New York Times London Bureau Chief John Burns on the Olympic Games’ Security, Iraq, Afghanistan, & Syria
HH: As I walked and walked and walked and walked and walked across Heathrow Terminal 5 yesterday, I thought when I when I get back to the States, I’m going to try and track down John Burns, London Bureau Chief of the New York Times. And as we went over London and looked out at Olympic Park, I thought no better person to talk to than John Burns. He joins me now. Hello, John, welcome back to the show.
JB: It’s good to be back with you, Hugh.
HH: I’ll tell you, when they built Heathrow 5, I guess they anticipated everyone could move rather quickly at great length.
JB: Well, I think they were trying to get you fit for the Olympics, probably.
HH: (laughing) Well, congratulations. It was gorgeous weather yesterday, and I just read your piece on Sebastian Coe, Baron Coe. It seems like everything is coming together despite a few glitches early. Is that your sense?
JB: Well, that’s the way that we Brits tend to do things, with fingers crossed. I just heard the medium to long-range weather forecast. We’ve got glorious weather now, but wouldn’t you know it, the forecast for Friday, the opening ceremony, is more rain.
HH: Yesterday should have been the day you held it, because it was just absolutely stunning as we flew in and out of London. Tell people a little bit about Baron Coe. Obviously people my age of 56 will remember him as a gold medalist. But he’s done a pretty good job as the chairman of your Games.
JB: He has. He’s more of an athlete than he is a big project manager. He won the, he’s the only man ever to have won gold in two successive Olympic Games. He broke 11 world records, all of that back in the 80s. He’s 55 years old. He’s an extremely appealing character, very charismatic. He headed the bid team that won the Games in 2005. And we’ll have to wait and see. He, like the rest of us, I suppose it’s fair to say, has his fingers crossed. He thinks that they can nail it. But of course, there’s a lot that can go wrong. And the principal concern has been, as you would expect, about extraneous events, non-sporting events, like a terror attack. And we just have to hope that nothing like that occurs.
HH: I want to talk to you about that more in a moment, but first, you wrote a very interesting piece on the first bus trip from Heathrow to the Olympic Village, which ought to have taken about 45 minutes, and took four hours. And people who missed it, it’s in last week’s New York Times by John Burns, Athletes Arrive In London And Run Into A Dead End. Has that particular screw-up been rectified, John Burns? Do the buses know where they’re going now?
JB: Well, you certainly have to hope so. The more, the amusing addendum to that, which I didn’t know when I wrote the piece, was there’s been a rather long-running sitcom called 2012, now in its second series, about the, centered on the organizing committee of the Olympic Games. Sebastian Coe, the chief organizer, has actually appeared as himself on two occasions. One of those, which was run some months ago, was about a Brazilian delegation, this is fictional of course, that got lost on its way from Heathrow Airport to the Olympic site when the driver couldn’t read the GPS SatNav system, and couldn’t read a map, either, and they got lost for hours. Well, wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what happened with three busloads last week, one of them with American athletes on, one of whom, of course, brought this to the public attention by Tweeting from the bus, saying that he was into the fourth hour now. Sebastian Coe told me he didn’t think it was quite that long, but it was life imitates art, and a co-found, his associates at the Olympic Organizing Committee, he told me, found a way to laugh at it. We only have to hope there’s no recurrence.
HH: Now John Burns, obviously you’re a veteran of war zones and Iraq and Afghanistan. You’ve reported from around the world in Beijing and India, and after the break, I want to talk to you about Syria and the Middle East. But as you go into covering the Olympics, how are you planning to do that? You’re twice a Pulitzer winner. This is, I don’t know, have you covered an Olympics before?
JB: (laughing) I haven’t. Fortunately, the New York Times has a team of about 30 people who are sports journalists and editors coming in here to do the sports events. Of course, I would love to go and spend time at the sports events. But this is happening, as you know, not in the middle of, but at the east end of one of the world’s biggest cities. And there are a lot of extraneous elements to this. I’ve mentioned one of them, the risk of terror attack. There is…and the apprehension that there may be serious traffic problems. So the London Bureau of the New York Times, which I head, will be concerning itself with those events. And I have to say, much as I’d like to be on the front page of the paper, I would much rather that my colleagues at the Olympic Park and other sporting venues take the front page, and we remain off the front page, because if we get on the front page, it will be because of problems, serious problems in the organization of the Games.
