PBS Frontline: 'Bush's War'

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Michael Kirk
Producer
Wednesday, March 26, 2008; 11:00 AM

Frontline producer Michael Kirk was online Wednesday, March 26 to discuss his two-part film "Bush's War," which reviews the genesis and full history of the five-year U.S. war in Iraq, drawing on fresh reporting and interviews and more than 40 previous Frontline films that have documented the war on terror.

Bush's War aired in two parts on Monday, March 24, from 9 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. ET, and Tuesday, March 26, from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings). It can also be viewed on the Frontline website.

Kirk has produced more than two hundred national television programs. A former Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard University, Kirk was the senior producer of Frontline from the series' inception in 1983 until the fall of 1987. His most recent Frontline productions include "Cheney's Law," "Endgame," "The Lost Year in Iraq," "The Torture Question," and "The Dark Side," which give an in-depth assessment of the war on terror and the state of the nation's military establishment, and "The War Behind Closed Doors," an analysis of the political infighting that led to the war with Iraq.

A transcript follows

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Cincinnati: Why don't you show the very, very clear ties between Iraq and bin Laden? It's all there, but the liberal media will not report on it!

Michael Kirk: Is it all there? That's not what many, many of the people who we trust told us. If it was there, you can bet someone in the media would love to report it. By now, with all the venues for information -- liberal, conservative and every shade in between -- surely someone would have dropped that bombshell.

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St. Louis: Please do not mistake my brevity for flipness. Why haven't Cheney and Bush been impeached?

Michael Kirk: Write your congressman.

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Plainfield, Ill.: First, your series has been first-rate. Second, do you feel there ever will be a complete accounting by the government of the deceptions, mistakes, etc., that led to the Iraq War, as well as those that were made during the war? Thank you.

Michael Kirk: "Complete" accounting? I'm not sure. I hope so -- there are so many unanswered questions. Wouldn't it be great if the very top insiders considered it an obligation of their office to cut the American people in on what actually happened? We have talked to hundreds of sources and acquired thousands of documents and fragments, so perhaps we have the broad outlines (and some of the specifics) -- but there is so much more to know.

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Rockville, Md.: Loved the Frontline, but why did you devote so little time to answering the question of why we went to war in Iraq in the first place? Why was there hardly a mention of the word "oil," which many informed people -- including Greenspan -- say that was what the war was all about? And why no mention of ex-Treasury Secretary O'Neill's report that carving up Iraq's oil fields was discussed at the Bush administration's first National Security Council meeting, long before Sept. 11?

Michael Kirk: There have been many allegations/suspicions and speculations about why we went to war in Iraq. We weren't really trying to go there ... I was more interested in the process, the struggle between personality and policy. I think we all know there were many, many reasons for going ... and hopefully others in the media will reveal them in great detail.

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Oxford, Ohio: How, given the nature of Washington Politics, can we be sure that the behind-the-scenes players are not just continued in another administration, especially if John McCain wins the White House?

Michael Kirk: That's up to you and the press. Hard questions and in-depth examinations of the players who are likely to surround any of the candidates are valid and essential areas of future inquiry.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Can you explain why the title "Bush's War" is used? The fact is that Congress declared this war. Your attempt to pin it on one person is unprofessional and politically motivated. Whatever happened to responsible journalism? We deserve better.

Michael Kirk: I beg to differ. To paraphrase former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, "100 percent authority yields 100 percent responsibility." I believe the president ultimately made all the central decisions about the war in Iraq. I also believe the title is a double entendre -- it could also be about the internal "war" between Powell, Cheney, Tenet, Rumsfeld and Rice that Bush had to contend with.

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Toronto: If all this information has been out there over all this time, why hasn't it come to light in the mainstream media? Frontline is a great program, but this should have been a major documentary; it should have been front-page news.

Michael Kirk: In a way, it is "front-page news." I'm happy to report the ratings for the program were very high, and steady throughout the two nights -- all 4.5 hours. Millions of Americans learned these important things in the past two nights. I share your dismay that much of it, especially in this form, had not been published by other outlets, but perhaps that's the role of PBS -- and I'm proud of them for having the willingness to provide the airtime for us.

