Transcript

499:

Taking Names
Transcript

Originally aired 06.28.2013

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. One of our producers, Nancy Updike, remembers the first time that she met Kirk Johnson.

Nancy Updike

It was 2007. And he told me about a crazy plan that he was considering.

Ira Glass

What was the plan?

Nancy Updike

The plan involved Iraqi refugees. At the time, it was a brand new, very raw issue. These were Iraqis who had worked for the US during the Iraq War, interpreting or doing other jobs.

And as the war got worse, they were being targeted for having worked with the US. People were being killed. They were being tortured, kidnapped. A lot went into hiding or went on the run.

Ira Glass

And so what was he thinking about doing to deal with this?

Nancy Updike

So the plan he was mulling was, OK, he was going to gather a small group of these Iraqis who'd worked with the US-- around 50-- and somehow get them to Jamaica, somewhere in the Caribbean, at which point he would charter a high-speed boat and race them over to the United States, hoping to outrun the Coast Guard so that he could get them onto American soil where they could claim asylum.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Nancy Updike

That's what I said. That's exactly what I said. Wow.

Ira Glass

So who is Kirk Johnson? Well, he had worked in Iraq with USAID, the agency that gives out America's foreign aid. He spoke Arabic. And by 2007, when Nancy met him, he was still just this guy in his mid-20s, but he had kind of become the public face of this issue-- of Iraqis who had worked with the US forces and were now in danger because of it and had to get out of the country.

He was writing about this. He was appearing on TV. He was talking to people in Congress. He set up a nonprofit organization to help these Iraqis.

And Nancy says that when he ran this proposal by her in 2007, she thought to herself, OK, well, here is just somebody who is up against a problem that is so big and intractable, I guess he's mulling over some crazy schemes.

Nancy Updike

But that's not even what was going on. I talked to him a few weeks ago and found out that that wasn't even his idea. He didn't come up with that.

He told me that this boat chartering, outrunning the Coast Guard scheme had actually been suggested to him by someone pretty high up in the government's refugee resettlement bureaucracy.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Nancy Updike

Right. Another wow. Kirk had met with him to ask for help-- regular, above board, inside the bounds of the law help. And the man had told him, in all seriousness, I can't help you from my lofty position. But I've done some research into maritime law. And here's what I think you should do.

And in the years since then, it's been so hard to get these Iraqis who worked with the US to safety that Kirk has thought back on that conversation many, many times, he says. This is Kirk talking about this.

Kirk Johnson

And as depressing as it was that this was his recommended strategy, I actually still think he's right. And I sometimes wonder, if I had done the boat thing, maybe this issue would have been solved a long time ago.

Ira Glass

Wait. Nancy, didn't we solve this problem? Am I remembering wrong? Didn't they pass a law or something that was going to allow exactly these people into the country, people who had worked with US forces in Iraq and their lives were in danger?

Nancy Updike

Yeah, more than one law. And I think a lot of people, when they hear about this, have the same reaction. Didn't we fix this? And this issue-- what to do with these Iraqis-- is this zombie problem. It has seemingly been dealt with over and over only to rise again and keep staggering forward.

We've passed laws starting in 2008. It's not a partisan issue. Republicans and Democrats came together to create a special track for these Iraqis in the visa process to speed them through. But the problem is still not fixed. There are still thousands of Iraqis who worked with the US and have applied to come here out of fear for their lives and their families' lives, and they're still just waiting, often for years.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio program, yes, for once, a national problem where we all agree that we should fix it and how to fix it. And yet, somehow we have not gotten the job done. Kirk Johnson gives us the incredible behind the scenes stories of what has happened to fix this problem, what has not happened, and why. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

Act One. Reluctant Sailor.

Ira Glass

Kirk himself, I should say, had no special interest originally in refugees or anything like that. He sometimes says that he stumbled into this issue. Nancy Updike tells what happened.

Nancy Updike

Kirk's story starts in kind of a weird place-- on a family vacation in the Dominican Republic, his first vacation after his first year in Iraq. And on his first night there, he sleepwalked up to the open window in his hotel room, woke up, and thought he was still in Fallujah.

He shouted and ducked. He says there had been a sniper or snipers in Fallujah around that time who killed more than a dozen Marines. And he thought for a second that he was standing in front of an open window in Fallujah with no body armor.

This was early in the war. And it didn't occur to him that he might have PTSD. He thought it was just some bad, weird dream. The next night, he sleepwalked again, right out the second floor window of the hotel, about a 17-foot fall to concrete. He broke both his wrists, his upper jaw, his nose, cracked his skull, needed about 70 stitches in his face.

Kirk Johnson

The good part is that I-- most of doctors that I've had, when they take in the extent of the injuries, have told me that there's no reason I should be walking.

Nancy Updike

Is the explanation for you not being more injured that you were asleep and your body was just limp? Or is it just dumb luck--

Kirk Johnson

Dumb luck.

Nancy Updike

--and youth?

Kirk Johnson

Yeah. I just think maybe-- I started taking Centrum multivitamins about a year before the accident. And maybe my bones were sufficiently strong. But I just know I lucked out.

