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EMBASSY OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

 

Journalist Jorge Traverso interviews Gregory Lagana, White House director for global communications

Concierto FM, May 21, 2004

May 27, 2004

 

Traverso: Ladies and gentlemen, Tiempo Presente will be speaking with Mr. Gregory Lagana, White House director for global communications. He was hired by the White house in October of 2001 as a staff member in the Information Center of the Coalition, which coordinated all communications in the war against terrorism and the campaign in Afghanistan. He is a retired member of the Foreign Service. He spent 21 years in public and political office and in the Department of State's Information Agency. He has worked in many locations, including Spain, San Salvador, Quito and Rome.

Q: Good Morning from Montevideo, Mr. Lagana.

Lagana: Good morning.

Q: There's a lot to talk about this morning, but today the world's
attention is almost entirely focused on the War in Iraq. From the U.S. Government’s point of view, what exactly is going on right now in Iraq?

A: Right now we’re preparing to hand over sovereignty to the Iraqi people. Sovereignty is the most important thing and is closely related to security. Security is so important because the Iraqis themselves have to have a nation, a government that functions, and we all know that there are going to be security problems as long as there are still people who don't want to transition to democracy.

Q: What benefits has the international community obtained through the US/British coalition's intervention in Iraq?

A: I think the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has been very positive. There is no doubt that Hussein was a dangerous leader, with the capacity to make war on his neighbors, to oppress his own people and to subvert neighboring nations. It is a huge advantage to be rid of a dictator like Saddam and it serves as an example to the rest of the Arab nations that dictatorships, oppressive governments, do not necessarily have to be the future. We have seen that there democracy has a great following in the Arab world and the best example of that is the Iraqi people.

Q: Mr. Lagana, without a doubt, the world will be a better place without Saddam Hussein. However the situation in Iraq seems to be completely chaotic, out of control. The guerilla warfare, the terrorism in the world have not ceased to exist; on the contrary, one could say that terrorism today is as great a threat as it was before Great Britain and the United States went to war in Iraq. From this point of view, I ask again, how has the international community benefited?

A: All right, two things. First, the situation with regard to terrorism: Terrorism is a problem. There are groups of terrorists dedicated to war against the western world, against the United States and against democratic nations. They are not, in my opinion, rational. They look for any possible excuse to step up their level of operations. But I don't believe that the operation in Iraq has been the cause for more terrorism. It has been more of an excuse used by them.
Secondly, as we all know, the news depends on action, on events, on stories and what we always hear are the stories of war, of conflict, of death in Iraq. But there are two realities in Iraq. The first is that of conflict, because we know that there are two principal groups, one a small group of Shiites under the leadership of Mr. Moqtada Sadr and some Sunnites and their foreign allies who want to augment the chaos. They want to take advantage of this uncertain situation since they can't take over through democratic processes. They are, therefore, part of the reality in Iraq, but there is another part of Iraq that is moving forward. The majority of the cabinet is already in the hands of Iraqis. The majority of the national territory functions pretty well, but you don't hear about this because it isn't a story. I believe, for the international community, for a key nation such as Iraq to be at peace, to not have a dictator any longer, that it is no longer the threat it has always been to its neighbors, is a great advantage for the international community.

Q: Now, the United States managed to live with Saddam Hussein for quite a while, despite the fact that he was a threat, but without invading Iraq. The justification for this operation that has been carried out in Iraq was the supposition, the affirmation on behalf of President Bush's government that there existed chemical and biological weapons that posed a threat of mass destruction. The arms have not been found. Don’t you think that in some way this has shaded the U.S. decision to undertake an operation of this nature, after taking into account that the UN only had requested 90 days to bring a resolution on the matter?

A: Yes, but 90 days after 10 years of inspections. First of all, the whole world believed Saddam Hussein had these weapons. He had used them in the past. We knew he had programs for the production of these weapons. Everybody, the United Nations, France, Russia, China, Germany, believed he possessed such weapons and his own behavior gave credibility to the intelligence in hand. He seemed like a person who had something to hide. But I have to say that for us, everything changed after Sept. 11, 2001, and that for the president, the weight of his concern for the security of his people was enormous. The possibility that these arms fell into the hands of terrorists through some hidden action on the part of Iraqi intelligence service was a very serious consideration. We have seen the results of 10 years worth of UN resolutions, of inspections, of the Oil for Food program that the Iraqis were defrauding and the president went before the UN to say, all right, the international community has to make good on these resolutions.

Q: But, Mr. Lagana, the United Nations was asking for 90 days and you tell me, and take into account that this is not an anti-American speaking, but comes from someone who very much admires the United States but who gets angry when the United States suddenly, at least from my point of view, takes on a failed endeavor that weighs on all humanity. You are telling me, Mr. Lagana, that the entire international community believed that Saddam Hussein had these chemical weapons. Can you invade a country only because you believe something or should you only invade a country, when you have, let’s say, all of the proof?

A: Well, we believed we had all the proof. But you have to realize that he wanted to hide what he had, and for this he behaved, let’s say, like a guilty man. Those 90 days were very important, because if a country wants to cooperate with the United Nations, I mean if a country wants to disarm itself or to show that it no longer has these weapons, it is very easy to do so. South Africa has done it, Ukraine has done it, because there are records, a government produced records that the arms were destroyed, the orders were given to destroy them, exactly as the Ukrainians and the South Africans have done. Therefore, we know that the process is really very easy, that 90 days are more than enough to demonstrate the will to comply with the UN resolutions. But one must take into account that Saddam Hussein played and played and played with the United Nations and the international community during the course of 10 years. Ten years of inspections, 10 years of fly-overs and he was disposed to continue playing games with the international community forever. Therefore, we had to set a deadline and we had to insist that he prove his good will.