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Dayton, Ohio: It would have been nice to see some positive feedback on the reconstruction as well as what is happining with the troop surge. It is obvious we didn't have enough troops on the ground in the beginning, but what about now?

Michael Kirk: Sadly, if you read the newspapers in the past two days, you would have learned that the "surge" and the tenuous "peace" between Sadr's militia and the American troops seem to have broken down. Efforts to keep the lid on in Iraq seem to be in jeopardy.

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Apex, N.C.: What struck me most about the various interviews with the people involved in the decision-making is that their focus seemed to be strictly on the politics and the aspects of that power game, without real discussions of the consequences to the troops and the people of Iraq. Bush in particular does not seem to do any soul-searching regarding the consequences of his actions and the real costs of war. Was that just because the focus of the program was on the politics?

Michael Kirk: Yes. Our focus was the war about the war. We focused on the battleground between the forces that wanted war with Iraq and those who believed the so-called war on terror should be fought primarily against al-Qaeda. I personally believe the focus on what happened in Washington is the central story of the war. The decisions made, which we spent a great deal of time trying to understand and show, dramatically affected all the other aspects of what happened in Iraq -- to a devastating end.

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Washington: CIA agents speak of significant pressure put on them by Cheney. What kind of pressure could make them produce negligent or reckless intelligence reports? This wasn't thoroughly explored in the documentary.

Michael Kirk: I'm sorry you didn't feel it was ... we certainly thought we had told it clearly through the story of Paul Pillar (the senior CIA officer who regretted his role in writing the "White Paper").

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Oakland, Calif.: Michael, I have enjoyed watching parts of the program the past two nights -- it is very thorough and comprehensive. The interviews are also very insightful and informative. What was the story with Colin Powell? Did he decline to be interviewed for the program? If so, what were his reasons?

Michael Kirk: Yes, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet, Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney all declined our requests for interviews. Happily, both on the record and off, many top government officials who personally witnessed the events in the film were more forthcoming.

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Southington, Conn.: First, thank you for this incredible piece of journalism. My question is, were you able to get any major players to forcefully support the administration's case for war, and get them to do it on camera? Plenty of people are willing to point out how flawed it was, but I noticed a distinct lack of Kool-Aid drinkers!

Michael Kirk: It is hard to find individuals who are willing to publicly make the case for the specifics of the way we went to war or how the aftermath was planned. I don't blame them for not coming forward at this point. Right now, the best available sources are participants engaging in the "blame game," and we have tried to avoid using that material.

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Washington: Did you start out to create an reasonably objective piece on the war? Clearly, the selection of music, the editing, and the choice of images and video clips all were designed and intended to express a viewpoint and communicate a bias. Can you describe your position on the subject as you began this project?

Michael Kirk: Please write back and suggest the bias you perceived.

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Rolla, Mo.: My favorite line (paraphrasing): "Grant, MacArther, Eisenhower ... Sanchez?"

Michael Kirk: Actually, the last general mentioned was "Casey."

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New York: While I don't agree with Harrisburg that Bush is not primarily responsible for the Iraq disaster, Congress certainly was asleep at the switch as regards management of the war and the detainee policies. Would there be a story in what was happening on Capitol Hill while the war went sour? Thanks.

Michael Kirk: Yes. The Congress was outwitted, outflanked, ignored and directly diminished in the process. For their parts, they were not forceful, skeptical or particularly capable. The astonishing fact that very few of them actually read the National Intelligence Estimate (even as flawed as it was) is a sad commentary on their role in the process (or lack of it).

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New Orleans: I was amazed to see the document concerning interrogation techniques signed off on by Donald Rumsfeld. Was this available to Congress in its investigation of Abu Ghraib? I feel horrible for the grunts now serving time who were put in that stressful situation, essentially told to use these techniques and then abandonded when those same techniques became politcally inconvenient.

Michael Kirk: I would recommend our film "The Torture Question," which you can view in it's entirety by clicking here.