Nancy Updike

You were spared to be in a Centrum commercial later in life?

Kirk Johnson

(LAUGHING) Yeah, right.

Nancy Updike

Kirk's plan was eight weeks' recovery and then right back to Iraq. Instead, he spent the next several months in his hometown in Illinois, getting a series of painful surgeries, fighting with his health insurance company, struggling to do basic things like eat or hold a pen, and running out of money.

Kirk's an ambitious guy. His work in Iraq was something he'd been building toward this whole life. He started learning Arabic at 16 years old, got a Fulbright to Cairo at 21, and at 24, was hired by USAID to go to Iraq. All he wanted was to go back, and he couldn't. He had to restart his adult life from scratch.

Kirk Johnson

I started studying for the law school admissions test. And I really did feel at that point that I was moving on. I was having the nightmares less. I was thinking about Iraq less. I stopped reading the news from Iraq.

But one day, one of my good Iraqi friends sent an email-- he was one of the highest ranked Iraqis that worked for USAID. I think it was a $130 million program that he was working on. And he opened up his front door and found the severed head of a dog and a death threat note that said that we're going to cut off your heads. I mean, a very clear death threat lobbed into their front yard.

Nancy Updike

When Kirk got this email, it was the fall of 2006, and he was practically broke and living in his aunt's basement on a futon. So with the email, he felt like, that's terrible, but there's nothing I can do.

It took him a few weeks to realize that maybe there was something he could do. He started writing an op ed, saying, I think our government should help my friend and people like him.

Kirk Johnson

I felt that of course there's some office to give out visas to these people. Of course the government has some program. It's just that my friends haven't heard about yet. And so--

Nancy Updike

And neither have I, but I'll do this op ed, and then I'm going to connect the people.

Kirk Johnson

Yeah, somebody will step forward and just fix it. And I think in my mind, it was kind of as simple as, if I could maybe help him get out-- I didn't know anything about how refugee admissions worked. But I thought that maybe if we could get him out into safety, that I would have one positive thing to look at from my year in Iraq rather than a bunch of failed projects and the accident.

Nancy Updike

Kirk's op ed ran in the Los Angeles Times in mid-December 2006.

Kirk Johnson

And I remember thinking, OK. Good job, buddy. What a good thing you've done by raising awareness of this situation. And I was getting back to work on the law school stuff, except that I started getting all of these emails from other former colleagues at USAID, former Iraqi colleagues. It was within an hour or so that it was put online. And then by the afternoon, I was getting hundreds of emails from Iraqis that had read the article but who had worked at the State Department or as interpreters for the military.

Nancy Updike

So in other words, people you had not worked with directly, but they knew people who knew you or who had read it and it just got forwarded around.

Kirk Johnson

Exactly. And they were all telling me their stories and sending me pictures of family members who had been killed, pictures of their bodies where they had been tortured or shot, pictures of the stumps of limbs that had been blown off while they were interpreting for the Marines.

And all of a sudden, I was staring into the guts of the refugee crisis. They were grown men and women and heads of families that were telling me that I was their only hope and that they were putting all of their faith in me to help them with their cases. And I was just this unemployed, scar-faced scrub at that point. I was not like, all right--

Nancy Updike

You've come to right place.

Kirk Johnson

--everybody rally behind me kind of thing. There was none of that. It was just like, holy cow, I have just bumbled into something way bigger than I know what to do with. I need to find the real people who I'll just give this stuff to, and they'll just solve it.

Nancy Updike

Kirk didn't know it yet, but there wasn't some special process at the time for dealing with most of these Iraqis. All there was was one small program to let in 50 Iraqi or Afghan interpreters a year. That was it, even though there were tens of thousands of Iraqis doing all sorts of jobs for the United States, jobs that were increasingly risky to be seen doing-- office jobs, operating machinery, working as cooks, drivers, and interpreters.

Kirk started putting together a list of names. And his plan was to meet with representatives from the Refugee Bureau in the State Department and give them the list. Just go to the top and solve the problem directly.

But he wanted to keep his request simple. He knew from working in a government bureaucracy himself, USAID, that simple works best. So his first list was just Iraqis he knew from working at USAID. He would just be the USAID guy with a list of USAID names.

He spent weeks tracking them all down, not just the ones who had already written to him, and putting information about each one-- who they were, where they were, what job they'd done, what had happened to them-- into an Excel spreadsheet.

Next, Kirk gave the list to the State Department Refugee Bureau. But the meeting was short and inconclusive. He wasn't sure when he left what to expect from them in terms of help for the Iraqis on the list.

And then from that meeting, he headed to a second meeting in Washington. And that's where he got a much clearer sense of how at least some people in the government saw what he was doing. He went to the USAID office.

Kirk Johnson

I decided to pay a visit to USAID, kind of as a courtesy call to just explain what I thought I was doing with the list and also to just have a talk, because one of my former bosses had called me up after the op ed. He was a Bush appointee. And he had angrily said to me that I was dragging the nation back onto the rooftop of Saigon with the op ed.

