As Vice President Joe Biden warns it will take a “hell of a long fight” for the United States to stop militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, we speak to Jeremy Scahill, author of the book, “Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield.” We talk about how the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 that helped create the threat now posed by the Islamic State. We also discuss the role of Baathist forces in ISIS, Obama’s targeting of journalists, and the trial of four former Blackwater operatives involved in the 2007 massacre at Baghdad’s Nisoor Square.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday it will take a, quote, “hell of a long fight” for the United States and its allies to stop the advance of militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But during the same speech, Biden admitted the Islamic State poses no existential threat to the nation’s security. His comment comes as Australia becomes the latest country to join the U.S.-led fight. Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Australian planes will take part in the air campaign and that special forces would be deployed.
PRIME MINISTER TONY ABBOTT: The Americans certainly have quite a substantial special forces component on the ground already. My understanding is that there are U.K. and Canadian special forces already inside Iraq. So, we’ll be operating on a much smaller scale, but in an entirely comparable way to the United States special forces.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Turkey’s Parliament has authorized the government to order military action against the Islamic State. The mandate also allows foreign troops to launch operations from Turkey. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, ISIS militants have seized more than 350 North Syrian villages in the past 16 days, displacing at least 300,000 people.
To talk more about the crisis in the Middle East, we’re joined by Jeremy Scahill, who first reported from inside Iraq before the 2003 U.S. invasion. He’s co-founder of the TheIntercept.org and author of the book Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. The paperback version of the book has just been published.
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Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Jeremy.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Thanks, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: And congratulations on the book being published as a paperback. Talk about the war in Syria and Iraq now.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, you know, first of all, it’s sort of like the terrorist flavor of the month that we’re dealing with here. You know, first we had al-Qaeda as this huge global threat. Then it was ISIS. And then the Khorasan group was produced. And the thing is, almost no one in Syria had ever heard of the Khorasan group. In fact, my understanding is that it was a term that was sort of used in the U.S. intelligence community and actually isn’t the name of the people that they claim to be attacking.
And what the entire policy boils down to is that the Obama administration has, in a very Orwellian way, changed the definition of commonly understood terms—primarily, the term “imminent.” They were saying that the Khorasan group represented an imminent threat to the United States. But we know from a leaked white paper, that was put out in advance of John Brennan’s confirmation to be the CIA director, that the Justice Department actually has officially changed the definition of the word “imminent” so that it does not need to involve an immediate threat against the United States, that it could be a perception that maybe one day these individuals could possibly attempt to plot—not even carry out—a terrorist attack against the United States. That flimsy justification has been used now to expand this war from Iraq to Syria, potentially beyond.
You know, the Obama administration, in engaging in this policy, is continuing a Bush administration outcome of the decision to invade Iraq. And that is, they’re empowering the very threat that they claim to be fighting. Who is ISIS? What is this group made up of? Is it just people that are radical Islamists that want to behead American journalists? No. One of the top—and this almost is never mentioned in corporate media coverage of this—one of the top military commanders of ISIS is a man named Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri al-Takriti. Who is Izzat Ibrahim? Izzat Ibrahim is the leading Baathist, who was on the deck of cards, that the United States has not captured. He was one of Saddam Hussein’s top military commanders. He was not just some ragamuffin Baathist. He actually was a hardcore general in the Iraqi military during the Iran-Iraq War, and he was a secular Baathist.
Why is he fighting with ISIS? Well, when Bush decided to invade Iraq, and then he put Paul Bremer, who was a radical neocon ideologue who had cut his teeth working for Henry Kissinger—when Paul Bremer was put in charge of the occupation of Iraq, one of the first things he did was to fire 250,000 Iraqi soldiers simply because they were members of the Baath Party. As one senior U.S. official at the time said, it was the day we made a quarter of a million enemies in Iraq. All of these Baathists have been jerked around by the United States, and the Sunnis in western Iraq, jerked around by the United States for a very long time. There was the period of the so-called surge, where the U.S. actually paid Sunnis not to kill the United States, you know, U.S. soldiers. And so, but then the U.S. turned around and put in power a Shiite-led government under Nouri al-Maliki that effectively operated a network of death squads that systematically attacked Sunnis.
So the point I’m making here is, yes, there’s an element of ISIS—I don’t know how dominant it is within the group—that is, you know, trying to establish the caliphate. And they are beheading people. And they are imposing a very strict interpretation of sharia law. But there are also—and I would suspect that they’re best military figures—there is also a large contingent of people that are fighting the same battle that they were fighting when the United States originally invaded. The fact is, there was no al-Qaeda presence in Iraq before George W. Bush took—made the decision to invade it, except in the Kurdish region in the north of Iraq, which was not under Saddam Hussein’s control. In fact, it was under the control of U.S.-backed entities. And that was Ansar al-Islam. Saddam Hussein’s forces were fighting that group.
