Human Rubble: The Tragedy of Iraqis who Believed in America

On September 23, Bosch Fellow Kirk W. Johnson discussed the List Project’s work to help US-affiliated Iraqis escape persecution by insurgent groups and to offer them a safe haven outside of their home country. An edited transcript of the question-and-answer session that followed his lecture “Human Rubble” is available below. Johnson’s organization, the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies , seeks to remedy what he calls “a stark moral deficiency in the war on terrorism.” The US government, while heavily relying on the support of Iraqi civilian allies during the years of the military operation, has been dilatory about protecting them in return. These edited excerpts come from the question-and-answer session that followed his lecture at the Hans Arnhold Center, “Human Rubble.”

Question: Please tell us a little bit about The List Project and the pro-bono legal work it involves.
Johnson: When the list grew to over fifty names, it was clear that I was not going to be able to help them by myself. I went to most of the major refugee organizations in Washington and asked if they could help, but that is not what refugee organizations do. They will shine a spotlight on a crisis, but there are no groups that actually help a refugee get from wherever they are to the US.
I had been working with Senator Edward Kennedy in his office and was introduced to the law firm of Holland & Knight. Suddenly I found myself meeting with scores of attorneys. The initiative kept growing, and within about three months of giving my first list of Iraqi names to the State Department, I had three law firms – Holland & Knight, Mayer Brown, and Proskauer Rose – each of whom gave the List Project about fifty attorneys. We had a small army of about one hundred and fifty attorneys. [The idea is for] all the Iraqis on the list to have their own pro bono counsel to help them make sense of the process [of applying for refugee status]. When you’ve just fled your country carrying what little you could on your backs, the last thing you have the psychic space for is logging onto the State Department website and trying to figure out this complicated legal process.
That effort has grown at an astonishing rate. This coming week five new law firms are coming on board, bringing the count of attorneys to about three hundred and fifty. Since 2007, law firms have contributed in the order of seventy thousand pro bono hours to the Iraqis on my list. It is the largest pro bono initiative by any of these firms in the history of their operations – and I think it’s the largest pro bono initiative that has ever been undertaken on behalf of refugees.
That said, if you do the math – which I try not to do –you’ll see that it took seventy thousand pro-bono hours to help a thousand people get into the US. And, actually, only about three hundred cases have been cleared, since those thousand names included family members. Seventy thousand hours to clear three hundred cases! That’s abysmal! It should not be this hard. But every one of these cases is like moving a mountain. I don’t blame that on the firms. I put it on the incomprehensible process that they have to navigate on behalf of their Iraqi clients.
The List Project also calls on Americans to help the Iraqis once they are resettled. There’s a grass-roots network of around four thousand Americans who have formed chapters in almost every major city. And those Americans are introduced to Iraqis that we’ve resettled. They help them get furniture, they contribute some money to help pay their rent. We have a 13-year-old, the son of one of our attorneys, who’s created something called The List Kids – this whole network of Americans and their children who are donating school supplies to the children of the Iraqi families who have made it here.
The idea is to try to have the public take some ownership of one of the very real consequences of the Iraq war. We have some hard-core pro-war citizens who have hosted Iraqis in their own homes – and people who were fundamentally opposed to the war who are also doing their part to help them.
Question: Would you say something about the refugees of the Vietnam War, the tens of thousands – or hundreds of thousands – of people who were settled in the US?
Johnson: If you look at the NSC transcripts from the final months of the Vietnam War, the President [Ford] and Henry Kissinger did not turn their attention to the Vietnamese who had been   helping the Americans until the final ninety days of the war. What happened was a horrific, ad-hoc series of approaches. Foreign Service officers – some of whom are mentors to me now – were so outraged that their South Vietnamese embassy employees were going to be abandoned that they were putting Vietnamese in the trunks of their cars. And their reward for that was that the State Department put an arrest warrant out for them.
We tried – for those who will remember – to raise the profile of the urgency by doing an airlift of Vietnamese orphans, and the thing was so poorly planned that the plane crashed about twenty minutes after taking off, and hundreds of Vietnamese orphans died. Everybody remembers the Saigon rooftop footage (which incidentally was looping on Al-Jazeera throughout 2005 when I was there as a way to send a demoralizing message to the Iraqis who were considering working for the Americans: this was in store for them). On my first trip to DC actually, I received an angry phone call from one of my former bosses (a Bush appointee) who started yelling into the phone that I was dragging the nation back onto the Saigon rooftop – which I thought was a little overwrought.
