INTERVIEW: Journalist Jeremy Scahilll on Dirty Wars

For more than fifteen years, Jeremy Scahill's investigative work has earned him accolades the world over for speaking truth to power and for shining a light down those shadowed corridors that certain vested interests would prefer remain hidden. In 2007, his blockbuster tome Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army laid bare the United States' role in positioning a proxy army overseas to fight its wars.

The work that began there continues with his latest effort, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (also a gripping new documentary of the same name directed by Richard Rowley), which investigates America's policy of drone strikes and targeted assassinations. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Scahill (whose work has long been an inspiration to me) about Blackwater, Dirty Wars, and what the revelations in both mean for America's sense of self moving forward. Check out the full transcript of our candid and compelling conversation below:

I was wondering for our readers if you can connect the dots from Blackwater to Dirty Wars,  and how you got to working on this, was it that that finished and at some point later you picked it up...?

One sort of seamlessly transitioned into the other. What happened is that when I was writing the Blackwater book, no one from within Blackwater would talk to me. I couldn't get so much as an official statement from them at any point when I was working on the book. And I had a tough time in that community finding people willing to talk to me in that sort of Special Ops, mercenary community.

After the book came out I started to get emails from people, from Navy Seals, Delta Force guys, Rangers...or they would come to a book event of mine and sort of be standing off to the the side and then approach me afterwards. And I had a series of meetings with people that all sort of had one thing in common, and that was that these guys would say, "Look, I don't really care much for your politics, but you got it right on those guys. We can't stand them."

And there was a lot of hatred for Blackwater among the Special Ops guys and actual military people because they perceive them as out of control, not being accountable to the same laws or standards, getting paid a lot more money, and then doing stupid stuff that comes back around and hits actual American soldiers. If  Blackwater shoots up a bunch of people in Iraq, Iraqis aren't going to say, "Oh, where's the Blackwater office?" They're going to go and stage a retaliatory attack against American personnel, whoever they are.

So, I'm telling you this because I started to meet these guys and I always would follow up and then I would say, "Oh, next time I'm in your town, can we grab a beer or go out for a cup of coffee?" and I started to get to know guys. And I had never heard of JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command]. I knew about Special Operations Forces and Seals and Delta Force, but I didn't know about that unit at all. And so just as I was sort of becoming aware of it was when I went to Afghanistan with Rick Rowley, who's the director of our film, and at the beginning we weren't gonna do a film about JSOC. We were going to do a film about the war within the war. The night raids. You get press releases sometimes on them. There's no embedded journalist with them.

And we were reading all these reports of them doing terrible things to people in Afghanistan. So when we first went, I wasn't sure if I was going to write a book . We weren't sure if we were going to make a film. Rick and I were going, we were sort of on an exploratory mission. The moment we stepped foot into that home in Gardez and then started to realize that Admiral McRaven had been there with the sheep, that there was this cover up and that it was this elite unit, we became obsessed with JSOC and started a full blown investigation on them.

The connective tissue that I find interesting is that for a lot of people, when the extent of Blackwater became clear it was, for a lot of people, at least on the left who were already critical of President Bush, it was like "Oh, this is what he does, right?" And I feel like what we find out in Dirty Wars is almost like, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." I'm wondering when did that realization kick in for you?

I started to get hate mail from liberals before Obama was even elected. Because then I was reporting on Obama's foreign policy advisors, and how his actual documents and policy vision were not radically different from the Bush/Cheney era. The rhetoric was different. He was saying, "I'm going to end all these things, and we are going to do it a different way," but if you actually read the policy platforms of candidate Obama and looked at who he was putting around him in his circle, it was pretty clear he was going to be a hawkish guy.

So, I was already writing articles and getting hate mail, and then very early on in his administration, he authorized a drone strike in Pakistan which ended up killing a number of civilians, and then he started to intensify the US troop presence in Afghanistan. It was basically clear to me by December of 2009, when Obama started authorizing the bombing of Yemen, I think it was clear that this is a president who was going to take some of the most egregious aspects of the Bush/Cheney program, and either continue them or sort of tweak them and rebrand them as a smarter version of an old policy. And in some cases to ratchet up or intensify the machinery of war.

