Kirk Johnson, former USAID reconstruction coordinator in Iraq

From the November/December 2007 issue.

| Thu Oct. 18, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

Mother Jones: You have a list of 500 Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government in some capacity who are looking to you to get them out of Iraq. Do they have hope that the U.S. is going to help them out in the event of a withdrawal?

Kirk Johnson: Of the Iraqis who are currently working at the U.S. embassy, none of them whom I've spoken with feel like they are going to be taken care of. There was a Christian couple that was killed about four months ago. The husband was a senior translator; his wife also worked in the embassy for years. He was kidnapped. When the wife went to pay the ransom, they killed both of them. Every killing is succeeded by a wave of Iraqis leaving because the presumption is that any U.S. government employee who was kidnapped was tortured and gave the names of other Iraqis who were working with them.

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There is no way for Iraqis in country to get U.S. visas. If an Iraqi faces a death threat, he must follow assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration Ellen Sauerbrey's advice and forge his way into Jordan or Syria and stand outside of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees offices. Somebody who shows up at UNHCR in Damascus won't get an interview until spring 2008. And that's just one of three interviews where they're asked roughly the same questions. Even if they get an American visa, they have to go back to Iraq and then come back when it's ready. It's appallingly slow and labyrinthine.

In February, the State Department announced that they were going to let in 7,000 Iraqis in 2007. In April, they announced that they could let in 25,000. Then they started backing off, saying, "No, we actually never said 7,000"—as if there isn't a public record. They said it's probably going to be more like 2,000, and they're not even going to get close to that. They're kicking the can down the sidewalk now, not making some ethical and morally driven plan to help those in the event of us pulling out. Do you know what the Danes did? They secreted out 200 Iraqi employees in advance of their final withdrawal. One Iraqi told me, 'Well if the Danes can do it, then the Americans surely can.' The other Iraqis that I've talked to are not as optimistic. Nobody on my list—which is now more than 500 names—is getting the sense that the problem has been recognized and is being dealt with.

MJ: Right.

KJ: There has been a torrent of criticism on Bush and on the U.S. government that hasn't produced anything. If you actually look at the number of senior administration officials who have commented on this and that have declared some sort of responsibility—Sauerbrey saying that it's her very top priority, for example. Condi said that she's most concerned about the Iraqis who have worked for us. [Paula] Dobriansky, who is the undersecretary who's head of the task force that's supposed to be ushering this to a speedy conclusion—but she hasn't done anything really since they announced it in February—she said that the U.S. is morally obligated. And then there was the ambassador's cable a couple of weeks ago, which said we need to have something in place for these Iraqis.

MJ: It was a cry for help, more or less.

KJ: Yeah, and in that article that broke the story [secretary of Homeland Security Michael] Chertoff was quoted as saying that we need to quickly process [Iraqis seeking entry into the United States]. So you even had DHS in there. Imagine now if an Iraqi sees this seeming chorus of senior administration officials. It's like, how many more senior administration officials in Bush's White House does it take before something actually gets done?

MJ: Is there a contingency plan for Iraqi refugees if the U.S. exits?

KJ: If there is one, it's happening under deep political cover. But I'm skeptical that they are being that proactive. There's at least one Western NGO that's doing work in Iraq that is concerned that their Iraqi staff will be left behind and killed because of their affiliation with an American NGO. They're basically preparing a complete list of everybody that is working for them to be added to my list, even though they know that there is no guarantee that anything will happen. They're like, "We're not packing up right now. We still hope things go well in Iraq. But we don't have a lot of confidence in the U.S. government to do this proactively and to get this on their radar."

If you look at the tenor of the debate right now, it's not a sort of a sober and constructive approach that's being taken. They are still listing positions for expats and junior Foreign Service officers to go over there. They're not planning the demobilization right now. And if you look at the way that the embassy and the way that AID and the way that the United States government has dealt with its Iraqi staff, there's not much to suggest that they're making plans.

MJ: I'm wondering, with Jordan having closed its borders and Syria more or less bulging at the seams, if we pull out and security deteriorates, where does a person looking to leave Iraq go? Do you envision camps along the border? I talked to many people who said that Iraqis are more or less averse to setting up encampments along borders because of the inclement climate, etc.

KJ: Yes. Not having ever been forced to make a decision about setting up a camp, I think there has to be some element of pride as well. Nobody likes becoming a refugee, much less a tent-based community. There was an article early on in the Atlantic by [Kenneth] Pollack and [Daniel] Byman where it was about this issue and they titled it "Carriers of Conflict." I always disliked that. I thought it was a pretty cold way to characterize the refugee outflow from Iraq.

But the destabilizing role—I don't even think people can comprehend it yet. The estimates now in Syria are like 1.4 million. I don't know if it's reaching a boiling pitch yet, but I think another six months or so of continued unemployment and virtually zero access to health care and schools is going to create an increasingly restive component of your population. If we were to pull out and Iraq sort of continues along the path that it's on where neighborhoods are being cleansed and there's forced displacement on a massive scale, and if they can't keep going up to Kurdistan anymore, it's really difficult to comprehend how we would react to that because we're not reacting to it even in its current critical state.

