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Program 0152
December 25, 2001

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

TECH SERGEANT “TANK”: Well, the actual range is classified, but between 250 and 300 nautical miles is what I can read.

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, take a ride on a NATO AWACS. Plus, the Middle East media darling, Al Jazerra.

HAVEZ AL-MIRAZI: Al Jazerra is a unique experience in the Arab and Moslem world as an independent media.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. For the first time ever foreign troops are patrolling American airspace.

MCHUGH: NATO AWACS planes are assisting the US military in watching the skies for suspicious aircraft. The historic flights began after Article V of the NATO treaty was invoked following the terrorist attacks on the United States. Article V states an attack against one country in the NATO alliance is an attack against all of the members.

PORTER: Common Ground’s Cliff Brockman recently flew along on a mission with one of the NATO crews.

AWACS PILOT: [speaking over an intercom system, with the sound of jet engines in the background] This is the pilot. We’ll be cleared for takeoff shortly.

[sound of the aircraft taking off]

CLIFF BROCKMAN: It’s 6:00 in the morning and below freezing both outside and inside our plane. It warms quickly though as we begin our flight. We leave Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, headed toward the skies over New York and Washington, DC. Once there we’ll fly in big circles using sophisticated radar to look for suspicious planes. “Boring holes in the sky,” the military tells us. A NATO plane in US airspace with a foreign commander, a lieutenant colonel in the German Air Force.

GERMAN OFFICER: We are pleased that, that on our particular part we can help you out in your home defense over here, and that’s a great job for us to be over here.

BROCKMAN: Did you ever think that NATO would be patrolling the United States?

GERMAN OFFICER: Not before the Article V was to come into effect.

BROCKMAN: What is your specific role?

GERMAN OFFICER: Yeah, I’m the tactical director is what we call it in NATO. I’m responsible for the, what we call mission accomplishment. That means I’m telling the, my flight deck at what orbit, at what altitude they have to fly. And also supervising the weapons and surveillance section, the detection, tracking, and weapons control. And I also monitor the technicians at the radars and all the systems, including communication.

BROCKMAN: The 17 crew members come from Turkey, Canada, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, and the United States. This crew has been here two weeks and will stay a total of six weeks, perhaps longer. When they leave another NATO crew will follow. All told, NATO has five AWACS planes stationed at Tinker. By doing this, US AWACS planes are freed up to fly overseas, presumably over Afghanistan, although our information officer isn’t allowed to officially confirm that.

This plane is a converted Boeing 707 with a large radar dome mounted on top. Inside it’s stuffed with radar and communications equipment. There are no weapons on board. Flight information officer Jonathan says the AWACS is a flying command center.

FLIGHT INFORMATION OFFICER JONATHAN: Right now we’re in the mission crew area. There are nine stations in our crew area. Any of the stations can be programmed to, for people to fulfill any of the jobs that we require. But typically we split it up into three different sections. The section toward the back of the aircraft is our weapons section. They’re the ones that generally, in the event that there’s an emergency, they’re the ones that would communicate with other fighters flying in the air and would direct them towards targets and ensure that they get where they need to go. When they aren’t doing that, which hopefully they don’t do that very often. When they aren’t doing that, they can perform other kinds of surveillance-looking at specific areas or staying in touch with other air traffic or guiding fighters that might be flying to tankers when they need to refuel, or things like that.

In the middle section we have our tactical director and our surveillance officer. These front three screens are typically, we configure them to be our surveillance area. We have our surveillance operators here. They’re keeping an eye on the aircraft and looking for suspicious aircraft, etc. And keeping an eye on kind of the big picture and the specific areas of interest.

BROCKMAN: And there are really no windows in the plane.

FLIGHT INFORMATION OFFICER JONATHAN: Right. The reason behind that is twofold. One, the radar on top of the aircraft puts out a significant amount of energy and so in terms of ensuring that everybody inside the aircraft is shielded from, from the power of the radar, not having windows helps with that. Also, you can imagine about nine or ten people gathered around computer monitors; it makes it easier to control the light so that you can see what’s going on, and you can look at those small little dots and notations on the computer screens.

BROCKMAN: Surveillance is the crew’s main mission. During our flight to the East Coast a tech sergeant, who’s nicknamed “Tank,” busily gets the radar dome operating.

