In his new book, the New York Times-bestselling Dirty Wars, investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill takes us on a tour through the United States’ descent into neverending war, showing us the decisions that were made that led us to this place, where, as multiple sources tell him, “the world is a battlefield.”
Expanding on the work he began in Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, Scahill traces the rise of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the super-secret special ops force that became central first to Bush’s and now to Obama’s strategy for combating terrorism. Night raids, cruise missiles, and yes, drones, figure in this story, but it’s also a story of how we got here – where just last week, the president admitted for the first time in public to killing United States citizens, including 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.
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In addition to the book, Scahill collaborated with filmmaker Rick Rowley to create a film, also called Dirty Wars, which hits theaters June 7. The names are the same, but the projects are very different – while the book is a 600-page tome filled with impeccable research and years of history, the film is a trip along with Scahill as he discovers JSOC, trails them from a remote part of Afghanistan to Yemen and Somalia, and deals along the way with the emotional fallout from chasing heartbreaking, horrifying stories around the world. A stunning visual achievement, the film brings to life the characters we meet in the pages of the book, from anonymous sources to the family members of those killed by US weapons.
Scahill took some time to talk with me about the book, the film and the strands that make up American “national security” policy. In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I worked closely with Scahill as an intern at the Nation in 2009, and that without his help I probably would not have the career I have today. As he says, there is no such thing as objective journalism – we just have to tell people where we stand and hope that they trust us enough to come along for the ride.
We talked about drones, about journalism, about the ways anti-communist policy merged into anti-terrorist policy, and much more.
Sarah Jaffe: So much of the conversation about targeted killing has been focused on drones, and it sometimes seems like the real story is obscured in the obsession about the technology. Your book goes well beyond that. Do you think the drone obsession leads people to miss a lot of the story?
Jeremy Scahill: There’s very little new in war except technology.
I understand why people are concerned about drones. The idea that you have guys sitting in trailers in the Southwest of the US bombing Pakistan and Yemen and then getting into their SUVs and driving off their base past a sign that says “Buckle up, this is the most dangerous part of your day” just seems to epitomize everything that’s wrong with war and the way that the US fights its wars. You have people really playing a video game, except there are real people getting killed on the other side of the world while they sit there in these little boxes playing with a joystick of the drone controls. I also understand the concerns people have about drones being used domestically, in the US.
I do think that the over-obsessing about drones is giving cover to the fact that this is a much broader program. Some of the more devastating tactics that are being used by the US don’t even involve drones. You’ve got an incredible number of night raids that have taken place in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen that go unreported. Cruise missiles are a heinous devastating weapon. The biggest death toll caused by a US strike in Yemen that we know of was the first strike that Obama authorized, against the village of al Majala. That was a cruise missile attack and they used cluster bombs, which are like flying land mines. And that was launched without having to risk US military lives; it was launched from a submarine in the ocean.
In other words, if it’s a drone or a cruise missile or it’s an AC-130 attack, the issue should be the policy, that the constitutional law professor, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Democratic president has asserted the right to assassinate people in any country where he deems, in secret, there’s a national security threat posed.
SJ: Obama said from the beginning that he would use unilateral force in pursuit of Bin Laden, that he would strike inside Pakistan, but on the other hand, of course, he’s also broken a lot of promises. There seems to be this interesting tension between people who want to say, “I knew all along he was going to be terrible,” and “Oh my god, this is just horrifyingly disappointing.” But I think your book leaves a space for both of those things.
JS: The way I see it is, anybody who thought that Obama was going to be this sort of pacifist or dovish president was only paying attention to his stump speeches and not reading any of his policy papers – or looking at who he had around him advising him. It was pretty clear that he was going with establishment, national-security-hawkish Democrats. He chose one of them as his running mate; he chose one of them as his Secretary of State. So I do think it’s a little bit disingenuous when people say “I was hoodwinked by Obama; he told us he was going to do all of this stuff and he didn’t do it.” He made it pretty clear that he was going to be a pretty hawkish president.
