In October 1998, U.S. Congress passed legislation authorizing RFE/RL to begin broadcasting to Iraq in Arabic. The resulting service, Radio Free Iraq, provided essential reporting to local audiences following the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., and during the subsequent U.S. war in Iraq, drawing upon a network of fearless correspondents who reported on the front-lines. Three journalists with the Service were killed – including two who were targeted because of their reporting and one who was shot and killed at a checkpoint – before it was shuttered in 2015. Former RFE/RL President Thomas A. Dine shared his memories of Ambassador David Newton, the first director of RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq, at a July 15, 2017 memorial service in Arlington, Virginia.
In October 1998, Congress passed legislation authorizing RFE/RL to begin broadcasting to Iraq in Arabic. As the President of the Radios, I had already commenced searching for a director for the new broadcasting service.
One of those I asked for recommendations was then Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Pickering. Tom immediately said, "you've got to interview David Newton." He told me David had served as President Reagan's ambassador to Baghdad and was just back from being envoy to Yemen.
David and I met. I knew he was the one! I asked him to join the Radios as the first director of Radio Free Iraq.
When David and Christa arrived in Prague, a sharp tenseness pervaded U.S. relations with Iraq. David took over the reins of leadership. He had to assemble a staff of journalists; he had to keep a sense of calm and concentration among a young and sometimes inexperienced group. This was, in today's terms, a "start-up" operation. David signed veteran journalist and commentator of current affairs, Kamran Karadaghi, to be the station's deputy and chief editor. This was a major move, as Kamran gave us credibility among Baghdad’s intelligentsia.
The Iraqi embassy in Prague was unfriendly toward the new addition to RFE/RL. Indeed, the hostility was overt. We tracked embassy goons walking around our broadcasting headquarters building in the center of historic Prague almost on a daily basis. Our personnel felt anxious in public places such as restaurants or riding to work and back home on subways.
David's even-tempered personality and wealth of executive experience was essential, as was Christa's leadership, she giving our Iraqi colleagues a sense of community and some security via personal counseling and the warmth of home entertainment.
David ensured that Radio Free Iraq personnel concentrated on their jobs to produce six hours of fresh Iraqi news and information daily.
David’s real test came with the 9/11 calamity. David showed his steady hand, and I for one will be eternally grateful.
Shortly after the attack, I was visited by an American embassy official representing a certain agency. He informed me that Saddam had ordered his henchmen “to blow up RFE/RL in Prague" and "to follow Dine's movements." I immediately went back to Washington and obtained from congress an emergency appropriation of $3 million to secure our building and personnel. 24/7.
An Iraqi stationed himself on a hill in front of the Czech National Museum directly overlooking our entrance every day. The Iraqi service called him "the shell," as he wore a certain shirt with the design of a sea shell on it. The Czech police identified him as an Iraqi embassy official always driving a brown Mercedes.
The team of David and Christa, because of their various embassy experiences, recognized the value of a community relations officer. David urged me to hire such a person to help radio staff learn their way around Prague. From the Radio Free Iraq experience, I hired such a person for the whole entity, to help staff and their families involved in 28 broadcast services speaking over 35 native languages navigate exotic Prague.
One last note. David was an experienced traveler. My wife Joan accompanied David and Christa and a few others on a trip to Poland. I joined on another jaunt to Budapest. David had two good rules: nap every afternoon and eat in the best local restaurants at night.
David Newton, colleague and public servant, led Radio Free Iraq adroitly and with sensitivity in its historic beginning years. Concerned with their welfare, he established a noted and heroic professional cadre of journalists in Prague and throughout Iraq, covering the war, reporting accurate and relevant news and information to people hungry for such a data, giving them valued information by which they could make decisions.
We will always look to him as a model student of Iraqi affairs and leader and caring human being. Thank you, David -- for your knowledge and work on behalf of the American and Iraqi people -- and to you Christa, for your partnership and for being such a good communicator.