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Mr Bryan G. Whitman Interview with CNN International

Presenter: Mr Bryan G. Whitman
April 24, 2004 9:00 PM EDT
Mr Bryan G. Whitman Interview with CNN International, 24 April 2004

            An unprecedented look at the cost to American soldiers and their families of the war in Iraq.

 

            SHEILA MACVICAR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Sheila MacVicar, in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories.

 

            This week, an unprecedented look at the cost to American soldiers and their families of the war in Iraq. These are the images the Pentagon does not want us to see. Since 1991, the media has not been allowed to photograph and record images of soldiers coffins returning to the United States, and thus two extraordinary stories of photographs this week.

 

            The content is the same, the flag-draped caskets of American soldiers. This photograph was taken by a U.S. airport worker in Kuwait, a very powerful image of 20 flag-draped coffins on board a U.S. bound plane. It was published by the "Seattle Times."

 

            Also this week, the U.S. Air Force was obliged under a Freedom of Information Act decision to release 360 previously unseen images of soldiers remains returning home, photos taken by military photographers.

 

            We talk about how these images came to be in the public domain and reaction to them.

 

            I'm joined now by Michael Francher, the executive editor of the "Seattle Times."

 

            Mr. Francher, who is in Washington, tell me, how did this extraordinary picture come into the possession of the "Seattle Times"?

 

            MICHAEL FRANCHER, "SEATTLE TIMES": A reader contacted our photo desk and said that she had a picture that had been sent to her from a friend who was working in Kuwait and that she thought we should see this picture, and so we took a look at it.

 

            It was a very powerful image, a moving image, and we decided we needed to first understand what was the story behind this picture, who took it, why did she take it, and so we contacted the worker in Kuwait and got her permission to write a story about the picture and the fact that she had taken it because she was so moved by the dignity and respect that was shown to the fallen soldiers as they're transported back home.

 

            And we wrote a story about that and published the picture last Sunday.

 

            MACVICAR: What was the reaction that you got? I mean, we should say here that one of the reasons why this is such a powerful image is because it is such a rare image. What was the reaction?

 

            FRANCHER: That's right. We got very positive reaction to the story and how we presented it.

 

            I wrote a column to accompany the story and photograph and explain to readers that -- readers will judge the photograph politically in terms of their own attitudes about the war, but that wasn't the statement that we were making on either side. We simply thought that it was a part of the overall story of literally life and death in war, and so that's why we published it, and the response was overwhelmingly positive from people who opposed the war and from people who support the war.

 

            MACVICAR: And positive in the sense that they felt that you were doing honor to the memory of these soldiers, to their sacrifice?

 

            FRANCHER: That's right. Absolutely.

 

            MACVICAR: Now, just as it turns out, quite by coincidence it would seem, within I guess 48 hours of you having taken the decision to publish that image that came to you from Kuwait, the Air Force itself acted under a Freedom of Information Act appeal and released 360 not dissimilar images which were taken at Dover Air Force Base in the United States.

 

            Have you seen those images? Have you had the opportunity to take a look at them?

 

            FRANCHER: I've seen some of them on the Internet and they are quite amazing from the standpoint, again, of the dignity and just how much care and attention there is to the fallen soldiers.

 

            I find it ironic that while the Pentagon was denying the press access to take pictures of that sort the Pentagon itself was apparently documenting this process rather thoroughly, and that's why this Web site was able, through a Freedom of Information request, to get access to those pictures.

 

            It wasn't our intent in the first place to raise the issue of the Pentagon's policy, but it certainly has become a part of the story as it has unfolded.

 

            We've heard from many families who simply say, yes, this is a part of the story. This is an important part of telling the aftermath of the death in the battlefield, and people have respected that.

 

            Now the farther that we've gotten away from what we actually published, this has become more political, and we've started to get feedback from people who probably have never seen our story, never saw our newspaper, and I think that's a little unfortunate because it's a different debate now, it's a politicized debate, where it really wasn't in reaction to what we did last Sunday.

 

            MACVICAR: Michael Francher, executive editor of the "Seattle Times," thank you very much for joining me to discuss this.

 

            Now joining us is Brian Whitman, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Public Affairs. He joins us from the Pentagon in Washington.

 

            Thank you.

 

            Bryan, let me ask you. This decision to release these 360-odd photos came about as an apparent appeal under the Freedom of Information Act. Is it the view of the Department of Defense that that was the correct decision?

 

            BRYAN WHITMAN, DEPT. OF DEFENSE: Well, that was -- that release, we're taking a look at, and we'll have to make a determination about whether or not that was proper to do or not, and until we've had a chance to really take a review of that, I wouldn't want to speculate right now.

