The War Over the War

Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, October 30, 2007 12:00 PM

Readers joined Washington Post associate editor Karen DeYoung on Tuesday, Oct. 30 at noon ET to discuss the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials over what course to follow in Iraq.

The transcript follows.

More coverage of The War Over the War| War Over the War discussion transcripts

DeYoung, author of " Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell," is senior diplomatic correspondent and an associate editor of The Washington Post.


Karen DeYoung: Hello. Lots going on today, much of which I'm still trying to figure out myself. Let's get started.


Laurel, Md.: The corruption never seems to end with this administration. How on earth can the State Department offer the Blackwater thugs immunity from prosecution for statements made about the murder of 17 Iraqi civilians? What justification can be provided to allow this immunity? Who authorized the immunity to the guards and how do we hold them accountable for these immoral actions? It is sickening to see just how the administration protects thugs and murderers and basically has said that the slaughter of innocents in Iraq is no problem. I guess it is better that our agents massacre people instead of Saddam Hussein.

Karen DeYoung: One of the important things to note about this complicated story is that the Blackwater guards have not been immunized from prosecution. As I understand it--and all this is still very murky--they were told in the initial stages of the investigation (before the FBI arrived) that whatever they told the State Department's Diplomatic Security could not be used against them in any potential prosecution. That meant the FBI had to start from scratch without looking at the information already gathered by DS. And presumably any smart lawyer could challenge on that basis whatever evidence might be used in a prosecution.


Colorado Springs, Colo.: Thanks for bringing this information out. Rather than taking this administration at their word and figuring out what they stand for based on carefully worded speeches, the primitive Iraqis look at the administration's actions to see what they believe, and to figure out what they are trying to achieve. All the press releases in the world, and the sterile State Department official blog, mean nothing when it is our observable policy that the U.S. tacitly considers Iraqis less than human, their lives less deserving of protection than a pet dog.

So, why don't we send Assistant Secretary Karen Hughes to Baghdad to explain once again to ordinary Iraqis outside the Emerald City that we are in Iraq to help them, as they are incapable of helping themselves, and that we will leave them alone, respect their culture and let them live with dignity and honor, just as soon as we get our oil out from under their sand? I think the ordinary citizens of Iraq would relish the opportunity to provide Ms. Hughes with direct feedback.

Karen DeYoung: Lot of comments like this today, which I'll post.


Munich, Germany: What have you heard about the PKK using American-made weapons? Is this a fact or a rumor? According to a Reuters wire article, Erdogan wants to broach the subject with Bush. Turk helicopters pound Kurd rebels, PM determined (Reuters, Oct. 30)

Karen DeYoung: Haven't heard anything specific about that, but there are lots of weapons in Iraq, many of them U.S.-made. A lot of them were already there before the war, and there have been lots more arriving since. It wouldn't surprise me that some of them have made their way to the PKK.


New Brunswick, N.J.: I think much of the reason for the decline of U.S. casualties in Iraq is that the US has basically ended activities there. Money and arms are being used to buy off local leaders and warlords for a time. Development projects largely have ended and de facto partition on the part of the Iraqis continues with the U.S. not interested in doing anything about it. Is this assessment correct? Also, are U.S. reporters able to travel in Anbar province yet?

Karen DeYoung: Lots of questions here. U.S. troops are on active offense in several parts of Iraq, including in Baghdad and Diyala province just to the north east of the capital. Money is certainly going to local leaders, although from a separate DOD budget item from that used to supply U.S. troops. Pentagon insists that it is not "arming" local police recruits but facilitating their incorporation into regular units. After spending nearly all of the $18 billion or so initially appropriated for large reconstruction projects, U.S. says its no longer in that business; part of the new "surge" strategy is instead to distribute assistance to small projects on local level. Not sure I'd call it partition, but de facto separation on sectarian level is certainly occurring. Reporters can travel anywhere they want, although security problems prevent them from venturing too far afield. They do go to Anbar, although to the best of my knowledge still only with U.S. troops.