The drone strikes he expanded. The number of countries that JSOC had operated, he expanded. He continues to use renditions. Shuts down the secret prisons, but instead goes back to the Clinton way of doing it which is that you have foreign governments use their own secret prisons and the US can interrogate prisoners in them. So, I would say that by December of '09 when the bombing of Yemen began, it was pretty clear that this was a guy who would represent for all practical purposes a continuation of the Bush/Cheney what was called the counterterrorism policy.

Actually they were creating terrorists through our policy and inspiring a new generation of people that have a legitimate reason to want to do harm to Americans. That's one of my biggest concerns, when we're doing these signature strikes, and we don't even know who we're killing. It's a form of pre-crime, like Minority Report. Military age males in a certain region, we just assume they're terrorists, and we kill them. When you do that, those people have families, and they may not have been attached to any nefarious activity.

They may have been aspiring American college students wanting to come to America to go to college. We don't know who we're killing. When we do that, those people and their families now have a legitimate grudge against us, and a score to settle. This isn't about hating people for freedom or McDonalds or any of that bullshit that we were fed early on after 9/11. There are actual motivations now for people who want to hurt Americans.

I think that we ignore the impact of our policies on these countries  at our own peril because it's going to come back and hit us, and that's part of why we made this film. We want people to face this reality. I want people to look at that little girl from Al-Majala at the end of our film, and I want them to see that this is someone who barely missed being blown up by a US missile. What crime did she commit against us, that her siblings were killed? I want it to be real.

We talk about how the policies continue from not just administration to administration, but from party to party, and to me that signals a normalization of this as the way the US does business. What do you attribute that normalization to? Do you see a way out at this stage, or is it just dug in like a tick? 

Well yes, Obama said in his second inauguration that the US doesn't want war. His policies say something different, but his rhetoric is saying we don't want perpetual war. But what we're actually doing is ensuring that we are going to be in a state of perpetual war. It's interesting that you bring up the thing about party. I think that if McCain had won the election in '08, you would not see 70% of self-identified liberals supporting drone strikes, and having that support drop only negligibly when it is a US citizen being targeted.

I think that President Obama has sold liberals that idea that what he is doing is fighting a smarter cleaner war, and that we're surgically taking out the "bad guys" and that when there are civilian deaths they're low in number, and the United States deeply regrets them. I think a lot of liberals see that as a smarter, more just way of pursuing Americas enemies, and that it is an alternative to large scale troop deployments like Iraq. That's the line, I think, that's being promoted.

The problem with it is that we don't actually know who we're killing on the other side. So when you leave out that big factor, and you leave out  the fact that it's not true that a small number of civilians have been killed, and when you leave out the fact that these attacks are inspiring new enemies to rise up, then you are not actually engaged in honest assessment of what you think of the policy.

You're ceding your conscience to a political figure. That's what a lot of liberals have done. They've ceded their conscience to Obama because they trust him. What better person for the Empire to have sell this to  liberals than a Constitutional law expert, Nobel Peace Prize-winning, first African-American President. I mean, it's incredible.

Somewhere Cheney is sitting at that ranch, or fly fishing somewhere and at the back of his head he has to be thinking, "Thank God that Obama is president," 'cause the next time a Republican comes in, and they want to do all these things, liberals aren't going to have much of a leg to stand on in saying "We're  against this," because they're going to have to admit, "Well, we're only in favor of it when our guy is in office," and that's a pretty shameful way to dictate your conscience.

But what do you attribute that to? I mean, just from those credentials that you listed, he [Obama] should know better. 

I think that they...obviously we can't get into Obama's head, but my sense is that Obama is a different kind of person than Dick Cheney. I think Dick Cheney is a fundamentally rotten human being. I think Barack Obama believes that what he's - I think he's a reluctant hawk, but he's a hawk. I think he believes that he is doing what's best for America's safety and security. And I also I think  that he is politically terrified of the idea of an attack happening against the United States because the Republicans will eat him alive, and they already try to portray him as soft on terror which he's...