 

            MACVICAR: Were you surprised by the coverage, the pickup, if you will, on those photographs? They led several major newscasts last night. They were on a number of front pages of American papers today, on Friday, and probably will be reprinted again. Were you surprised by that?

 

            WHITMAN: No, I can understand the interest. Obviously what we have here is a need to balance the public's right to information, the media's right to information, and we have to balance that along with respecting the rights and privacy of our individual service members and their families. And that's what this policy is designed to do, is to try to strike that proper balance.

 

            MACVICAR: You know, Brian, I can see -- we have images from the battlefield. We've seen soldiers wounded. We have even seen soldiers who are in far graver condition than that. We have seen, when families have permitted, we have been permitted to go to funerals.

 

            It seemed to be that what these images offered was several things. One was the number, the scope, perhaps, but also it showed the dignity with which fallen members of the U.S. military are treated by their comrades.

 

            WHITMAN: Well, you're absolutely right. All through the transport process of remains, they are treated with great dignity and great respect.

 

            I think to answer that question, though, one should put yourselves in the shoes of a family member who has just lost a husband or a wife or a brother or a daughter or an uncle or an aunt, and you have to give consideration at this moment of great grief for them what those images do.

 

            And so I think that, again, we have to be sensitive to their privacy at this very difficult time for them also.

 

            MACVICAR: Well, let me quote the editor, I believe it was of the "L.A. Times," who said this is not about sensitivity but about censorship and that the image that the Pentagon does not want seen in this instance is not the dignity with which these soldiers are treated but the numbers. That was what was so shocking, in a sense, about those images.

 

            WHITMAN: Well, look, let there be no mistake that we are very up front with the fact that people are losing their lives, servicemen and women are losing their lives in this conflict.

 

            We put out news releases when we have service members killed in action. We put out a subsequent news release when we've done the next-of- kin notification. We put some 600 reporters out on the battlefield at the commencement of hostilities in Iraq.

 

            So the horrors of war is something that the American people need to know and I think that the Pentagon has shown a good effort in trying to ensure that the media have access to the military and its operations.

 

            MACVICAR: Do you think that these images are embarrassing to the Bush administration at a time when things are clearly in difficulty in Iraq and a time when the president is waging a campaign for reelection?

 

            WHITMAN: Look, we should take the politics out of this, because this is a policy that's been in effect for some 14 years. This policy is.

 

            (CROSSTALK)

 

            MACVICAR: But not always equally applied.

 

            WHITMAN: This policy is the right thing to do for our servicemen and women in uniform. That's why we have the policy, and for that reason only.

 

            MACVICAR: Thank you very much, Brian Whitman, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Public Affairs in Washington at the Pentagon. Thank you for joining me to discuss this.

 

            Up next on the program, tragedy in the silent republic. We talk to one journalist who recently returned from North Korea when we come back.

 

            (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

 

            MACVICAR: You're watching INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS.

 

            A fatal train explosion in North Korea leaves scores dead, we think more than 1,000 injured, and heavily damages surrounding buildings. But part of the tragic reality of this disaster is the absence of hard facts.

 

            There are no international journalists in North Korea as the hermit kingdom under the rule of Kim Jong Il continues to guard itself from the outside world and the outside media.

 

            I'm joined now by Mark Seddon, editor of "Tribune" magazine. Mark is one of the very few journalists who have managed to get into the country.

 

            Mark, let's talk about this disaster. Yesterday, Thursday evening, Friday morning, reports perhaps of 3,000 dead, now a number considerably lower than that. Why all this confusion? Why is there such a lack of clarity here?

 

            MARK SEDDON, "TRIBUNE": Well, I think on the part of the North Koreans there is a distrust of the outside. As you were just saying, there aren't any journalists to speak of really in North Korea.

 

            I think that we've relied on China and South Korea, information from those countries. There's been nobody on the spot. And I think there's a reluctance on the North Koreans part too to be seen to be in any way dependent on the outside world. They have been reliant, for instance, on the United Nations aid for food programs and the European Union to an extent and China as well, but it's a proud country that believes -- its leadership believes in this theory jitja (ph), which is self-reliance, to admit there's been such a terrible disaster is quite a big thing.

 

            MACVICAR: Now you've actually been to that area where we think the disaster has taken place, and even the site of the disaster seems to be moving up and down that rail line.

 

            SEDDON: Well, it has. The train journey, which I've taken from Pyongyang to the border, takes about five hours. Trains go very slowly because of severe power cuts -- not power cuts but power shortages.

