high profile, showy raids. He brought along journalists with him.
LAMB: Did you go with him?
CHANDRASEKARAN: He knocked down some doors.
I spent a little time with him in Baghdad. I did not go on one of his overnight raids, but I’ve talked to people who did. But he would go with a small team of Iraqi police officers and they would go and apprehend some bad guys. But they wouldn’t do this in coordination with the military police. There was a lot of tension between the American military police who had authority over this stuff and what Kerik and his small team of people were doing.
But more importantly, Kerik’s nighttime activities meant that during the day when he was supposed to be actually working on training the police and focusing in on the important task of rebuilding the Interior Ministry he was resting because he was up all night working.
LAMB: So, he went from there, though, to be nominated to be the …
CHANDRASEKARAN: The secretary of Homeland Security.
LAMB: Homeland Security.
And then the world came out from under him. What …
CHANDRASEKARAN: Because there was the controversy involving his hiring of – I think it was an undocumented worker and then there were some other allegations. He subsequently, I think, pled to a few misdemeanor charges of receiving some gifts improperly in New York.
LAMB: How does somebody in this day and age, though, get sent to Iraq to have this kind of power? And I understand from reading your book that he wasn’t particularly helpful to people there and friendly with them and he was rather demanding.
CHANDRASEKARAN: But he was a good, loyal Republican. He was somebody who the White House could feel confident in going there and staying on message and talking up the progress that was being made there. So …
LAMB: So, it was PR.
CHANDRASEKARAN: There was a lot of PR to it.
LAMB: Let me ask you about Thomas Briggs or anybody else that is involved in trying to rebuild their stock market.
CHANDRASEKARAN: So, Baghdad had a stock exchange before the war. It was pretty primitive. Traders scribbled prices on blackboards. They used little chits of paper to transact trades. And so, after the war, because in the immediate aftermath of the war it was looted, there was a desire to get it back up and running.
So, the task initially fell to a U.S. military reservist named Tom Wirges. And he was doing this for the first few months and he was a former stockbroker and he had a plan to sort of rebuild the exchange in sort of a modest way, trying to just get it back up and running.
LAMB: How many were working with him?
CHANDRASEKARAN: He was sort of working on his own, but he asked for a little bit of help because he felt he needed some help in drawing up some new regulations.
And so, the help arrived in the form of a 24-year-old young man named Jay Hallen. Jay’s a good, smart, young kid, a Yale University graduate. He studied political science. But he hadn’t worked in finance. He hadn’t worked in the securities industry. And so, he was given the job of reopening the stock exchange. And, in fact, the other gentleman, Tom Wirges, the Army reservist, the stockbroker, was sort of pushed aside. Hallen was told that Wirges should be kind of let go and that he would take charge of this mission.
And Hallen had great ambitions. He wanted to give the Exchange a new board of directors, a new set of bylaws. The country needed a new securities law. It needed a securities and exchange commission, like the United States has. It needed a computerized trading and settlement system.
All of this amazed a number of the Iraqis who were stockbrokers and traders. They felt this was way too much. They just wanted to get back to work. And here was this young man wanting to rewrite all the laws, wanting to computerize it. And one Iraqi recalls saying to him at the time, ”You know, people are broke and bewildered. We just want to get back to work. Why are you stopping us?”
But Hallen had his plan. And they brought in advisors from the United States. It became this very ambitious undertaking. But at the end of the day the computerization did not happen before the Americans left and the market opened shortly before the handover of sovereignty. But they were using instead of blackboards white dry erase boards and same old chits of paper.
LAMB: Thomas Foley, a classmate of George Bush, ”Let’s privatize in 30 days.” What was his role? And who’s Thomas Foley?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Tom Foley runs a large investment company in Connecticut and, in fact, is on his way to Ireland to be the new U.S. ambassador there. But a fundraiser for President Bush and a classmate, as you mentioned, from Harvard Business School.
And Tom was sent out there to be the director of private sector development. And his job was to sell off Iraq’s government-owned businesses. And Iraq under Saddam Hussein had a lot of state run factories. In fact, there are about 150 factories, employing about 100,000 people.
Admittedly, grossly inefficient. It was like the old Soviet days. And ultimately these things did have to wind up in private hands.
But in the view of other economists, this should have unfolded in a more modest pace. In fact, you’d want to get some of these factories back up and running. You want to repair the damage. You want the workforce to be showing back up. And then once they’re working, then you bring in foreign investors and you say, ”Hey, look, you want to buy this?”