Nancy Updike

Meaning Kirk's op ed, which hadn't mentioned Vietnam, had reminded his former boss, and maybe others, that the United States had left Vietnamese allies behind at the end of the Vietnam War. No one in the Bush administration wanted the Iraq War to remind anyone of Vietnam, especially at this point in early 2007, when the war was going so badly.

Kirk Johnson

And I walk into this room, and the Bush appointee that I had last seen in Baghdad, the Saigon rooftop dude, he's got a binder in front of him. It's a green binder, and I notice my name is written on the binding of it.

And he says, Kirk, I don't know if you're aware about this, but you're not actually allowed to be writing about anything as a former-- you can't write about what you saw in Iraq. You can't write about-- as a former US government official, you have a gag order in your contract.

And I knew my contract very well. There was no gag order or anything. And so I got annoyed, because I felt like it was an obnoxious way to start off the meeting. But the tone was very--

Nancy Updike

Don't make us hurt you.

Kirk Johnson

Yeah. He said, are you going to write anything else about Iraq? And I said, yes. And he goes, about what? And I said, well, I haven't made up my mind yet. And he goes, well, here's what we would prefer is that you submit all future publications to us for clearance first, because we'd hate to see your objectives tanked or torpedoed-- one of those phrases like, bad things might happen.

And I just remember telling him that if you guys want to come after me on this, go for it. But just imagine what that's going to look like, that USAID is going after a former USAID employee for trying to help former USAID employees.

Nancy Updike

That's about where the meeting ended. But the strangest part was what happened afterward.

Kirk Johnson

I just told him, all right, well, we don't really have anything else to talk about. So I got up and walked out of the Bureau. And I could sense that he was behind me. But when I was standing at the elevator bank to go back down, he thrusts his business card into my hand.

And I didn't really understand, because obviously, I had this guy's contact info. There's no point in giving me a business card. And I looked down, and he's written the name of an Iraqi woman on his business card. And then he says to me in a hushed tone, he goes, look, if she gets in touch with you, make sure that you add her to your list.

It was literally 90 seconds earlier that he had been trying to scare me out of doing something. And now, he's asking me to help some Iraqi that he knew. And I looked at him, and his eyes glimmer, and he goes, don't worry. It's not like I slept with her or anything. But see if you can get her help or whatever.

Nancy Updike

That conversation and the sit-down with the State Department's Refugee Bureau happened in the winter of 2007. Kirk's conclusion was, well, that didn't work. His next move was more media pressure, some of which was happening on its own.

George Packer wrote in The New Yorker about Kirk's list and the Iraqis on it. And Kirk saw that any Iraqis mentioned in Packer's story started moving more quickly through the bureaucracy. So Kirk spent the next few months trying to get every journalist who asked for an interview to write about a different Iraqi on the list.

He also talked with more government officials, and a lot of the conversations ended up being variations on the Saigon rooftop man meeting-- people in government who understood how bad the situation was but said to Kirk basically, no, I can't help you. But could you maybe help me?

He contacted the congressman from his family's district in Illinois.

Kirk Johnson

Rep. Peter Roskam-- he's a friend of my dad's, because my dad had been a Republican in Illinois politics for some time.

Nancy Updike

Kirk says he asked him to cosponsor a piece of legislation that would help Iraqi interpreters, as well as Iraqi Christians who were under attack, and gay Iraqis, who were also being targeted all over the country.

Kirk Johnson

And my congressman wouldn't sign on to it, because he didn't believe, out of principle, that gay people should receive any preferential treatment. And I think it was maybe a month afterwards, his chief of staff started referring names to my list. I have some of the emails here, if you want, but--

Nancy Updike

Yeah.

Kirk Johnson

I'll skip the guy's name. "Kirk, so and so worked with me in Iraq and is now in danger from Iraqi militia organizations. Please add her to your list of Iraqis who worked with US forces. Thanks, period."

Nancy Updike

Just out of the blue without any reference to not sponsoring the legislation?

Kirk Johnson

Yeah. There's another one. This one was two minutes later. "Kirk, so and so and his wife so and so worked with me in Iraq in '03, '04, '05, and '06. They are now in danger in Iraq for the association with the Americans. Please add them to your list, period. Thanks, period."

Nancy Updike

Kirk realized that in Washington, people had all sorts of reasons not to help him with his list. One was straight up atmospherics, like I mentioned earlier. The list was bad news for the Bush administration, a clear indication that the war in Iraq was going terribly. And there was a bigger problem.

Kirk Johnson

There's no point dancing around the fact that nobody in the State Department or Homeland Security wants their signatures to be on the next 9/11 hijacker's visa. And they've said this to me. I've gotten phone calls from people high up in State that have said, not everybody agrees with you that it's a good idea to be bringing over a lot of Muslims into the United States now. That's the gorilla in the room here is that we see these people as potential terrorists.

Nancy Updike

Even though you're talking about Iraqis who, because they worked for the US in Iraq, had been vetted there. Security procedures in order to allow them to work for USAID or [INAUDIBLE]--

Kirk Johnson

You can't ride in a Humvee with Marines without getting screened. The Iraqis that worked with me, they were all getting polygraph examinations. And I won't try to pull out this card, but I feel like I'm not so naive that-- as someone who spent a fair amount of time in Fallujah, I'm aware that there are bad people in the world. But the people I'm trying to help, they're actually running from terrorists.