What ended up happening [in the last days of the Vietnam War] was that the American public was pummeled with images of airplanes crashing into the ocean. There was no doubt about the urgency of this situation. It took President Ford going in front of the American public and saying ‘we have to do this’– “to do less would be to add moral shame to humiliation” – and within six months of that address, Congress had passed the Indo-Chinese Refugees Migration Act, allocated $600 million dollars for it. That is much more, if you adjust for inflation, than we’ve provided now for the Iraqis. Within six months the US had brought something like 130,000 South Vietnamese [out of Vietnam].
In contrast now we’re moving at a clip of maybe a couple of thousand Iraqis a month – which is a huge improvement over the one per month that were being let in when I started out.
At the end of Revolutionary War, there were a lot of American militias roaming around looking for loyalists who had helped the British Empire. The British sent five hundred ships in 1783 to the harbor of New York City and they ferried out seventy thousand Loyalists to Nova Scotia and other points in Canada. That number is still double what we’ve been able to do now in 2010. And we have airplanes! We’re a superpower!
No, this is not an issue of capacity. Or a matter of it being hard. There are many precedents to work from that do not jeopardize the security process. But they are not on the table. There is the “Guam Option” – to put these people on airplanes, on military flights and fly them to one of our bases. You save the Iraqis’ lives but you also keep the American public safe while security procedures take place.
In 1996 there was a failed coup in the north of Iraq, and Saddam was moving his Republican   Guards north. Many of the Iraqi Kurds were seen as allied with the United States. President Clinton surveyed the normal processes by which we resettle refugees and said that it was not going to work quickly enough. He ordered something called Operation Pacific Haven, which has essentially evaporated. (I spoke about this before Congress, and none of them seemed to have heard of it.) In two weeks we had airlifted seven thousand Iraqis to our military base in Guam. The average processing time took ninety days, and those Iraqis are now American citizens. Many of them have helped in the current war.
There is no reason why the Guam Option shouldn’t be on the table right now, but it’s not going to happen based on the conversations that I have had in Washington so far.
Question: Could you elaborate on the current position of the Obama administration on the whole Iraqi refugee problem? A second question: in 2009 the European Union committed itself to accept up to ten thousand Iraqis in Europe. Germany at the time accepted 2,500. Did this have any effect on discussion in the United States.
Johnson: No, but I bet it bought Germany a couple of good points with some corner of the US government. I don’t mean to minimize it. It was an important step to take. Nobody wanted to let any of these people in.
In terms of the Obama administration, it has been beyond frustrating, because we now have an administration that is filled with officials who have spoken very forcefully about our obligation to help the Iraqis who have helped us. Obama himself has spoken about it regularly. It was part of his stump speech for about two months. Hilary Clinton has talked about it. All of the administration officials were co-signers on the legislation that was intended to help Iraqis. What I worry about with the Obama administration is that it is falling prey to a very similar tendency that the Bush administration suffered from.
When George W. Bush went into Iraq, he had nothing but best-case scenario plans. W. wouldn’t have to make any plans and invest very much. There were parts of the government that just thought that you get Saddam out and democracy will flourish. ‘We will have Iraqi Thomas Jeffersons, and it will all be easy.’ My former boss said that the reconstruction would not cost more than a billion dollars. But at this point the war is approaching a trillion dollars. When the first best-case scenario didn’t materialize, we were immediately and forever put on a reactive footing. We didn’t have any worst-case scenario plans.
Obama’s focus is fundamentally on how to get the millions of Iraqis who are still displaced, internally or across the borders, to return to Iraq. Everybody agrees that that would be the ideal. Unfortunately the region is still suffering from a displacement crisis. There are no conditions on the ground that suggest that mass returns are imminent. In fact, according to a new poll that was released by the International Republican Institute, the balance has tilted. Now, 40 percent of Iraqis are optimistic about the way the country is going as opposed to 60 percent a year ago. That is probably shaped by the fact that they have gone six months without a [functioning] government since their elections.
A lot of Iraqis I know – after everything – are now packing their bags because they are worried about what’s going to happen as the Americans pull out. I would love it if all of these Iraqis could return and could return safely. But you cannot predicate your policies on wishful thinking or on a best-case scenario. You need to look at the situation that exists on the ground and then work with what you can from that.