Washington: Why/how do you think that Cheney switched from being more of a realist on foreign policy to a neocon focused on remaking the Middle East and spreading democracy? I'm thinking of the recently unearthed interview he gave in the early-mid 1990s after the Gulf War in which he explained why they didn't go to Baghdad and take Saddam out -- outlining the consequences (sectarian strife, chaos, etc.) that have since come to pass with our 2003 invasion. He/the administration would probably say Sept. 11 "changed everything," but that's not a satisfactory answer. It was predictable in the 1990s that toppling Saddam would unleash chaos, and it was equally predictable in 2003. Why the change?

Karen DeYoung: The 9/11 answer may not be satisfactory, but that's the one consistently used by Cheney and others. I also think that it became conservative lore during the 1990s that Clinton "softness" had allowed terrorists to prosper, along with a determination that it wasn't going to happen on Bush's watch. And it's not rocket science to know that the expectation was that Iraq would be relatively easy and cost-limited.


Boston: Karen, great reporting yet again re: Blackwater guard immunity. Here's a broader question: How dangerous is it for the United States Government to have its competence questioned around the world? I was struck by a "Frontline" special about Iran where an Israeli official questioned U.S. competence in its foreign policy moves related to Iraq and Iran which has allowed Iran to ascend in the region. Do these doubts of U.S. competency encourage ill-minded actors as well as friends to take actions they otherwise would not -- with dangerous, spiraling consequences?

Karen DeYoung: I think this is a valid point. In Iraq, popular approval of the U.S. invasion began to decrease in part because it was hard to believe that the all-powerful U.S. could not solve a problem as ostensibly simple as fixing the electricity system if it really wanted to. On a more geopolitical level, certainly Iran and others have been emboldened by perceived American weakness.


West Texas: Does the "need" to hire mercenaries show that our idea of an all-volunteer military has not yielded the personnel needed to fight the war on terror? It is not a matter of money, as we pay the companies, (i.e. Blackwater) ten times the amount we pay our enlisted personnel. The money being spent could increase the size of the armed forces greatly.

Karen DeYoung: This is something that will be debated for years. The military certainly was short of people in Iraq, but that's far from the only reason why private contractors were hired to protect U.S. diplomats. Part of it was deep-seated resentment between Pentagon and State. Part was that military isn't trained to do personal protection details. Part was that State didn't want guys in uniforms and body armor driving them around in Humvees as they tried to do diplomacy. All in all, a perfect storm.


Las Vegas: What proof is there that the Blackwater granting of immunity was done without cabinet-level and/or White House direction? Your reporting has been excellent. Please stay on this story.

Karen DeYoung: No proof at all. I expect we'll learn more about this today.


Vienna, Va.: A lot of people seem to be excited we are beginning to have some success against al-Qaeda in Iraq, but I wonder if this really helps us at all. Sunnis still hate Shiites, Shiites hate Sunnis, each tribe of Sunnis hates the other tribes of Sunnis, each Shiite militia can't stand the other Shiite militias, and now it looks like there may be another front in this big messy multi-sided civil war opening up between the Kurds and Turkey. Is there any reason for optimism -- or any reason for American troops to be involved?

Karen DeYoung: You've sketched a very possible near-term future for Iraq. All of these conflicts arguably are bigger threats now than al-Qaeda in Iraq. Can't remember which one it was, but one of the senior U.S. commanders over there said last week that violence is the south (Shiite vs Shiite) is one of their biggest problems now.