This was sort of – it had to be a gradual process. Foley wanted to do it very quickly. And there was also another complication. Under the Hague Conventions of laws governing occupation and warfare, an occupying power is not supposed to sell off the assets of an occupied country. That’s something that the sovereign government of that country has to do.
And so, there were people around him saying, ”Look, you can’t do this. You have to wait. We have to make this an Iraqi led decision.” But initially there was this desire to, hey, we’re just going to do this right away, sort of this big bang approach.
I recount a meeting between some of the Americans working on privatization and a group of Germans who had experience in privatizing government factories in East Germany. And at that point there were only about three Americans assigned to this task of trying to privatize 150 government factories.
So, the German team comes and sits across the table from the Americans and says – they start talking and they say, ”Well, how many people do you have working on this?” And the Americans say, ”Well, you’re looking at them.” And the Germans say, ”Well, no, we had 8,000 people working on it. I know you guys are in charge, but how many people are working for you?” And the Americans say, ”Well, you’re looking at them.” And the Germans say back, ”Don’t even bother starting.”
LAMB: You mentioned earlier Ahmad Chalabi. What have you found in your book about his importance in all this? And have you met him?
CHANDRASEKARAN: I have. I’ve talked to him many times.
Chalabi’s influence was more pronounced in the run up to the war and in some of the immediate aftermath. It was a paper on de-Baathification that his Iraqi National Congress wrote that helped shape the formation of the American de-Baathification strategy in the Pentagon. It was his influence with members of the vice president’s staff and people in the Pentagon that helped to in some ways prevent consensus within all branches of the U.S. government from a consensus on a political transition plan before the war.
But Chalabi’s role after the war and during the occupation was fairly limited because he and Bremer never really got along. Chalabi felt that he was the presumptive new president and that Bremer was usurping authority that really should have gone to him. So, there’s always this tension between the two men.
LAMB: Where is he now?
CHANDRASEKARAN: He spends a lot of time in Iraq and travels around the world and is still involved in politics there as – he is a Shiite Muslim and he is very close to a number of the Shiite political leaders who are currently running Iraq.
LAMB: What’s the origin of your name, Chandrasekaran?
CHANDRASEKARAN: It’s South Indian.
LAMB: When did your family come to the United States?
CHANDRASEKARAN: My folks came in the late ’60s to go to grad school at U.C. Berkeley. And they discovered the joys of Northern California and never left.
LAMB: And how about the family? How big is it?
CHANDRASEKARAN: I have a younger brother, who’s studying biochemistry, also at Berkeley, and me. That’s it.
LAMB: And why did you select Stanford as your university?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, you hadn’t grown up in Northern California. I just – I relished the thought of being able to wear shorts in February and play volleyball. And the idea of sort of trudging through the snow out in Massachusetts just seemed a little too alien to me.
LAMB: Did you ever think when you were in school and running the ”Daily Stanford” that you were going to end up as a war correspondent?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Never did. It was never my aspiration to cover war. And, in fact, I’ll tell you when I signed up to go to Cairo I thought that if push came to shove and we were going to engage in military action against Iraq it would be sort of a reprise of that 1998 Desert Fox operation where we pelted Baghdad with a bunch of cruise missiles. I really did not expect when I went to the Middle East that we would be engaged in a full on ground invasion of Iraq and then a multiyear occupation.
LAMB: When you read your stories – and I even read a e-mail that you sent to the Stanford Web site. You hear about you coming close to getting either shot or wounded or whatever you want to call it. Tell us the story about the car trip, when you went past the car where they had killed – I guess it was Spanish intelligence officers.
CHANDRASEKARAN: A bunch of Spanish intelligence officers, yes.
This was a trip down to the city of Hillah, which was about 50 miles south of Baghdad. It was a trip to interview a very moderate Shiite leader who was actually trying to translate works of de Tocqueville into Arabic, was very kind of pro Western in his outlook, very moderate. It has a university that teaches a comparative religion class that even teaches students about Judaism. This is the sort of guy that Americans should be supporting. And, admittedly, they are helping him, at least quietly. They don’t want to make it too overt.
But it’s also somebody worth writing about. And I attempted to go down there to do it. And it was on a couple of different trips we had some problems. On one trip back we wound up driving by what I thought was a traffic accident and became clear to me as we came up on it that it was the aftermath of an ambush of two vehicles that were carrying some Spanish intelligence officers.