So, what am I saying here? What I’m saying is that the United States, through its policies, created the very threat that it claims to be fighting now, and in continuing this policy, what President Obama is doing is embracing the very lies that made the Cheney-Bush Iraq War possible. And in the process, he’s creating yet another generation of people in the Islamic world who are going to grow up in a society where they believe that their religion is being targeted, where they believe that the United States is a gratuitous enemy. And so, this is sort of an epic formula for blowback.
AMY GOODMAN: According to Yahoo News, the Obama administration has acknowledged a policy announced last year calling for “near certainty” for no civilian casualties in drone strikes will not apply to the current bombing. The admission came in response to queries about a strike that killed up to a dozen civilians in the Syrian village of Kafr Deryan last week.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, this is a kind of kabuki drone theater here, because the reality is that even in their drone strikes, that are supposedly done with precision and every precaution is taken not to kill civilians, the reality is that they’ve created a mathematical process for churning out the number of civilians killed in drone strikes that will always result in zero, because if they kill a so-called “jackpot,” the target that they’re aiming for, and they kill other unknown individuals, the system that the Obama administration, the U.S. military and CIA have developed is that anyone who is an EKIA, enemy killed in action, is someone who we don’t have proof that they’re innocent. In other words, it’s sort of a reversal of the idea that you’re innocent until proven guilty. If you are near someone that the U.S. was intending to kill, the presumption is that you are an EKIA, you’re an enemy killed in action—unless someone can prove that you weren’t. And, I mean, most of these drone strikes, we don’t know anything about. So, in a way, the fact that they’re saying this has actually very little meaning, except that they’re going to have even less regard for civilian lives than they already do through their kabuki theater with their existing drone program.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about the former defense secretary, Leon Panetta, the book that’s coming out, Worthy Fights. He writes, “In the fall of 2011, it was clear to me—and many others—that withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability then barely holding Iraq together. … To this day, I believe that a small U.S. troop presence in Iraq could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with al-Qaeda’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country.”
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean, this is a clown show with these guys. I mean, the fact is that Leon Panetta was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and had enormous influence at that point. The fact that the Obama administration adopted what was effectively the U.S. policy in Iraq when Bush left office says a tremendous amount about how little the Obama administration understood the disaster in Iraq. Had the United States kept in this sort of strike force, which would have been CIA paramilitaries, special operations forces, it would have exacerbated the problem. The problem here isn’t whether or not the U.S. forces would have been there to stabilize Iraq. The issue is how much worse are we going to make Iraq with these policies. And I think it’s almost impossible to imagine that this could have been handled in a worse way. Having more troops there, I mean, that’s—all of these guys, when they write their memoirs, have this brilliant 20-20 vision looking backwards, that they were the one that knew, they would have done this differently. The U.S., basically, since 9/11—and you could make an argument that this has been U.S. policy for many, many decades—you know, U.S. policy has been its own worst enemy, in one sense: We’ve created the very threats we claim to be fighting.
But on the other hand, if you actually look at who benefits from this war, beyond entities like ISIS, because they do benefit from this—every time we kill civilians in drone strikes, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula becomes stronger, in the sense that they have a greater propaganda movement that they can roll out—the war industry. You know, Lockheed Martin is making a killing off of the killing, every Tomahawk cruise missile that’s launched. You know, the next generation of drone aircraft is going to be coming out. They’re working on jet-propelled drones that are going to be able to stay in the air for a very long time. The war industry is in its twilight right now, under Mr. Transformative Presidency Barack Obama. His administration has been an incredibly great friend to the war industry. And outside of some small groups of loony bins that are in Syria and Iraq, the war industry is the greatest beneficiary of this policy.
AMY GOODMAN: ISIS killing the journalists and the beheadings?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean, this is—first of all, you know, this has haunted me—I mean, obviously, as a journalist who’s worked in those areas, and I have a lot of friends now who are in those countries, you know, I was horrified at it. In watching the videos, though—and, you know, they were so—in both the case of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, they’re so calm in the statements that they are giving, and it’s impossible to imagine that they know that they’re going to be killed in those moments. And, you know, my suspicion—and I’ve done some reporting on this—is that they had been put in that position repeatedly and told, you know, “You have to say this statement.” And in other words, they were subjected to mock executions over and over and over again. And if you notice in the videos, you don’t actually see their heads being cut off. I think it’s possible that that was like read number 31 for James Foley of this statement, and they took the best cut of that, and he may have been killed in other context, and then they placed it there.