The Iraqis that have worked for us bear the stain of collaboration that will last for at least a generation. I know many Iraqis who have fled for a year or more and returned, only to be assassinated. It is foolhardy to think that, because fewer American troops are [now] being killed in Iraq or, because there are fifty thousand “non-combat troops,” there will suddenly be less violence. Each month this year has been bloodier that the previous month. In 2006 and 2007 a thousand bodies a month were being dumped at the Baghdad morgue. We’re back to five hundred last month.
Most of the ministries in Iraq are still fiefdoms of different sects and militias. For years, the Ministry of Health was basically a playground for Moktada al-Sadr. Which is why even hospitals are not a safe haven if somebody gets shot or wounded. If you belonged to the wrong sect they would drag you out and leave you to die on the street. I’m helping a woman right now whose husband was an interpreter for the US. He was killed about three weeks ago; the woman was seven months pregnant, and the shock of his murder sent her into premature labor. She’s in an Iraqi hospital right now under a false name – being shuttled every few hours from one floor to another in order to shake would-be militias that want to get her after her husband. I already know we’re going to have a wrestling match with the US government because she wasn’t the one who worked for the Americans. It was her husband. But this woman’s life in Iraq is now ruined, you see?
None of these cases are easy but there’s so much at stake in what happens to these Iraqis. They were a singular group of people who were willing to act as a bridge between the Americans who came in not knowing anything about Iraq, not knowing any of the languages, not knowing anything of the history or the neighborhoods. Here was the one group of people who stood as intermediaries. And that decision to help us is now costing them their country and their lives.
Question: It’s difficult to think of a country that is more open to immigration now than it was ten, twenty, and thirty years ago. I wonder to what degree the response you’re getting from the State Department reflects that fact.
Johnson : In the end it’s the president of the United States who sets the quotas every year; determines how many refugees are to be admitted. It’s called the “Presidential Determination on Refugees.” It’s also relevant that these agencies – the State Department and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) –are Executive Branch agencies. They do what the president tells them to do, and if the president tells them to move more quickly – or to do an airlift – they’ll do it. But there are no rewards in a bureaucracy for taking these kind of initiatives on your own, and that’s why in the end this will not be solved by functionaries at State. It has to be the US president. It has to come from the White House. And nobody’s ever been reelected for letting in refugees.
Questioner: I was active about 25 years ago in helping to resettle Hmong people in Minnesota –thousands of them. And they’re all there settled now. I’m still astounded by how little contact the average American has with fresh immigrants. The effort that is need for these thousands of Iraqi is not really that much.
Johnson: I’ve spent a lot of time looking into the Hmong precedent, because many Hmong are still blocked from coming to the US under the Patriot Act. The CIA had trained over a hundred thousand Hmong to fight the Communists in Laos. (It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it was called “The Secret War” and was only officially acknowledged in 1996). But many of them are still denied entry into the US because they participated in a group “dedicated to the overthrow of a foreign government” – even though the US created the group and funded it!
There are these kinds of upside-down equations that would-be refugees find themselves in. For example, I was told by the State Department that they could meet with Iraqis in Jordan. “We’ll do resettlement interviews quickly, they just have to come to the Embassy.” And so we’d tell our Iraqis inside Bagdad, “Okay, you’ve got to get to Jordan.” And they would go – saying that they were going to the US embassy in Jordan. But in order to get in [to the Embassy], they need a letter of invitation from the American embassy in Bagdad. Now, you can’t get the letter from the US embassy in Bagdad until you’ve received a letter of invitation from the US embassy in Jordan. But you can’t get that until you’ve received the letter from the American embassy in Bagdad. And so on. [At some point,] these Iraqis just shrug – and they wonder. They look at the refugee program that exists on paper, and it feels to them, very frankly, like a sham.
To return to your point: what I’m calling for is not something without a precedent. We’ve done it many, many times. I had a lot of Hmong classmates in high school – many of them went to the northern Midwest.
Question: You say that this issue could be resolved from the Executive Branch. Apart from the viewpoint that President Obama won’t win political points resolving this situation, is there someone – or some entity – that’s pushing back? Is someone being forceful in saying it is a bad idea to let in Iraqi refugees? Or is it simply being put on the back burner because of the military mission?
Johnson: Samantha Power has been appointed Obama’s Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs at the National Security Council, and Special Advisor on Iraqi Refugees. That’s a hell of a business card. The List Project and other refugee organizations have met with her several times, and she knows about this issue very intimately – she knows what’s at stake. And so I was thrilled when she got that appointment. It was great. We had zero access under Bush.