HH: As I picked up your competitor’s paper yesterday, the Sunday Times, and saw on the front page that Israel is warning about this possible terror attack in London during the Olympic Games, had you picked up on that prior to the attack in Bulgaria, John Burns, that there were these rumblings? Or is this all in reaction…
JB: No, because as you know, security agencies are very, very loathe to, if you will, prefigure, even if they have some apprehension. But I have met and talked at some length to very senior security officials, including the agencies, the secret security agencies, MI5 and MI6. and they are, of course, on the alert. They think that the Games will be, as the director of MI5 said in a public address, successful, meaning that there won’t be an attack. But they are a long way from being able to guarantee that, because as you know, Britain has a long history of attempted terror attacks, all but one of which, thank God, that’s the one on July the 7th, 2005, all but one of them failed, were apprehended before the attacks took place. And so in that sense, I think, and with a great deal of assistance from the FBI and the CIA, in the case of protecting the Olympics, they have a kind of measured confidence that they can handle this. There have been arrests, even quite recently within the last few days, of Islamic militants who were planning terror attacks. We are told by the authorities that these were not aimed at the Olympic Games, but that’s not a great deal of encouragement, because as the security officials I spoke to said, you wouldn’t expect terrorists who were attempting, who wanted to disrupt the Games, to go for the hardest targets, the best protected targets, which are the 34 Olympic sporting venues. They would very likely attack a non-Olympic target with the intent of creating general panic.
HH: I was off with my friends, some of whom were from Atlanta, going from, through Germany and Austria, and they recalled in ’96 the bombing in Atlanta was at a soft target, Olympic Park, not one of the hardened venues. And so London’s an enormous city, but you also have a lot of experience with this, John Burns. I imagine your degree of confidence in your security services is at least as high as anywhere in the world.
JB: Well, I think they’re pretty good. But as they say, you know, the terrorists only have to succeed once. The people of, the counterterrorist people have to succeed every time. So it would be foolish to say that it’s very, very unlikely…the official estimate is, and this goes not to the Olympic Games but to the general threat of a terror attack in the United Kingdom at the moment, that the threat is substantial. It’s the third highest of five alerts in the system. So there is a significant degree of apprehension, if you will, that something like this could happen. On the other hand, as I say, they have successfully apprehended every terror plot since 2005, when 56 people, including the four bombers, were killed on the London Transit System. So they’re pretty good.
HH: I’m talking with John Burns, who’s the London Bureau Chief of the New York Times. In his piece today, John, you mentioned that ticket sales are picking up, and the weather forecast improving. Tickets were almost impossible to come by in America’s Games. Do you expect that will be the case by the time the ceremonies get underway on Friday?
JB: I think so. There were, at least 48 hours ago, still tickets available for the opening ceremony, which is pretty unusual, expensive tickets, I have to say. The big problem has been moving tickets for the soccer tournament, and that’s, one reason for that, and it’s a technicality, is that Britain normally doesn’t compete as Britain. It competes as four different component teams – England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales. This time, they’re competing as Team GB – Great Britain, and that’s not an entity that most people, curious as it may seem, recognize as soccer. They recognize it in the other athletic squads, but they don’t recognize it in soccer. And since 80% of the spectators at all Games events are going to be Brits, they’ve had a lot of trouble shifting those soccer tickets.
HH: How interesting. I hadn’t gotten into the details of that. And in terms of, we’ve got 30 seconds to the break, traffic, L.A. was supposed to close down and everyone left town. Is the same thing happening in London?
JB: Yeah, a lot of people are outbound. The airports are as busy outbound as they are inbound at the moment. Today was the first day of the lockdown, the opening of special VIP lanes on all roads into London, tremendous, tremendous traffic backups, and we’re five days away from the opening, so I think that’s going to be a problem.
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HH: Now John Burns, I don’t know the east end. I just don’t know this part of town. I’ve been to London a number of times, but I just don’t know it, and there was a hope for regeneration there. I saw the venues from the sky. What’s your sense of it as a lifelong Londoner of what’s happened in the city as a result of these Games?