Nancy Updike

One government official told Kirk he couldn't be seen with him, that he was toxic. Later, the man who suggested to Kirk that he should charter a boat and outrun the Coast Guard insisted on meeting with Kirk not in his office but in a sticky-floored bar in Washington at 2:00 in the afternoon.

The most illuminating of these conversations was a bizarre encounter in Geneva, Switzerland. The UN had called a big meeting to talk about Iraqi refugees. When Kirk arrived, he got a call at his hotel from a US State Department official, a stranger.

And the man insisted that he had to talk to Kirk, and it had to be in person, and it had to be in secret. He told Kirk, there's a bridge near your hotel.

Kirk Johnson

And I want you to go wait underneath that bridge. And I'm going to come up in a sedan with a license plate that ends in the number nine. And that's how you know it's me. And it was right around that time that that Russian dissident had been dosed with polonium. And I was like, are these my final moments?

Nancy Updike

They were not his final moments. The man just drove him to a Chinese restaurant half an hour outside of Geneva in order to give him the names of two Iraqis with yet another cloak and dagger flourish.

Kirk Johnson

He pulled out a small slip of paper from his pocket, and he put it on the lazy Susan between us and actually rotated the slip of paper to me. And I actually recognized the names, because they had just recently been referred to me by another State Department officer.

And I looked up, and I said, yeah. I already have them. They're already on the list. And I saw his shoulders relax. And he's just like, oh, thank God. Thank you. Thank you. I'm so glad they're going to be all right.

Nancy Updike

And when he said, now they're going to be OK--

Kirk Johnson

Yeah, well--

Nancy Updike

How did you react to that in your mind? He was handing you this piece of paper as though, oh, now the process is going to happen. But the process wasn't happening. You hadn't been able to get a single Iraqi into the country yet.

Kirk Johnson

No. I remember at one point, I was getting an email every 80 or 90 seconds from a family. And in some sort of overwrought case-- people were referring to me as the Schindler of the Iraqis and all this stuff just because I had a list, but I still had done nothing.

In some ways, I saw the list as a drain pipe that everything just sort of tumbled down into it, and people just chucked stuff into it and added names and this kind of thing. And I think in some way, it made a lot of people feel-- I think it's still does. It makes people feel like, oh, God. Here's this huge crisis. Here's this huge stain on the honor of our country, the abandonment of these people. But thank God there's this kid with a list.

Nancy Updike

Late spring 2007, Kirk realized there weren't enough journalists to write about everyone on the list. And he still hadn't gotten anyone out of Iraq and to safety, not even the ones who had been written about. They were just moving faster through a process that was opaque. No way to know for sure if they were two weeks away from an answer or two years.

Kirk was still in his aunt's basement, still basically broke. And the stress of what to do about the ever-increasing list was so relentless that he was getting headaches he couldn't shake for days in a row, grinding his teeth down. His whole existence was the list. He had no personal life.

Kirk Johnson

Every night, the laptop would be next to me in bed. And I'd wake up in the morning with more names to put in and type them into an Excel sheet.

Nancy Updike

And then suddenly, there was movement. In the summer of 2007, Kirk and some lawyers officially formed an organization-- the List Project-- recruiting lawyers around the country to work with Iraqis on the list pro bono, helping them navigate the visa process.

Kirk's friend, the Iraqi USAID colleague whose email had started everything, arrived in the US at the end of the summer with his wife. Kirk's parents in Illinois volunteered to take them in. And over the next year, Kirk worked with some senators, especially Senator Ted Kennedy, to get a law passed that would create a fast track for these Iraqis to get to the US.

Kirk Johnson

Senator Kennedy was like a bulldozer when he got behind an issue. And he led this effort to create what was called the Refugee Crisis In Iraq Act. And what that did was create something called the Special Immigrant Visa for Iraqis, but also for Afghans who worked for us.

And I'll never forget when it passed, because a few of us who had been involved with his office and were in the trenches on this, we were patched in. And we got to talk to Senator Kennedy on the floor of the Senate in the moments after the act passed.

And it had all of this bipartisan support. Senator Brownback and Lugar and Senator Obama and Hillary Clinton were on it. And amazingly, it created 25,000 visa slots for Iraqis who worked for the Americans.

Nancy Updike

Over the course of five years-- 5,000 a year, right?

Kirk Johnson

Exactly. But at that time when it passed, I had maybe-- I don't know-- 1,200 names on my list. And I just remembered, after I hung up with Kennedy, collapsing on the couch and truly feeling like it was over. Even if every one of my Iraqis took one of those visas-- the Iraqis on my list, I mean, there would still be tons left over for the others. And it was suddenly this-- it worked. We agitated, and now there's a new law.

Nancy Updike

But members of the Bush administration had opposed the bill, and a year after it was enacted, only 172 Iraqis who'd worked with the US got in through the new, supposedly speedy Special Immigrant Visa program-- 172 out of a possible 5,000.