On the flip side, it’s not so much that he turned his back on his promises; he’s kind of fudged “Hope and Change.” The issue of Guantanamo is a complicated one because on the one hand, the Republicans are blocking the funding and have been total obstructionists. On the other hand, when Obama wants to get something done, he would send people like Rahm Emanuel to Capitol Hill to kneecap people and ensure that it was going to get pushed through. The failure to close Guantanamo is the failure of both Republicans and the White House.
But the reason that I say that he’s fudging the Hope and Change stuff is because if you look at the executive orders that he issued his first week in office, they told people it was going to dismantle the Bush-Cheney torture unaccountability apparatus. What I’ve seen in my investigation is while Obama has closed down the CIA’s black sites, he’s instead using other nations’ black sites to interrogate prisoners. He’s continued the use of rendition. He has made the interrogation tactics used by US representatives in various war zones compliant with the US Army Field Manual, but the US Army Field Manual has tactics in it that I think reasonable people would call torture. I think in every case where he claims to have ended the Bush-era programs, he’s found a way to kind of rebrand it, tweak it, then sell it back to the public as a more humane, clean way of waging war, and it’s just not the case. A lot of it is just theatrics.
SJ: In reading, I kept thinking about the performance of masculinity, that there was this hyper-testosterone-laden policy and rhetoric under Cheney and Rumsfeld. And that quiets down somewhat under Obama, but it seems like the major shift is rhetoric rather than policy.
JS: I think that Cheney in particular had this very macho tough-guy attitude, “We need to do things in the dark with unsavory people with sources and methods we won’t be able to tell the American people about.”
I think he fancied himself sort of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. Which is the very definition of hypermasculinity – you know, “I eat my Cheerios 200 yards from Cubans that want to kill me and I keep the world safe at night so that you can sleep.”
Then you have Obama come in and he is a constitutional law professor; he wins the Nobel Peace Prize and he’s able to articulate a case for how continuing some of these policies is actually the right thing, but we’re going to do it in a way that makes it sound better. It’s not going to necessarily be better, but it’s going to sound better.
I like to imagine good old Darth Cheney fly-fishing somewhere in Wyoming and chuckling, “So glad Obama cleaned this up for us.”
Because the next time a Republican is in office, they’re going to point to liberals when they want to assassinate American citizens without trial or even charging them with a crime. Liberals aren’t going to be able to say anything because they’ll just say, “Remember that two-week period where your guy killed three US citizens, none of whom had been charged with a crime?”
I think there’s a way in which Obama really has fulfilled a vision that John McCain never would’ve been able to do because there would’ve been pushback on it. To me that’s one of the most devastating aspects of this, how Obama has normalized and legitimized Cheney-type tactics for a lot of liberals.
SJ: Obama’s policy relies so much on this idea that we trust him because of who he is, and there is that response from some liberals who you would think would know better. The idea being that he’s doing it for our own good because he says so.
JS: Look at the attacks on journalists recently. I’ve no love in my heart for FOX News or James Rosen, this FOX News journalist, specifically. But I think it’s reprehensible that Obama’s justice department is trying to criminalize national security reporting. If we don’t have journalists who are willing to cultivate sources that can blow the whistle on wrongdoing within the government or on activities that are being kept secret inappropriately, that the American people have a right to know about …
At the same time, they’re going after whistleblowers in an unprecedented way, locking up whistleblowers and then allowing people like Jose Rodriguez, who was one of the architects of the torture program, to go on national TV bragging about his role in the torture program, and go on a book tour, and be featured in films as though he has a right to be a legitimate member of society anymore, is a devastating commentary on where we are under Obama.
Look at what Media Matters for America did when they put out those talking points: how to defend the Obama administration’s crackdown on journalism. If this was the Bush administration doing it, they’d be putting out talking points about how to go after it. To me it shows a sort of fundamental intellectual dishonesty. People just check their consciences at the door for the eight-year party of Obama. I think years from now, we’re going to look back and realize that the silence on the part of so many liberals in the face of this made possible much more belligerent Republican wars.
