For the first time, on America vs. Iraq, the big players from Washington, London and Baghdad tell the inside story of the Iraq War. Those who describe their part in the events include Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the three prime ministers who have ruled Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein and many more.
Norma Percy makes television histories that aim to bring viewers inside the room with presidents and prime ministers as crucial political decisions are made. Norma Percy and Brian Lapping’s style of storytelling has been hailed as a “virtually new genre of documentary” that retells momentous events from the recent past with meticulous objectivity — and with the principal players recording their versions of what happened.
“Yes, there have been many programs about Iraq. But not by our method. … No one has just tried to present the story straight — or had managed to get the principals from all sides together to present … a genuinely multisided picture.” -Norma Percy, Series Producer – America vs. Iraq
We sat down with Norma Percy, the Series Producer of tonight’s special, America vs. Iraq, to find out what inspired the project, and how she manages to get such incredible access and detail:
Q: Why did you decide to do the film America Vs. Iraq? What will people learn from it?
What we do — what I and my colleague Brian Lapping have specialized in — is to try to show on television what it’s like inside the room when the really big political decisions are made.
We’d done the Bosnian war and the fall of Milosevic, we’d done the Arab-Israeli conflict, the failure of Bill Clinton’s Camp David and the impasse that has followed, Iran’s troubled dealings with the West since Ayatollah Khomeini took the U.S. Embassy hostages, 9/11 and Putin’s relations with Bush and Obama. The Iraq War is the perhaps the biggest international story of the decade, and 2013 was the anniversary year.
Yes, there have been many programs about Iraq. But not by our method. Critics have attacked, but the main protagonists have stayed silent — or spoken defensively. No one has just tried to present the story straight — or has managed to get the principals from all sides together to present, if not the truth, at least a genuinely multisided picture.
What we always do is get the people who were there — the presidents and prime ministers and their ministers, generals and close advisors — to tell what happened. No journalists, no pundits, just decision makers — from all sides. No opinion — just what happened.
There were still some big unanswered questions. First and foremost: Tony Blair and George Bush said they went to war to because Saddam refused to give up his weapons of mass destruction [WMD]. Yet after the war, no WMD were found. Were they lying — or was Saddam?
Q: How were you able to get all the interviews you did?
With difficulty. We write a lot of letters. When the rejection comes I say philosophically — anyone worth having says no at least 3 times. The trick is to get someone they trust who trusts you to persuade them.
Why do they do it? Well, I’ll say something controversial. I think most politicians are reasonable men. That is, they do things for good reason. We’re asking them about some of the key moments of their lives. Of course they want you to understand how and why they did what they did — if they believe you are going to play fair. We don’t point fingers. We ask what did you say and how did he reply.
The top Americans were wary. We went first to someone who had given us brilliant interviews before. Colin Powell, in our previous Russia series, had spoken delightfully with gusto about how he sparred with Putin’s men. He agreed to talk off the record (we usually interview this way first and return with cameras some months later). When we got to the crucial questions about his February 5, 2002, UN presentation of “evidence” of Saddam Hussein’s WMD, he said sadly: “Now you come to the first line of my obituary.” He was reluctant to go on film — and agreed only if we got one of the other major principals to agree.
We thought he meant his main opponent, Vice President Dick Cheney — and he was banking on us never managing to persuade him. When Cheney refused, we called on one of the participants from our 1991 series on the Bush Sr.’s Gulf War. He’d followed our work since and was prepared to support our claims. He said we produced a fair account, which is believed more than a memoir — because it’s multisided. Cheney said yes, the Powell filmed interview went ahead. Then Cheney changed his mind. Our benefactor was coy: “I can’t help you now.” Oh dear — what had we done? We finally discovered he’d given an interview to other TV producers doing a personal portrait — he even took them fishing with him — but he hated the result. From now on, all TV interview were off — including ours. It took an even closer Cheney colleague — a very determined chap — to persuade him that if he didn’t explain his position, the other side would win by default. We were off to his home in Wyoming in days — and his interview was worth the wait.
Q: Why do you think the Iraqis were all willing to speak on camera now? This is the first time some of them have spoken to Western media, correct?
Key to our success were Saddam Hussein’s generals, ministers and officials. The West had little clue what he was thinking and doing as the Bush administration pushed to war.
Hussein and the family members in the know were dead — others close to him, in prison. The few at liberty had been careful to keep a low profile, afraid to offend their host countries or remind possible assassins of their existence. We had to have them, and thanks to producer/director Charley Smith and Middle East producer Haider al-Safi, we did. Haider showed our Arab-Israeli series and Iran and the West. It proved we treated both sides equally. Anyway, it seemed to work. They persuaded Saddam’s last foreign minister, some of his top generals, his UN ambassador and his head of U.S. intelligence to talk on camera.
They said some amazing things. General Hamdani of his Revolutionary Guard told how he approached Saddam’s son Qusay on the eve of war. He asked, “When we use our chemical weapons, won’t the blow back get my own men?” Qusay replied, “There are no WMD.” Amazing that Saddam deceived even his top generals. No wonder the CIA and MI6 were deceived.
Q: Why does the film essentially open with Dick Cheney discussing Iraq?
One of the questions we wanted to answer was: When did the U.S. administration get serious about invading Iraq?
Luis Rueda, the head of the CIA’s Iraq operations, speaking on television about these matters for the first time, told us it of a meeting January 2002 where Cheney asked if it could organize an internal coup to bring down Saddam. When the CIA advised that was impossible, the move to the invasion of Iraq began.
Q:What makes this documentary stand out from other award-winning specials that you have done (Putin, Russia and the West; Iran and the West)?
If you had asked me that halfway through, I would have said: This is one that will fall flat on its face. The problem was that the Western principals were so battered by attacks, it was hard for them to tell their stories straight without pointing fingers back at their accusers.
The hardest story to unravel did prove to be the WMD story: each interviewee unveiled a new layer — and a new debate within the production team about what really happened. We tried to present the evidence for viewers to judge. A story of well-intentioned men believing they had evidence from — among others — Saddam’s foreign minister that the weapons were still there. (Remember, Saddam’s generals also believed this.)
Maybe viewers who already have a strong belief that it was all about lies to get at Saddam’s oil will be able to see this was no conspiracy, but a mistake.
Percy’s work has won dozens of major awards, including a US Prime Time Emmy for Watergate, two British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards, five Royal Television Society Awards, three Columbia University School of Journalism duPont Awards, five US George Foster Peabody Awards, and two Grierson British Documentary awards and several awards for use of archive film.
Percy became the first documentary maker to win the Orwell Prize; also the first to win the James Cameron Award for outstanding journalism, both print and broadcast in 2000 (and again in 2003). She is a fellow of the Royal Television Society, a Grierson Trustee and received an honorary doctorate of Fine Arts from City University, London in 2004 and from Oberlin College this year.
Don’t Miss America vs. Iraq tonight at 9P.