Q: Lagana, you could say that the level of support shown by American citizens for the US government and for President Bush has shown a concrete decline recently, right? Many things have affected it and it would seem at first glance that the average American citizen doesn't see things in the same manner that the government sees them. On the other hand we have been informed that another round of photos, videos and documents have been published in the Washington post. You are one of the organizers in the Coalition's information center, which, if I am correct, has a concrete role in these developments. What elements could arise when you see, for example, horrors of this magnitude, such as, for example, the execution of the American soldier and things that we reject completely, true?

A: No, it was a civilian. The man assassinated was a civilian. All of these images have been a deception for the American people, for the government and for the president. These images of the abuses in Iraq, are shameful to us and a stain on our national honor. They do not reflect the values of this country, and we will get to the bottom of this problem and we will do it in front of the eyes of the world, in exactly the same manner that we resolve all of our problems. We have never hidden our problems. I believe that every country and every society have people with the capacity to commit atrocities. That’s why we have laws and jails and tribunals. The real test of a democracy is its ability and its will to face its problems and correct them; we are going to continue with this investigation, following the thread no matter where it leads us.

Q: Mr. Lagana, it has come out in the American media that these photographs have been in existence since the beginning of the year, that President Bush was aware of them, that his immediate colleagues were aware of them, but that in spite of this they had not been exposed to American public opinion nor exposed to the opinion of the international community. Do you think that it would have been better if these photographs had never been released?

A: Sooner or later these images were going to have to have been released, mainly because we had already begun with the process of military discipline, which is conducted openly and with the full knowledge of the public; therefore this was not about an attempt to hide the images. And I must say that there are more pictures and more accusations that will come to light, because we are in the process of an investigation, of judgments in military courts, although this does not change the fact that this is a problem that we have identified, that we have faced. And we are going to continue with the investigation, but there will be more images and more accusations, there’s no doubt, but they won’t be news to us. That will take us to the heart of the problem because we already know what the problem is.

Q: You are currently one of the White House’s communication strategists. Which are the things that you think could potentially be understood by the world at large and which are the things that you think it will be much harder for the public to understand with respect to the conduct of the US government?

A: In Iraq?

Q: Right.

A: First of all, the situation in Iraq is, in many ways, a lot better than people think. The Iraqi people have a democracy right now under the occupation that they never could have even dreamed of before. For example, they have control of their ministries, they have city councils and even neighborhood councils. We are not there to govern Iraq for the long term. We are going to turn over full sovereignty to the Iraqi people and only stay on as advisors, as helpers, but according to the desires/wishes of the Iraqi people. We don’t want to be there a minute longer than necessary.

Q: I believe it was Tocqueville who said that for a great nation like the United States it is difficult to start a war, but even more difficult to pull out of one. Do you believe that this so-called American epoch in this part of the world will end in such a manner?

A: Yes, he is right, it is very difficult to end a war. We have an obligation to the Iraqi people. We went to Iraq, we overthrew the existing government and we are not going to abandon them. The president has been more than clear on this point. We are not going to abandon the Iraqi people. And yes, we are very uncomfortable with this type of operation. Our natural impulse is to return to our country and not have to be in a situation like the one in Iraq, but it is our obligation, and the American people and the American government are willing to step up to the challenge and do what is necessary for our security and the security of the world.

Q: How are the American people, would you say, living out the phenomenon of terrorism? Are they maintaining levels of prevention, are they maintaining the fear?

A: Well, of course the levels of prevention are being maintained. As far as the fear. As you know, people don’t think about terrorism. You can’t live every day in fear, but we are all very conscious. I told you that the events of Sept. 11 changed everything. It changed everything because for two centuries, we had the security of the oceans and terrorism is a completely different enemy. Terrorism has changed our way of life forever; life will not go back to normal. There is security everywhere. Access to certain installations and certain buildings is more limited. We live with security. It’s always right in front of our faces and for a free society, for a society that would rather be free, that is an enormous change. How would it be for Uruguayans? So, yes, we are very conscious of terrorism.

Q: Will Bin Laden be caught? Will Al Qaeda ever be eliminated?

A: We realize that Al Qaeda is more than just Bin Laden. It is more of an idea. He has created this concept of Jihad. But even without his leadership, Al Qaeda continues to exist because, even though we have done a lot of damage to the group, it is an organism that is divided into various parts that all operate independently. Therefore whether or not we capture Bin Laden directly, doesn’t particularly change all that much.

Q: Mr. Gregory Lagana, Director of the White House office of Global Communications, it was very kind of you to receive us and this communication from Montevideo. Thank you very much. It’s always enlightening to speak with members of your government and hear explanations of those things that often seem inexplicable. In the practice of democracy, freedom of thought has been one of the things that has sustained the regime in the United States and one of the most notable and admirable characteristics of the U.S. political system. Thank you very much for the communication and for your time.

A: The pleasure is mine.

Q: We’ll see you very soon.

A: I hope so.



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