SJ: You talk in the book about persecuted journalists – one in particular who is still in prison in Yemen – but also about the job of reporters. You mention the Guardian journalists who outed Raymond Davis as a CIA operative and their statement on what journalism should be. There’s a really important conversation I think to be had about what the role of journalism – in the world, in politics, in war zones – is.
JS: One thing I know from traveling to all these countries is that the real heroes of this story are the journalists who are not famous, who never get invited to go on big cable news shows or to give speeches or testify in front of Congress. They’re local journalists who largely are not reporting in English and they’re taking very real risks.
I can go into a place and then come back to the safety of lattes and baby strollers in Park Slope, Brooklyn, but Abdulelah Haider Shaye, the Yemeni journalist who exposed this horrifyingly deadly US cruise missile attack, is rotting away losing his mind in a Yemeni prison, and when the Yemeni government wanted to pardon him from these trumped-up charges of being an al-Qaeda facilitator, President Obama personally called the dictator of Yemen and told him that he wanted him kept in prison and the pardon was torn up. So we’ve got a journalist in Yemen who is well known to foreign and local reporters alike as being a fiercely independent guy who has been critical of al-Qaeda and the United States, in prison because of our constitutional law professor who is president right now.
I think it’s shameful that journalists, particularly those whose media outlets he worked for, aren’t standing up and demanding his freedom. That’s the last line of my book, saying that he should be free.
I take this all as part of the same program, the operation to get the Associated Press and the seizure of their phone records was in retaliation for the critical reporting they were doing about the CIA and the kill program. It’s meant to send a message of warning to journalists who are getting too close to stories the White House doesn’t want out in the public. It’s sent a chill effect through a relatively small community of journalists who report on these issues.
One other note on the Raymond Davis thing. The New York Times found out that Raymond Davis was a CIA contractor and they withheld that information at the request of the US government. Now, I can understand the logic of the government asking them to withhold that information and we can all debate whether or not that’s proper to do. I think that would be a tough call: the US was saying look, this guy’s in custody; if they find out he’s CIA, they could kill him.
The problem, though, is that the Times knew that and then continued to print statements from the Obama administration calling him a diplomat. So they crossed the line from dealing with the moral or ethical quandary of what you do when there is a possibility that your reporting will get someone killed to actually facilitating US government propaganda, and they did it knowingly.
That was the problem with that issue, and I think that that is indicative of a broader culture, particularly in these White House clique elite media, to view yourself as allies of the White House, not as critical, independent observers who are trying to ask tough questions to provide people with information that is independent and true and they can use to make informed decisions.
We have what I call the Super Soaker culture, where Chuck Todd and the boys go and play Super Soaker in Joe Biden’s lawn; they hang out at the correspondents’ dinner and chuckle at jokes about drone strikes. We have a pathetic elite media culture that views itself as like the cocktail party buddies of those in power. That’s a big part of our problem with media today. Not to say that there aren’t fantastic journalists who work for corporate media outlets. Charlie Savage at The New York Times, fantastic reporter. Michelle Shephard at The Toronto Star. Dana Priest, Jane Mayer. The problem is that they are few and far between, and most of the chatter on cable news comes from the buddies of the powerful.
SJ: The polarization of the press mirrors the way the whole country is going. We’ve got a few celebrity journalists at the top who get invited to parties at the White House, and then we’ve got a whole bunch of people at the bottom scrambling to make ends meet, and we really don’t have a solid middle-class newspaper culture, with a good newspaper in every town with one or two foreign reporters: that just doesn’t exist anymore. I think that this culture of elite journalism is something that we need to think about really hard.
JS: Someone was asking me the other day, “Why don’t you go and work for like, a bigger news outlet or try to write for glossy magazines or something?” It’s not that I haven’t had offers to do that; it’s that I believe in building independent media. That’s where I started and it wasn’t that I went through a billion internships and landed a job that I liked and I’d better keep my job. I actually got rejected for an internship at the Nation when I tried to apply in the 90s.
