Jeremy Scahill (investigative reporter for The Nation and the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army and Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield) views former Vice-President Dick Cheney as a “cartoonish villain.”
“But I don't see President Obama that way at all,” he told Huffington Post. “I think he's a sincere, deliberative guy who believes that what he's doing is the best way available to him as the commander-in-chief to keep the country safe. I disagree that that's what he's doing, but I don't question his sincerity.”
Which doesn’t mean Scahill is easy on the president. On Rick Rowley’s powerful documentary Dirty Wars, based on Scahill’s book, the journalist goes deep into remote areas in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia trying to answer the question the Obama Administration won’t: who is being killed by the U.S. in secret drone attacks worldwide? How many? Why? Why what was once scandalous is now the norm when it comes to foreign policy? Why are we attacking countries we're not at war with?
Dirty Wars, which won Best Cinematography (Documentary) at Sundance, opens in San Antonio at Santikos Bijou on July 5. Scahill spoke with the Current in mid-June on the phone from New York.
Dirty Wars is a very disturbing film. You wrote extensively about these topics, but making a movie about it is a whole different ball game — you were at the center of it all.
When I started this story, we were looking at this new president, President Obama, who many people believed was really going to change things and was going to push back against the excesses of the Bush/Cheney machine. And what we were noticing a bit early in the administration is that he was intensifying the war in Afghanistan and expanding U.S. drone strikes. It was very clear that Guantanamo wasn’t going to be closed anytime soon, so we set out to make a movie that was going to look at war under President Obama. We started in Afghanistan by looking at these night raids that were expanding. The idea was that there was a covert war buried within the bigger conventional war. And after we realized that the force doing this was these elite commandos that had this incredible secret history, then it became a journey that took us around the world. We didn’t expect to be in Yemen or Somalia when we started this story. But to answer your question directly, I don’t write articles about myself, so for me being the character in this film was something I resisted very much. But after doing it I felt very gutted and shattered as a person. You meet all these people that share these horrifying things that happened to them in their lives and it changes you as a person. You see things in a more raw and intense way.
Just for the sake of argument, what’s wrong with U.S. soldiers apologizing for killing the wrong people? Isn’t that the right thing to do?
What you’re referring to is the time we went to this village outside the city of Gardez [Afghanistan] and investigated the night raid where three women were killed by U.S. forces — two of them were pregnant — and they also killed a guy who was a senior Afghan police commander [trained by the U.S.]. And these people were all at a party celebrating the birth of a new child. So these commandos come in and they kill them because they believed that they were Taliban people. And instead of realizing that they made a mistake, they actually dig the bullets out of the women’s bodies and they try to cover it up and blame it on their family members, saying that it was an honor killing. And then there was an investigation that happened in England. I was investigating it and my colleague from The Times of London, Jerome Starkey, was investigating it. And then we learned, only because of these extraordinary events you’re talking about, that [the killings were done by] JSOC, the Joint Specials Operation Command. Weeks after the killings of these people, this convoy shows up to their village with all these Afghan and American military soldiers and they have these two sheep, and they offload the sheep and offer them to the family. It’s an ancient forgiveness ritual in Afghanistan, they were sort of mimicking this ritual that people would use if they had killed a loved one. Only because of the photographs we know that the man who brought those sheep was Admiral William H. McRaven, who was the commander of this ultra-secretive elite military unit. And the reason they were apologizing there was because there were going to be riots against the Americans in that province, so they were trying to tamper that down. But in most cases where American forces kill civilians, they don’t pay them anything or say any apology. They just move on because they know that no one is going to go in and investigate it.
Why one of your inside sources in these secret operations could give you plenty of information except the number of deaths?
Because it’s classified. They are not allowed to tell the American people how many people around the area are killed. It’s a secret. And it’s also a secret how you get on the kill list. And it’s a secret how you get off the kill list. The whole process is done in secret. So what he was saying is, “I know the answer to that question, but I’m not allowed to tell you because it’s classified.”
What’s the status of Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye? Why would President Obama personally intervene to keep him detained?
[Haider Shaye] was one of the main reporters revealing that the U.S was bombing Yemen and engaging in a new covert war in Yemen. He was arrested a number of times and threatened in Yemen. And then he was eventually thrown in prison [in 2011] and accused of being an Al-Qaeda facilitator, which is a completely ridiculous charge against him. There were big protests in Yemen after he was sentenced to five years in prison. And the dictator in Yemen was going to issue a pardon of him. That day, President Obama found out that this was going to happen, so he called the Yemeni dictator [Ali Abdullah Saleh] and said the U.S wanted him to be kept in prison, and then they ripped up the pardon. He remains in prison to this day and he has been in prison for almost three years. [On May 27] he smuggled a message out of the prison. And he said “there is only one person responsible for me being in prison today, and it’s President Obama.” [The actual translated letter, originally published on the Yemen Times website, read: “It’s inaccurate to say the Americans imprisoned me because some of them defended and supported me and opposed my detention
Actually, the only person responsible for kidnapping and detaining me is Obama.”] When I spoke to the White House and the U.S. State Department, they say that he was involved with Al-Qaeda and that they wanted him to be kept in prison. And when I asked where their evidence was that he was affiliated with Al-Qaeda they said, “We won’t answer any more questions about it.” So they won’t give any evidence to back up their claim. They’re just keeping this Yemeni journalist in prison.