Kirk Johnson

That legislation was basically killed by Bush administration lawyers who found any kind of vague language in it to produce a very narrow, consular interpretation so that not many Iraqis who worked for us would be construed as eligible.

Nancy Updike

Under this narrow, consular interpretation, some Iraqis found out that they didn't qualify for a Special Immigrant Visa, because they had worked under a grant or a cooperative agreement rather than a contract, even though these were three different names for what amounted to the same thing. And for Iraqis who were eligible, there were delays, new choke points in the process.

Kirk Johnson

It's hard, because as we're speaking, I'm looking at a countdown now of a few months left when the five years are up. And it's going to expire. And out of the 25,000 slots, there's something like 18,000 that are still unused.

Nancy Updike

In March of this year, 19 members of Congress sent a letter to the Secretaries of State and Defense and the Department of Homeland Security saying that only 22% of the available Iraqi SIVs had been given out-- 5,500 visas out of a possible 25,000.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike. She'll be back with Kirk Johnson in the second half of our show. Coming up, how you can provide two letters of recommendation, three certificates of merit, one work contract, an employment verification letter, and a federal contract number, plus four phone numbers and one email address for your old bosses, and that is still simply not enough proof of employment for the bureaucrats who are asking you for proof of employment before issuing the paperwork that will get you out of Iraq and save your life.

That is all in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Emails from a Dead Man.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "Taking Names," the story of Kirk Johnson's seven-year attempt to save the lives of Iraqis who worked with US forces during the war there.

In this half of the show, to get a better sense of what is broken about our process for bringing these Iraqis into the United States, Nancy Updike looks at one guy. And though this guy seems to perfectly qualify for the Special Immigrant Visa program, the SIV program, which was created by law in 2008 specifically for Iraqis who worked with the US government in Iraq and whose lives are in danger as a result, this guy was not applying under that program, either because he didn't know that it existed or because he heard it was all jammed up, and going another way would be quicker or allow him to bring in more relatives. That is not unusual, Kirk Johnson says.

Instead, he's applying through a different program-- something called the United States Refugee Admissions Program-- USRAP. This process involves the State Department and Homeland Security to make sure that we're not allowing terrorists into the country.

There's also an organization that does some overseas visa processing for the State Department called IOM. That's the International Organization for Migration. So I'm just saying all this to say you're going to be hearing a bunch of acronyms-- IOM and USRAP. That's basically what they are. It's these bureaucracies. Anyway, here's Nancy.

Nancy Updike

A few months ago, Kirk sent me the draft of a book he's writing about all this. And the last chapter is about a case that's still going on now. That's the case I'm going to talk about. It was sent to the List Project a year ago in July of 2012.

When Kirk got the email, he didn't know anything about it. It was just a zip file full of documents, and he started printing them and laying them all out.

Kirk Johnson

I started with my kitchen table. When that filled up from all the pages laid out, I pulled some chairs up and used the chairs. And then I started running this paper trail along the floor.

Nancy Updike

You were trying to line everything up in chronological order?

Kirk Johnson

Exactly. But I'm basically looking at a dead man's attempt to get a visa.

Nancy Updike

The documents are a back and forth between this one Iraqi man and the bureaucracies processing his refugee application. His first email goes like this. Kirk's translating it from Arabic.

Kirk Johnson

"Greetings to those of you working in the immigration office. I ask your help in considering my request. I need a speedy solution to my situation, which is filled with persistent threats. People want to kill me because I worked for the US Army. Please help me come to America. Attached are some of the certificates and records of my work. Gratefully."

And in the book, I call him Omar. But that's not his real name. So he applied on June 28. And their reply on October 9, 2011, was this. "Dear applicant, please be informed that your application is in process, but we still need a valid official email address for a supervisor or HR officer who can identify you and verify your employment and a copy of the contract between your company of employment and the US government. Please reply directly to this email, and do not change the subject line. Thank you."

Nancy Updike

In this exchange, Omar is providing six documents that corroborate his work for the United States, including contact information for American supervisors. He included copies of two contracts he'd had for projects overseen by Parsons, which is an American company. And there was a recommendation letter from the US Army. He'd worked for them as a forklift operator.

Kirk Johnson

So here in front of me is a certificate of appreciation from the Department of the Army. "Your dedicated service to the US is appreciated and will not be forgotten." October 2009 to October 2010-- and then it's got the names of his supervisors.

Nancy Updike

There were two more Army recommendation letters along with that one. And among the three, there were the names and signatures of six different US Army officers. There was also a letter from Parsons, the American company that oversaw the projects he worked for.

Kirk Johnson

"Parsons would be pleased to answer any questions concerning his employment. Contact can be made with the undersigned." And then they gave two phone numbers there.

This one here, this is one that also even says the exact long contract number that he worked under, the federal contract number. Again, at the bottom of this one, there's a Staff Sergeant signature, his DSN number, his phone number, and his Army email address.

Nancy Updike

But in spite of all these documents and all this information, it seems clear from the emails that follow that the bureaucracies involved don't think that Omar has provided exactly the information they want-- a valid official email address for a supervisor-- even though they have four phone numbers for different supervisors and the official Army email address for one of Omar's supervisors. If they found that email address to be invalid for some reason, they don't make that clear to Omar.