 

            So I must say, when I head the news last night, the first thing that came to my mind was I couldn't believe the trains had collided so fast and so quick to create such an explosion.

 

            The other thought I wondered about, the fact that Kim Jong Il, the leader, had just been to China, whether there'd been some sort of accident or even perhaps some intervention of some sort.

 

            MACVICAR: Well, precisely, because we would believe that Kim Jong Il would have been using those rail lines, would have passed through that location on his return to Pyongyang.

 

            SEDDON: Yes, but you see, I think because this country is shrouded in secrecy and because it has deliberately cut itself off, people do like to get and quite understandably quite excited about things, but it's in absolutely nobody's interest in that part of the world, as far as the Chinese are concerned, the South Koreans, even the Japanese, who have had a lot of run-ins with Kim Jong Il, to see the country destabilized to the extent that the regime collapses overnight.

 

            I don't think any of those countries want to see that because the problems that would flow in terms of refugees and all the rest is something they just do not want. It's a very unpredictable regime.

 

            MACVICAR: Tell us a little bit about how you managed to get -- and clearly, it's a very difficult, as we said, very difficult place to get into.

 

            SEDDON: Well, I think I was very lucky. I mean, it's a place I've always wanted to go, like most journalists. It's one of those very different places in an increasingly monochrome world. It was not the sort of place I would happen to like to live in, incidentally.

 

            But I went with a group of European parliamentarians and I went twice, which meant that we did have broader access to some of the political and military leaders, but also to travel out beyond the show piece capital of Pyongyang, which is a very impressive city. It was leveled in the Korean War. It has risen from the ashes. But out into the country, into the mining districts, the agricultural areas, to the ports, to see how a very advanced country in many ways, a very skilled people, have really seen their economy grind to a half with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 

            This is a country in desperate need of modernization and an opening up to the outside world, and I think the hope is that Chinese influence might just persuade the North Koreans to move in that direction.

 

            MACVICAR: Mark Seddon, thank you very much for joining me as we try to discern what did happen in North Korea this week. Thank you.

 

            SEDDON: Thank you.

 

            MACVICAR: Up next on the program, hateful to some, a hero to others. We take a look at the Mordechai Vanunu story when we return.

 

            (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

 

            MACVICAR: Welcome back.

 

            18 years of incarceration and a defiant Mordechai Vanunu emerged from prison in Israel on Wednesday.

 

            The international media spotlight firmly fixed on the nuclear whistleblowers release and his future. Many in Israel fearing the extent of coverage of Vanunu would stir up the debate over its controversial and still undeclared nuclear weapons program.

 

            I'm joined now by Andrew Neil, broadcaster and editor. Andrew was the editor of the "Sunday Times" when Vanunu gave that paper the scoop. And in Jerusalem, Calev Ben-David, managing editor of the "Jerusalem Post."

 

            Andrew, let me begin with you. Take us back just briefly to that time in 1986. What was the significance of what Mr. Vanunu told you?

 

            ANDREW NEIL, BROADCASTER: Well, I think that it was pretty well known or assumed that Israel had a nuclear capability, but the significance of the Vanunu story was that it revealed for the first time, and left no doubt that this was true because he had pictures and diagrams and authentic testimony, the scale and the sophistication of the Israeli nuclear deterrence. Far more than Pakistan had at that time, or India at that time.

 

            It had the ability to make up to 100 bombs a year and more sophisticated bombs than simple nuclear bombs, which in effect meant that after the publication of the "Sunday Times" story there could be no doubt that Israel was the sixth nuclear power in the world.

 

            MACVICAR: And this week, obviously, Calev, we have seen Mr. Vanunu walk out of a prison in Israel. He is now, I guess you might say, under a form of house arrest or at least nation arrest for a year.

 

            How do you think he will be portrayed by the Israeli media over the course of the coming weeks and months? Is there a desire that he simply vanish and be forgotten once again?

 

            CALEV BEN-DAVID, "JERUSALEM TIMES": Well, I think certainly he lost some sympathy even among maybe some of those people in Israel that sympathized with his motives when he came out of the prison, spoke to the press, showed no remorse, spoke harshly about Israel, really disregarded the security situation it's in. So I do think some of the press coverage reflected that.

 

            And I think certainly in some quarters there's a feeling that he's going to get a platform in the media, certainly in the international media, to use this nuclear program to bash Israel, and I think that makes people here quite uncomfortable.

 

            MACVICAR: I mean, there is no sense in the Israeli press that this is a man who has spent many years in solitary confinement, 18 years in prison, that he has paid in effect a terrible price for a large part of his life?