But the point is that I believe that if we were to lose Democracy NOW!, or if we were to lose The Nation Magazine or to lose the community papers – the few of them that actually exist that are real, true community papers – that’s a huge loss for our society. That fierce independent media tradition is so important to preserve, especially with media consolidation and the crackdown on union-organized publications. It’s really important to preserve what we have and to try to hold the line, because it is under attack right now.
SJ: There’s a comment somewhere in the book that the US is good at overthrowing governments, but not at establishing them or supporting them. You see over and over again the Taliban, al Shabaab, al-Qaeda providing basic services to these people who don’t have anything. One of the people you talked to said, “If my government built schools, hospitals, and roads and met basic needs, I would be loyal to my government and protect it.” When you look at what actually wins people over, it’s giving them food and schools.
JS: This is a little bit off-topic, but I think it relates: The fact that the CIA used this doctor in Pakistan to run a fake polio vaccination program in the effort to find Osama bin Laden has meant that the aid organizations or the international medical organizations that are trying to fight polio – Pakistan is one of the last countries in the world that has a polio problem – they’re unable to do their job because the CIA made targets of all of them and made Pakistani civilians suspicious of vaccination programs. That’s going to have a devastating health impact in Pakistan.
In Yemen, we saw clearly that the US was giving all this financial aid to these so-called elite counterterrorism units in Yemen, supposedly to fight al-Qaeda, and instead those units are used to suppress dissent and to repress political opponents of the regime. I met scores of people in various countries who would say, “I don’t have any love for al-Qaeda whatsoever, but I would rather be around those guys than your drones and your aid to these forces that are shooting our people.”
When people are saying, “The US has to intervene in Syria; we have to do something about that,” we are already intervening in Syria. We’re intervening to destabilize the region even further. We’ve destroyed Iraq, Syria’s neighbor. We have no credibility; we can’t be an honest broker in any of this stuff. It’s remarkable how much damage has been done both by the Bush-Cheney administration and the Obama-Biden administration when it comes to the stability of quite a few primarily Muslim countries.
SJ: Another thing I kept thinking about while reading was the connections between anticommunist, cold war-era policy and present-day anti-terrorist policy. You have Yemen’s President Saleh, especially, saying that he had to figure out how to manage the cold war policy and then had to figure out how to manage the present-day policy.
JS: We’re sort of moving into the era of the Cold War on Terror, where it’s this sort of endless justification for covert military actions. Instead of the Communist Menace lurking in every corner, now it’s the Terrorist Menace lurking in every corner. It’s perfect for the war industry because there’s no way that it can end; it encourages the view that we’re in a perpetual state of war, but I also look at it back home in the US through a similar lens.
We’re militarizing our response to any perceived problem. It’s a War on Drugs – so there’s a militarized solution to it. We have a War on Crime – so we’re para-militarizing law enforcement in the US. It’s a War on Terror – so we’re militarizing our response to it, when in reality, terrorism’s a crime and should be dealt with through the lens of bringing people to justice, not “We’re going to get the mob with their high-tech pitchforks, their neo-pitchforks that are drones, and go out and just mete out citizen’s justice against them without any due process.”
SJ: You mentioned earlier the way the US troops ended up carrying out the will of different dictators rather than doing what they’re supposedly there for. Interesting that when the sort of Arab Spring rebellion hit Yemen, our troops were explicitly propping up the dictator there.
JS: I know of specific cases in Afghanistan and Iraq where various factions, or in the case of Yemen, the dictator of Yemen, used the United States to bump off political opponents by tarring them as al-Qaeda members when they weren’t: saying, “Here’s a high-value target,” feeding that info to the Americans, and the next thing you know, the guy is swallowing a Hellfire missile.
That’s happened repeatedly in Afghanistan with these night raids, where people will feed bad intelligence to the Americans knowing that the vetting of the intelligence has been pretty flimsy, and so you have night raids going on where US forces are killing people and it turns out that these people were killed by the Americans because someone who had a grudge against them had fed bad intelligence to the US.