TECH SERGEANT “TANK”: Well, we have a 30-foot dish on top of the E-3. It weighs about six tons and it rotates at six rotations a minute. And it gives us the advantage of having a look-down capability. We can actually see, we can see down, see low and slow-moving targets with this type of radar. And we also have the ability of mobility. Basically we can move the thing around and if there’s a track of interest somewhere we can move the airplane to that particular track. It’s a very unique system in the fact that we can track very low-moving targets, low and slow-moving targets. So basically if you go fast enough in your car we can track you.

BROCKMAN: What kind of advantages would this have over a ground-based radar?

TECH SERGEANT “TANK”: Well, the biggest advantage is the fact that we can move it. We can move this thing. We can also have the fact that, say if a ground-based radar, a mountain gets in the way, we can actually move this system to the other side of the mountain and look down in the gullies and the valleys. Ground-based radars have more power, but, because they don’t have to move things around as much, they don’t have to be mobile. But the biggest advantage is mobility. We can look down, give our weapons controllers a very good picture as to what’s happening in the air and also we can actually downlink our picture to the ground so our commanders on the ground can see what’s going on as well.

BROCKMAN: What kind of range does it have?

TECH SERGEANT “TANK”: Well, the actual range is classified, but between 250 and 300 nautical miles is what I can brief. The radar beam will intersect with the airplane at the tips of the wings, the tail, and the nose, but we have software that blanks that out. So we don’t actually get any returns from that,, that we see on our screens.

BROCKMAN: And it’s not really a dead spot then, either?

TECH SERGEANT “TANK”: Not, not really. We, because we can, the radar is so powerful at ranges that far out we’re still gonna pick up targets. No problem.

BROCKMAN: The radar dome displays its data on computer monitors just forward of where “Tank” sits. “Eden” is a 10-year Air Force veteran whose been a surveillance operator with NATO for the past two years.

“EDEN”: Basically what we’re looking for are any air tracks that, you know, say, could vary off of established air routes. Anything that basically looks suspicious. You know, changing altitudes, drastic variations, that sort of thing. We were also paying attention to anything that the FAA or, you know, our ground control will pass up to us to have a look at and keep an eye on. You know, where they’re going and what they’re doing.

BROCKMAN: What are those things that we’re looking at there? Those commercial jets?

“EDEN”: Most of ‘em are commercial or civil aviation traffic. Some are military aircraft and some are law enforcement. We have a number of established air routes. Places, for example, going into Dulles, going into, or passing through say, Martinsburg or Baltimore-Washington International. And what we look for are aircraft that are supposed to be in those routes within the altitude locks basically to stay in there. Anytime we see, you know, any drastic deviations in altitude or in route, then that’s the sort of thing that we’d report in.

BROCKMAN: Have you seen anything so far today?

“EDEN”: Not today.

BROCKMAN: How do you stay alert?

“EDEN”: Basically just keep your eyes moving. Keep your eyes moving and you can’t fall asleep. And, of course, you have the other guys here too, you know, knock you in the shoulder if you start to doze. So we’ll usually divide it up into sections to make it a little easier, to cover the whole area closely.

BROCKMAN: The flight is lengthy. Even if everything is routine the crew must stay alert. Crew members take staggered frequent short breaks. Usually it’s to the galley for a cup of coffee, water, or a TV dinner. “John,” a communications officer, is from Canada.

“JOHN”: Today we got up, or I got up at two o’clock. We are into work at just before four to get the necessary equipment I needed for the mission. We took off a couple of hours after that. And here we are. We’re transiting to the orbit area. We never really know how long the day’s going to be. It can be anywhere typically here 12 to 15 hours flying time. So a duty day could be 18, 19 hours.

BROCKMAN: And then it’s back.

“JOHN”: Then it’s back, get some rest, and do it all over again.

BROCKMAN: It’s a serious mission. But there’s time for a little fun as well. Remember “Tank,” the radar operator? He doubles as a magician during his breaks.

“TANK”: Now, what I’m gonna do is, I’m gonna run through the deck like this. You say “Stop” anywhere you want. And whatever card you stop at, I’m gonna put it back in the deck. You can shuffle the deck and just lose it anywhere you want. I will find your card. If I don’t find your card I will give you $100. If I don’t find-or if I do find your card you don’t owe me anything. So there’s no way you’re gonna lose. Would that be your card right there?

BROCKMAN: [laughing]

“TANK”: OK, good. You have the eight of diamonds. All right. Good deal. I usually don’t win any money. I try not to take money off people. But it’s just a way to pass the time up here. Occasionally you get long, long missions.