I think we gave something like 10 or 15 million bucks to the Jordanian government for their time, and they estimated they are spending more like a billion a year. The Syrians, I don't think we've helped at all really. And these governments are skeptical of the UNHCR operating within their territory or they're skeptical of NGOs coming and working because they think they're going to be monitoring for human rights abuses too. The crisis is already worsening the tensions that exist between Jordan and Syria and between us and the Middle East. When the Bush administration cites what would happen if we were to leave, I always kind of shake my head because they are raising a specter while ignoring this massive problem right now. The water is trickling over the dam right now.

MJ: What about processing refugees through the U.S. embassy? I know that has happened in the past during other refugee crises.

KJ: It's what I have been pushing for the whole time because I don't think the UNHCR should be used for these particular cases. Their charter is to help the most vulnerable. Not everyone on my list, while they are certainly vulnerable in Iraq, is the most vulnerable. A widow and mother of several children in Damascus is in pretty dire straits and needs help. The embassy drafted a cable in February of this year. It creates a mechanism through which foreign service officers can refer critically imperiled Iraqis to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, USRAP.

MJ: Which is run by the State Department?

KJ: Yeah, by PRM. It has some criteria and some things to look for. It gives the email addresses of the refugee coordinator in Baghdad and someone at main State. They issued this on February 6, which is a long time ago in this debate. For months I kept getting emails from Foreign Service officers and others who were scared to be seen with me. But they wanted to pass on the names of Iraqi staff who worked at the embassy in Hila, Basra, or even Baghdad.

I told these officials, "I will take your names and add them my list for sure, but why aren't you using the mechanism created in this February cable?" Because I had seen a copy of it. None of them knew about it. It was becoming this bizarre thing where I would tell them—it's an unclassified cable—I would tell them the date and the title of the cable. None of them could find it on their own State Department computer systems. I showed one to a State Department person and they looked at the slugging, where it was sent to—it was sent to maybe five or six refugee coordinators in the region but with no instructions on further dissemination, and the way it was drafted it was such that others couldn't really find it. So I can't interpret it any other way other than it's just sort of a cover-your-ass move so that they can say that they've created this mechanism, but nobody in their own Foreign Service even knows about it.

MJ: Right. Without any enforcement.

KJ: It's pathetic, but the point is that there remains no way for us to do direct referrals in country. Let's say we were to refer a name. Let's say I sent the refugee coordinator a name of a direct-hire State Department Iraqi who needs help. They may review the case and say, "Yes, we're going to open up a direct referral," but the Iraqi still has to find his own way outside of Iraq into Syria or Jordan and sort of bide his time. The mechanism appears to be so weakly created that a lot of times we're seeing that the referral isn't actually even making its way out of Iraq. There was an Iraqi who showed up at Jordan with a paper from the government and the Jordanian officials turned him away at the border. Sent him back.

Even if the government is deciding that they should do direct referrals, they're still sort of referring them into this abyss of variables. The numbers that are lucky enough to get through are in the tens or twenties, really. If there were a hundred ways to respond to what I've been calling for and what others have been calling for, and 99 are productive and one is unproductive, they've managed to pick the unproductive one miraculously every single time.

I don't know if you have studied the extension of that Special Immigrant Visa Program that the United States Congress drafted and passed. The United States signed a law that would extend from 50 translators a year to 500 a year over the next two fiscal years. They didn't put any rollover in, so if the 500 slots aren't used up, they are just going to be lost. But because DHS and the State Department are working so poorly with each other, and because there's so much bureaucratic cholesterol, the last that I heard they are not even approaching readiness to actually use their 500 positions. So much so that [Ted] Kennedy and a number of other Senators, [Patrick] Leahy and others, wrote Chertoff and Rice a letter maybe six weeks ago basically saying, "Get off your ass, this is law, we've passed this; get going, if we lose these slots they're lost." And so it seems really particularly embarrassing and damning at the same time that the president and Congress are at a point now where laws can be created and passed that might not actually have any impact because of bureaucratic infighting or bureaucratic incompetence. And it's a direct indictment on the lack of presidential leadership; that's what he's there for.

MJ: Let's talk about displaced persons within the country. I mean, if there is no process set up for a direct referral and if the Jordanian border is really closed, and bordering Saudi Arabia there is a wall—

KJ: $7 billion wall.

MJ: So I'm wondering, there has to be some sort of mechanism in place for internally displaced persons, and I know that there are IDP camps, but historically those are ineffective. What mechanism do you think will be put in place for IDPs, and what sort of dialogue is going on now about what it means for refugees if we leave?

KJ: IDPs are the most damned, because if we pull out and the security situation worsens to a point that even the international NGOs who are there working doing humanitarian relief in these camps can't function—and it's getting close to that point; they have to use Iraqi staff and they can't really get eyes on the ground anymore—I mean, it's already at a devastating state. I don't know what it is: 15 percent, 16 percent of the country has now been displaced, is either leaving the country or displaced within Iraq.

