Peter Arnett, From Baghdad

As the only Western TV reporter in Baghdad straight through since the war began, CNN's Peter Arnett has given the world rare glimpses from inside Iraq. But his reports have also provoked criticism that he and his network are being used as a conduit for Iraqi propaganda. Last week he spoke to NEWSWEEK'S Jonathan Alter about his experiences in Iraq and the delicate role of being a journalist in enemy territory. Parts of the interview were monitored by "a gentleman from the Ministry of Information," as Arnett put it. But the CNN reporter was still able to give clear answers to most questions. Asked if he was blindfolded when he was taken to interview Saddam Hussein, Arnett replied, "It's clear that he's very concerned about security, and the term you use would sum it up very aptly." Excerpts:

I guess I've been working under restrictions of one kind or another in quite a few places in my life. My most recent assignment for 10 months at a place we call Dixie [Israel] was under restrictions concerning military actions, but no restrictions governing political comment. I guess the best comparison is North Vietnam where I visited in 1972 and we had "minders." They made a point of showing us what they wanted publicized. That is obviously the case here. They are unwilling completely to show us installations that I hear have been hit such as strategic and military installations. But they will show us civilian targets; they want to make sure that this aspect of the bombing is publicized.

Are we conduits for propaganda? It's information. We went to the holy city--they say the third most holy in Islam--three days ago and there were enormous craters in the ground. At first I thought it was a B-52 strike and then I realized it couldn't be. It wasn't that extensive but there were real deep craters, houses gone and about 25 to 26 dead and about 100 wounded. I think that was valid news. Of course, I can't see everything that I'd like to see but I feel that what we do see is adequate as long as I'm cautious enough to frame very carefully the context ...

It's a tough country to report in the best of times. There's no way we can talk of unfettered coverage here because we know what happened to one Iranian British journalist who tried to be unfettered. [Farzad Bazoft was hanged in March 1990, after being arrested near a military facility.] The restrictions we are working under now are not really any different from those that were restricting journalists before [the war]...

There is an enormous amount that I don't know. We aren't filled in on the military picture; that is a blank to us, and the economy. We hope in the days to come that maybe we can penetrate some of the total curtain that is covering the capability of the military forces. We are reduced here to sort of basically a listening post... I think the control is so great that I would not get access to the kind of information that would force me to make a decision [about whether to report a story that might get him expelled].

When I went to see him, he asked me did I have a list of questions. I [said] no, I was going to ask him questions the world wanted to know. He said fire ahead, so I asked him everything that the average man in the street [couldn't] answer. . ..

His secretary and his chief of staff seemed very well informed about the world. We chatted about American politics, someone brought up the Super Bowl. These men seemed to be fairly well traveled and they talked about seeing CNN. They were more and better informed than I originally thought.

CNN is really only in the Foreign Ministry, the Information Ministry and the presidency ... I think it's just a handful [of Iraqis] who have access. In terms of what we have militarily, it surely could be of some assistance to [Saddam]. [But I doubt our coverage] would be critical in determining the outcome of an engagement.

I would have to say no. For example, I just did an interview on the air with a [visiting American peace activist] and he was expressing great distaste for the American effort here. I expressed the U.S. view that the multinational-force operation was totally justified. The minders didn't have any objection to that. These minders are Ministry of Information officials but actually most of them are newspapermen from the Baghdad Observer, the English-language newspaper. So we actually get along fine: we drink with them, we have dinner with them, they are a very amiable group of sophisticated Iraqis.They aren't, shall we say, a sinister presence. Basically there's very little that I say or do that they can be concerned about--bearing in mind that I don't talk about locations of explosions or I don't give estimates or locations of the extent of the [bomb] damage that we see, which seems to be one of the main stories.

It's sort of a game. What is manipulation? I covered the White House in the Reagan era for six months. I was two years in Moscow and it was almost impossible to get a contrary view on communism without going to Jewish refuseniks. Every other Russian I talked to said he loved the place. Was I being manipulated? [The Iraqis] aren't requiring me to report information; I'm not told what to write. I feel that what we are doing is giving a view which is not complete but is helpful, hopefully, for Americans and [people] elsewhere.