JB: Well, it’s a phenomenal undertaking. They’ve spent about $15 billion dollars. They won the Games largely on the strength of promising urban regeneration. We’ll have to see whether that works, because you’ve got a 500 acre Olympic Park, which is populated now with stadiums, Olympic activities. It’s going to be quite a business to try and keep them busy and utilized after the Games are over. We know what happened in Barcelona, Athens, even Beijing. These places tend to turn into wastelands. They say that they’ve got that covered this time, and that this has been a pump primer for wider regeneration in the area. I have to say, having spent time out at Olympic Park, that it’s a little bit of a disappointment in a certain sense. It’s a rather cheerless place. If you see it from the air, as you and I have done, it looks very pleasant, that you can see that it’s a park. On the ground, because of security, it’s become a kind of, well, one of my colleagues said it was a kind of Gitmo experience, meaning Guantanamo. Security is very tight indeed, as you would expect. There’s a lot of wire mesh fencing to channel you around, there are concrete blocks, actually, a kind of environment that I’m very familiar with from the American military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now you know, the Games haven’t started yet. So you don’t have the kind of enthusiasm that we expect to see with all the people there, the athletes, all the excitement of the Games. And that may very well change. But if you’re looking for beauty, I would say the London Olympic Park is not the place to go for it. There are places in London that are a great deal more appealing than that.
HH: How about the ease of just getting there? That’s part of the success of some games versus others, if you can just get on the Tube and get over there easily. I just don’t know whether or not that is in fact a new Tube station?
JB: No, don’t take a motorcar. I can tell you that, because I did last week, and I aged about 25 years in the course of doing it.
JB: First of all, the whole area has been turned into a maze. Second of all, there’s the density of the traffic even before the Games began. The public transport is much, much better, and they spent billions on upgrading transport links which were badly needed to that part of London. There is underground, or as you would say in the United States, a subway system, which has been extended right to the gate at the Park, which is again a little bit cheerless. They built a $1.5 billion dollar department store complex, shopping mall, the biggest in Europe, so they say, which is where you find the entrance to the Park. Again, you know, a little unusual, but hey, if it works, nobody’s going to be complaining about it. And they think that they can shift those millions of people in and out, not without delays, there will be delays, but we just have to hope that there won’t be the kind of catastrophic delays that have large numbers of spectators, or God forefend, athletes missing their events.
HH: Well, turning, before I turn to abroad and questions to the security drawing on your experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, two more questions on the Olympics. First of all, you know, you’ve had the Royal Wedding, you’ve had the Queen’s Jubilee. Now, you’re having the Olympics. What are you going to do for an encore, John Burns?
JB: (laughing) You’re absolutely right. And let it be said we Brits like to say we’re pretty good at organizing ceremonial events. Whether we’re good at organizing, you know, the Olympic Games is the biggest mobilization, they say, in Britain, since 1940, since Churchill mobilized England and Britain, and the Empire to go to war with Nazi Germany. It’s a very, very big event. As somebody who’s lived my whole life, and if you will, in a mid-Atlantic mode, working for the New York Times my whole adult life, I’d have to say we know that Americans can organize big events. I’m thinking of the landing on the Moon. 64,000 different companies that were brought together on that one day, July 21st, 1969, as I recall, to put a man on the Moon. This kind of enterprise in peacetime is not something that Britain has attempted. We’ll have to see, we tend to muddle through. We already had all kinds of disturbances as you know. I don’t mean security disturbances, but problems putting together the security team, thousands upon thousands of private security guards who haven’t showed up, the Army being drafted it. It’s all been in the front pages of the world’s newspapers. And that makes us a little nervous. But as I say, we’re famous for improvising and muddling through. And who knows? We may very well succeed in muddling through on this one, too.
HH: And last question on the Olympics, will we be seeing you on any of the networks? Have you signed on with NBC or with PBS?
JB: I haven’t. I haven’t, actually, you know, and probably for good reason. I’m not a sports correspondent. I’ll be like everybody else, probably watching many of the events from my office on television. And of course, I’m tremendously excited.
HH: Well, let me turn now to areas of expertise which is heart and center to yours. A little bit later, I’m going to be talking at length with Rajiv Chandrasekaran about his new book, Little America: The War Within The War For Afghanistan. And of course, you were the Bureau Chief for the Times in Kabul for a number of years. Have you had a chance to read this, yet? And what’s your general, even whether or not you have, what’s your general assessment of the situation in Afghanistan right now?
JB: I haven’t read the book, although Rajiv is a personal friend of mine. Tell him if he sends me a copy, I’ll read it. No, I’ll go out and buy the book. Of course, I’ve kept up and maintained a very close interest in Afghanistan, not the least of reasons with which is my wife works there for the New York Times as an administrator. I have to say that my prognosis is not good. I think that I just have the feeling I had as the Soviets were heading for the exit in the 1980s. Many differences, our occupation, if you call it that, of Afghanistan, has been a lot more benign, but I have the feeling that looking back five or ten or fifteen years from now, we will say we didn’t accomplish a great deal. I have a very dark feeling that once American and British, and other NATO troops are no longer engaged in combat from the end of 2014, which is after all, only a little bit over two years from now, things will move back to the profit of the Taliban, and we may very well end up with an Afghanistan which is chaotic, or worse still, perhaps, once again Taliban-dominated.
