In Harm's Way
May 2003

by James Blue

Getting In

When I started telling people back in January and February that I would be leaving for Kuwait their initial reaction -- almost to a person was: "I hope you don't have to go into Iraq. Please be safe". My response was always "well I actually want to get into Iraq, that's why I'm going." Why was I so willing? What was I trying prove?

I am a producer with ABC News Nightline. Over the past eighteen months I have reported almost exclusively on the U.S.-led war against terrorism, filing from through the Arab world from Yemen, Djibouti, Bahrain, Kuwait and Iraq. Several of these reports were on the U.S. military's preparations for war in Iraq. I thought the best way to position myself, and Nightline for the coming conflict, was to get right into the belly of the beast, which is why I spent ten days in Kuwait at the end of July out in the desert with temperatures reaching 130° -- to report on the training of troops just near the Iraqi border.

Having invested the time reporting on the military I had hoped that I would be assigned an embed and I was initially disappointed when that did not happen. Instead, I was tasked along with my Nightline colleague John Donvan to provide unilateral coverage of the conflict from a base in Kuwait City. I was happy to have the independence but from that point the looming question became how were we going to get into Iraq?

Once on the ground in Kuwait our first major decision was whether to move our team of nine (camera crew (2), local journalist, editor, uplink operator, producer, correspondent and security) to a farmhouse on the Kuwait-Iraq border that ABC News had secured for Mobile Team # 1 (as we were called) in order to be in place for the start of any conflict. It was a wrenching decision complicated by competitive concerns. Tons of other journalists had the idea of moving close to the border to not only see potential hostilities once they began, but also to be in position to quickly cross into Iraq when it became safe. Strategically this was a good idea, operationally it drove us nuts.

How do you protect yourself from weapons of mass destruction in a rural area that is sparsely populated and does not have any local warning system? We feared we'd wind up sitting ducks at the farm while waiting for something to happen. Our decision was further complicated by the doubts some in our group had over our ability to actually see anything at night in the distance (5 kms from the Iraqi border). So the scenario we constructed: at the very beginning of the conflict we might not get any pictures and end up dirty from some chemical, biological or nuclear agent. Once we uncovered the downside to the farmhouse we quickly (and comfortably) decided to give the farm a pass. Then Scott Pelley appeared live.

Scott Pelley and John Donvan competed at the White House in the late 1990s. I've always admired his work and knew he was a very aggressive reporter. He took the risk that we were unwilling to take and on the first night of the war he reported live from his farm location. Once our network bosses in New York saw this there was strong encouragement that we move to our farm so we could at least report from the border and be in a position to get into Iraq.

We threw caution to the wind (along with the other concerns we were struggling with – we'd just been scooped and were trying to catch up on a competitive story) and one night while just out driving to see if we could make it to the border (the Kuwaitis had established a very complex system of checkpoints) we decided this would be it: if we would made it across the check point with all of our kit we would work from the border and try to make it into Iraq.

Our local journalist quite smartly decided that he would try to get official permission for us to cross the checkpoint. Through a friend he contacted the Kuwaiti military officer responsible for the checkpoints. He asked us to meet him at 21:00 at which point he would let us cross. We agreed to rendezvous at a Hardees on the edge of town so the entire team could convoy up to the checkpoint together. With just five miles to travel we set off at 20:40 hoping to get to the meeting point a bit early. We pulled off at the agreed upon location, called our military officer to discover he had waited for us over an hour and he had an urgent call to another checkpoint and therefore we would have to simply wait.

Here we are finally deciding to take a risk and we have to sit on our hands. Our local journalist decided to pursue this and eventually convinced the military officer to speak to the Kuwaiti guards on our cell phone. It was that call that got us into northern Kuwait and up to Abdelly Farms.

It would take a lot more agonizing, cajoling (and yes even getting scooped) to get us into Iraq for good.

© James Blue III
ABC News producer for Nightline


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