These forces play the American government like a piano. In Yemen, a lot of our policy is outsourced to the Saudis, who have their own little war going on in Yemen. I think the drones are evidence of the fact that the United States does not have anything resembling credible intelligence about who’s who in Yemen. The use of these signature strikes that are sort of Minority Report pre-crime – where we’re potentially targeting individuals whose identities we don’t know and against whom we don’t have any evidence that they’re involved with terror plots or criminal activity – that’s bound to make scores of fresh enemies who probably wouldn’t be inclined to be against the US in the first place.
SJ: I was thinking about rendition to Egypt and the uprisings in Egypt, another client state, and what our policies did, eventually, to the politics there.
JS: I call that Saddamization, because, you know, Saddam Hussein was our awesome ally when Reagan was in power and Donald Rumsfeld was running over there to give him golden cowboy spurs at a time when Saddam was at his most brutal. They lifted him off the list of state sponsors of terrorism so that they could sell him weapons that he used not only against his own people, but also used against Iran, when the US wanted Iran and Iraq to kill each other off. Then when Saddam posed a threat to US economic interests or corporate oil interests, then all of a sudden he became this epic bastard tantamount to Hitler who needed to be taken out.
The Assad regime in Syria was a very convenient ally for the Bush administration when they wanted Maher Arar, this Canadian citizen of Syrian descent, to be kidnapped at JFK Airport and sent to Syria to be tortured. Muammar Qaddafi also was working closely with the CIA and assisting in the rendition and torture program. And Mubarak was perhaps the kingpin in the Middle East of supporting the US torture program. And all these guys, when they’re doing the bidding of the US, there’s silence on their human rights record or who they really are, and then when it becomes clear that they’re threatening some perceived interests the United States has in the region, they become hellish dictators on the verge of using chemical weapons.
In the case of Mubarak, the Obama administration held on for dear life, supporting that man until it became clear he was going to fall, and then no one wants to be on a sinking ship, so of course Obama was on the side of the Egyptian people. But Obama went to Cairo, his first major address was under the sponsorship of Hosni Mubarak. The hypocrisy, it just reeks throughout this administration on these issues – and every administration. It’s certainly not unique to Obama.
SJ: In Somalia, specifically, you had the entire circuit – we’re going to back this guy and overthrow this guy; now we’re going overthrow that guy and back the old guy. It seems so completely inept.
JS: The history of Somalia is so unknown in the broader public, but it’s such a telling case. The US was involved in Somalia very early on in the Clinton administration; everyone’s heard of the Black Hawk Down incident, but then from the early 1990s all the way to 9/11, warlords basically just rampaged throughout Somalia, destroying the country.
And then 9/11 happened and the US starts hiring some of these warlords to hunt down people it believed were affiliated with al-Qaeda. Most experts at the time said there probably were no more than a dozen or so al-Qaeda fighters within Somalia. Somalis were rejecting Bin Laden’s efforts to get a foothold in Somalia. But we hired these warlords and then started extrajudicially killing anyone who was sort of an Islamist. You didn’t have to be a member of al-Qaeda; anyone who was a pronounced sort of open Muslim, they would go after, you know, mosques and teachers and madrassas and others.
So finally a coalition of Islamic scholars and regional clan leaders formed this alliance called the Islamic Courts Union, and they overthrew the CIA’s warlords and they purged all the warlords from Mogadishu and began to establish something resembling stability. That government lasted six months. The Bush administration worked covertly with the Ethiopian military; the Ethiopian military then did an overt ground invasion that gave cover for JSOC and the CIA to start hunting people inside of Somalia. and they – almost in an instant – returned Somalia to the hellscape that was the warlord era, with the added aspect of US hunter teams going out and killing people and the Ethiopians committing massive human rights abuses.
