Media outlets around the world covered the bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad and the showdown that took place at the UN on August 21, when Colin Powell asked for help in Iraq only to find many nations unwilling to give troops and cash to a U.S.-led occupation. But here’s a UN story that has yet to be told. Behind closed doors, a conflict is brewing between Richard Grenell, the spokesperson for the U.S. mission, and some of the UN correspondents he rides herd on.
Press handlers are expected to be control freaks. But several sources in the UN press corps who spoke on condition of anonymity describe the U.S. spokesperson as “rude,” “arrogant,” and a “bully,” neither popular nor a particularly good source. “He’s unbearable,” says one journalist. “Very pushy and very demanding,” says another. Grenell is said to complain incessantly, hectoring correspondents and their bosses and trying to “mold” wire stories to fit his message. He yells at anyone whose slant doesn’t follow his, says one source. “He yells at people whenever he is uncomfortable, particularly foreigners,” says another.
Last week, on the day Powell emerged from a meeting with Kofi Annan, Grenell behaved characteristically, according to one source, openly telling Annan’s spokesperson which journalists should be allowed to ask Annan questions and which should not. Grenell is said to be equally controlling of access to his boss, U.S. ambassador to the UN John Negroponte. In a well-publicized incident this past January, the press had gathered to interview diplomats, and the Mexican ambassador was taking too long at the microphone. Grenell began pressuring a UN staffer to give the mic to Negroponte, saying, “Who cares what Mexico has to say?” (At the time, Grenell denied making the remark, and still does, but Negroponte had to assure the Mexican diplomat that the U.S. does consider Mexico a “valuable partner,” according to published reports.)
Critics judge Grenell not only by his manners, but also by the quality of his information. “You call him up, you ask a question. You expect him to go off the record, but he automatically goes into spin mode,” one source explains. Another source claims Grenell will come out of meetings and misstate what one person says to another. Indeed, a July 4 New York Times correction, according to one correspondent, was the result of faulty information provided by Grenell. (The Times blamed the mistake, which involved conditions for U.S. intervention in Liberia, on “a U.S. diplomat’s erroneous account.”) The Times UN bureau chief did not return a call for comment.
Not everyone has problems getting information out of Grenell—you just have to know how to deal with him, according to Raghida Dergham, the UN correspondent for the Arab daily newspaper Al Hayat. “I recognize that he is a master of spin,” says Dergham, “but I find him accessible, knowledgeable, and never condescending. We argue, but he never yells at me.” Other correspondents, however, avoid Grenell altogether. “I don’t go to his briefings. I don’t have respect for him,” says one. “I have as little to do with him as possible,” says another.
Informed about the complaints from the press, Grenell said, “This past year has been a difficult time for the U.S. at the UN. I’ve been a passionate advocate for U.S. policy. Unfortunately, there are some who think I should apologize for that.”
There is more to Grenell than meets the eye. His boss, Negroponte, is a hard-liner best known for his tenure as ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s, when the U.S. launched a covert war on Nicaragua. Negroponte is also known for his cordial demeanor, however, and the rumor inside the UN is that Grenell was not the ambassador’s choice but that of former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.
Grenell fits the Republican mold. He grew up in Michigan, where his parents worked as missionaries for the Church of God, and did undergraduate work at a Christian school in Missouri. After stints on Newt Gingrich’s transitional team and the 1992 Bush campaign, he rejoiced when the GOP took over Congress in 1994. In 1995, while working as press secretary for Representative Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), he was the subject of a profile in The Washington Post’s Style section, which painted the 28-year-old as an ambitious workhorse who aimed to be White House press secretary one day.
Grenell may be on his way to that goal, if his handling of the matter involving Iraqi journalist Mohammad Hassan Allawi is any indication. Allawi worked as the UN correspondent for the Iraqi News Agency until February 2003, when the U.S. accused him of being a spy and ordered him to leave the country. According to reports at the time, officials stated that Allawi had been caught “in activities considered to be harmful” to national security. The expulsion, requested by the U.S. mission to the UN, came at a time when the White House was trying to drum up support for the coming war.
Allawi denied the charges, but chose not to appeal, telling colleagues he was afraid he might land in Guantánamo. Though not well-known, the Iraqi was popular with UN correspondents, one of whom remembers him as a “sweet, lovely guy” who wrote his dispatches in longhand Arabic and faxed them to Baghdad. Some found it hard to believe Allawi was guilty, even as Grenell was pacing UN corridors telling anyone who would listen that the case was a “slam-dunk” and that Allawi had been caught “red-handed.” When Tony Jenkins, president of the UN Correspondents Association, asked Grenell to provide evidence, Grenell turned his back and walked away, according to Jenkins.
On February 18, Jenkins wrote a letter to Colin Powell on behalf of the UNCA, calling on the U.S. to “make public” the proof that Allawi was a spy. He noted that the UN had not revoked Allawi’s credentials and that the Iraqi was never given an opportunity to respond to the charges. Furthermore, Jenkins argued, “no journalist accredited to the UN has ever before been expelled,” even during the height of the Cold War. (Jenkins writes for the Portuguese newspaper Expresso.)
The matter might have died there if not for a Reuters story that appeared on August 1. In the story, Reuters oil reporter Bernie Woodall quoted the acting head of the Iraqi mission, Said Ahmed, who confirmed that Allawi was a spy. Grenell seized on the story as vindication. On August 6, according to Jenkins, Grenell approached Jenkins in a rage, telling him that “UNCA has lost all credibility” because “you defended Mr. Allawi,” and demanding that UNCA immediately publish an apology and a retraction. Jenkins recounted the confrontation in an e-mail sent to colleagues in the UN press corps.
In the e-mail, Jenkins restated the UNCA position: Allawi may or may not be guilty, but “we have still seen no evidence against him” and “one comment by Mr. Ahmed does not constitute evidence.” A spokesperson for the Iraqi mission declined to comment.
Asked about his clash with Jenkins, Grenell told the Voice, “The intelligence we had was proven over time to be correct, and we thought it was worth noting. The Iraqis in the UN mission were saying, ‘Yes, this guy was a spy.’ ”
Jenkins told the Voice that UNCA has never ruled out the possibility that Allawi was a spy. However, he said, “We don’t think it’s right to simply label a journalist a crook or terrorist and expel him without offering some proof.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 26, 2003