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HH: I didn’t know, John Burns, that your wife actually worked in Afghanistan. And in the new book, Little America, it lays, here’s my quandary. It seems as though Rajiv Chandrasekaran comes to the conclusion we could do better. We could win there, that progress has been made in the last two years, but we’re pulling the plug on it because the West is just generally weary.
JB: They are, but I think to be successful, we would have to contemplate, in my judgment at least, an open-ended commitment running out for 15 or 20 years, and a much larger commitment than has already been made. The troop commitments, which have crested at something like 140,000 troops from NATO, of which 100,000 are Americans, were never near enough on a troop to terrain basis to dominate. It’s always been the case that much of the rural hinterland, and much of the night has belonged to the Taliban. You can’t win a war like that. And I think you know and I know that America’s patience with these wars is exhausted, not to mention its treasury, the blood of its sons and its daughters. And it was just not likely that you were ever going to be able to persuade, even if you had a president who was minded to do it, persuade the United States to undertake that kind of a commitment. We’re talking about, what, the best part of a trillion dollars that’s been spent on these two wars in the last ten years, between five an six thousand American lives, soldiers, lost, as I recall. Britain, proportionately, has taken a similar hit. Britain and the United States have been the heart of both military operations, and there just isn’t the public support for it anymore. And I’m inclined to say, although this gets into, if you will, advocacy, not just pure reporting, I’m inclined to say when I see on British television those caskets coming home covered with the Union Jack and the weeping families, that if we have concluded, and I think many of our military leaders and analysts have concluded, that this, we can’t, not only can we not win, we’re not likely to be able to achieve what is the stated goal, that is to leave behind a self-sustaining government, if not democratic, at least one that will provide for, if you will, some prospect of a better life for the Afghan people. That to stay on, in those circumstances, for another two years in combat, losing more lives, spending more money, that, myself, to me, is a difficult argument to make. On the other hand, if you’re sitting in the White House, as President Obama is, you know, you just couldn’t cut and run. It’s a devilishly difficult situation.
HH: Now this morning comes the awful news from Baghdad, with which you are so intimately familiar, of a series of massive attacks against the government by “insurgents,” not clear to me yet whether it’s al Qaeda related or al Qaeda in the Desert or any of those. But nevertheless, 100 people are dead, and various facilities are struck. Are you getting the sense of unraveling there as well, John Burns?
JB: Yeah, I think that was, sad to say, absolutely predictable. In all the years that American troops were there, from April, 2003 until last December, the best part of nine years, none of the underlying political problems were solved. Many of them were not even seriously addressed. I’m not talking about the American effort to have those problems addressed, but the failure on the part of the contending factions in Iraq, the Sunni, the Shia, the Kurds, principally, and the divisions within them to tackle those problems. Why was that? Because I think there was a fairly general recognition that once American troops were gone, and a decent interval had passed, the issue would once again come to combat. They would fight it out, and I personally think that we may be seeing the first stirrings of a civil war in Iraq. And that’s made more likely, not less likely, by the unrest in Syria, which looks as though it’s likely to install a Sunni government in time in Syria, in place of the Shia Alawite government of President Assad. If that were to happen, then, of course, the Sunnis, who are a minority in Iraq, who appear to be returning to violence in their various factions, will of course be enormously strengthened.
HH: Now the tempo in Syria seems to be accelerating. We have 30 seconds to the break. Do you expect massive changes in the very short future there, John Burns? Or do you expect more of the slow combustion?
JB: No, I think it’s going to take some time. The United States left behind it an Iraqi Security Forces of several hundred thousand, three, four hundred thousand trained men, a lot of weaponry, a lot of bases, a lot of heavy weaponry. And I think it’ll take some time for that to topple. But when it does topple, it could topple fairly quickly.
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HH: Mr. Burns, there is an amazing speech that I just came across because of the book I referenced earlier that was given at by Lt. General John Kelly, Marine Corps Lieutenant General John Kelly after his son was killed in Afghanistan, talking about his view of the war, which begins, “We are at war, and like it or not, that is a fact. It’s not Bush’s war, it’s not Obama’s war, it is our war, and we can’t run away from it.” It goes on at length. And as we talk about Afghanistan falling back into the shadow of the Taliban, Iraq on the brink of civil war, and Syria coming apart at the seams, here we are, 11 years after 9/11, on the brink of a great celebration of Western ethic, meaning an international ideal in the Olympic Games. Has anything much changed in the 11 years since this war became very obvious to us?