BROCKMAN: There’s no magic to being away from home and family. But the crew, including our tactical commander, all say Oklahoma City has tried to make them feel at home. They’ve been invited to local speaking engagements, given free tickets to a variety of events, and invited to local homes for dinner.

GERMAN OFFICER: The reception was really great. I was here the last time six years ago on a different subject so I was familiar with people over here. They are very friendly and helpful. But this time it’s really, I must really say overwhelming, the reception, the kindness. They are really friendly people over here. So we are very pleased, because we not always get this really nice and kind reception like we got in here.

BROCKMAN: Even so, our Turkish pilot says it’s not quite like home.

TURKISH PILOT: I have a wife and a little daughter.

BROCKMAN: Tough being away from them?

TURKISH PILOT: Absolutely. But there are times that we need to understand the priorities. Families are important, but freedom is a lot important than families. If you don’t have freedom you have no family.

BROCKMAN: Here on the flight deck things get a little more exciting. We’re about half way through and the plane must be refueled. Rather than waste time landing the fuel comes to us. It’s on board another specially designed plane. Our flight engineer, “Jim,” explains what’s happening as we watch.

“JIM”: We’re refueling behind a KC-135 tanker. We’re about 15 feet behind it and maybe 20 feet below it. It has a refueling probe that sticks into the front of our plane and pumps us gas. Right now we’re taking about 20,000 gallons of gas right now.

BROCKMAN: How long will this refueling last?

“JIM”: Anywhere between 20 minutes to 45 minutes to an hour, depending on how fast the gas pumps.

BROCKMAN: What are some of the difficulties or the challenges in a situation like this, refueling?

“JIM”: Well, for the pilots, they have to follow the movements of the other plane. If they don’t follow they have to disconnect us or we’ll damage the refueling boom.

BROCKMAN: Indeed, both the pilot and co-pilot are studies in extreme concentration as they match each slight movement of the plane right above us. The flight is bumpy while we’re doing this, but the refueling goes smoothly. Then it’s back to our mission as the tanker pulls away.

[sound of radio traffic between the two aircraft]

BROCKMAN: Several more hours pass with no signs of anything suspicious. Eventually another AWACS plane arrives to take over. As the crew puts its, the plane is now off-station just a little early, and we head back to Tinker Air Force Base. Once the mission crew finishes filing its inevitable reports, they’re free to take a nap or read. Everyone that is, except the men on the flight deck.

[more radio traffic]

BROCKMAN: The view from the flight deck is impressive despite the thick clouds below us. At one point our Turkish navigator tells me we’re above Springfield, Missouri. About that time the clouds break and we can see down to the ground for the rest of the flight. Finally, we see Oklahoma City in the distance.

[more radio traffic]

BROCKMAN: The tactical commander helps strap me in with a shoulder harness on the flight deck. The landing gear lowers and we land.

[sound of the aircraft landing]

BROCKMAN: And taxi to a stop. We’ve been in the air for 12 hours. For our crew there will be some rest, relaxation, and some ground work. Then in a couple of days they’ll do it all over again.

[more radio traffic]

BROCKMAN: For Common Ground I’m Cliff Brockman, Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma City.

MCHUGH: Cliff reports prior to September 11, AWACS flights over the US were only used for training purposes. Currently the skies over New York and Washington, DC are patrolled 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The rest of the country is patrolled on a random basis. There’s been no decision yet on how long the current AWACS flights and NATO involvement will continue.

PORTER: Behind the scenes at Al Jazerra, next on Common Ground.

HAVEZ AL-MIRAZI: There was government at that time that took the wrong approach. The wrong approach in trying to pressure Al Jazerra.

MCHUGH: People around the world are now accustomed to watching wars unfold on live television. But in the latest conflict in Afghanistan, CNN isn’t the only game in town.

PORTER: Based in the Gulf state of Qatar, Al Jazerra TV has gained fame in the United States for providing statements from Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. But in the Middle East the network has been a household name for years. Common Ground’s Judith Smelzer takes us behind the scenes of what some have dubbed “the Arabic CNN.”

[a newscaster broadcasts in Arabic]

JUDITH SMELZER: On the first day of US-led air strikes on Afghanistan, Americans were glued to CNN. But people across the Middle East were watching the events unfold on what’s fast becoming the Arab equivalent, Qatar-based Al Jazerra TV.