And they had all been killed and their bodies, at least a few of the bodies, were sprawled out on the pavement. And there was a huge crowd of people cheering the attack. It was incredibly grizzly.
I wound up calling the U.S. military from my sat phone as we got further down the road to inform them that they should send somebody to retrieve the bodies of this Spaniards.
But what was an even closer call was some – a month or two later when I was driving down. That road had been nicknamed the highway of death because so many people were killed and otherwise attacked on it.
As we were driving back, a car started pursuing us. And we had to just gun it. And I was fortunate enough to have a driver who’s a former Iraqi Air Force fighter pilot. He was in a Mercedes Benz and he put the pedal to the metal and we wound up going as fast as we could. And we peeled off the road.
When we eventually got back on the highway we saw another car that had been shot up. And when I got back to Baghdad the next day I read the newspaper. It was – there was a report that some 17 people had been killed on that stretch of the road that day that I was on it.
LAMB: When you went out in those days did you travel with guards behind you in another car?
CHANDRASEKARAN: By then we did, but early on you could go anywhere without a guard, I mean, in those first few months after the war. I joke that the greatest danger I felt when I went to introduce myself as an American journalist and after somebody had hugged and kissed me and invited me into their house to tell me their story, was serving me some lunch of unknown providence. Like where did this meat come from? That was the only threat I faced. People wanted to talk. They embraced the Americans.
I could get in a car, drive out to Ramadi in the west, down to Basra. No problem, so long as I had a bottle of water and we had gas in the tank. It was great. The problem is as the security situation deteriorated our ability to travel became more circumscribed. First it was the road north to Tikrit, then out to Ramadi, then south to Basra. And after a while the only place you could really drive is in and around Baghdad.
LAMB: I want to read another one of your Green Zone scene. This is from scene five. And it’s – the briefers were CPA spokesman Daniel Senor and Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt. This is a little long, but this is what General Kimmitt said about – well, the question had to do with, ”General Kimmitt, the sound of American helicopters, which fly so low to the ground, is terrifying young people.”
And then General Kimmitt answers, ”What we would tell the children” – he wanted to know – the questioner wanted to know what they should tell the kids – the Iraqi kids – about these helicopters. And he said, ”What we would tell the children of Iraq is that the noise they hear is the sound of freedom. Those helicopters are in the air to provide safety, provide security. Certainly our helicopter pilots do not fly at an altitude intentionally to distract the children of Iraq. They’re there for their safety. They’re there for their protection. And just as my wife, who was a schoolteacher, tells the children when they’re sitting in a classroom that when they hear the artillery rounds go off at Fort Bragg, she says, ’Children, that’s the sound of freedom.’ They seem to be quite pleased with that explanation. We would recommend that you tell them the same thing of the children of Iraq, that the helicopter noise you hear above you ensures that you don’t have to worry for the future.”
Why did you put that in the book?
CHANDRASEKARAN: To me, it illustrates the disconnect between the American spin, the American message, and perceptions of Iraqis and how Iraqis viewed the American presence, some of their concerns, and the degree to which we did and didn’t listen to some of those concerns. And to me it’s sort of very illustrative of our attitude and approach in dealing with Iraqis while we were there during the occupation.
LAMB: Did you see a lot of that among the American military?
CHANDRASEKARAN: It was a mixed bag. There were some soldiers who I dealt with who were very culturally sensitive, that really wanted to form good positive working relationships with Iraqis and the community. And there are others who are very imperialist. I mean, they often refer to Iraqis as Hajjis, which the word Hajjis actually is a term of respect in Arabic. It’s somebody who’s been on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
But it was meant as a slur in common parlance. And they would call dishdashas, which were the long kind of ankle length tunics that many men wear there. They would call them man dresses. And so, you could sometimes hear on the radio the military guys – ”We’ve got two Hajjis in man dress at two o’clock. Train your rifles at them.”
And all wars have this kind of bravado among soldiers, and some of that is to be understood and expected from people who are in a very tense situation. But I do feel that there was a real lack of cultural understanding of many people who went there.
One great example is in the Middle East you do this to tell somebody to slow down. And if you’re at checkpoint you want somebody to stop you go like this. Well, U.S. soldiers are trained to go like this. This means stop. And so, Iraqis would see this initially and say, ”I don’t know what you mean,” and keep driving. And then they get shot.
LAMB: They know now.
CHANDRASEKARAN: They know now.
