Mukasey Meets the Press in Baghdad

A visit to Iraq with U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey includes a news conference featuring questions from enthusiastic and sometimes incomprehensible Iraqi reporters.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Well, Attorney General Mukasey went to Iraq recently to observe the country's budding legal system.

NPR justice correspondent Ari Shapiro went with him and learned something about Iraq's emerging free press.

ARI SHAPIRO: At a Washington press conference there are certain types of questioners you see all the time. There's the rambler, who goes on forever; the attacker, who would really rather make a point than ask a question; the left-fielder, whose question has nothing to do with the topic at hand.

At Attorney General Michael Mukasey's press conference in Iraq I met a new type: the come again?

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) A question from Radio Sawa(ph): yesterday the Iraqi government announced that the ability of prosecuting the Iraqi people, the ability of prosecuting the Iraqis - the American soldiers by the Iraqi people. Do you think your presence has to do with it now, and do you think…

SHAPIRO: I'll save you the whole thing. But suffice it to say Attorney General Mukasey had a difficult time understanding exactly what the questioner was driving at. Mukasey diplomatically attributed the confusion to the translator rather than the journalist.

Mr. MICHAEL MUKASEY (U.S. Attorney General): I'm sorry. I did not get the full translation, if I can have it again.

SHAPIRO: On the second go-round it became clear that a good translation would not help this question.

Mr. MUKASEY: That's not a question with which I'm familiar. Mr. Ambassador?

SHAPIRO: Ambassador Ryan Crocker gave the catch-all response I have not yet seen that report. Another reporter at the press conference got off to a good start. Give us your impressions of the Iraqi justice system then started wandering a field.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) And at the same time, we can find that three governments were - three previous governments were accused of corruption the former covenants(ph) in Iraq…

SHAPIRO: The reporter surfaced for air after for a minute leaving Mukasey and Crocker wondering where exactly he'd been in the meantime.

Back in Washington my friend and colleague Jamie Tarabay said what I saw was typical. She just finished two years in Iraq as NPR's Baghdad bureau chief.

JAMIE TARABAY: The most important thing that people don't realize is that Iraqis just have not had a free press for the longest time. So this is such a new thing for Iraqi journalists. The fact that not only can they come out and ask all sorts of questions, but they can come ask Americans questions.

SHAPIRO: And Jamie reminded me many of these newly-minted journalists are also operating under death threats, risking their lives daily to be part of an emerging free press.

SIMON: NPR's Ari Shapiro.

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