Kirk Johnson

In the end of December-- actually the last day of the year, December 31, 2011-- at 9:46 AM, he sent a short note saying, "Peace and respect for everyone who works in your office. My brothers, I wonder if there's any news that you might share with me. What's the latest with my case? With great thanks, Omar."

So the war has officially ended. The troops have fully pulled out. The base that he was working on doesn't exist anymore. Four days pass, and the State Department writes him back at 3:50 PM on January 4. It says, "Dear sir/ma'am, we have checked your case and found that it's in processing pending verifying your employment. Please note that once you are scheduled for an interview, you'll be contacted. Your patience does assist us in accelerating the process," which is a common phrase that I see all over the place, this strange notion that if they're just patient, things will speed up. It's not true.

Nancy Updike

Not only was the process not on the verge of accelerating, Omar was trying to get out during a period when US officials admit that refugee processing for Iraqis had ground almost to a halt. It stayed slow for over a year. The US was beefing up its security screening procedures, because two Iraqis in Kentucky had been arrested and charged with sending money and weapons to al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The two guys in Kentucky had never worked for the United States, like Omar had. They hadn't gotten into the US based on American military or civilian supervisors vouching for them in writing, the kind of letters Omar had. Omar was a different kind of case altogether. But he was Iraqi.

Kirk Johnson

The next email that he wrote to the State Department-- this is February 16, 2012. I have all of these emails, but this one was the only one that was all in red. He had changed the font color.

He says, "Peace and respect to you all. I'd like to explain some of the critical developments that have happened to me in Kirkuk. I feel that I'm in a very critical situation. My security isn't good, and I'm seeking your guidance. I fear for my life, the life of my family, and I'm asking for you to help me by transferring my case to a neighboring country. If you were able to transfer my file to Turkey, then my family and I will go to finish the visa process there. I await your speedy reply, God willing."

He's clearly trying to escalate the situation here and offering to flee to another country if--

Nancy Updike

If that'll speed things up.

Kirk Johnson

Right.

Nancy Updike

The next email back to Omar had a new paragraph that Kirk had seen in emails to other Iraqis and that would turn up again and again in Omar's case.

Kirk Johnson

"Please note that you have to provide us with different contact info--" and then this is all in bold-- "official email address for a supervisor or HR officer who can identify you and verify your employment. Once we receive this, we will proceed with your case. Kind regards."

And this is where-- I had a wrestling match with the publisher, because in the initial submission of my book, I put the entire back and forth-- and it was 60 pages long-- because I wanted them to see how many times the exact same reply came back where they kept saying, please note that you have to provide us with different contact info.

Nancy Updike

Omar didn't write back saying, "I don't understand what's wrong with the contact information I already gave you. Please explain that to me so I know what to do." And the bureaucracy he's writing to is churning through about 500 new applicants a week in a system that operates like a customer service center for a credit card or phone company. Emails are answered in the order in which they're received by whichever employee is free to answer them, which means that one applicant might get emails from half a dozen different employees.

Finally, Omar asks a cousin in the United States to please track down one of his old supervisors and get new contact information. And then in the chronology of documents, there's a death threat against Omar. It's attached to his email. It's got a seal and a date on it.

Kirk Johnson

From the Lightning Brigade of Ansar al-Sunna, which is-- we know them to be an al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq. This is now several months after the war is over. Omar is not working for the Americans anymore. The Americans are gone.

But this militia didn't care. An excerpt from the letter that I translated says, "To the atheist agent Omar, you are warned that if you do not accept the orders of the mujahideen by leaving your work with the American forces, your work as a spy-- we have warned you many times before, but you did not heed them. Nor did you return to the correct path. So we, the army of Ansar al-Sunna in Iraq, have decided to carry out the punishment of execution if you do not leave your work."

Nancy Updike

So he's caught, and there's two bureaucracies. There's a bureaucracy of a militant organization that's sending him their outdated threat email, which is saying, you have to leave your job, that he's already out of, or we're going to kill you. And then there's also this bureaucracy saying, you have to send us more information that he's already sent them.

Kirk Johnson

Our bureaucracy doesn't know if he worked for us. And their bureaucracy is certain that he did, but they don't realize that we're gone.

Nancy Updike

We showed this threat letter to three Iraqi translators with experience reading death threats from different Iraqi militias. And they disagreed about its authenticity. One translator pointed out that the death threat had the same kinds of grammatical errors that Omar's emails and later his brother's emails did, so we can't be sure it's real.

Whether or not it was real, Omar at this point fled to Turkey with the idea of finding an apartment and a job and then bringing his family. But he couldn't get permission to work in Turkey, so he went back to Iraq and started moving his family from house to house, hiding.

Finally, his cousin in America did track down new contact information for one of his American bosses, a guy from Parsons. And on April 5, nine months after Omar's first email, the US State Department contacted Omar's former boss.