JB: Well, I’d have to say my guess is that history will look back, and we’ll see this as a period similar to events which I do not know well, but they say in Ancient Greece, where the West, the United States, overextended itself despite its enormous military power and wealth, took on more than it could handle, and that it has seriously weakened the West relative to the rising powers of the East. I personally think that that’s very regrettable in terms of freedom in the world, and in terms of prosperity and just general well-being. That’s my opinion. As to what will have been accomplished? Who knows? But despite, I think, the likely failure of these two projects, maybe we will have planted the seeds of freedom, the search for freedom and democracy, which in the very long term, I think will be the very long term, will flower. But at the moment, I would say much of what we set out to accomplish is likely to have been lost, and at terrible cost.
HH: And how concerned or apprehensive are you about this meltdown in Syria vis-à-vis Hezbollah and the attack in Bulgaria of last week? I was in Europe when that happened, and it’s shocking that this can go on in the eve of so much celebratory emphasis in Great Britain that we’ve got Hezbollah’s assassins out in Bulgaria, or at least that’s what people think. How concerned are you that we’re on the cusp of something enormous and terrible?
JB: Well, these terrorist groups and their Iranian sponsors are not going to give up, and they’re more likely to succeed somewhere at sometime than they are to continue failing. Last week, they succeeded, if you could call it that, in this bus attack in Bulgaria. And unfortunately, we’re going to see more of that. Now we have got, and you ask, you know, what is the residue, what is the gains of the last ten years, one thing I think we can say is that our own domestic, and indeed our international security and intelligence agencies have got a great deal better than they were. They were, as we know now from the 9/11 Commission Report, from similar inquiries here in Britain, good as they may have been, these agencies, ten years ago, and in Britain’s case, five, let me see, seven years ago, they weren’t good enough. Well, they’re a great deal better now. The chronicle that I’ve been shown of interception of terrorist, of intended terrorist attacks in Britain alone, and it’s been a very much a transatlantic, or joint transatlantic venture, because the United States has assets which have been very generously applied to these issues, because of course an attack on Britain is also an attack on the United States, sometimes very directly an attack on the United States, you know, attempts to use the transatlantic air links for terrorist attacks being just one of them, that we’re much, much better at that now than we were, and thank God we are. But to say that we can beat it when you have a state power like Iran, which in its frustration is prepared, apparently, to fund these groups, and of course, we haven’t talked about the attempt to frustrate Iran’s attempt to acquire nuclear weapons, that’s going to, however it comes out, is likely, and I would have thought, to further prime the pump of international terrorism.
HH: Do you expect the Assad’s to go without a convulsion? Can it be quietly done? Or will there have to be a shattering meltdown in Syria?
JB: That is so hard to read. I would say this, and sorry if I sound like a Jeremiah today about these things, but my sense about the Middle East, I spent a good deal of last summer in Libya. I haven’t been to Syria, but like everybody else, I watch it with very close attention. My feeling is that there is something absolutely seismic that is occurring across the Arab world, that we, if you will, to speak metaphorically, are like a 19th Century exploratory party donning our pith helmets and descending into a volcano. We can, perhaps, help in some ways to mitigate the violence, but not a great deal. And I think we’ve learned that force of arms in these events, notwithstanding the example of Libya last year, where it did bring about a transition, there’s no doubt about that, the NATO bombing, I think that there’s not a great deal that we can do to affect, and not a great deal we can do, either, to mitigate the outcome of these seismic events. And that in the case of Syria, predicting where it will go, trying to, as I said, mitigate the human losses, it seems to me that our potential in all of this is very limited indeed.
HH: Well, I’ll close by saying the one thing that has changed is that the efforts by you and your colleagues like Neil MacFarquhar, now reporting from the Syrian border, and from Dexter Filkins in Afghanistan, or Rajiv Chandrasekaran from within Afghanistan, it’s just amazing what you guys do, and so my hat’s off to you for making that. I just hope you enjoy your next three weeks in London, John Burns.
JB: Yeah, let’s hope we’re not in a combat zone, that all goes off well, and that Britain, which has had a rather cheerless few years, as has America with the wars and the economic, the recession, let’s hope we all have something to smile about and to celebrate.
HH: From your lips to God’s ears, thank you, John Burns of the New York Times.
End of interview.