Questioning Dan Rather of CBS Evening News about US War Crimes in Yugoslavia in 1999

June 25, 1999 at the National Press Club 

Dan Rather: On my second trip to Belgrade I was there the night they turned off the lights. Remember, the first time we had a raid that shut down the power, turned off the lights for most of Yugoslavia and that also meant turning off the water because the water needed the power to go. You could not only see it, hear it, but feel it, the change in mood between before they shut off the lights and the power and the next day after they shut off the lights and the power. I said to myself at the time and I wrote in my notebook, "I think this might be the decisive moment in the war." ... I think there's a legitimate question to be asked, "Well, If we had chosen to use this weaponry on the second, third, fourth day or the second or third week of the war, would it have made a difference?" I don't know the answer to that question. I'm here to bear witness, eye witness, that when we did do it, when we did turn off the lights for the first time, there was a distinct change in mood. The mood of the Serbian street and countryside ceased to be one of complete, total, and utter defiance and complete confidence that they would prevail, to something considerably less than that. So make of that what you will. Yes sir.

Sam Husseini: Thank you. I was struck by your comments just now about when you say "we" took out the lights. You seemed to be criticizing the U.S. government for waiting as long as it did to take out the lights and the water facilities. Isn't part of the reason -- I hope -- part of the reason that they waited as long as they did, is that that's a war crime? And it troubles me when you say "we" when your talking about the U.S. government when you're, presumably, a journalist and an independent journalist.

Dan Rather: I would hope not presumably -- I take your point.

Sam Husseini: And why do we -- [laughs] why do we -- seem to only recognize a war crime when it's done by another government and not our own?

Dan Rather: Fair question. As to the first, I tried to make the point that I was not being critical of the waiting and if I left you with the impression, and you say I seem to be critical, I tried to underscore, I'm not passing judgement on that strategy as opposed to the other strategy. I was simply trying to bear witness as to say what I saw there. I don't think that conveys criticism. It's to make a point. Now, to your larger point about "we." I understand what you're saying, and I may be wrong about this. I've asked myself any number of times. But, you know I'd like to think I didn't just tumble off the turnip truck. I've been around the world a few times. I've been in a few places. I've had to think through this business of "we." I think, if I may guess from the nature of the way you asked the question, you have a different view, and I respect it. But I'm an American reporter. Yes I'm a reporter and I want to be accurate. I want to be fair. But I'm an American. I consider the U.S. government my government. So yes I do -- when U.S. pilots in U.S. aircrafts turn off the lights, for me, it's "we." And about that I have no apology. I think you and I are maybe on different sides of the street about that and it doesn't do any good for me to try and kid you. I'm an American, and I'm an American reporter. And yes, when there's combat involving Americans, you can criticize me if you must, damn me if you must, but I'm always pulling for us to win. [applause from the audience]

Sam Husseini: Indulge me if you will. My larger point was since you are an American, and since I am an American, isn't it more noteworthy, and more newsworthy, and more important that we note if our government is engaged in a war crime?

Dan Rather: About that we agree. If our government engages in war crimes it's at least as important, and I would agree with you -- more important, that we report the war crime. But where we may differ. I'm not sure. Let me say, I don't think the decision to turn off the lights would fall in the category of a war crime.

Sam Husseini: If I may suggest a guest for your evening news. Walter Rockler, who was a prosecutor at Nuremberg, and who was the first Nazi-hunter in the Justice Department, says that it is. And I would hope that a voice like his could get on the evening news occasionally.

Dan Rather: I know to whom you refer and he wouldn't have any trouble getting on the evening news. I do have a different view, but I never rule out the possibility of the other fellow is right. And you may be right about this. Thank you for the question.


I recall emailing this exchange to Rockler, who I featured on some news releases at the time -- he died in 2002. He seemed amused by the claim that he had easy access to major media. I'll try to dig up that email at some point (it predates gmail etc. and would have to be gotten off of old hard drives).