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As Fox News Apologizes, Jeremy Scahill on Fake “Terror Experts” and Challenges of Real War Reporting

Fox apologized for broadcasting false information.

Fox News has apologized for broadcasting false information about Muslims in the wake of the Paris attacks. Last weekend, self-described terrorism expert Steve Emerson claimed on air that parts of Europe, including the entire English city of Birmingham, were totally Muslim areas where non-Muslims do not go. Emerson was forced to apologize, but the claim about so-called “no-go zones” was repeated by other Fox guests and anchors. On Saturday, according to a CNN Money tally, Fox News took time out of four broadcasts to apologize for reports on Muslims. Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of The Intercept, discusses the rise of so-called “terrorism experts” by Fox News and other major cable networks. In two recent interviews with CNN, Scahill has criticized the news giant and others for their use of “on-air analysts who also work in the private sector and make money on the idea that we should be afraid.” He also responds to blistering criticism from FBI chief James Comey of using an anonymous al-Qaeda source in reporting on the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and analyzes what al-Qaeda’s claim of responsibility will mean for the U.S. drone war in Yemen.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest—we continue with Jeremy Scahill. He’s the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, and his latest book is called Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. He broke the story that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, took credit for the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, based on an al-Qaeda source in Yemen. Days later, AQAP put out a statement of that very nature, but Jeremy broke it first. Jeremy, talk about the controversy—The Washington Post has written about it, you were on CNN talking about it—protecting what they call “terrorist sources,” not naming the sources that leaked you that story before it was officially acknowledged.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, I actually, as a—you know, I’ve been a journalist for around 20 years, and I’m honestly a bit dumbfounded at the response from other journalists. I mean, a classic part of good journalism, responsible journalism, going many, many centuries back, is that you’re trying to provide people with information that is actionable, that they can use to make informed decisions on what to believe or positions to take on certain issues. And a key part of covering war is that you have to have journalists willing to go to the other side to speak with the people that you are told are the enemies and to get their perspective so that we can better understand the nature of this conflict. And so, just as I’ve gone to areas in Yemen that are controlled by al-Qaeda or areas in Somalia that are controlled by al-Shabab or areas in Afghanistan that are controlled by the Taliban, you know, we have an obligation to try to understand where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is coming from. And so, you know, the idea we should have a special standard that in certain cases we’re actually not journalists, but we are somehow militant nationalists who should not engage in responsible journalism because the U.S. government doesn’t like us talking to those individuals, to me, just flies in the face of just basic journalistic principles.

AARON MATÉ: Well, Jeremy, the director of the FBI, James Comey, he criticized The New York Times for anonymously quoting a source from al-Qaeda. And I presume he would criticize you, too, since you broke the story, the first person to reveal that AQAP had taken credit for the Charlie Hebdo massacre. And Comey said the use of the source was “mystifying and disgusting.” And he added, to the Times, “I fear you have lost your way and urge you to reconsider allowing your newspaper to be used by those who have murdered so many and work every day to murder more.” Your response?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, well, I mean, clearly, Director Comey doesn’t actually want us to have a truly free press. And let’s remember that this Justice Department is waging a war against whistleblowers that effectively amounts to a war against journalism. Look, I don’t believe, you know, in using anonymous sources widely, and I particularly think that newspapers and news organizations should not be giving senior U.S. officials anonymity so that they can project their propaganda on the world, which is largely why senior U.S. officials request anonymity. They want to be able to say things that secretly or privately benefit U.S. policy, and it’s not actually moving the story forward. A lot of disinformation gets pushed out that way. So I believe in a limited use of confidential sources.

In this case, we had a situation where we had something that was of tremendous news value on a breaking news story. The gunmen had declared that they were from al-Qaeda in Yemen. There was a lot of speculation going on. And so, I reached out to sources that I know are members of AQAP with access to the leadership of that organization to try to get an understanding of whether or not this was true. And it was not clear at the time that any official statement was forthcoming from AQAP. And if we were to identify our source, who is not authorized to speak, not just because they’re like a private spokesperson, but because AQAP has a very strict set of guidelines as to who speaks officially for the organization—also the source could potentially be in danger, which, to me, is the number one reason why you would grant anonymity to a confidential source whose information in the past has been verified as legitimate, if they’re life is going to be in danger.

So, I didn’t just decide this on my own to grant anonymity to someone from AQAP. Our general counsel at The Intercept reviewed this, our editor-in-chief, Betsy Reed, and two senior editors. We all discussed this issue and ultimately made a determination that granting anonymity in this case was a responsible thing to do.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, Jeremy, you appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources, which is hosted by Brian Stelter.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Where I think it gets into really kind of fear-generating territory is when you have these so-called terror analysts on the air, many of whom also work for risk consultancy firms that benefit from the idea of making us afraid. I don’t think that CNN, MSNBC and Fox News do anywhere near a good enough job at revealing the potential conflicts of interest of some of the on-air analysts who also work in the private sector and make money off of the idea that we should be very afraid.