What happened in Somalia is not “Africans butchering each other with machetes”; it was intervention by the United States that overthrew the only stable government Somalia had had since Siad Barre’s regime fell in the early 1990s. That was devastating. We bear a huge responsibility for the bloodshed that’s happened in Somalia since 9/11.
SJ: Ultimately, it feels like this book and Blackwater are both about accountability. About who’s responsible, who gets to sign off on killings or bombings or wars, who ultimately has that power and is held accountable for it.
JS: I think that’s right.
The fact that we have “Terror Tuesday” meetings where the secret committee meets, and they decide who’s going to live or die around the world and then they give the baseball cards to the president, who then puts them on the board or takes them off the board, is really chilling. You have a White House that has asserted that it doesn’t really need to provide Congress with any serious explanation for how this is legal or any serious explanation as to why this is the effective way to address the threat of terrorism around the world.
The oversight right now as it stands on the kill program is that a handful of senators go into a padded room in a classified intelligence facility; they’re not allowed to bring writing utensils; they can’t bring paper; they’re not allowed to bring any recording device; they’re only allowed to look at certain memos from the White House and they’re not allowed to tell anyone what they’ve read. That’s just not acceptable. I understand that states need to have secrets or even protect sources and methods, but we are in an era of massive overclassification, hypersecrecy that is totally unnecessary, combined with a crackdown on anyone who will speak out from within. And now, snooping on journalists in a widespread manner.
For me, part of my hope for this is that there will be demands for not just accountability or oversight – but effective oversight that leads to effective accountability.
SJ: We’ve talked about the book; I wanted to talk briefly about the Dirty Wars movie – which comes out June 7 – what went into it.
JS: Rick Rowley and I have worked together for a long time, and Jacquie Soohen, Rick’s wife, and I have spent years going in and out of Iraq together. I’ve traveled with them, worked with them, and we had always talked about doing a bigger project together.
When I was trying to divorce Blackwater, purge them from my life – I promised not to ask them for any alimony – I was starting to look into the story of hidden war in Afghanistan, these night raids that were being covered up by the larger conventional operations. Rick said, “I’d like to go along; if it works out, we can do a film,” so we went over on this first trip and I basically paid for the trip out of a grant that I had gotten to do something else. I had to beg the people to let me use it for that and we stayed in a cheap hotel room and rolled very, very cheap.
We started investigating these night raids and when we started reporting on this particularly horrific case of a JSOC team killing three women and two men in this house one night – two of the women were pregnant and one of the men was a police commander who was fighting against the Taliban – when we realized that it was JSOC that had done it, we knew we were going to make a film.
We started to really focus in on, who are these guys and why would the president’s elite force be kicking down doors on a family in Gardez, Afghanistan?
The way I would put it is: it was like pulling on a string that was coming out of a hole in the wall and you don’t know what’s attached to the string and then cracks start to appear in the wall, and then the wall crumbles and there’s a massive elephant that’s on the other side of the wall. That’s how I felt doing this story.
We tried to make a film that would be digestible or accessible to people who are not following this as their primary obsession in life, a film that told real stories. At first I wasn’t going to be in the film as myself; I was going to be in the film as sort of a tour guide going around to these countries, but we realized in the course of making it that when you do this kind of work, it affects you on a very deep level. There’s a reason why you do what you do as a journalist, and we felt that that should be part of the story.
So we tried to make a film that was about an investigation, that shows people what goes into doing this kind of work, and that journalists are not robots, we’re people. I’ve never believed that there’s such a thing as objective journalism; it’s just you have to be honest about where you’re coming from so people can decide whether or not to trust you.
And so what we tried to do in the film is tell an entirely human story that allows people into the world of the person that we’re asking them to spend an hour and a half with. It became a much more personal film than I had ever wanted or intended. I was kind of dragged kicking and screaming by Rick and David Riker into doing that.
But in the end, I think that we made a film that I’m proud to say will be in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, my hometown. I think that people there, even if they’re not paying attention to this, will come away asking serious questions that I think should’ve been asked a long time ago. I’m just psyched that it’s going to be showing outside of the bubble of New York and LA.