Kirk Johnson

Exactly 25 minutes later, at 11:47 AM, Omar's old boss at Parsons says, "Yes, I remember him to the best of my knowledge, and attached is further reference. I hope this is sufficient." And he included this letter, where he said, "To whom it may concern, it's my pleasure to provide reference for Omar. His performance working as a maintenance and laborer for the Parsons-Iraq joint venture was outstanding. I knew Omar for more than two years of my capacity as a materials logistics manager, around May 2004 to August 10 of 2006. He was an extremely positive asset as to our endeavors while in Iraq. If I can be of any further assistance or provide you with any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me."

He's got his office number, cellphone, email address, and it's on official Parsons letterhead. When I saw this, this seems like-- I was relieved when I saw this, because until this point, when I first looked at this case, I didn't know how the story ended. I just thought that this was another typical case of the process dragging on for somebody, and maybe they needed our help to nudge it forward.

So I was getting anxious until I saw this letter. And I was like, this is great. Everything's on official letterhead. It's directly to people that I know in the State Department that are all cc'ed on this email.

Nancy Updike

Omar got an email back saying, "We got the contact information you sent, and we'll be in touch." Omar wrote back immediately.

Kirk Johnson

Kind of a hopeful but still desperate email. He says, "Peace and greetings, my brothers. Now that you have the official email address, I'm wondering whether my file might be transferred to Jordan. Are there any steps left that I need to do? I need resolution. Time is passing here. I don't own anything. I don't work. I'm moving from house to house, from here to there. I beg you to find a solution. Please call me."

Next email-- this is dated April 17. This is less than 10 days after they told him that they had received the employment letter. On April 17, 1:41 PM, they sent Omar this letter. "Dear sir, thank you for your email. We have checked your case and found that it's in processing your employment verification." I'm reading this exactly as it's written.

"Please understand that the process is lengthy and might need a long period of time. Your patience does assist us in accelerating the process. Since your employment has been verified yet, you aren't advised to transfer your case to Jordan. Kind regards."

If you, as an American, can tell me what that means-- those sentences together-- I'd love to know. But it's like asking Siri to save your life or something. You're talking to a robot that seems incapable of learning, much less giving you a visa.

As April turned into May, he kept sending them emails telling them, "I'm in real danger here. I've received another new death threat. I carry the letter with me, which I can send to you or bring with me when you interview me. I'm waiting for your call." And then he puts, like, six exclamation marks at the end of that.

Nancy Updike

Again, the death threat was included in the documents. And our translator raised the same questions about this one as with the earlier one.

Kirk Johnson

Seven weeks after that, after the State Department's employment verification unit received the verification letter from his boss, Omar again receives an email that says-- this is on May 22, 2012.

"Dear sir or madam, please note that we are unable to verify your employment. Kindly provide us with different contact info, official email address for a supervisor or HR officer who can identify you and verify your employment. Please reply to this email, and do not change the subject line. Kind regards."

Nancy Updike

It's like they've gone back to the beginning.

Kirk Johnson

Right. This is the last round of correspondence, because less than two weeks later, on June 9, Omar gets a phone call. His wife said that he took the call in the other room, spoke for a couple minutes, and then came back in. They were still sitting around the kitchen table. He told his wife that he needed to step outside but that he was going to come back soon.

Nancy Updike

Omar's decapitated body was found later that night. That's what Omar's widow told the List Project. His death certificate is the next one in the chronology of documents.

It's hard to read through this correspondence and not have questions at the end. What happened here? Is this systemic incompetence? Is this one anomalous tragic screw up? Is it part of some deliberate attempt to stall Iraqi applicants? The State Department doesn't comment on specific cases, but I talked to an official in the State Department's Refugee Bureau and asked whether they think the current process is functioning fine or has significant problems.

The official didn't want to be named but said, quote, "I don't think the processing part of this is broken at all. I think there are unfortunate cases where it doesn't work. But looking at it as a whole, I think it's not something we can say is broken, because I've seen too many successes. More than 90,000 Iraqis have been able to come to the US through the SIV and refugee programs and start new lives," unquote.

That 90,000 is such a big number because it's counting all Iraqis who have come to America since 2007. Iraqis who worked with the US are a small subset of that number, around 17,000.

Another State Department official said, quote, "There is no policy to slow down the refugee or SIV process. Quite the opposite. Overall processing times have improved significantly in the past year," unquote.

But the government won't disclose how many Iraqis who worked with the US, who qualify for fast track processing, have applied to get in or how long they've been waiting. Kirk's list alone has 1,500 people on it, and his organization is just one of several that does this work.

As the Iraq War was ending, Kirk met with White House officials to push a plan that would deal all at once with all of the Iraqis who had worked for the US and wanted to come here. The plan was that President Obama could issue an executive order and put the Iraqis on airplanes and fly them to a secure military base outside the continental United States-- Guam, for instance.

At the base, they could be screened as thoroughly as they needed to be to keep the US safe. And at the same time, they would be safe. This was not a new idea. We'd done it before several times in similar situations.

Kirk Johnson

It's what we call the Guam Option. And we flew 7,000 Iraqis out of northern Iraq in '96. In two weeks, we flew 7,000 out directly to Guam. And the average processing time there was 90 days. And those Iraqis are all Americans now.

