Reporting from Iraq has become one of journalism’s most difficult and dangerous jobs. FP spoke recently with Rod Nordland, who served as Newsweek’s Baghdad bureau chief for two years, about the challenge of getting out of the Green Zone to get the scoop.
FOREIGN POLICY: Are Americans getting an accurate picture of what’s going on in Iraq?
Rod Nordland: It’s a lot worse over here [in Iraq] than is reported. The administration does a great job of managing the news. Just an example: There was a press conference here about [Abu Musab al] Zarqawi’s death, and somebody asked what role [U.S.] Special Forces played in finding Zarqawi. [The official] either denied any role or didn’t answer the question. Somebody pointed out that the president, half an hour earlier, had already acknowledged and thanked the Special Forces for their involvement. They are just not giving very much information here.
FP: The Bush administration often complains that the reporting out of Iraq is too negative, yet you say they are managing the news. What’s the real story?
RN: You can only manage the news to a certain degree. It is certainly hard to hide the fact that in the third year of this war, Iraqis are only getting electricity for about 5 to 10 percent of the day. Living conditions have gotten so much worse, violence is at an even higher tempo, and the country is on the verge of civil war. The administration has been successful to the extent that most Americans are not aware of just how dire it is and how little progress has been made. They keep talking about how the Iraqi army is doing much better and taking over responsibilities, but for the most part that’s not true.
FP: How often do you travel outside of the Green Zone?
RN: The restrictions on [journalists’] movements are very severe. It is extremely dangerous to move around anywhere in Iraq, but we do. We all have Iraqi staff who get around, and we go on trips arranged by the U.S. State Department as frequently as we can.
But the military has started censoring many [embedded reporting] arrangements. Before a journalist is allowed to go on an embed now, [the military] check[s] the work you have done previously. They want to know your slant on a story—they use the word slant—what you intend to write, and what you have written from embed trips before. If they don’t like what you have done before, they refuse to take you. There are cases where individual reporters have been blacklisted because the military wasn’t happy with the work they had done on embed. But we get out among the Iraqi public a whole lot more than almost any American official, certainly more than military officials do.
FP: What other challenges do journalists in Iraq face besides security?
RN: Iraqi officials, now that they have their own government, have become extremely bureaucratic and difficult about giving interviews. They want you to do the interview request in a very formal way. In many cases, they ask for your questions in advance. It takes a very long time for them to agree to see people. Add to that the problems of movement and curfews, and it makes getting things done that much more difficult.
FP: The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad recently sent a cable to Washington detailing the dangerous situation under which its Iraqi employees work. Is the situation in the Green Zone as bad as the cable made it out to be?
RN: Yes, it is that bad. [The cable] didn’t come as a surprise to me, except that somebody in the embassy was courageous enough to outline the hardships in very frank detail, and the ambassador was honest enough to put his name to it. It is exactly what our own Iraqi staff has gone through for years now. As early as 2003, the Iraqis who work for us were not telling their family or friends that they worked for Americans. At the time, we thought it was a ridiculous precaution—a throwback to the Saddam era—but as time went on, they proved that they knew their society a lot better than we did.
FP: Where do you get information about the insurgency?
RN: There was a stage in the war when we could talk to insurgents and people representing insurgents. Now, it’s just too dangerous. There is no way to safely contact them. We talk to Sunni leaders who are in touch with at least the Iraqi insurgents, the distinction being that al Qaeda insurgents are mainly foreign terrorists. [Iraqi] groups have a political constituency among Sunni politicians and they are in touch. So we can and do talk to them frequently. In fact, so does the U.S. Embassy.
FP: Are journalists and the military seeing two different pictures in Iraq?
RN: Sometimes it’s hard to say. Many in the military are here on their second or third tour and they don’t want to feel that this is all a doomed enterprise. I’m not saying it is, but to some extent they are victims of their own propaganda. Two reasonable people can look at the same set of information and come to different conclusions. A good example: I traveled recently to Taji for the handover of a large swath of territory north of Baghdad to the Iraqi Army’s 9th Armored Division. This was meant to be a big milestone: an important chunk of territory that has lots of insurgent activity, given over completely to the control of the Iraqi Army. But when we spoke to the Iraqi Army officers, they said they didn’t have enough equipment. They are still completely dependent on the U.S. Army for their logistics, their meals, and a lot of their communications. The United States turned territory over to them, but they are not a functioning, independent army unit yet.
Rod Nordland, chief foreign correspondent for Newsweek, was Baghdad bureau chief from 2003 to 2005.