ENEMY OF NONE
The Last Time I Was Called ‘an Enemy of the People’
U.S. journalists are used to tangling with power. They are also used to risking their lives to do their jobs. What’s missing now is the hard-earned respect that cuts both ways.
I remember the last time I was thought of as the “enemy of the people,” or at least the last time a U.S. administration thought so. It was 2003 through 2006, when I was a CBS News correspondent spending the bulk of my time in Iraq.
Many in the U.S. military saw us as tearing down their efforts to rebuild the country, as our reporting on their earnest and dangerous reconstruction efforts gave way to daily headlines about massive car bombs, roadside bombs, and U.S. casualties. When then-CBS News anchor Dan Rather reported the abuses at Abu Ghraib, the blowback from U.S. troops on the ground meant embeds were tough, and met with an initially frosty reception. It felt like I was wearing a hairshirt under my flak jacket.
U.S. officials in the Green Zone, who were trying to stand up a new Iraqi government, could be equally chilly. (In the early years of the war, reporters lived in the red zone, contrary to frequent misreporting; we were only allowed in the Green Zone with an official escort. Security for our CBS “compound” inside a former Saddam hotel cost the network hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.)
But as the years wore on, attitudes changed among many I met in the military and the diplomatic corps, as they started seeing the press taking many of the same risks they were taking, and suffering the consequences. As they lost troops to car bombs, and roadside bombs, and violent insurgent attacks, they also began seeing us as a way to circumvent the Pentagon to reach Congress, the public, and possibly even the occupant of the Oval Office with the message that the mission wasn’t accomplished, and that enemies were multiplying.
Those generals I met and the CIA officers working alongside them had been sending word back by late 2003 and early 2004 that a dangerous insurgency had taken root—fueled in large part by Saddam’s loyalist Baathist officers, who’d been universally unemployed thanks to early U.S. policy, and super-charged by the violent extremist ideology of al Qaeda of Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld initially did not want to hear the word insurgency. It took months if not years to shift the Iraq-wide strategy to one that saw the populace as the battlefield—and winning over the Iraqi people as key to winning the war.
Telling that story through the media—of the troops’ and Iraqi frustration with endless groundhog days of targeting hundreds if not thousands of militants, and spending millions and then billions of dollars—gave U.S. commanders the ammunition and troops needed to shift the strategy, enough to bring a modicum of calm, though arguably the Obama administration troop withdrawal deprived U.S. troops of the opportunity to stick the landing.
By the time that last chapter of Iraq’s history unfolded, I was back in the States. On Memorial Day 2006, my CBS News team and the 4th Infantry Division foot patrol we were filming were hit by a car bomb. It killed Capt. James Alex Funkhouser, his Iraqi translator “Sam,” and CBS cameraman Paul Douglas, and CBS soundman James Brolan, who also happened to be a former British soldier. Four soldiers and I were left badly injured and fighting for our lives. The remaining troops, many of them also walking wounded, fought to keep us alive, treating Paul, James, and me as their own.
All those Bush administration officials who hadn’t exactly been fond of my reporting over those three years sprang into action, to get me to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and then to the then-National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Military charity Fisher House provided a room for my World War II Marine dad and Rosie-the-riveter mom so they could be by my side.
I almost didn’t make it onto that medical plane to Germany, because military officials argued with the State Department official accompanying me that I didn’t have my passport. I was unconscious from cranial surgery to remove shrapnel from my brain, but Susan Phalen, a Bush administration official who’d jumped on my helicopter in the Green Zone to escort me to the head and neck surgery in Balad, argued my case. She finally had to bring out her own passport and proclaim, “This is a State Department issue. Kim and I will fly together to Germany on my diplomatic passport and I can work out her passport issues when we land.” She was bluffing. But it worked, and I was allowed onto the next flight, and she didn’t have to fly with me. (A CBS colleague accompanied me instead.)
She told me about it later, when she was head of press for Republican Chairman Mike Rogers of Michigan, at the House Intelligence Committee.
Somewhere during this bureaucratic melee, she’d also had to argue with the brain surgeon who’d just operated on me. He was yelling at her, to the effect of, “This is why the media shouldn’t be allowed on the battlefield.” She says I was unconscious, with only my eyes and toes visible, with bandages covering my stitched, swollen skull and both burned and broken legs. So Phalen argued back on my behalf that having the media covering U.S. troops is a patriotic imperative, and that I had every right to be there.
I crossed a line that day from reporter to first a victim, then a survivor of war. I had been just as guilty of being frustrated and mistrustful of the Bush administration as they had been toward me. But I’d only known them from afar as a foreign correspondent. The legions of officials who moved heaven, earth, and government bureaucracy to treat me and my team as their own changed how I saw them, just as my thinking about the military in Iraq had evolved over the years.
Not to be too much of a Pollyanna about it, but I did get to know them and see them as people who cared about me like they cared about every American, even if I disagreed with the way the Iraq War was prosecuted. (Firing the Baathists was idiocy, but don’t get me started.)
And many of those officials told me that seeing what happened to my team, and to ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff and his cameraman Doug Vogt just four months earlier—among many journalists who have been injured and killed covering conflict—changed their minds, too.
I hope it won’t take a tragedy for President Donald Trump to see us as people trying to get to the truth—professionals doing a job that can mean risking our lives. It’s not a popularity contest—it’s about being the public’s inspector general—and about being as tough on interrogating the facts we report as we are on the people we cover.
Right now, it feels like our president is cheering for the bad guys who would silence us. I’d welcome a chance to talk to him, with a delegation of correspondents who’ve served here and abroad, to try to change his mind.