They have them in the orange jumpsuits. We know that they had been waterboarded. Where does this come from? This is inspired by what we did to Muslim prisoners around the world, when we put them in gulags in Poland, in Thailand and elsewhere in these so-called black sites, when we took them to Guantánamo and—or we threatened that we were going to kill their families, or we put them in small boxes where they couldn’t lay down and couldn’t stand up. And we brought in psychiatrists to, in a very sick, macabre way, investigate and exploit the fears of the Muslim prisoners that we took under the auspices of fighting terrorism, and we would stick people in boxes, and if they had a fear of spiders, we would put a caterpillar in the box and tell them it was a tarantula, to try to terrify them. You know, JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, ran a torture factory in Iraq at a camp called Camp Nama, which is Nasty A-S-S Military Area, where they were just torturing, torturing, torturing people, trying to find the next target to hit. You know, this is—these militants are adopting the very tactics that the United States used—and continues to use—against Muslims that it captures.
And, you know, there has never been a more intense, intensely dangerous time for journalists. On the one hand, you have episodes like this, where journalists are being beheaded. In Mexico, journalists are being gunned down by narco-cartels or pro-government forces for telling the truth and reporting. Freelancers, and mostly Arab or Muslim journalists, are on the front lines being killed in record numbers, in Somalia, as well. And then here at home, in the United States, there’s a war against journalists and a war against whistleblowers. The U.S. government is intent on tracking who is giving information to journalists that is not officially cleared by the White House. And the message that they’re sending is: “We only want the official statements to be out, or our official leaks.”
When the Khorasan group popped out of nowhere, and we were told, like, this is the greatest threat—in fact, on NBC News, there was a fantastic—Brian Williams, when he was announcing, you know, the new, latest, greatest threat—trademark—he had a graphic next to him that just said “the new enemy.” And it’s like we could just take a picture of that, and every year or—apparently now it’s going to be every two or three months—we can just have Brian Williams there with “the new threat.” It could become an annual holiday in this country where we just celebrate whatever new war is going to give Lockheed Martin and Boeing and all these companies tremendous profits.
You know, the age that we’re living in now, where there’s this war on journalists abroad by every possible force, and then this war at home, where journalists are being surveilled—their sources are being threatened with prosecution under the Espionage Act—the Obama administration is in league with some of the most ruthless violators of human rights in the world in a campaign against the press.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama, the current president—possible presidential contenders, for example, are Hillary Clinton. You wrote Dirty Wars while she was secretary of state. What about her position on this?
JEREMY SCAHILL: I mean, Hillary Clinton is—I actually think, is more hawkish than Barack Obama, and Barack Obama has emerged as a pretty significant hawk in terms of his policies. He can talk all he wants about, you know, how he wants to change and reset relationships around the world; this has been a total militarized presidency. Hillary Clinton, when she was secretary of state, acted as though she was also sort of secretary of defense. And her State Department was deeply involved with plotting covert action around the world, using the State Department as cover for CIA operations. And, you know, the Clintons, Bill and Hillary Clinton, are two of the most fierce projectors of the politics of the American empire, and they also have very close relationships with some of the most nefarious characters from the Bush family. So, you know, those two families together, the Bushes and the Clintons, it’s almost like a monarchy in this country. I mean, Jeb Bush very well may run. I mean, it’s unclear what—you know, George W. Bush said the other day that he’s putting pressure on his brother to try to run for president. But, you know, Hillary Clinton is a fierce neoliberal who believes in backing up the so-called “hidden hand of the free market” with merciless, iron-fisted military policies.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you very quickly about Blackwater and the trial that’s been going on. Jurors have been deliberating in the murder and manslaughter trial of the four former Blackwater operatives allegedly involved in the 2007 massacre at Baghdad’s Nisoor Square. The suspects are charged with the deaths of 14 of the 17 Iraqi civilians who died when their Blackwater unit indiscriminately opened fire.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, this was the worst massacre of Iraqi civilians at the hands of mercenaries, private contractors, that we know of in Iraq. And, you know, I don’t know how the verdict is going to turn out, but what I do know is that the person who should be on trial is Erik Prince, who was the founder and ran Blackwater when it was essentially Murder Incorporated in Iraq, where there was an environment at that company where they were encouraged to view every Iraqi as the enemy. And they committed many massacres beyond what we know at Nisoor Square. This is a microcosm of what happens all the time. It’s always the people down the chain that face the consequences. I believe that these men should be prosecuted, should be convicted, for what they did, and they should be in prison. But the leadership of Blackwater should also be there. And until we, as a society, stop cutting off who’s held accountable at the lowest ranks, nothing is ever going to fundamentally change.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, thanks so much for being with us. His new book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, well, the New York Times best-seller, is now out in paperback.