Invited on to promote his new book, "War Journal," NBC's Middle Eastern correspondent Richard Engel claimed, on Tuesday's "Today" show, that it wasn't "an opinion piece." However, in the book, Engel reveals a definite anti-war bias as he called the Iraq war "a war of opportunity," and charged, "the U.S. invaded the wrong country."
Engel tried to deny the book's slant in the following exchange with "Today" co-host Meredith Vieira:
MEREDITH VIEIRA: You know this is not a political treatise, but you do take a position about the war. You call it "a war of opportunity." And you write, "The problem was that the U.S. invaded the wrong country, destroying an odious government that was not responsible for 9/11. I don't know how you recover from invading the wrong country, no matter how you spin it." As a journalist, did you worry that you were crossing a line when you said that?
RICHARD ENGEL: There are concerns. When, when I do reports for, for this program and for others, you have to tell it as it is. You have to say this is what happened today. These are the trends going on. But when you try and look back and you see what has happened over the last five years, patterns do start to emerge and I think it would be wrong to try and say that there aren't any patterns when you see how before the war has been changing from one stage to another. So, I try and point them out. And I think it's, it's an on-the-ground look at the war and not, not so much an opinion piece.
A little later in the interview, Vieira did point out that Engel writes in the book that things are "getting better," in Iraq but oddly enough that's a bit of news that's rarely reported on NBC News' airwaves. In fact, neither NBC's "Today" show or "Nightly News," has yet to report that in May the fewest number of U.S. servicemen were killed in Iraq in any month since the war began.
The following is the full interview as it occurred in the 8:30am half hour of the June 3, "Today" show:
MEREDITH VIEIRA: Fighting the war in Iraq is tough business. So is covering it.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: With us here today, Richard Engel, who has covered the war in Iraq since the--
MEREDITH VIEIRA: NBC's Middle East correspondent Richard Engel is in Baghdad.
RICHARD ENGEL: I started by asking the President about--
ANN CURRY: NBC's Richard Engel--
ENGEL: Controversy centers on a window--
VIEIRA: For the first past five years, NBC's Middle East bureau chief Richard Engel has lived in a war zone. As a reporter on the front lines, there is little that he hasn't seen.
ENGEL: An IED just exploded next to our vehicle. Inside here, it still smells like gun powder.
VIEIRA: He's dodged bullets on several occasions.
ENGEL: There is still a lot of fire coming at us, some of it is exploding in the car that was hit by an improvised explosive device.
VIEIRA: Escaped kidnaping attempts.
ENGEL: Car stopped in front. Another car pulled up to try to and sandwich me in.
VIEIRA: And has seen too many dead bodies to count. But even with those harsh realities of war, Richard wouldn't think of living anywhere else, driven by his passion for the region and his ambition to tell its stories. And Richard Engel has documented his journey in a new book War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq. Richard, good morning. It's so nice to have you here with us.
RICHARD ENGEL: Thank you very much. It's my pleasure.
VIEIRA: Thank you. You know you, you moved to Iraq back in February 2003, a month before the U.S. invasion but that's not where you start your book. First chapter is dated, September 15th, 2003, al-Dawr, Iraq. That is the day that you and other journalists were taken to the spot where Saddam Hussein was captured. Literally a hole in the ground that you entered to see what that was like.
ENGEL: It was shocking.
VIEIRA: Why did you want to start your book there with that particular anecdote?
ENGEL: Well I think Saddam Hussein's story really is very revealing and telling about the whole journey of Iraq. That this dictator, America's enemy, was found on the run, hiding in a hole. Iraqis couldn't even believe it at the time, that this person who they had seen, a lot of them hated, but at least seen as put on a pedestal was discovered with this beard, hiding from the Americans. Then he was put on trial by the Americans in his former palace, sentenced to death by an Iranian-backed government, the same people who had tried to execute him. So things, his story, alone, I think, encapsulates a lot of the, the struggles and the transformation that Iraq has gone through. I could have started it earlier. I've been living in the region about, about 12 years now, but I thought starting with Saddam and continuing 'til, up until about now, the surge period, shows a, shows a very dramatic change.