Washington: There was a piece that appeared yesterday from a recent book that your biographee, Colin Powell, and his U.K. counterpart, Jack Straw, would try to sturdy up Tony Blair against war -- but then when he saw W, it was "whatever you want, George." This prompted Sir Christopher, the U.K. ambassador, to cry out "why in god's name did he say that again?" Was it that way so far as you saw? Blair failed to handle Bush on Iraq, claims biographer (The Independent, Oct. 29)

Karen DeYoung: I think the Brits, Blair included, wanted to slow down what they saw as Bush's rush to war. Blair, for domestic political reasons and out of personal conviction, wanted a bigger coalition and international approval, through the U.N. But when pressed, he jumped on board without those things.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Does anyone reliably, accurately, and periodically publish the metrics of the Iraq war and occupation? By that I mean average daily water consumption, noncoincident electrical peak power demand, power outages in customer hours per day, sewage treatment in tons per day, waste/garbage transported -- those sorts of metrics. Societies are noted for what they do, not what they say. In engineering, we call it performance on demand. How is that kind of performance going, and where is it officially logged? Thanks much.

Karen DeYoung: Go to and look for Iraq Weekly Status Report. The Pentagon publishes quarterly updates, called 9010 reports.


Washington: According to CNN from "a senior State Department official," no immunity deal was offered to Blackwater USA guards for their statements regarding a shootout in Iraq last month that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead. Is this what your sources are saying?

Karen DeYoung: As in earlier answer to Laurel, Md., my understanding is that they were given immunity from use of their statements to Diplomatic Security. Not immunity from potential prosecution based on other evidence, including any statements to the FBI.


Southwest Washington: Is it me or are we (i.e.., Joe Public) becoming immune to the stories about Iraq? Meaning that at one time it was hard to hear about yet another senseless killing of an American soldier, and now it just seems like no one cares. I know they do -- we all do -- but after all these years and seemingly no improvements, it's just old news (sadly).

Karen DeYoung: No matter what we think of the war, I think everyone is tired of it.


Austin, Texas: In your article today, there is a puzzling paragraph about Andrew Moonen, the Blackwater guard who killed Raheem Khalif, President Maliki's bodyguard, last Christmas. Condi Rice seems to claim that the case has languished not because of an absence of law but because of "a question of evidence." But do we have any evidence that the Justice Department even has questioned Moonen after he was sent back to the U.S.? And if Moonen is prosecuted for the murder of Raheem Khalif -- which seems like an open-and-shut case to me -- will they prosecute Margaret Scobey, the acting ambassador in Iraq at the time, as an accessory? After all, she knew that Moonen killed Khalif while drunk and apparently approved -- or even decided -- the day after to help him escape back to the States.

I would think that this case is tailor-made for a special prosecutor, given that there were many people at the State department involved in covering up Moonen's crime. What frustrates people like me, outside the Beltway, is the perception since the Scooter Libby pardon of an air of impunity that seems to cover all wrongdoing by the government elite, even up to accessory to murder.

Karen DeYoung: Although we now know a lot about what happened in this case and actions of Blackwater and the U.S. Embassy in the immediate aftermath, we know practically nothing about the status of the Justice investigation into it or the likelihood of any prosecution. Although I've been told by many here that the problem is one of "what law can be used for prosecution," Rice did, indeed, say the other day that that was not the problem--that it was a lack of evidence. Apparently it is both--there were only two people present when the event occurred, and only one of them is still alive.


Washington: Isn't it true that the individual interviews may be used against other contractors but not directly against the individual who gave the interview?

Karen DeYoung: As I read Garrity and Kalkines rules, that is correct.


Pasco, Wash.: Karen, thanks for taking my question. Combat news seems to show that Iraq is getting less conflicted. Is the civil war/attacks on Americans winding down?

Karen DeYoung: According to military statistics, attacks on Americans have decreased in recent months. That does not necessarily mean Iraq is getting less conflicted.


Winnipeg, Canada: On Oct. 27, James Loney, the Christian Peacemaker who was abducted in Iraq and held hostage for months, spoke in my town. He said that his captors felt that they were righteous, and that one had lost several family members because of indiscriminate gunfire at a checkpoint. Tellingly, they had movie nights, and identified with the heroes in the action movies they watched, even one about kidnappers. Recently, Bill O'Reilly has been fulminating about how the de Palma movie potentially might recruit terrorists, but isn't it a bigger worry that Iraqis' real-life situations might drive them into the terrorist fold, especially when the Blackwater people seem to be getting the kid-gloves treatment?

Karen DeYoung: This is the basis of the hearts and minds struggle in Iraq. Current U.S. policy is to create peaceful "breathing room" for Iraqis to realize there is something to be gained from supporting a central government and working together with those from other groups. To the extent they don't see peace, their priority becomes self-preservation and their loyalty presumably attaches to whoever can guarantee that.


Washington: Everyone needs to be realistic about this ... of course these people were offered immunity -- they wouldn't be in Iraq if they weren't. They are there to protect our diplomats in a war zone where people hide behind women and children and use suicide bombs and other things that we as Americans can't imagine using. Of course mistakes are going to be made ... and innocents are going to be killed. It is a necessary evil, plain and simple. If we put these guys in jail, good luck getting private contractors into Iraq and other war zones across the world.

Karen DeYoung: More food for thought and comment.


San Francisco: What about Republican softness in pulling out of Lebanon after the Marine barracks were bombed (which was cited by Osama bin Laden), or Republican negotiations with terrorists in Iran-Contra?

Karen DeYoung: Cheney, of course, says that the Lebanon pullout was wrong and that it encouraged terrorist attacks.


Bethesda, Md.: Any reaction from the White House or Military Command to the Partlow story about the disillusionment of that 1st Division Battalion? If not, why not? The story was pretty damning. 'I Don't Think This Place Is Worth Another Soldier's Life' (Post, Oct. 27)

Karen DeYoung: Haven't heard any reaction. I thought it was an amazing story.


Peak Island, Maine: What is your opinion as to the reason for the dramatic decrease in U.S. casualties?

Karen DeYoung: More U.S. troops, change of heart among Anbari tribes, some success in driving Sunni insurgents from Baghdad environs, ethnically-cleansed neighborhoods in Baghdad, Shiites distracted fighting each other.


Colorado Springs, Colo.: This is a plug for a specific proposal that has already been rejected by Ambassador Satterfield. The State Department ought to create an official "U.S. Commission on Civilian Losses in Iraq." This Commission would collect allegations of U.S. brutality and wanton destruction. It would not investigate or pay reparations. The point would be to listen to what the Iraqis have to say about how they have suffered, to write down the names of those killed or injured. We never can make their families whole by paying them money, but we can at least show respect for their losses. Until the State Department figures out how important dignity, honor and respect are in Iraqi culture, there is no way we are going to win over any hearts or minds. This amnesty flub says to the Iraqi people: Britney Spears is more accountable to the American people for how she is raising her children than the U.S. occupation army -- and its mercenaries -- are for a massacre of innocent civilians.

Karen DeYoung: Even more food for thought and comment.


Washington: Karen, I want to ask a broader question about the U.S. effort in the Iraq War: What's are the impressions of federal government officials and high-level employees sent to Iraq, whether in the State Department, Defense Department, USAID or any other department? Do they really feel that they can improve the country, or do they just feel they are completing a required tour of duty? We hear so much about military efforts in Iraq and the relative success or failure of their missions. We hear comparatively little about the success of any other U.S. government group.

Karen DeYoung: In my experience, some are very dedicated to and inspired by the world they're doing in Iraq. Some are completely disillusioned and depressed.


Peaks Island, Maine: Please clarify with respect to where an American reporter can walk the streets in an Iraq city without armed guards.

Karen DeYoung: There are certainly places in the northern Kurdish region where reporters and others can walk openly. Haven't heard of any others, but my colleagues in The Post's Baghdad bureau would be better qualified to answer.