I think that was a mistaken bombing ... It seems to me that it was an unlikely location for a chemical plant. It was beside a main highway with no security fences around it. [We were able to] walk around it and through it. We took extensive video. I think the U.S. just miscalled it. I didn't argue with Marlin Fitzwater [who said the factory hid a biological- or chemical-weapons facility], but there was no doubt in my mind that it was unlikely to be a supersecret facility ... I see a lot of other installations around here that are probably less important than a facility of that nature, and the security is incredible. I just cannot conceive [of their having] the limited kind of security that they had if it was such a secret installation. I mean, it's Iraq, why pretend: they can build it underground, they can put it anywhere.

I arrived there and they were wheeling a cart out of that baby-food factory with this English product. They said they import the base for their infant-formula preparation [and then] add vitamins and all the rest of the stuff, and it seemed to me they went through the whole procedure. It seemed to make sense to me. In addition they later gave me a detailed document of the overseas companies, American and German, that had been involved with this whole procedure. It was an incredible statement that I haven't been able to use on the air because it is just too detailed. But they've gone out of their way to try to prove that that is exactly what it seems. It's sort of interesting to me that this has become such a big issue and I can't quite understand it.

I've been feeling that throughout my whole career, starting in the late 1950s in Indonesia when I went with rebel groups. In Vietnam when I was there, my organization, the AP, insisted that we never portray the Viet Cong sympathetically. One of our reporters who had written a story [portraying] the Viet Cong as people, as willing dedicated fighters, actually got a note from the foreign desk saying, hey, they're our enemies. This was early in the war. I later grew to understand that if we had presented the Viet Cong in a proper light from the beginning, maybe we would have had a better assessment of how the war was going. And that's really why I'm here now, because I feel that an assessment is really important. I'm not here to end the war by any means; I'm here to try and figure out what is happening.

Now I know why I haven't had children. It's because later in my life, I don't want some innocent child saying, "Daddy, what did you do in the gulf war?" Because I would have to reply, "Child, I watched it on CNN, from an armchair in a big hotel in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia."

There are more than 700 press people registered with the U.S. military's Joint Information Bureau in Dhahran. No more than about a hundred get anywhere near action at any time. That hundred is divided into a dozen small groups, then chivied, corralled, controlled and censored by press officers, who have virtually no experience of war and even less experience of the press or its needs.

The problems were clear the day the war began. Reporters waiting on the carrier John F. Kennedy to question pilots coming back from the biggest air campaign since World War II were handed a list of suggested questions. The first was, "How do you feel?" At least they got to ask questions. I needed to interview a noncombatant officer stationed 800 yards from my hotel. A JIB officer said no. He had orders: no "unilaterals" (interviews by nonpool individuals). "In fact, as I read it," he said, "you are not allowed to say 'Hi' to a soldier in the street. That would be a unilateral."

That brushoff was at least painless, which wasn't the case for a "quick reaction" pool assembled by the Saudis to report the Khafji battle. One pool left Dhahran in the afternoon and arrived in pitch darkness at the entrance to Khafji at 9 that evening. Photographers were given access to the Saudi commander for 10 minutes (a photographer who took pictures of a dead Iraqi was thumped with a rifle). The reporters were then whisked off "to see Iraqi prisoners." Fifteen miles into the desert the bus expired. An hour later a truck came to retrieve the almost frozen crew.

If you've been around a while you yearn for Vietnam, where you could go where you liked and report what you wanted. You even get nostalgic for the good old days in Iraq-when I covered the Iran war I got to the front, got to see the commanding general in the field, even got to talk to Saddam Hussein, whose interpreter almost fainted in trying to devise a polite translation of, "Do you fear assassination?"

I doubt I will get to see even General Schwarzkopf here. If I did, I would ask him why his staff sat on so much information about the war until Saddam's surprise attack on Khafji, which, despite allied persiflage, was an Iraqi thrust deep into a country the allies are here to protect. As soon as the Iraqis were installed and hogging the headlines, the general uncorked a gusher of information. "Stormin' Norman" was least convincing when he dismissed Khafji as a "village." It is in peacetime one of this country's larger cities. It would be like calling Cleveland "a hamlet."

Of course any good reporter wants to see things for himself, which means many a nervous drive around the countryside, talking as fast as a junk-bond salesman to negotiate the roadblocks which have mushroomed since the shooting began. Somebody this week told me I shouldn't complain so much, lest "they" get offended. "They" might even throw me out of the country. So what. I get CNN at home in New York.

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