A handful of progressives are denouncing this, but for the most part we're like, numb, so used to this type of activities. What do these secret drone attacks say about ourselves?
At the beginning of it, I thought that I could just harden myself and just tell these stories as if they weren’t affecting me. And you’re hearing these awful, tragic stories from everyone that you meet. And in the course of reporting on it, I realized how deeply it affected me as a person. And I feel like I learned a lesson — that if American people stopped using the term “collateral damage” and started viewing the people in Yemen or Pakistan or Somalia and Iraq as human beings, not just as “the enemy” or a “terrorist,” but actually saw their humanity, then I think these policies would change. War is sanitized right now. We have drones being used to bomb countries and they’re being piloted by people sitting in the Southwest of the United States, sitting in a trailer. And when we sanitize war and dehumanize people in other countries, it makes it easier to say, “Oh this is a smart policy,” or “This is a clean war.” This is not a clean war, that’s why we call it the “dirty war.” Not because we believe that there is no such thing as a clean war, but because those in power are trying to make it seem like it’s a clean war. And it’s not.
It wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. government does that. What’s different this time?
I think we’re looking at something that is starting to look like Latin America in the ’80s where the U.S. was backing the contras and death squads in Nicaragua or supporting right wing military dictatorships [in the '70s]. And you have the CIA and the U.S. military engaging in all sorts of covert actions. To me it seems like we’re in the dawn of an era where we are sort of returning to that mentality: that covert actions should be the main policy of the U.S. So it’s not that it’s happening on a larger scale, it’s that we have a popular, democratically elected president who is trying to legitimize this and saying that this is acceptable. The incidents that we talked about in Latin America, they’re viewed as scandalous, but [what the U.S. is doing] now [is] being viewed as "the policy." And that’s what I think is the real issue that we need to confront.
Sixteen-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, an American citizen, was killed by a drone attack shortly after another drone killed his father, also an American. Was the teenager’s death a targeted killing?
We don’t know, and that’s part of the reason we’re raising this question. Anwar al-Awlaki was saying all of these atrocious things about the United States. In his case [the government] never presented any evidence that he was an operational member of Al-Qaeda. But they killed him anyway in September of 2011. Then, two weeks later, his son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who had just turned 16, an American citizen born in Denver, Colorado, is sitting outside, having dinner with his teenage cousin and some friends. And a drone appears above them and blows them up. The White House has never explained why they killed this kid. So all that we know is what they have sent through links to the media, that, “Oh, he was at a meeting with an Al-Qaeda leader,” but then a man said that, “He was at a meeting and he was still alive,” then they said, “Oh, he was collateral damage. We were trying to kill someone else, but he was killed.” But they made no explanation as to who they were trying to kill. Then, the Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder, said he was not specifically targeted. What does that mean? They’re not saying that he wasn’t targeted. So for me, I want to know why he was killed because it would say a lot about who we are as a society. Maybe he was killed in what they call a “signature strike,” where they are killing people that are military-aged males and they later say that, “Oh, they were terrorists,” even though they don’t know their identities. But maybe there was bad intelligence about him and they killed him intentionally. I don’t know the answer. One of the reasons we made this film is because we feel like they should answer that question.
You’ve done the talk shows. Is the media in general getting the point?
I think we have this weird polarized media culture where, on the one hand, Fox News is kind of our cartoonish version of the media outlet, very right-wing. And on the other hand you have MSNBC, which at times is like a state media for the Democratic party. I think we have an opportunity to have a real discussion right now on this country. But time will tell, I don’t know. We have a pretty bankrupt media culture in this country. And there’s not a lot of acting on important questions. I’ll be hopeful but it wouldn’t surprise me if it all just goes away quickly.
It all comes down to the government (and way too many citizens) believing lying, deceit, and illegal activities sometimes are necessary if that’s going to “save one American life,” doesn't it?
You just used the word “illegal.” No, I don’t think that our forces are operating on behalf of the U.S. I don’t think our government should be engaged in any illegal activity. Look, the basic principle for me is this: I believe that nations have a right to defend themselves. I do not believe that nations have a right to wage preemptive war or offensive wars. And the United States has been waging, for the most part, an offensive, preemptive war. So if there is a case where there is an action taken in defense of the country or in defense of our citizenship, then we [must] have a debate about what is the most effective way to respond to those threats. But that is not what we have been doing, not even close. We are engaged in pre-crime, like Minority Report, in our actions around the world. That has got to stop. And I believe that everything that we do should be legal and I also think that we should be rethinking our foreign policy and should only use military force if it’s an actual action of self-defense.