In '99, we flew 12,000 Kosovar Albanians directly to Fort Dix. When we did do the evacuation of the boat people from Vietnam, we used Guam and these other bases. Guam can hold something like 24,000 refugees at any point in time.

There were tools on the table that could have stopped all of this. It just can't happen without the presidential order, because it requires the military with all of its power to do the initial bit of heavy lifting, to save the lives of these high-priority refugees and bring them to a secure location so that State and Homeland Security and others can do the screening.

I went and spoke before Congress and spoke specifically on this. We got a bill passed that instructed the White House and their agencies to produce planning and to start contingency planning. And at every step of the way, they just ignored all of this and said, they're going to be fine. These Iraqis, like Omar, are going to be fine. We're not going to do a Guam Option.

And I used to be able to go to the White House and push this. And I can't now. They don't let me anymore. But the thing that's exasperating about all this is it didn't need to happen. And it's not that I'm some super rosy-eyed kid that doesn't understand anymore what other options are on the table. There are tools.

And so even when the Brits left, they did an airlift. They put their Iraqi employees directly on planes and flew them to Oxfordshire to an RAF base there. Australians airlifted out all of their Iraqis. Denmark airlifted out all of their Iraqis in a single night, Poland the same.

Nancy Updike

Kirk says the last time he was at the White House was November 2011.

Kirk Johnson

The thing that I remember from that meeting was-- there were List Project lawyers there as well. An NSC-- a National Security Council-- official walked up to one of our lawyers. And they said to us, we understand that the Iraqis on your list have a subjective fear. But there's no objective basis for them to be afraid anymore. And Omar died a few months later. It still sits in me like a splinter, because that's coming from the White House.

Nancy Updike

For the United States, the Iraq War ended a long time ago. Inside Iraq, no one has forgotten who they hated or who hated them. Scores are still being settled all over the country. Hundreds of people are dying every month in bombings and shootings. And militants still target Iraqis who worked for the US.

When I interviewed Kirk, it was two and a half weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing. He had been working for months with some senators, including Senator John McCain, trying to extend the Special Immigrant Visa program for Iraqis so it won't expire this year. And I asked him if he was worried that the bombers being Muslim would scuttle the legislation.

Kirk Johnson

Yeah. I don't know. It pisses me off. I live in Boston. I walk down that street all the time.

But they weren't Iraqis. But it's like the same false choice that is always put in front of me. The people on my list are not these guys. And I'm convinced. I'm certain about it. So are the thousands of Marines and soldiers and aid workers whose names are all attached to the list.

And I'm not stupid. I'm not making any excuses for terrorists or anything. But can't we at least we have one shade of nuance in understanding that not every Muslim is trying to kill us, and that for years, for a decade, people risked their lives to try to help us?

That's all I'm asking. It's just one grain. I'm not asking people to become experts in the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam. I'm not trying to have them learn Arabic or anything. Just give me that. Just recognize that not all of these people are bad, lethal people.

I'm just really tired. And I don't say that in like a woe is me thing. I just feel like I've thrown everything I can against this. And I'm out of ideas. I really don't know what else there is to do.

Nancy Updike

After seven years, Kirk says he might be ready to declare defeat. He's helped get about 1,500 Iraqis out. But another 1,500 are still on the list, waiting. And others died before they could make it out.

Kirk says we're failing to do what we set out to do. Now he wants to do something else with his life. He's tired of being a scold.

Kirk Johnson

We're very rapidly entering the point in history that it's impolite to talk about the war, that if I bring it up at a dinner party or something, I get awkward, like, oh, you're still talking about that?

Nancy Updike

That's awkward.

Kirk Johnson

Yeah. Before long, I'll be the guy in a wheelchair shouting about the abandonment of our Iraqi allies at the 4th of July parade in West Chicago in 2070 or something.

Ira Glass

Kirk Johnson, speaking with Nancy Updike. You can read the entire correspondence between Omar and the bureaucrats. And I recommend this. It is even more staggering than we can communicate here over the radio. We created a timeline with all the documents online at ThisAmericanLife.org/TakingNames-- again, ThisAmericanLife.org/TakingNames.

We did show the State Department and the International Organization for Migration-- the IOM-- the emails and the correspondence that seemed to have come from their organizations. They would not confirm that they had sent out these particular emails. But they did confirm that these emails were characteristic of the types of emails they do send.

This week, by the way, the Senate voted to extend and improve the Special Immigrant Visa programs in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are due to expire next year. That is the good news.

The bad news is the Senate did this as one small section of their comprehensive immigration reform bill, which who knows what will survive with that, if anything, once the House of Representatives takes it up.

Kirk Johnson's memoir, To Be a Friend is Fatal, The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind, will be out this September.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Miki Meek with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollack, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Phia Bennin.

Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon is our production manager. Elise Bergerson is our administrative assistant. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob [? Geddes. ?] Research by Michelle Harris.

Our special interactive timeline of Omar documents was produced by Zach Wise and Miki Meek. Again, visit our website, ThisAmericanLife.org/TakingNames.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who visited York City recently. And I don't know, it seems like he had a really weird visit to the Statue of Liberty.

Kirk Johnson

Don't worry, it's not like I slept with her anything.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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