[a newscaster broadcasts in Arabic]

SMELZER: Since Al Jazerra started broadcasting five years ago the satellite network has become a phenomenon in the Arab world. Unlike other news outlets there it’s not state run, nor is it based outside the region. Middle East expert Judith Kipper is well acquainted with the top brass at Al Jazerra and she explained why the network is so unique.

JUDITH KIPPER: I think Al Jazerra has taken on a very important significance in that it is a maverick type of television station. It originates in the region. Other Arabic satellite stations are coming out of London or other places. And it’s clearly very controversial, very open, provocative, criticism of Arab regimes; they have Israelis interviewed. So it’s, it’s really a very, very new product for the Arab viewer. And I think it is really very popular.

SMELZER: Over the years Al Jazerra has explored such controversial topics as women’s rights under Islam, the lack of democracy in Arab countries, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The network is perhaps best known for its debate-style talk shows and its controversial guests, including a representative of the Palestinian extremist group Hamas, and a few years ago, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

[people talking in a busy office]

SMELZER: The Washington bureau of this Mid East media phenomenon operates out of two cramped office suites in the National Press Building. It’s the morning of the crash of American Airlines flight 587 and reporters and producers rush to get the story out to the viewers in the Arab world.

[people talking in a busy office]

SMELZER: Just like at Al Jazerra headquarters in Qatar, the 10-to-12 member staff here in Washington is a multicultural bunch, including Egyptians, Palestinians, Iraqis, and even Europeans and Indians. Still, the majority of them are Muslims, and the next evening when things have calmed down a bit, Bureau Chief Havez al-Mirazi gave a new perspective on the challenges of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

HAVEZ AL-MIRAZI: The irony about Ramadan and the US media, that they only talk about it when the debate is about whether it’s all right to kill Muslims in Ramadan or not. In our case actually, it matters us for many reasons. First, it’s a holy season. So we try to accommodate the news needs with the family needs. So it’s a challenge to alter our schedule and to rotate people so we can have one or two “victims” [laughs] on a weekly basis to cover for the rest of us.

SMELZER: But juggling holiday schedules is the least of Mr. Mirazi’s worries. Since September 11 his network has been splashed across American TV screens because of its exclusive access to statements by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. But the US government started to get nervous about how the network was reporting the war. When the Emir of Qatar visited Washington in October, Secretary of State Colin Powell asked him to try to reign in Al Jazerra’s content. The State Department said the US was concerned about “inflammatory stories, totally untrue stories aired on channel.” Washington Bureau Chief Havez al-Mirazi was predictably displeased.

AL-MIRAZI: The US government at that time took the wrong approach. The wrong approach in trying to pressure Al Jazerra and trying to reach the government of Qatar, although you know Al Jazerra is a unique experience in the Arab and Moslem world as an independent media. And even if you know that the government of Qatar could ultimately silence them or pressure them, you shouldn’t encourage them to do that.

SMELZER: That’s a view that’s shared by American analysts as well. Middle East expert Judith Kipper says the government’s attempt to get Qatar to lean on Al Jazerra bordered on the hypocritical.

KIPPER: I think it’s really inappropriate. I mean, we live in a totally open democracy. We can say anything in our airwaves, from being totally reliable and truthful and checked and so on to being, you know, rather sensational-tabloid television, tabloid newspapers, inaccurate, made up, etc., etc.

[a newscaster broadcasts in Arabic]

SMELZER: As for America’s actual complaint, that Al Jazerra is not accurately reporting the US side of the story, Havez al-Mirazi says that’s completely untrue.

HAVEZ AL-MIRAZI: We always say that we, we are not balanced in covering the war in Afghanistan. Because we broadcast about 90 percent of the coverage coming from Washington and only about 10 or sometimes 5 percent coming out of Kabul or Afghanistan or the Taliban government. It’s a conflict that has two parties. And you need to cover two points. We cannot go to the zero tolerance principles of the US media when it comes to any party that is fighting the US. We cannot do that.

SMELZER: Mr. al-Mirazi, who’s been in Washington since 1983, thinks the American media tends to fall in line behind the government on almost all foreign policy issues, especially during wartime, when he believes the country is most in need of a media watchdog. America was especially concerned, for example, when Al Jazerra began reporting the Taliban’s claims of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, claims which were often disproved later on. But Mr. al-Mirazi says Al Jazerra has always stated on air that the reports came from the Taliban, and he believes his network’s decisions to air the reports may have encouraged the US to be even more careful to avoid civilian casualties.