BRIAN STELTER: But you understand that is a pretty incendiary charge, that these people want us to be frightened inappropriately, for unnecessary reasons.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, look, I’ve spent a lot of years investigating how the war contracting industry works. You’ll have these retired generals come on CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and they’ll talk about the danger of a terror group in a particular country. And they’re on the board of a huge weapons manufacturer or a defense company that is going to benefit from an extension of that war, an expansion of that war. Perhaps the biggest violator of this is General Barry McCaffrey, who has made a tremendous amount of money off of war contracting, and then he’s brought onto these networks.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Jeremy Scahill on CNN’s Reliable Sources, hosted by Brain Stelter. Jeremy, if you could take it by there. You were talking about General McCaffrey and others.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, look, we also know that soon after 9/11, the Pentagon expanded its use of a program where they would invite in former U.S. military brass who were serving as pundits on cable news, and they would basically give them talking points that amounted to propaganda, a backdoor way of the war machine being able to spread its message. And then these guys, without disclosing that they were part of these secret meetings, would go on cable networks and project, supposedly as independent analysts, the very policies that Rumsfeld and others at the Pentagon were trying to drive through to the American public. Almost all of these guys who are retired generals and retired brass that appear on these networks have their hand in the war industry to one degree or another. Many of them are making money off of working with risk consultancy firms, where they are going to big multinational corporations and offering them their services analyzing risk in countries around the world. If you remember Paul Bremer, who was put in charge of the occupation of Iraq, what he was doing prior to 9/11 was benefiting off of the notion that companies need to be afraid all around the world and that they need people like him to help them assess their risk and mitigate any kind of potential terrorist actions against these corporations. So, on the one hand, it’s the retired generals and other brass that are working in the war industry.

On the other hand, it’s people like Evan Kohlmann from Flashpoint Partners, who is on MSNBC, who is a total fraud and is constantly brought on as an expert. His so-called expert testimony has been used to put countless people away in prison on very dubious, thin terrorism charges. You have Samuel Laurent, who was on CNN for a couple of days—he’s been missing in action. We don’t know where he is. He doesn’t seem to be on CNN anymore. But Samuel Laurent, who is a French so-called terror expert, is widely viewed in France as a fraud, and people were up in arms when CNN put him on the air as a terrorism expert.

So, you know, part of what I think is the problem here is it’s—you know, CNN has actually really great international reporters, who have great experience on the ground. I have tremendous respect for many journalists, particularly in the international section, of CNN. But then they bring on these analysts who have a vested interest in revving up the fear engine, and they don’t disclose, in many cases, the built-in agenda of particularly some of these retired military people.

AARON MATÉ: Jeremy, as we wrap, I just want to ask you again about the story you broke about al-Qaeda in Yemen taking responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo massacre. What do you see is going on there with them coming forward to say that they financed the brothers, trained them? Because that would presumably invite an intensified U.S. drone war. And what questions or concerns do you have, going forward, in the aftermath of them taking credit?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, you know, this may be somewhat of a cynical read on this, but who really has benefited—the people that really have benefited most from the U.S. drone war in Yemen have not been ordinary Yemenis, have not been the people of the United States. The only real beneficiaries of that policy have been the manufacturers of drones and the missiles fired from the drones, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, because when the U.S. conducts a drone strike and they kill innocent civilians, AQAP can use that for propaganda purposes. In the limited cases where they actually have killed individuals from AQAP, then they’re celebrated as martyrs. So I think that part of what AQAP is doing is trying to goad the United States into once again escalating or intensifying its drone campaign inside of Yemen, because it elevates the stature of AQAP. Now, it could be that AQAP had limited involvement and that all of the facts about it are already on the table. My sense is that if AQAP did indeed direct this plot, that they’re going to produce photographic or video evidence to back that up. If they don’t do that, then I think that, you know, it’s likely that the truth is that they had some involvement but were not effectively running the show.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally—we have 20 seconds—what’s repeated on so many networks, that Anwar al-Awlaki, before he was killed in a U.S. drone strike, was behind this terror attack on Charlie Hebdo?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, look, I mean, they try to link Anwar al-Awlaki to every plot under the sun. The fact is that Anwar al-Awlaki’s writings and speeches clearly have inspired so-called lone-wolf terrorists. No doubt about that. Whether he was operationally in charge of this is actually kind of a joke. Anwar al-Awlaki was not even mid-level management in AQAP. They’re exploiting his legacy because of the power of nightmares. He speaks in English. He aims his message at a Western, English-speaking audience. So the United States has elevated his status within the organization. AQAP has a leadership structure. Anwar al-Awlaki was not a senior figure within AQAP.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, we want to thank you for being with us, co-founder of The Intercept, broke the story that AQAP took credit for the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, based on an al-Qaeda source in Yemen. Days later, AQAP put out an official statement confirming it took responsibility. Jeremy’s latest book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield; his Oscar-nominated film, Dirty Wars, as well. He is an award-winning journalist.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Guatemala for a remarkable verdict that has just come down around crimes against humanity. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Charlie Haden and the Liberation Music Orchestra, “Spiritual,” a song inspired by Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. And to see other choice picks of music inspired by or inspiring Dr. King, you can go to A big shout out to Ruth Haden, who is the widow of Charlie Haden, who has joined us today at our studios just to come by and say hi. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté.

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