I testified before Congress this summer, and the official line from the State Department was that it just doesn’t see the need for this sort of contingency planning yet. They don’t see the things on the horizon that I’m suggesting are there. To me, that’s wishful thinking. The #1 person in charge of refugees and refugee resettlement is Eric Schwartz –Head of the State Department Bureau for Population Refugees and Migration. Eric Schwartz had Samantha Powers’s job under Clinton – he was a Senior Director at the NSC. And he was the one who planned and implemented Operation Pacific Haven, which I mentioned earlier: the airlift in 1996 to get out seventy thousand Iraqis. He knows a million things about it that I’ve never heard of, you see? All of the institutional capacity is there. It’s almost a miracle that it is. But in some ways it makes it more of a tease. The people who are in power now understand what could be done – far better than the Bush administration did – but they’re not acting yet.
I think this is due to a combination of factors. There are a lot of competing crises right now. In the short period after the 2008 election, Iraq somehow got the label of being the “good war” and Afghanistan being the “bad war.” (I just saw a recent poll that something like 65 percent – or 69 percent – of Americans now say that the war in Iraq was “worth it” – which suggests a sort of goodness to it, right?) If that’s what’s in the oxygen in Washington, then the List Project is not convenient. It doesn’t mesh with the narrative that they’re trying to construct. And I think the ultimate narrative that we’re trying to construct with the Iraq and Afghanistan is that we can to pass it off to them – that we cannot stay in these countries indefinitely. There has always been this intense desire to do just enough to drop-kick it to the Iraqi government. Or, in effect: “if they screw it up, it’s on them. We did our part.”
I would just argue that what I am calling for is purely an American obligation. It doesn’t matter who is the new prime minister of Iraq. This is on our shoulders.
Question: Let me ask a provocative question from the perspective of the 31 percent [of Americans] who still don’t think the war was worth it. What was the motivation of the collaborators? Is there a sense of a spectrum of different motivations? Idealism? Opportunism? Naiveté? A sense that they’re going with history and will end up, if the US succeeds, somehow having positions in society that will reflect their allegiance to the US – superior positions? Is there a sense of differentiation among who collaborated and why?
Johnson: Yes.
Question (continued): The second part of the question is future oriented. What kind of disincentives can we imagine to prevent future collaborators in the service of aggressive wars who will need to think twice about collaborating?
Johnson: The incentive is basically being established every day. The longer it takes us to help these people, the longer… I don’t know why anybody thinks that we will be able to recruit new hearts and minds or new friends if doing so is just a quick conveyor belt to the executioner.
In terms of their motivations, it’s complicated. But at the same time it’s very simple. In fact, I couldn’t care less what their motivations were. I’ve had arguments with people at State, who say “Well, Kirk, these weren’t all do-gooders. They were making a lot of money working for us over there.” The average Iraqi working for the US is making at most something like ten, or twelve, thousand dollars a year. That’s a pretty cheap price for a clean conscience. And we think, ‘well, they’re screwed now, but they got good pay.’
A lot of the Iraqis on my list are my age or younger. They were fresh out of college. They did not have decades of baggage about America or about what was going to happen. They signed up to work for us because they had watched American movies and also because they had hopes of contributing something to what would be a good Iraq.  A lot of interpreters became so just by necessity. Marines were going into villages where they might be one kid who understood English and he would come forward to try to translate what the Marines were saying to the locals. In the first few months of the war there was no real stigma in helping the Americans. It was actually kind of a useful service. It was only as the war dragged on, as the Iraqis saw what many of them thought was a calculated neglect of the reconstruction. You’re the US, how could you not have the power restored unless it was a deliberate act. They went months and months and months without any clean water. Polio was on the rise again in Iraq (still – it’s considered eradicated everywhere else in the world.) And then we get to things like Abu Ghraib and also just years of occupation, of misunderstandings, of wrongful detention. And suddenly the dividing lines in society and in the war are much more clearly delineated. If you’re helping the Americans you’re one of them. But that initial sort of optimism and good will has evaporated.
To be sure, there were Iraqis who were doing it for economic reasons. And I’m also not naïve enough to think that all Iraqis were saints. There have been some interpreters who have given away important details to insurgent groups and things like that. But that is why to me what happens to this group of people is one of the ultimate tests of the war. Can we reclaim some of our moral senses to be able to distinguish? To know that these Iraqis who have been vetted by our intelligence agencies, who are not unknown to us, that we can still have a functioning moral compass to help them out, I would argue, whatever their orientation [motivations were] was.
End of Transcript