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Tulsa, Okla.: With the focus on Iraq, were you able to sense whether Afghanistan, Pakistan and getting Osama Bin Laden were priorities for the CIA?

Michael Kirk: Yes, they tell us that was their primary focus in the months after Sept. 11. Many at the CIA continue to be angry that the resources they hoped to use to continue to pursue al-Qaeda worldwide were diverted to the Iraq war effort.

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Grafton, W.Va.: Mike, I hace been reading Unger's book "The Fall of the House of Bush." Your piece follows his closely. Do you believe, as Unger relates in his closing chapter, that Bush and the neocons will attack Iran before he leaves office? After viewing segment one, I asked a number of friends to tune in on Tuesday evening for the second part. My statement to them was that if the things I heard were lies, then a number of people were guilty and should be sued. If their statements were correct, then a number of officials such as Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and President Bush should be in jail.

Michael Kirk: I don't know about attacking Iran. My sense, from talking to many American military leaders, is that our army is in pretty desperate shape -- perhaps broken by the Iraq experience. A good question to ask is whether they even could deploy to Iran if the president asked them to.

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New York: To me, the documentary painted the lawyers in the worst light -- David Addington and John Yoo in particular. Being an attorney myself, I wonder, were there any other forces in the administration that had the legal wherewithal to present an opposing viewpoint to these two men? I don't think Alberto Gonzales could have done it -- but Ashcroft? Who else could have been around to say "sorry, but that's not Constitutional"?

Michael Kirk: I refer you to our program "Cheney's Law," which we produced last fall for Frontline. It will answer your question and hopefully suggest some others.

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Orlando, Fla.: How did you get Paul Bremer to be in the show? He looked very nervous, as though he knew he had done something wrong. I still can't believe this is going on. I can't believe the power struggle between Rice, Powell, Rumsfield, Cheney and Bremer. It's like some bad American Corporation going down the drain. Great work! Every piece of the show was top notch -- I liked the images that slowly zoomed in at an angle and the footage of Washington from out the window of a car. Very creative and sound!

Michael Kirk: Paul Bremer, no matter what his motivations, at least was willing to talk on camera about what his view of the experience in Iraq was. I wish other government officials felt such an imperative to answer questions the American people have a right to know.

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Montreal: Mr. Kirk, do you believe the CIA's reputation is tarnished irrepairably (as I believe your film suggested was Vice President Cheney's modus operandi)? If so, what agency can we expect to fill in in its place?

Michael Kirk: Many of the people, inside and out of the CIA, told us the agency is not what it used to be.

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Montreal: How does a reporter, like yourself, obtain highly sensitive memos sent, for example, between members of the executive? Are they "leaked" to the media for the most part, or made public through access to information demands?

Michael Kirk: Gathering the documents for our program is a difficult and time-consuming process. Freedom of Information procedures yield some material, the Web is a wonderful source of other information, and of course if we're lucky government officials share material with us so we can show it to you.

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Washington: I have a legalistic sort of question: If Congress does not explicitly declare war, but only authorizes the president to take forceful action if necessary, does that authorization constitutionally equate a declaration of war? Because it seems to me that Congress and the American people have allowed this president to run roughshod over the powers delineated in the Constitution, including those during "war time."

Michael Kirk: Take a look at "Cheney's Law" on the Frontline Web site. (See link above.)

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Atlanta: Do you think that it is resonable that we could pull troops out in a 16-month time period when it took us two years to pull out of Iraq in Gulf War 1, and it was only a 100-day war? Based on my observation of the program, I felt that Bush was untruthful to the American people on many occasions. Would you agree?

Michael Kirk: Military experts we talked to say that if we try to pull troops out, it will take a long time and be dangerous (some say much more treacherous even than going in). The president's truthfulness is up to you to decide -- if you feel you have enough information to make that decision.

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Penfield, N.Y.: Entirely too little has been broadcast about the operation of American mercenary forces in Iraq and its neighboring countries. Blackwater has assigned troops to those areas, but how many? What is the split between American military forces and American mercenaries in our military actions? Why do we hear so little of them? Please tell us, if you know.