LAMB: Contractors – Custer Battles. What’s this story around Custer Battles?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Custer Battles was a upstart contracting firm that bid for a contract and won it to guard Baghdad’s airport, a $16 million contract. Mind you, the airport wasn’t open, wasn’t going to open any time soon, and Custer Battles had no experience guarding airports.
LAMB: Who was Custer and who was Battles?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Two guys, one named Scott Custer and Mike Battles. They formed a partnership. One had military experience. One had done some work with the CIA in the past. One had run unsuccessfully for Congress from Rhode Island. They’re both Republicans. And I think it’s Battles, if I’m not mistaken, boasted at least one other person that he had good contacts in the White House and was on the phone to people back here all the time.
LAMB: Now, did they start this company because of the war?
CHANDRASEKARAN: They started it before. They’ve bid on some contracts in Afghanistan and won a couple of contracts with the Afghan government. But this was their first big contract from the U.S. government.
And they wrote a very ambitious proposal for their contract that said they had a line of credit, that they had people lined up. Well, turns out they didn’t. So, when they got the contract they had to send somebody scurrying over to Nepal to go hire a bunch of sort of ex-Nepalese gurkhas. And then they didn’t have money to fund their startup costs.
So, they called a contact in the palace who then replied by saying, ”Come here and bring a duffle bag.” And they showed up with a duffle bag and they got $2 million in brand new hundred dollar bills shrink-wrapped. And that money was then taken, put on an airplane, and flown to Beirut and presumably deposited in a bank account.
But what happened subsequently was that Custer Battles was accused of inflating its invoices for government contracts. It got sort of cost plus contracts, whereby it would be reimbursed for all of its costs plus a fixed fee. Well, by using the allegation as a number of Shell companies and other approaches, they managed to inflate the cost of the actual goods and services being provided to the government.
LAMB: And you say in your book that they had over $100 million in contracts?
LAMB: Are they – have they been indicted or anything like that?
CHANDRASEKARAN: There was a whistleblower lawsuit that was winding its way through the court out in Northern Virginia. But many of the key charges have been dropped on the grounds that the money that they are accused of skimming or overcharging wasn’t U.S. taxpayer money. It was Iraqi oil funds and that the CPA, the Coalition Provisional Authority, was not a U.S. government entity, even though it was headed by Ambassador Bremer, even though it was dominated by people appointed through the Pentagon. A U.S. judge had ruled that it’s not a U.S. entity. So, Custer and Battles have essentially gotten a free pass.
LAMB: What is your sense about where this war is going to go from here based on what you saw?
CHANDRASEKARAN: I think we’re going to have to muddle through for quite some time. I don’t think that we’re going to be able to transform Iraq into a stable secular functioning democracy any time soon. But I also think that if we were to pull out our troops that the civil strife that is engulfing that country would become even worse, that the daily death toll of a few dozen would probably grow into a few hundred. And I’m not sure that’s something that we as Americans would feel comfortable with.
So, I think we have to be honest with ourselves in terms of understanding what we’re really accomplishing there. And I think it’s sort of holding the line and it’s trying to prevent things from getting even worse. But I don’t think that we’re going to have an Iraq that in any way resembles the Iraq that Ambassador Bremer and President Bush and the others had hoped to create in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein.
LAMB: Of all the leaders you saw while you were there, who was your number one pick as doing the best work?
CHANDRASEKARAN: As far as Americans or Iraqis?
CHANDRASEKARAN: There are a handful of them. It’s hard to pick any single person. But there were a lot of smart, diligent, dedicated Americans. A guy named Steve Browning who did some really heroic work first in the Ministry of Health and then in helping to increase electricity production, a young man by the name of Alex Dagan (ph), who went over there to work with Iraqi weapons scientists to help keep them from selling their secrets to places like Syria or Iran or North Korea.
There are a lot of really smart, talented people who made great sacrifices to go there. And so, I need to be clear while I’m critical of a number of people there I also take pains to note in the book that there were a lot of good Americans who are very, very dedicated who made some significant accomplishments there.
LAMB: We’re out of time. You’re job now at ”The Washington Post.”
CHANDRASEKARAN: I am now an assistant managing editor of ”The Post.” I head ”The Post” continuous news department. And that sort of works on multimedia strategy and bringing breaking news stories to the Web.
LAMB: Our guest has been Rajiv Chandrasekaran. He has written a book called, ”Imperial Life in the Emerald City.” Thank you very much.
CHANDRASEKARAN: Pleasure to talk to you, Brian.