Many of them are relying on the PDS, their Public Distribution System. It's the second-largest item in Iraq's budget, this huge food-basket ration system that was set up in the sanctions era. There are about 20 different items of soap, rice, flour, vegetable oil, weaning formula, and that kind of stuff. If an Iraqi moves or is displaced, the process for re-registering with the new food agent in whatever province, or even whatever city you've lived in, is so pre-Soviet. It takes forever. And also, a lot of times people might not want to actually say where they popped up on the radar.

I mean, the PDS rationing cards, that's really the only nationalized ID-card that exists in Iraq. That's what they had to use to verify their identity for voting—these food rationing cards. And it's a huge issue. If the aid groups, if outside international NGOs can't get in, and consequently the main provider is the Iraqi state, which is sort of grinding at the gears right now, and this already anemic social safety net breaks down—I mean it doesn't take much to figure out worst-case scenarios where it's just sort of every man for himself over what basic resources exist within Iraq.

MJ: Does that mean we need to keep our military there?

KJ: There are so many dimensions of our pulling out that you can already see. The reality right now is happening. Our pulling out will just sort of exacerbate it. It might not necessarily exacerbate it, but the reality will be multiplied tenfold, I think. Whether we have the ability to reduce it or guard against it if we stay, I don't know. But there's nothing that would lead me to think that suddenly our departure would lead to a reduction in the outflow of refugees or in the sort of creation of internal displacement. I don't know that we've ever been able to put our finger on that scale.

MJ: What do you mean?

KJ: I don't know that we really have much ability to shape it with the forces that we have on the ground. The only thing that we don't know is what happens if you remove them. It's sort of complicated thinking, but if 150,000 troops are still creating an outflow of 50,000 a month and widespread displacement, does it merit keeping them in if leaving would double that to 100,000 a month? I don't know that anyone is even thinking along these lines because I think the debate is so politically focused right now that I don't really get much sense that people are thinking with the Iraqi people's fate in mind. On the domestic front it's just political legacies and how things are going to play out in '08.

MJ: Who at the State Department, at UNHCR, at Homeland Security, and at similar agencies are having conversations about the fate of Iraq's refugees? Is anyone?

KJ: Honestly, I have had conversations with people, but I don't get the sense that they are. The thinking seems to be, Why focus on such an abstraction? Why theorize on what we might do in the hypothetical? Even if that hypothetical is becoming increasingly likely. What's the point of theorizing when what we might do already seems clear, which is abandon these people?

Go to the website now for the project, thelistproject.org. This isn't self-promotion. It's just that it's funny because Ellen Sauerbrey pretends like she's never heard of my list. Which is the one thing that she can't say. Everybody in town knows I have been giving them my list every few weeks. They had a welcoming committee for me in February to accept the first list. At any rate, it's staggering, unbelievable to me, that she couldn't know about this list. I saw somebody in the airport in Geneva walk up and hand her the International Herald Tribune, which had my op-ed that day where I sort of made fun of her. I called her bureau irrelevant, basically. Even that apparently doesn't even prompt her to figure out if they have my list, which, by the way, is the most comprehensive and high-profile list that congressmen and senators and everybody know about. And not a single person on it has come in.

MJ: And there's nothing in place to get them here.

KJ: Right. There are so many excuses that we have created. "Oh, maybe the reason why the program isn't moving so well is because they didn't ask for enough funding," or "They don't have enough staff." Or "The State Department didn't have enough office space." Stuff like that. "They didn't have enough trained Arabic speakers," or "There weren't enough cops in the local police station in Amman to do the processing." You could go on forever.

If you don't step back from the situation and remember that we have done it before, [for example] 10, 15 years or so ago with 14,000 ethnic Albanians. Put them on C-130s and process them all on American military bases. Fly them here and process them here. You can forget that this is what presidents are here for and this is what leadership means. If you cut through this mountain of bureaucracies through leadership and say, "This is what we have to do."

MJ: How can international diplomacy make a difference here?

KJ: The ripple effect of non-engagement with Damascus on the refugee issue is going to be staggering. The State Department now has started to send Sauerbrey over there as the highest official to go over and discuss refugee issues and she doesn't know the first thing about the crisis. Look at every hearing that she has had—all she does is at every question turn plaintively over her shoulder and look at her back bench, who are all staring back at her blankly. The point is she is a political appointee. She is earning her political appointment in that she is taking the body blows on this. If she saw the problems and really felt indignant about them she can resign in protest over lack of leadership or say, "I am not going to be torn by this. I did what I could." But instead she is saying, "Everything is fine. We are taking care of it all."

What is reckless is how little she appears to have learned about this crisis. At one point she said they could admit up to 25,000 Iraqi refugees. Those comments immediately reverberated through the Iraqi refugee community. I got dozens of emails within hours from refugees rejoicing. And that same month we let in one human being.