Vienna, Va.: Hello Karen; The article in the Post today regarding State Department immunity granted to Blackwater employees for their testimony in the department's investigation confused me. The article mentioned procedures for "government workers" in the case of immunized testimony. These people are contractors, not government employees. Was the article not clear, or am I missing something? Thanks.

Karen DeYoung: That was the basis for the immunity from use of statements to DS, but it may be challenged on precisely that point.


Seattle: NPR reported this morning that the Iraqi Legislature was pushing through a bill to strip all contractors of any immunity. My question is: How much of a nightmare is this for the White House and the Iraqi government if Iraq tries to prosecute Blackwater, et al, but the U.S. military stops them?

Karen DeYoung: According to our Baghdad bureau, not clear whether the provision agreed by the Iraqi council of ministers is retroactive--that is, removing Order 17 coverage for incidents prior to its passage. Nor is it clear whether retroactivity, assuming it's there, would stand up. Also, whatever the ministers do still has to be passed by the Iraqi parliament, which doesn't have a track record for quick work.


Washington: Thank you so much for making the very important distinction between immunity from prosecution, which these guys do not have, and immunity for the specific statements they gave to State Department investigators. This is a gigantic red herring. As long as the Justice and FBI people assigned to this case know what it's doing, and have a "dirty team" that may have access to the compelled statements and a "clean team" that doesn't, then this shouldn't be a big issue.

What's worse is that it is diverting attention from two bigger issues: How the Blackwater people are refusing to talk to the FBI -- what gall! -- and whether there are in fact any laws that Justice can use to prosecute these guys, given all the legal loopholes the Bush administration intentionally designed for private contractors.

Karen DeYoung: Good points all. But no question that an already complicated case has gotten more complicated.


Asheville, N.C.: Say now -- whatever did happen to the phase II Senate Intelligence Committee report on the possible abuse of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq invasion?

Karen DeYoung: Another good question. I must know the answer somewhere in the recesses of my mind, but it doesn't immediately spring to the fore. My colleague Walter Pincus is a steel trap for such things; I'll consult with him.


Re: West Texas: I thought Rumsfield's memos made it clear the major reason for mercenaries is that they are "off-book" when reporting how many boots on the ground. Having 150,000 troops (plus 200,000 contractors and other personnel) looks better than 350,000 troops.

Karen DeYoung: Some have suggested that was a reason, although I've never seen it stated explicitly or officially.


Silver Spring, Md.: Not intending to be overly critical, but I think that it is important not to follow Secretary Rice down every garden path she offers in her carefully parsed responses to difficult questions. For example, a few years after the many levels of bungling related to the Christmas Eve case, we learn that now there is a problem of "evidence." This may be partially true, but does not address any of the problems that already have occurred -- it only provides a new problem that we are forced to track to ground.

The same is true with her pontifications about the "lacuna" in the legal authority. This has existed for a long time, and was well-known to both the secretary and the entire administration. What did they do about it? Fundamentally ignored it until it blew up in their faces! Now they want to lecture us on lacunae! It would be funny if it weren't so tragic.

Karen DeYoung: I think it's important to report what senior government officials say about this stuff. And then provide additional accountability reporting, which is what we try to do.


Oviedo, Fla.: What, if any, guidelines do Blackwater and the many other contractors adhere to? This business of driving into oncoming traffic, forcing prevailing traffic off the road, for instance -- is there no one who can say "stop running civilians into ditches and walls?" Do they have free reign entirely?

Karen DeYoung: There is a long list of guidelines for escalation before actual shooting, which we've listed in other stories. Begins with shouting and waving hands, flashing lights, sending a flare, throwing water bottles, shooting into radiator to disable vehicle, etc. etc. They're all in the contract. The problem is who is in charge of deciding whether the rules were all followed, and judging whether a shooting was justified at the end of the day?


Karen DeYoung: We've run out of time. Thanks for a lot of good questions, and stay tuned.


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