 

            BEN-DAVID: You know, that's true, but one can only image what, even in democratic nations, someone who had compromised national security to this degree, that they would ever walk out of a prison.

 

            And, you know, you have to look at the past year. We've seen a situation where we learned that Libya, for decades, has been developing a nuclear option. Unlike 1986, we now have Iran developing a nuclear option and developing continental missiles. So there really is a sense, perhaps even more so than in 1986, that the nuclear option is something that Israel must have to defend itself.

 

            NEIL: Yeah, look, at the "Sunday Times" at the same time, we exposed that Libya was working on nuclear capability and even more, we exposed that Syria was quite far down the road on biological and chemical weapons too.

 

            So we weren't doing this as an anti-Israeli story. I do not share Vanunu's politics or his attitude towards Israel. My sole concern as editor was this story true or not, and we moved heaven and earth to establish that it was, and of course it clearly was, otherwise Mossad, the Israeli secret service, wouldn't have kidnapped him in the first place.

 

            But I think the issue is, this did not compromise Israel's security. Israel is a democracy. I believe that democracies, if they want nuclear weapons, as Britain has nuclear weapons, should have a debate about it.

 

            (CROSSTALK)

 

            NEIL: Do you think it did Israel any harm to reveal that Israel had a nuclear capability that at a stroke could have taken out every Arab country in the region if it had been attacked?

 

            BEN-DAVID: Well, I have to say to Mr. Neil in fact I'm relieved -- I would certainly be relieved to know that Israel had that capability because, you know, this is probably -- if there is such a capability, Israel has certainly exercised restraint in not using that capability despite the fact that it faces an existential threat from the Arab states opposed to it.

 

            But it's true. I certainly agree. Israel is a democracy and it is for that very reason that Mr. Vanunu was allowed to walk free as opposed to, for example, I shudder to think what would happen if a Syrian tried to expose his nation's capabilities or even Libya or any of these, or certainly Iran.

 

            NEIL: But frankly, that's not the issue.

 

            For you as a journalist to say if Israel has this capability, I wonder if the "Jerusalem Post" is a newspaper or a branch of the Israeli government. There is no doubt that Israel has an enormous nuclear capability.

 

            In a way, I don't blame it. If I was surrounded by 250 million hostile Arabs who have invaded me three times in the past 40 years, I think I might want a nuclear capability as well. That's not -- Vanunu doesn't believe that. The issue of whether it's got one or not is clearly, that's done and dusted.

 

            Of course Syria would treat somebody differently. Syria is an evil tyranny. Israel is not. Israel is a democracy. Democracies have to live up to the standards by which we live and you know Vanunu was not a spy. Vanunu did not take what he had discovered and sell it to Israel's enemies or take it to Syria or to Saddam Hussein or anybody else who was out to destroy it. He was a whistleblower. He took it to the media because he wanted these facts to get into the public domain and have a debate, which is what we're having now, because I think that's what democracies do. They have debates.

 

            MACVICAR: Calev.

 

            BEN-DAVID: I am not criticizing the "Times" for publishing the story at all and Mr. Neil probably knows the Israeli press is one of the most vigorous and critical in the world. Our newspaper, whatever its editorial view, has covered this story responsibly and there have been stories and revelations in the Israeli press despite censorship restrictions concerning security matters that Israeli journalists have to operate under. We have also exposed various aspects of the story.

 

            I think the criticism comes in putting it in the bigger context. I don't think there has been enough international media coverage of, for instance the Iranian nuclear program, the Syrian non-conventional weapons program. I really wish that the same energy that was put into the coverage of Vanunu's release from prison, which had to be covered, would be equally put to some of these other stories.

 

            MACVICAR: Andrew Neil, obviously you were in charge of the inside team at "Sunday Times." You were also, I guess, the people who lost Mordechai Vanunu when he wandered off, frustrated, and ended up eventually in the hands of the Mossad.

 

            Is there anything you could have done differently, perhaps, do you think, to have kept him out of an Israeli prison?

 

            NEIL: I've thought about that many, many times. So have the people who worked for me, who were tasked with looking after him. We had a safe house for him. We moved him around and so on, but you know, we did the proper journalistic thing. We went to the Israeli embassy in London with our story to get their reaction so that we gave their side of the story as well. In doing so, it triggered the Mossad attack and I have to say that although I've thought -- I'm not quite sure what else we could have done. We had no power to restrain him.

 

            MACVICAR: Andrew Neil, then editor of the "Sunday Times," Calev Ben- David, managing editor of the "Jerusalem Post," thank you both very much.

 

            That's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in again next time for another look at how the media are handling the big issues.

 

            I'm Sheila MacVicar, in London. Thanks for joining us.