VIEIRA: And when you entered Iraq, you know, you saw this as an opportunity, really, because there were so few journalists there at the time. And you were basically a gung-ho war correspondent but discovered along the way that correspondents who are covering wars go through stages.
ENGEL: There are, I'd been living in, I lived in Cairo for four years, learned Arabic and then I did three years in Jerusalem, covering the West Bank and Gaza Strip and then decided the war in Iraq was about to happen. It was clear troops were already starting to arrive in the region. And I thought well, this is going to be the one. This is going to be the game changer. I have to get there. Took some money, about $20,000 and went into Iraq, was staying at people's house and waiting for the invasion to begin. And at this stage, I was probably in what I've called, "stage one." I'm invincible. I'm ready. I'm excited. You're living on adrenaline. Then as the war goes on and the insurgency begins, you start to go into the next stage where you think, "You know what? This is dangerous. I could get hurt over here." And that really starts to sink in. Then the war continues and friends start to get kidnaped or killed and you see bodies on the streets and they early stages of a civil war. And you think, "You know what? I've been over here so long, I'm probably going to get hurt."
ENGEL: And then, at a certain stage, you hit rock bottom and you feel, "I've used up my time. Stage four. I'm going to die in this conflict." And that's a dark place to go into. You know, you occasionally, go in and then you pull out. And it's no place, it's no place you want to spend a lot of time. And then it fluctuates.
VIEIRA: It fluctuates, yeah. You know this is not a political treatise, but you do take a position about the war. You call it "a war of opportunity." And you write, "The problem was that the U.S. invaded the wrong country, destroying an odious government that was not responsible for 9/11. I don't know how you recover from invading the wrong country, no matter how you spin it." As a journalist, did you worry that you were crossing a line when you said that?
ENGEL: There are concerns. When, when I do reports for, for this program and for others. You have to tell it as it is. You have to say this is what happened today. These are the trends going on. But when you try and look back and you see what has happened over the last five years, patterns do start to emerge and I think it would be wrong to try and say that there aren't any patterns when you see how before the war has been changing from one stage to another. So, I try and point them out. And I think it's, it's an on-the-ground look at the war and not, not so much an opinion piece.
VIEIRA: You also talk about how people's perceptions of the war and interest in the war, here in the United States have changed. That's how you end the book. You say, "Now we have crews and bureaus here but the world has moved on. People don't want to hear about Iraq anymore. It's frustrating. Sometimes I wonder why I have done all this." So, when you ask yourself that question, five years later, what is the answer?
ENGEL: The problem was and I'll put you in the mind-set where I was. I first arrived in Baghdad and as I was watching "Shock and Awe," from the Palestine Hotel, watching the Saddam statue come down, and be torn down by, by Iraqis and with, with the help of U.S. troops. I, everyone, it was such a moment of excitement. Everyone want to know every sound, and picture and image that we could get out of Iraq. Now five years later, we have a huge infrastructure in the country, but the interest level has dropped dramatically.
And that's one of the most frustrating things when you're in Baghdad and you want to tell a story and people don't want to listen. Even two years ago, when I would comeback on visits like, like this to see my family and friends in the states, I couldn't go out to dinner without people saying, "Well, what's going on? Who are the Sunnis and Shiites and what's Muqtada al-Sadr's story?" Now nobody asks any more. People don't want to hear it, even on a, on a personal level. So you do start to reflect. And has it been worth it, has it been, all the sacrifice? And I think it has. And I think it's a very important story that hasn't ended yet. And I think it's important--
VIEIRA: And the irony is--
ENGEL: --we need keep focusing on.
VIEIRA: And the irony is that things are actually getting better, as you point out in your book. Richard Engel, always a pleasure to have you here.
ENGEL: Thank you very much.
VIEIRA: Wonderful reporting. The, the book is called, "War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq."