On this morning’s radio show, Glenn invited veteran reporter Jake Tapper onto the show. Regarded by many as one of the few good reporters in Washington, Tapper is often one of the only ones to ask the tough questions that matter regardless of who is in office. He talked to Glenn about his experience in Washington as well as his new book The Outpost: A Tale of Uncommon American Valor.
Transcript of interview is below:
GLENN: I remember I was working at CNN the day that we found out that Tim Russert had died and I was struck by the conversation in the newsroom because the CNN journalists were saying, “Well, they don’t make him like anymore, they sure don’t make them like Tim Russert.” And I thought to myself, well, A, there’s no printing press where people are ‑‑ you know, where somebody’s making good journalists. It’s up to the journalists to become good journalists. And their conversation wasn’t just that he was a decent guy but he was fair and he was ‑‑ he was honest in his approach.
The way I can always tell a good journalist is they piss me off about half the time. They ask the tough questions and they’ll ask it consistently no matter who it is. So a good journalist like Tim Russert will say the things and you’re never really sure because he will ask the really tough questions and you’re never sure is he ‑‑ is he a liberal or is he conservative? Which way does he go? Because he’s just asking the question that should be asked. And as Tim Russert used to do, he will ask the tough questions that will make you cheer and then the next ‑‑ he will follow up with the next question and you’re like, “Oh, come on, that’s unbelievable.”
We were talking the other day before the election. We were joking that, well, Jake Tapper’s going to start pissing us off because Mitt Romney’s going to win and he’s perceived to be our guy and so now he’ll ask the tough questions and we’ll be like, oh, jeez, don’t call on Jake Tapper. But that’s the sign of a good journalist, one that asks the tough questions no matter who is in office. I believe Jake Tapper is the only one close to Tim Russert and I believe he is probably the best, most honest journalist out there and I think he probably despises me. But that’s okay.
Jake Tapper is a senior White House correspondent and author of a new book called The Outpost: The Untold Story of American Valor and he’s on program with us now, surprisingly. Hello, Jake, how are you, sir?
TAPPER: Well, let me just first of all thank you for having me on. I do not despise you, Glenn.
GLENN: I don’t know. I just assumed that anybody who was in ‑‑
TAPPER: No. No, no, my ‑‑ I have limited reservoir of loathing and you do not earn any of it.
GLENN: All right. Well, that’s a smart man. So Jake, I want to talk about ‑‑ I want to talk a little bit about your book because I think you have unique insight to many things, but one of them is what’s happening in Afghanistan. And your book is called The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor. Tell us about the story and why you wrote it.
TAPPER: I was in the hospital room, the recovery room with my wife and my newborn son Jack. This is October 3rd, 2009. Jack was a day old. And out of the corner of my eye, I caught a news report on, I think it was CNN, maybe Fox, of an outpost I had never heard of, combat outpost Keating that had been overrun by the Taliban that day. And I was holding my son and hearing about eight other sons taken from this world. And there was something about that moment that just captured me. I don’t know if it was, you know, the Ecclesiastes nature of something being born while others are being killed or what it was, but the mystery of the outpost, of why it was put in the vulnerable place it was put, at the bottom of three steep mountains 14 miles from the Pakistan border, I waited for reports about why it was put there. And I wanted to hear about the soldiers who fought that day, 53 U.S. troops facing up to 400 Taliban. So outnumbered 7 or 8 to 1. And I never heard. I never heard. No one ever told me. The people covering the war had other things to cover. There were certainly no shortage of battles and things to cover in Afghanistan. So I’m not begrudging war reporters, but the media never provided the information for me and it just gnawed at me and I wanted to know more. I wanted to know who these men were who died, I wanted to know why the outpost was there. That became a mystery that I needed to solve. Ultimately ‑‑
GLENN: So explain why it was because I mean, here ‑‑ this is a camp where our troops are sitting ducks.
TAPPER: Yeah, they were.
GLENN: Why was it put there?
TAPPER: Well, when the outpost ‑‑ the book traces the whole history of the outpost from 2006 through 2009. And when it was first put there, the idea was to put a lot of these little remote outposts all over Eastern Afghanistan for a lot of reasons, one of which was to stop insurgents from flowing across the border from the country that dare not speak its name, Pakistan, with bushels of weapons to kill U.S. troops. Another reason was to connect the locals with the Afghan government even though the locals in this part of the country didn’t know there was such a thing as the Afghan government. And ultimately one of the reasons it was put in this spot was because this is a very mountainous part of Afghanistan, the base of the Hindu Kush mountain range and it needed to be near the road. And if you’re going to be near a road, then you’re going to be at the bottom of a mountain. The reason it needed to be near the road, not just to be close to the locals and also to monitor insurgents coming, using those roads was because most of the helicopters were in Iraq. So the only way to resupply the camp was on the road in a convoy and so that’s why it was put there. And it was put there at a time when insurgent activity in that area was not that strong. Was ‑‑ you know, it was certainly something, nothing that you or I would like but certainly nothing like what was to come.
So it was a decision that was questionable in retrospect but more importantly the decision to keep it there, to keep that outpost there became increasingly questionable as the years went on.
GLENN: Do you even know why we’re over in Afghanistan anymore?
TAPPER: The mission now ‑‑
GLENN: Not as a journalist. Not as a journalist. As an American. As a dad.
TAPPER: Yes. I do, I think, which is we are over there for two reasons. And this is ‑‑ one of them is a direct answer and one of them is more of a theoretical answer. The direct answer is we’re there to train the Afghan forces so that they can take control when our troops leave. The theoretical answer is that we’re there because we’ve been there for are so long, we need to make sure that when we leave, it wasn’t all for naught. I think that’s part of it.
GLENN: Do you believe ‑‑ I mean, Jake, I don’t know how much, you know, you know about me really besides, you know, YouTube clips and everything else. But I’m a guy who has been questioning us in Afghanistan with great vigor since Bush was in office.
TAPPER: I know. I know.
GLENN: Nobody in the Bush administration was a fan of mine, either. So this isn’t about, you know, parties. This is just about wars that just don’t make sense. It just doesn’t ‑‑ we’re not ‑‑ it’s, you know, this idea that we can sacrifice our own to try to give something to a people that don’t even begin to understand freedom the way we do and try to, you know, “Here, here’s a gift,” they don’t, many of them don’t want it or don’t understand it and couldn’t protect it. How do you suppose this ends?
TAPPER: That’s a great question, Glenn. I think, I think it ends, first of all, it’s not going to end in 2014 as you know even though Vice President Biden said, you know, count on it: We’re going to leave by 2014. That’s not really honest in terms of our true presence because we will have troops there after that. They won’t be quote/unquote combat troops. They will be counterterrorist troops. They’ll be elite forces of Green Berets and Navy SEALs ready to engage in, you know, counterterrorist missions.
I think it ends over several years. I think it ends with U.S. troops coming home, you know, most of U.S. troops coming home in 2014. I think it ends with a lot of fighting in Afghanistan and there will be I think setbacks and there will be some, some good news, not all bad news, and I think the U.S. will be there for some time. In the same way that, you know, Iraq is what it is but it’s not ‑‑ you know, I wouldn’t ‑‑ you know, I don’t think you and I are planning any vacations there anytime soon.
GLENN: No, that’s not exactly a paradise.
TAPPER: Right. But I mean, I think it’s going to be long and drawn out before things settle down there, if they ever do.
GLENN: We’re talking to Jake Tapper. Jake, you don’t have to go very far in this book. You make it to Page 82 and you tell a master story, as a master storyteller. Tell the story about how the death of one soldier reaches his wife.
TAPPER: Do you want me to read it or ‑‑
GLENN: That’s up to you.
TAPPER: I’ll tell it.
TAPPER: Joe Fenty is a character in the book. He was a lieutenant‑colonel and he and his wife, he was a career military. He and his wife Kristin had gone, they were college sweethearts and they had not had a child. Kristin had had some health issues but then she finally got pregnant and she was 40 and Joe Fenty, lieutenant‑colonel Fenty was commander of 371 cav pushing in order into this part of Afghanistan. And their baby was born, Lauren, in just a few weeks before this one mission that Joe Fenty went on when he was extracting his troops from these mountain ranges. One of the things I think a lot of people don’t understand about Afghanistan, probably because we in the media don’t cover it well enough, is that one of the things that’s so dangerous over there is not just the Taliban. It’s the land. The mountains are difficult. The roads are narrow and weak. And they’re not ‑‑ our combat equipment is not designed for this mountainous terrain.
So Joe Fenty ultimately on this mission, which he did not have to be on but he wanted to be there to command and control from the helicopter as they were extracting U.S. troops from these mountains if killed in a helicopter crash. Ten American soldiers are killed that day, it’s May 2006. And in fact, you may recently have heard just a few days ago, and maybe it was even yesterday, there was a suicide attack by Taliban soldiers at forward operating base Fenty, named after Joe Fenty in Jalalabad.
So a major, Timmons, Rich Timmons gets permission from his boss and lieutenant‑colonel Fenty’s boss, colonel Nicholson, Mick Nicholson, who’s now a general, to go up on top of a mountain and using his satellite phone call his wife to make sure that she, who is on vacation with their kids in Disney World and I guess at that point in Pennsylvania racing back to Fort Drum in New York so that she, Gretchen Timmons, can be by Kristin Fenty’s side. Kristin Fenty has a three‑ or four‑week‑old baby Lauren and her college sweetheart has just been killed in a helicopter crash and he wanted to make sure that she had support around her. That’s against army protocols but Colonel Nicholson let Major Timmons do that. He reaches his wife, she gets in her car with her mother‑in‑law and kids and races back to Fort Drum. She races up to Kristin Fenty’s home, you know, to be there for her. Kristin Fenty opens the door, smiling, happy, holding Baby Lauren. Oh, my God, Gretchen Timmons says to herself. She doesn’t know yet. Gretchen Timmons makes small talk to Kristin Fenty, comes inside, they spend the day hanging out, watching TV. Gretchen Timmons watches Kristin Fenty pack a care package for the husband who will never get this care package. A news report comes on TV about this helicopter crash. They knew that there are only 20,000 troops in Afghanistan and the tenth mountain division is a major part of that. Probably somebody they know was killed in that crash. But Kristin Fenty is not told. The reason it takes so long is because the bodies were so badly burned on that mountainside, it took a long time to identify each one of the ten. In any case Gretchen Timmons ends the night at Kristin Fenty’s. Kristin Fenty still doesn’t know. Gretchen Timmons goes back to her house at Fort Drum and tells her mother‑in‑law Kristin still doesn’t know. And it was one of the worst and most surreal days of Gretchen Timmons’ life.
The next day she goes back, you know, before 7:00 in the morning, which is not so unusual for Army wives, and Kristin Fenty still doesn’t know. Invites her in but now she’s starting to suspect something’s up because Gretchen Timmons makes up a ridiculous excuse about not having coffee and Gretchen Timmons is the kind of person who always has coffee. And then eventually there’s a sound at the door. Kristin Fenty hears it and she thinks maybe that’s just the wind. At this point she knows but she’s lying to herself. Maybe that’s just the wind at the door. But then she goes to the door and she sees Lieutenant‑colonel Mike Howard from across the street and a chaplain and she hands her baby to Gretchen Timmons and starts crying. And that’s the end of that scene.
GLENN: The name of the book, The Outpost: The Untold Story of American Valor well worth the read by one of the only real functioning journalists I think in America that is left, Jake Tapper. Jake, let me switch gears here. You going up against Jay Carney and Robert Gibbs, pretty legendary. You’re the only guy that seems to keep going in and keep questioning and using common sense and logic. The conservatives will say the press is either in bed, refuses to look at common sense and logic, or they’re afraid of the administration. Why do you think you stand alone so often?
TAPPER: Well, you know, obviously I hear a lot of good questions from my colleagues. I ‑‑ it may be that I was early on asking tougher questions than others since a few others maybe. I don’t know. You know, I do hear tough questions asked from my colleagues. So I mean ‑‑
GLENN: But it’s not ‑‑ I will tell you this, that it’s unusual and they’re not the kind of questions that would have been asked by any other ‑‑ to any other administration. And if there are tough questions, they usually don’t press them. They will say, “Well, that’s because we have magic bunny rabbits in the backyard that are making more eggs.” And you’re like, “Oh, okay. No followup questions.” Why is it, does it seem at least, or defend that it’s not, why does it seem that there’s just really, there’s not a lot of pressure on this administration?
PAT: When it certainly seemed like there was pressure on Bush?
GLENN: Or anybody else, anybody else?
TAPPER: I mean, I think, you know, there is an argument to be made that the media didn’t ‑‑ first of all let me just say there’s no upside in my answering that question.
PAT: Yeah, that’s ‑‑ either way that’s what I was afraid of.
TAPPER: But I will say I think one of the things that informs how I ask the questions ‑‑ well, there are two things. One is substantive and one is stylistic. Substantively I don’t think the media asks enough tough questions about WMD in the buildup to war in Iraq. I just, you know, I just think that is a matter of fact that the media at‑large failed in challenging intelligence assumptions leading up to the war in Iraq. So that informs everything I do because that’s a responsibility that I feel the press didn’t meet. Stylistically I’ll just say that, like, I think early on ‑‑ see, when Gibbs was doing it, Gibbs and I, you know, we would spar all the time but nobody was filming it. So the first couple of times we did it and then I realized that there were TV cameras on us I think got some notice. And then I realized, you know, you can actually be more effective by asking tougher questions in a lower key voice.
GLENN: I have to tell you, I have to tell you, Jake, this ‑‑ I can’t believe I’m saying this to you but I’m out of time. I would love to have you on another time because I really have profound respect for you. All of us do. Even though we may come from ‑‑ I have no idea and I don’t really care, different political viewpoints, please keep going. Please keep doing your job and we’d love to talk to you again, sir.
TAPPER: Thanks, Glenn. Anytime. Sounds great. Happy holidays. Merry Christmas.