AL-MIRAZI: I believe because of our broadcast of these kind of civilian casualties, even our reporters in the field, they said during the last three or four or five days we can’t find any more civilian casualties and it seems even from our observations that the targeting is more accurate than it used to be during the first two or three weeks of the war.

SMELZER: While that may or may not be the case, civilian casualty reports were not the only thing that irked the US about Al Jazerra.

[someone speaking in Arabic]0

SMELZER: Osama bin Laden has chosen Al Jazerra as the place to put his message out. Since September 11 he’s been giving the network pre-taped statements which the US says are full of hateful anti-American rhetoric. President Bush said recently that the US press corps certainly wouldn’t air pre-taped statements from him without some chance for questions.

PRESIDENT BUSH: I asked them the other day, would it be OK if I cut a 30-minute tape, a piece of propaganda, no questions, just “Here. Here it is. Here’s 30 minutes of me talking. Please run it not only across your airways, but run it internationally if you don’t mind. I’ve got something to say about the conflict and our fight against evil.” They said, “No, they’re not gonna do that.” If I’m gonna have to get on the news they’ve got to ask me questions.

SMELZER: But Hafez Al-Mirazi says his network always puts an American official or former official on the air to rebut bin Laden’s statements. He also says the network views the tapes before they’re aired and if needed removes sections that could put lives in danger.

AL-MIRAZI: The latest tape of bin Laden that we broadcast we edited out of it four to five minutes because it contained some appeal to follow also, all Muslims to hit some US specific target in some Muslim countries. We were not gonna say what countries, of course. But we care about our message to be mainly, this is a political argument, rhetoric. You can call it even hate, because the other side is also labeling the Taliban people as the most oppressive, the most, the most. And use all kinds of labels against them.

SMELZER: Mr. al-Mirazi suggests that if Osama bin Laden’s rhetoric is just as much a part of the news as America’s is, and that the definition of propaganda lies in the eye of the beholder.

AL-MIRAZI: Maybe yes, the White House considers what is coming out of Kabul propaganda, and Kabul would consider what is coming out of the White House is propaganda. But we leave our audience to judge.

SMELZER: But some media watchers here in Washington, like Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, warn against equating Osama bin Laden with a government of any country.

STEPHEN HESS: One needn’t deal with his point of view in exactly the same way that you would deal with the point of view of Saudi Arabia or Israel or the United States or the UK. So, I think we make a mistake to just somehow set this up in parallel columns and say, “Hey, if we have our Secretary of State on for nine minutes, therefore whoever Al Qaeda chooses should be on for nine minutes as well.”

SMELZER: But despite America’s complaints about Al Jazerra’s reporting or possibly because those complaints fell on deaf ears, the US has shifted its way of dealing with the network.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: [appearing on a Al Jazerra television show] I’m delighted to be here on Al Jazerra. I know that you’re going to have many of my colleagues on in the future. And I look forward to being back with you.

SMELZER: National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice is one of a string of top US officials who’ve been making appearances on Al Jazerra as part of America’s new push for public diplomacy, the fight for hearts and minds in the Arab world. Instead of seeing Al Jazerra as a threat, the Bush administration now seems to see the network as a vehicle for getting the American side of the story out. Media expert Stephen Hess welcomes that shift in thinking and he says it could not have come too soon.

STEPHEN HESS: This is potentially a very important tool for us. You could say propaganda tool if you want to use a loaded word, but just a way for us to get our message out. So, it came late; it should have come earlier; they should have thought of that right way. But once they thought of it, I happen to think it’s a great opportunity.

[a newscaster broadcasts in Arabic]

SMELZER: So Al Jazerra’s bold content has earned it a huge audience in the Middle East and it’s turned a lot of heads in the US as well. Its controversial programming has sparked complaints from every corner of the Arab world and now Washington has joined those voices. But Washington has also realized the power Al Jazerra wields as an independent and respected voice in the region. And when it comes to the criticism Washington Bureau Chief Havez al-Mirazi takes that as a compliment.

AL-MIRAZI: If you have a conflict and both parties are not happy with what you are doing but not happy because they accuse you of representing the other party, then you are doing something right.

[a newscaster broadcasts in Arabic]

SMELZER: For Common Ground, I’m Judith Smelzer.

[a newscaster speaks in Arabic]

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