PBS Frontline: 'The Lost Year in Iraq'

Michael Kirk
Writer, Producer and Director
Wednesday, October 18, 2006 11:00 AM

Writer, producer and director Michael Kirk was online Wednesday, Oct. 18, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his PBS Frontline film, " The Lost Year in Iraq ," a look at the U.S.'s first year in Iraq and how decisions made in the initial stages of the occupation have affected the state of the country today.

Weeks after the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, ambassador L. Paul Bremer and a group of administrators went to Iraq with the goal of establishing a democracy. One year later Bremer left, but a growing insurgency and broken economy have continued to pose a challenge to U.S. troops and the young Iraqi government.

" The Lost Year in Iraq " airs Tuesday, Oct. 17, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.


Michael Kirk: Hi everyone. I'm here and ready to answer your questions about our film last night.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Mr. Kirk, among the many poor judgment decisions, the decision to dismantle the Iraqi army ranks highest in my view. It put thousands of soldiers into the unemployed persons category, so what else to do but engage in insurgency? Was that Paul Bremer's decision as reported or did it come from the top brass of the U.S. military, as one would suspect? What is your view on this?

Michael Kirk: The decision, known as CPA Order Number Two, grew out of Bremer's office in Baghdad and was vetted and approved by the highest ranking civilians at the Pentagon. Many of the commanders in Iraq expected the pacified Iraqi military to be available to do the grunt work for which there were not enough American troops.


Seattle: How do you think President Bush's strategy in Iraq would change if he were to admit that the country was actually in a civil war? It seems that he spends a lot of time affirming that the country is not in a civil war, but I am unclear how his policy would be affected if it were true. I get the impression he will continue to try to ignore this basic question at least until after the midterms, but would it really affect his policy? Would the United States need to back off from "choosing sides" between the three sectarian factions in constructing the Iraqi government?

Michael Kirk: I wish we could ask the president that question and many others.


Kingston, Ontario: Great film. It was slightly unclear to me from the interviews whether Paul Bremer recognizes that anything has gone wrong. What was your sense, while talking to him? Did he feel that he had done a great job and is now being criticized unjustly? Or perhaps that everything would be fine if only he had been allowed to implement his long plan? Does he feel that President Bush let him down or that Condoleezza Rice stabbed him in the back?


Michael Kirk: Much of Bremer's 2 interviews with me is on our web site--The Lost Year in Iraq. In general, the people we talked to believe Ambassador Bremer thinks he did the best job he could with the hand dealt him.


Indianapolis: I would like to know how this "lost year" compares to similar time periods in Japan, Korea and Germany. Especially with respect to the local economies (i.e. unemployment), security and political progress. Thank you.

Michael Kirk: It is a good question and worthy of an examination. It is exactly the kind of question one would assume the Pentagon post-war planners would have asked before the war in Iraq began. Unfortunately, it appears they apparently did not.


Lubbock, Tex.: Michael, as a journalist and a fan of documentary film, I was very impressed with last night's program. I've read some criticism, though, not about the negative portrayal of the Iraq war, but that it is not negative enough. For example, one viewer wished you had delved into accusations of the invasion and occupation being about oil. My question: did you ever consider going into these broader accusations? Was staying on a specific subject important to telling your story?

Michael Kirk: "The Lost Year in Iraq" is the 8th film I have produced on the topic of the war on terror. In those films we have dealt with a wide variety of subjects concerning the Iraq war. To see the list of films we've made, and the way we've handled these matters, simply go to http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/terror/. In this case, we believe the first year in Iraq was worth an in-depth examination, and we stuck to that idea.


Sacramento, Calif.: In making your film, what were you able to learn about who originated the "deep deBaathification" and the "disband the Iraqi army" decisions? Did you learn what motivated these disastrous decisions?

Michael Kirk: The idea of deBaathification seems to have grown out of the offices of Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith at the Pentagon.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: I would love to know WHO suggested Bremer for his post in Iraq. Who recommended this man? Bremer seemed out of touch with the military, CIA and Iraqis and completely out of control in his decision making.

Michael Kirk: Bremer told us he was called and asked if he would be interested in the job by Lewis "Scooter" Libby, from Vice President Cheney's office, and Paul Wolfowitz.


Minneapolis, Minn.: When I now hear the stories of the rank incompetence, immaturity and blatant political patronage being peddled by the Coalition Provisional Authority throughout their reign, I wonder how come I never come across these stories in the traditional media until I came across a story in The Post in 2004. If the scandals being perpetrated by the CPA were widely and doggedly reported by the media during that time would much of the problem have been avoided?

Michael Kirk: The good news is that there are a variety of sources available to the interested consumer (the public) of this type of information. The bad news is that the information is not always in "major" media. It takes some looking and research to find some of these important stories--but most of the time they can be found.


Anonymous: Hello Michael, Great program. Thank you.

Who did you want to interview who wouldn't allow you to?

Michael Kirk: Richard Armitage of the State Department. General Tommy Franks. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Dr. Condoleezza Rice, and Vice President Cheney. They all have important contributions to make to the national understanding of their conduct in the critical decisions about the war on terror.


East Brunswick, N.J.: First, I'd like to say that I have read many of the best-selling books on Iraq and I found this show to be very accurate. Has anyone disputed what is in the show? It is certainly damning for the Bush administration.

Michael Kirk: Not yet.


Taipei, Taiwan: From an historical perspective, as quagmires go, are you aware of another instance in which a nation has become so thoroughly trapped by its hubris and strategic ignorance?

Michael Kirk: It would be great if someone in this chat knew the answer to your question so we could all become better informed.


Chicago: Since dissolving the Iraqi military had a powerful effect on what happened next, how successful has the Iraqi government been in establishing a military and what would prevent the military from simply back-stabbing the government or being infiltrated by the insurgency?

Michael Kirk: Establishing a viable Iraqi military force has been a huge problem from the beginning. That was true during "The Lost Year" and it is true today.


Austin, Tex.: Thank you for putting the decisions of our Government in such a compelling format. I hope the entire electorate takes a good look at each of your pieces on Iraq, al Qaeda and Afghanistan.

While watching last nights show I got the impression that despite today's realities in Iraq, Bremer still felt de-Baathification and disbanding the Iraqi Army were the correct decisions.

Do you feel that Bremer and the other administration appointees still feel they made good decisions or are they just putting on a good face for the press? As a follow-up, within your full interview HOW did they justify their decisions against the results we see today?

Michael Kirk: I'll ask you to do some research of your own on our web site...www.pbs.org/frontline/yeariniraq. The interviews with Amb. Bremer and others may be helpful answering your questions. Good hunting.


Sharpsville, Pa.: In your opinion, what should the United States do now?

Michael Kirk: My opinion doesn't count.


Santa Monica, Calif.: I'm interested to know why you didn't interview company-grade soldiers or Iraqis actually there during that year?

To truly understand the first year, you need to investigate all aspects of the occupation. The successes and the failures. You have to understand, the people you did interview are armchair quarterbacks whose points of reference were a television screen or cell phone. Yes, even the LTC and the CPA people. This conflict is lived everyday by company-grade officers and soldiers that actually walk on the ground where things happen. Also, there are many brave and courageous Iraqis out there that put their lives at risk everyday, whether pro or anti-America. What is our relationship to them? What are their issues? What do they believe? How do they interact with soldiers on a day-to-day basis? Then you might be able to produce images depicting Iraqis as real identifiable human beings and not some abstract insurgent or victim of war. Talk to them. Discover something new. I'm frustrated with "Lost Year" because it comes off as propaganda rather than the true investigative journalism and documentary filmmaking that it should be. Please, put your politics on the back burner, and I know you could potentially develop something that resonates with an audience beyond a particular political party.

Michael Kirk: Thank you for your thoughtful criticism. The boundaries I imposed on this particular program precluded heading out into Iraq beyond the borders of Baghdad and the Green Zone. Another film--one I would like to make--would extend the reach of this inquiry. We must always, in journalism, make hard choices about how wide and how deeply we cover a story inside the frame of any given broadcast. This one concentrated on the politics from Washington to the CPA. Next time...we'll range broader. Write to me and tell me what you know....


White Plains, N.Y.: Great documentary, but it leaves me with such an uncomfortable and hopeless feeling about Iraq. How can an individual, or a group of concerned and committed citizens, help resolve this quagmire?

Michael Kirk: If you have strong feelings one way or the other, let your elected officials know.


Waldorf, Md.: Thank you for bringing to light the story of the Iraq reconstruction. I have always had my doubts about the Bush administration's qualifications and this documentary only reinforces them. In watching the program, it was obvious that the portrayal of the Coalition Provisional Authority was one of discontinuity, blind ideology and incompetence. I must ask the question though, was there anything that they did right? And finally, I am curious to know when Paul Bremer was interviewed for the story. It seems that his belief in his decision to disband the Iraqi Army runs counter to the current ideology.

Michael Kirk: I interviewed Ambassador Bremer in late June 2006 and again in August. In his book he outlines many of the things he believes the CPA did right.


Madison, Wis.: I don't remember which interviewee made the statement, "I never in my life thought I would encounter 'frat brothers' and 'strategic planners' in the same sentence," but did you by any chance look into which fraternity these people were involved in? My hunch is Skull and Bones, at Yale. The same as Bush and Kerry. I could be wrong, but wouldn't that be interesting?

Michael Kirk: It was not Skull and Bones.


Crestwood, N.Y.: Thanks for taking questions, and for the show, which was very well done, I thought.

However, weren't there comprehensive post-war plans drawn up by the State Dept which were ignored by the Bush administration? How different would the aftermath have been if these plans were implemented?

Michael Kirk: You are probably referring to State Department's "Future of Iraq" project. According to our interviewees the material that was produced by this effort was not what one would describe as a "comprehensive post-war" plan. It was valuable information, gleaned from Iraqi exiles and others that may have informed some thinking by a more experienced planning group, if such a group would have been allowed to form. The people we interviewed told us that the Defense Department was adamantly opposed to forming such a group or using the "Future of Iraq" project materials.


Falls Church, Va.: It seems everyone, including Bob Woodward, is analyzing cashing in on the irony of Iraq these days (Books, TV documentaries and you name it). Where were all these experts hiding before the war?

Michael Kirk: Many of us have been reporting this information for years. I would invite you to visit http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/terror/ to sample the films we have produced on the topic of Iraq and the war on terror.


Raleigh, N.C.: How did you get Paul Bremmer to sit down for an interview? He had to know you were going to make him look bad/incompetent?

Michael Kirk: People agree to in-depth interviews with us because they know they have an opportunity to fully express their positions and tell their story. We like to believe we will treat them fairly and with a seriousness of purpose that isn't always present in their interactions with some other members of the press. I never intend to MAKE someone look bad/incompetent. If I did, I wouldn't last very long in this business, and couldn't hope to convince others to grant me interviews.


New Hampshire: Michael, thank you for your fine work, sir.

Do you believe that we have lost the war, as I do?

Michael Kirk: Thank you. I believe serious questions need to be asked about whether our army is "broken". I sincerely hope it is not, but that would be one definition of having "lost" the war.


Kansas City, Kan.: Will this be shown again? If not, how can we view it? Thanks!

Michael Kirk: It is rebroadcast on most PBS stations around the nation. Consult your local station's web site which you can find at www.pbs.org. You can also watch the program on our web site, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/yeariniraq/


Toronto, Canada: If Jay Garner was superceded because he was perceived as being too independent, but then Bremer, the guy who replaced him wouldn't listen to Washington either, where do you think Iraq would be if Garner, who actually had experience in the area, had been left in charge?

Michael Kirk: General Garner told Frontline he believed he could have put an effective government together by mid-summer of 2003. He also freely admits we will never know whether he is right.


Reston, Va.: Thank you for your hard work and a great piece of reporting. Was there anyone in the administration who questioned (even internally) the absurdity of the artificial deadline Bremer was laboring under?

Michael Kirk: Sources tell us there were many individuals inside the government who were questioning the decisions being imposed on the CPA from Washington. Those individuals were not highly placed and were not listened to by those in a position to tell Bremer what to do.


Gulf Shores, Ala.: Great show! I worked in the government and military for nearly 40 years and have clearly this administration behaves like all true political hacks. A real hack is very cynical about government itself; strange, because it is the specific thing they chose to become involved in. Typically, they think governing is simple and easy and just needs more force and will. Thanks for displaying this for us all. Didn't you have serious doubts that it would ever air?

Michael Kirk: Thank you. I never doubted the program would air. I'm proud of FRONTLINE and PBS for taking their responsibilities in a democracy seriously.


Waldorf, Md.: My congratulations on another truly informative and fascinating Frontline documentary. This raises another question: Have we changed our policies of de-Baathification and are we now trying to bring the ex-Iraqi military "back into the fold"? Is there a plan for a follow-on program?

Michael Kirk: Yes, deBaathification was revised to make it less onerous (e.g., many teachers were finally exempted from the order); the Iraqi military continues their efforts to re-form, with limited success.

As to a follow-on program--FRONTLINE intends to continue to pursue this story as long as it is necessary to keep the public informed.


Arlington, Va.: The generals who left: About the generals and other high ranking military officials who left before the insurgency really gained momentum--Why? Were they forced out or did they leave with relief of their own volition?

Michael Kirk: The Secretary of the Army was fired. Tommy Franks' top aide General Mike DeLong told me he and Franks retired partly because they were frustrated that Rumsfeld and Bremer didn't listen to them. The other top commanders had their own reasons or knew staying in Iraq was not a wise career move.


San Antonio, Tex.: Did you ask Colin Powell for an interview?

Michael Kirk: We would like to talk to former Secretary of State Colin Powell anytime, anywhere.


Los Angeles, Calif.: I got the impression that lines of communication were not working and that Rice and Powell were left hanging and surprised by Bremer's actions. What evidence do you have that they are not equal partners in Iraq decisions comparable to Rumsfeld?

Michael Kirk: We have, for the last 5 years, interviewed many people who have told us that Vice President Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld were the primary architects of the war on terror. In those roles, the Secretary of State (Colin Powell) and Dr. Condoleezza Rice were forcefully marginalized. The internal struggles between the State Department, the Defense Department, and the National Security Council have been reported and new information is regularly emerging.


Michael Kirk: Thank you for your thoughtful questions and comments. To continue the dialogue with each other...join FRONTLINE's web discussion at www.pbs.org/frontline/yeariniraq


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