Michael Kirk: I personally have not researched this story. A very good Frontline on this subject can be found at the Frontline Web site.

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Re: Afghanistan: Perhaps I've been a little bit too influenced by "Charlie Wilson's War" (George Crile's book), but in watching your film I couldn't help but keep thinking about how it seemed not to occur to anyone that the Afghans were such formidable opponents to the Soviets in the '80s because we armed them. It's like nobody put any of the pieces together. Did the CIA really have such a short memory? We've been involved with Pakistan re: Afghanistan for ages. Didn't we have any kind of contacts or relationships that lasted from that period that could help guide the way?

Michael Kirk: The CIA told us they already had a plan in place to take down the Taliban when Sept. 11 happened. The president agreed and gave the CIA the lead in Afghanistan. The American military, believing that Afghanistan was the place superpowers go to die (influenced largely by the Soviet experience and perhaps their own memory of arming the Afghans) didn't even have a war plan for Afghanistan at the time of Sept. 11. The CIA contacts with the Northern Alliance and warlords were the basis for our quick victory against the Taliban in the fall of 2001.

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Alexandria, Va.: Thanks for producing such an engrossing film. One item you touched on that came as news to me was the thin resumes of both Sanchez and Casey. Can you elaborate on why each in turn was chosen to command the Iraq effort? Were there other, possibly better choices who were passed over?

Michael Kirk: The way we were told the story, the Pentagon did not believe U.S. forces would be in Iraq for very long when they picked Gen. Sanchez. At the time, remember, they had not even anticipated an insurgency (see what Gen. Jack Keane said in our broadcast last night). By the time Gen. Casey took over, the way people told us the story, Secretary Rumsfeld really wanted a competent logistics guy (one of Casey's strengths was procurement) to handle training the Iraqi army and keeping our troops safe on the bases -- "light footprint" -- until they could return home.

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Ontario, Ore.: Mr.Kirk, a three part question for you. First,what role do you think the media played in encouraging public opinion for the run-up to the Iraq invasion, and why do you think they failed in general to present harder questions to President Bush to justify this action? Finally, do you think the media has learned anything from their failures in the Iraq debacle to live up to their unique position given by the Founding Fathers to help protect the interests of the public?

Michael Kirk: Good questions. The role of the media is partially examined in a Frontline program, "News War." Also, Bill Moyers made a terrific documentary about the subject last year -- well worth your time to watch.

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Oklahoma City: What was the biggest surprise to you during your investigation?

Michael Kirk: How deep the personal battles were between the top five people surrounding the president, and how those personal struggles directly affected policy.

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San Mateo, Calif.: This question may have been asked before, but why isn't your report being broadcast on mainstream television (ABC, CBS, NBC), and how can we make that happen?

Michael Kirk: I like the fact that it is on PBS (where this type of serious journalism always lives) and not interrupted by commercials. Sadly, the network news divisions and cable television see their mission differently than we do.

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Quebec City, Quebec: Mr. Kirk, are the interview candidates generally difficult to convince to do an interview? What kinds of incentives can you provide them with? Thank you for an exquisite documentary.

Michael Kirk: Thank you. We never can convince anyone to participate in our films. The best we can do is try to make it clear to them how important we think our projects are, and why their interview will be useful to getting the story before the American people. I always promise people their interviews will not be "gotcha"-driven or the typical talk-show "food fights." I try to give them the opportunity to clearly and cleanly tell us what they know in a fashion they can't do anywhere else (and that goes for both sides).

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Brooklyn, NY: I didn't know about the series until today, but was pleasantly surprised to find I could watch the whole thing online. What prompted you to make such an extensive Web site for the series, and is that something new?

Michael Kirk: We made this program because we have an obligation to make it -- you all pay for public broadcasting -- and we feel you have the right to expect this type of programming in return. It is a responsibility we feel very keenly and an honor to be able to do it.

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Michael Kirk: I'm sorry ... that's all the time I have. ... I invite you to visit our Web site to check out what I think is the most innovative and comprehensive place to find material about the war in Iraq. Thanks for your questions.

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