04/03/2007 07:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Boobs, Dogs, and John McCain: A No Nonsense Evening with Anne Garrels


Anne Garrels -- known by some affectionately as "Annie" Garrels or by her seemingly cool husband (I've only read about him) as Brenda Starr, the cartoon super journalist, in published emails of his -- is one of the most interesting and compelling journalistic personalities I have met. She is, of course, National Public Radio's veteran roving foreign correspondent most often in Baghdad as of late -- though she seems to have covered nearly all of the world's rough and tough spots over the last couple of decades.

brenda starr bloggers.jpgI'm not mesmerized often (I may pretend to be for political reasons, but really. . .I'm not) but I was in this case. Garrels comes off as a been there, done that elder (but hot!) journalist who has the energy, passion, and even innocence of a newbie reporter. That's a hard act to manage -- lots of experience, but still lots of principles, lots of commitment, lots of frailty and uncertainty, perhaps humility -- even though you know she's tough as nails and taken on and outfoxed the toughest thugs in Saddam's Iraq as well as post-Saddam Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, the Soviet Union, among other global hot spots.

I want to just kick out to readers some of what she shared with a packed house of about 1,500 people at Chatham College (about to become "Chatham University" according to sources), a charming and buzzing liberal arts college founded in 1869 whose undergraduate enrollment is comprised entirely of women.

Anne Garrels was awarded the 2007 Hollander Award from the Pennsylvania Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy at Chatham College -- which means that she spends a couple of days with students and local residents in Pittsburgh exhaustively discussing her exhausting world and work covering America's war in Iraq.

I highly recommend that folks purchase and read her book, Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War and the Aftermath as Seen by NPR's Correspondent. The addicting volume includes letters from her witty and astonishingly supportive husband Vint Lawrence -- who seems to manage her seven months away in war zones each year with a lot of humor and understanding (though I've just learned via Google that he was a pretty accomplished traveling CIA operative -- so the "marital understanding" seems more understandable). The book is dedicated both to her husband and to her Iraqi driver and "fixer" -- named "Amer" in the volume but just a pseudonym to protect him from sectarian, pro-Saddam, anti-Saddam, anti-American, or even classic criminal attacks for his support of the work of Garrels before, during and after the war.

After some decorous comments by Chatham College's very impressive president Esther Barazzone as well as a star student who did the introductions, Anne Garrels opened her talk last Thursday night blasting Baghdad visitor and erstwhile presidential candidate Senator John McCain.

Now old news, but then fresh off the wire, John McCain had said that things had improved so much in Baghdad that Iraq Multinational Force Commander General David Petraeus was driving around the city in an unarmord Humvee. Garrels -- who when you read her book strains for balance in her research and reporting -- really lambasted McCain for his duplicitous comments. She said it "was way too early to judge the results from a change in tactics in Baghdad."

She said that McCain's commentary seemed ludicrous to nearly anyone with real world Baghdad experience. Anne Garrels does NOT live in the green zone. She lives in the red zone, beyond the barriers of protection that most Americans have -- and every day is one where one has to be very careful and win the day and survival by his or her wits.

When Garrels covered the invasion of Iraq while staying at the Palestine Hotel, she was there with just 15 other American journalists -- including correspondents for The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.

In a bit of humor Garrels-style, she said that to remain connected to her husband, Anne and he thought that they'd do some high concept intellectualizing over email on a volume of collected essays by Montaigne. They never got to that -- and she was trying to trade that book for something more interesting and never got any takers, even the writer from the New York Review of Books.

She told the audience that in Iraq the "resentment and disbelief in the incompetence of America was profound."

She offered much of what any avid Iraq-watcher knows. The White House predicted a cost of this war at $50 billion and didn't really envision an occupation. The costs are now well beyond ten times that amount. The Department of Defense had no serious post-invasion strategy.

But one of the numbers she threw out which shocked me is that today it can cost between $3,500 and $5,000 for a one way taxi ride from the Baghdad Airport to downtown Baghdad. She has arranged some alternative, permanent service that brings the costs down some for NPR.