Well, we see with Benghazi for example...

Right, Benghazi. This is like the second coming of 9/11 for the Republicans, Benghazi. And the thing is, there actually is a story in Benghazi that has really not been broken out into the mainstream of our society. Something really happened there. This was not about some fruit loop making a movie about the Prophet Mohammed. Some dirty stuff had happened there that sparked that attack, and there should be a real investigation. The problem is that it's the dingbat caucus, like Michele Bachmann and these people, that are raising the issue. And it's brilliant, because it makes it a non-issue. It just sounds like a crazy Tea Party thing. There's a real serious thing.

The White House is lucky that the carnival of crazy are beating the pots and pans on this issue, 'cause it means that you don't have to take on the fact that there's something seriously rotten that we don't understand. Maybe it involves the operations of JSOC or the CIA in Libya that sparked this, but we don't know at this point. What we do know is that crazy people are exaggerating and coming up with conspiracy theories, and it means that we don't have to actually discuss the real issue.

But I think to directly answer your question, I think that people within the counterterrorism circle at the White House have started to believe their own propaganda about how devastating the blows are that the US is delivering to Al-Qaeda and don't want to talk about or face the reality that they may actually be creating new non Al-Qaeda enemies, particularly in Yemen and in Pakistan.

Somalia is a little bit of a different case, and I'm not sure which way it is going to go, but definitely in Pakistan and Yemen, hatred of the United States is at all time highs in part because of not just the drone bombing, but the sense that this is how America always is going to be. If it can happen under Obama, this is how it's going to be, going forward, and that's a pretty frightening thing to face.

The people that are gonna pay the price for this are not gonna be the people implementing the policy. It's gonna be some American tourist somewhere, or somebody on a subway, or at a big sporting event. This is gonna come back and hit us. That's why we made the movie.

We wanted people to have a starting point to talk about this, and we wanted the film to be accessible to anyone, not just an insider baseball thing, but to feel like the viewer was being taken on a journey to truly understand how we got to where we are, where we have a Democratic, Nobel Peace Prize-winning, Constitutional law professor president authorizing operations that kill three US citizens, none of whom had been charged with a crime. That should be a scandal. That should be investigated.

The last thing I'll say is that we talk about Anwar Al-Awlaki in our film, and we try to explain, to try to demystify the cartoonization of his story, where he's just the guy in the camouflage jacket who somehow in a vacuum became a guy calling for armed jihad against the US. He was a product of American foreign policy. But it's not important who Awlaki was. He may have been guilty of everything that they leak about him in the press - involved with terror plots, all these things.

All of that may be true, I don't know. What I do know is he was never charged with a crime, and no evidence was publicly presented against him. So the story is not "Who is he?" but "Who are we?" If we can't treat the most reprehensible of our citizens with some structure where they have rights under the law then we should stop saying we're the Shining City on the Hill, and rewrite the Constitution and say, "Well, in some cases the mob can grab the pitchforks and the torches."

Like that Tsarnaev kid. The calls for him to be treated as an enemy combatant and all these things. The laws are written not for law abiding citizens. How is your society going to handle people who are doing despicable things or criminal things. So if Awlaki was guilty of all of those things - and as I say, maybe he was - then indict him and demand his extradition.

And if you can't get him back, well then you look at other options. But it's like we fast forward to having the most powerful man in the world issue an edict that, "Oh, he's gonna die. I'm gonna be the prosecutor, judge, jury, and the executioner."

That part of the story, the Awlaki story, gutted me as a person when Abdulrehman Al-Awlaki was killed. I don't know why it affected me so deeply. I am determined to get an answer as to why that kid was killed. I know that family well, and I mean that kid had nothing to do with terrorism whatsoever.

He was a sort of sweet, lanky older brother to his siblings, and it's just...the fact that this can happen, and we can just go about our lives as thought we didn't just zap a sixteen-year old kid and his cousins out of the sky for what? For his last name? For what he might become one day? They should explain why they killed that kid."


Many thanks to Jeremy Scahill for being so open with his time. Dirty Wars the book is available now, and the film is playing in select theaters across the country. Check local listings.