I confirmed this with retired Col. Paul Hughes -- now with the US Institute of Peace who also worked in the Coalition Provisional Authority under Jay Garner and L. Paul Bremer. Hughes has an Australian outfit that he has worked out a special arrangement with where a one-way transportation charge is $600 -- which he said is the absolute cheapest one can get.

Paul Hughes -- who is one of the real stand-out stars of Charles Ferguson's Sundance prize-winning movie No End in Sight set to be released some time this summer in the US -- was in Pittsburgh speaking in a program that took place last Friday along with Anne Garrels, former State Department Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson (also a major voice in No End in Sight), and myself for the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh.

The journey from the airport to the city is just seven miles.

If John McCain was right about the success of our operations in Iraq, one will probably be able to see the evidence in the cost of land transport.

As mentioned earlier, Garrels resides in the "red zone," and a Deputy Minister was blown up outside his home just a couple of houses away from her.

She said that Petraeus and other military officials had told journalists (on an off the record basis) that they realized that the American efforts to stabilize Baghdad with a surge in US troop levels "might be too little, too late." Garrels then regretted she had mentioned what the Iraq-deployed US military leaders had conveyed -- but then said, "well, guess that's out there now." I'm just faithfully reporting what was a gritty, fascinating, and depressing talk from a great war correspondent.

She said that more American military are out in the neighborhoods. She said that the Captains, Majors, Lietenant Colonels in the field know what is going on and are impressive people -- that they worked hard to make sure "embedded journalists" saw things. Garrels, however, while occasionally embedded works hard to move out into the real Iraq beyond the stories and framing spoon fed to many journalists.

She said that she didn't travel with a cadre of armed guards. She said that NPR "couldn't afford it" and "it looked dumb." She said that "having guards made you look like you were someone worth kidnapping." She said that the key to her success, in part, was the ability to make herself look like a lumpy black bag in a back seat -- covered in traditional dress, hiding her hair and Caucasian features.

The funniest and yet most revealing part of Anne Garrels' insights into America's Iraq nightmare was her comment about entering the Green Zone.

Garrels said that to get in the Green Zone, she would be "padded down seven times, sniffed by a dog, processed through two machines -- just to get into the first building."

She said that there is a woman screener there who knows Anne's body better than her husband. Garrels said that the female screener grabbed her "boobs" on one occasion and said "hmmm, nice."

On another occasion, the female screener revisited Anne's breasts and body and said, "ahh, lost some weight. . ."

While this may seem humorous, it's also clear that Senator McCain has no sense at all of the tension that permeates Baghdad and of the hell that lies outside the green zone.

Among other things that Garrel said are that she feels that people in the US are suffering from "Iraq fatigue" and didn't really wnat to hear more of what was happening there. She admonished the crowd and asked them to "pay attention." She said "we can't afford to do this again; we can't make the same mistakes."

Garrels said that "whatever grudging respect for us was there is now gone."

She also talked of her interaction with military handlers -- who replaced Saddam's handlers dealing with the journalists. She said that she gets regular emails from the Department of Defense suggesting "happy story ideas."

Some of these are: "Soldier Finds a Friend"; "Soldier Saves Puppy"; "Geraldo Rivera has Lunch with Troops."

The last one really ticked her off. Garrels said that she wrote to the chief of the happy stories operation and said that she "had not been 'disembedded twice', had not divulged classified location information, and had not lied (like Geraldo). . .so what's a girl to do?"

Garrels paints pictures through radio -- and that Thursday night told a rapt audience of the miserably botched American stewardship of Iraq. Her dismay is even greater when you get the context of her book because her sense of the disdain that the Iraqi public had for Saddam Hussein and the peoples' hope that America might correct things makes the image even more poignant.

It was a great and still disturbing evening with Anne Garrels, the memorable kind that is too rare.

She just sent me an email that she is heading back to Baghdad to make sure that we hear what's going on in real Iraq rather than the imaginary one that John McCain tried to hoist on the nation about stress- free rug haggling in a Baghdad market.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note