Getting the Dirt on Our “Dirty Wars” Abroad

Jeremy Scahill in Somalia making Dirty Wars. Photo: IFC Films
Jeremy Scahill in Somalia making Dirty Wars. Photo: IFC Films

Whether he’s bringing to light the crimes of Iraq War defense contractor Blackwater in his 2007 book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army or covering national security for The Nation, Jeremy Scahill asks the questions we don’t know we should be asking. His latest topic is the series of expanding covert wars secretly conducted by the United States around the world in his new book and documentary Dirty Wars (in Bay Area theaters Friday, June 14). We recently talked to Scahill about the documentary, his time investigating U.S. attacks in Yemen and Afghanistan, what JSOC is (and why you should care), and where he feels more in danger: war zones or Washington D.C.

KQED Pop: The first thing I have to ask after reading the book and seeing the documentary is, of course; is Yemen really the greatest threat to the external security of the United States?

Jeremy Scahill: No, I think there’s a wild exaggeration to the threat terrorism poses to our country in general. It’s not that there isn’t a threat: there are definitely people plotting to blow up U.S. airplanes, bomb our subways, set off an explosive in Times Square. Those things are real. The question is: how much of a threat is it and how best to deal with it? I’ve come to the conclusion after spending a lot of time in Yemen and Somalia and Afghanistan and elsewhere that, when we’re doing these drone strikes and we don’t actually know who we’re killing, we’re pursuing a relatively small group of people and in the process we’re harming a larger numbers of civilians. I think we’re increasing the threat to our national security, not diminishing it. We’re inspiring new generations, not necessarily of terrorists, but enemies, people with a legitimate score to settle. It’s almost laughable the idea that Yemen is this great external threat. We’re talking about a few hundred people living in desserts that dream all day of blowing up an American airplane and we should address that, but we’re making the problem worse the way we’re handling it. The threat is real, our approach is wrong.

Jeremy Scahill in Yemen. Photo: Richard Rowley/ IFC Films
Jeremy Scahill in Yemen. Photo: Richard Rowley/ IFC Films

One of the cornerstones of the book and documentary is the Joint Special Operations Command. What do Americans need to know about JSOC and what it’s doing in our name?

ScahillJSOC is the most elite military unit in US history.

These are the Zero Dark Thirty guys?

ScahillRight, most Americans have now heard of Seal Team 6, the guys that did the bin Laden raid. Disney even tried to copyright the name “Seal Team 6″ after the raid. They failed to get the copyright, but they tried to. Seal Team 6 is one of the parts of JSOC: you have the seals, delta force and army rangers. It’s basically like an all-star team of the military. Historically, it’s been used in a very surgical way for counter-proliferation, counter-terrorism, hostage crisis. It’s exempt from the Posse Comitatus Act, meaning that they can operate on U.S. soil. They do discreet security at the Olympics and at the inauguration. After 9/11, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld really made JSOC the premier force. The reason that JSOC is attractive to an administration that believes in the Executive Branch as a basic dictatorship when it comes to American foreign policy is because there’s very little effective congressional oversight. You can send them into countries that we’re not at war with under a doctrine called Operational Preparation of the Battle Space. These guys are basically Murder Inc. in the words of one special forces colonial that I interviewed. They are devastatingly good at what they do. If they’re told to snatch someone, that person will get snatched, or if they’re told to kill someone, that person will be killed. The problem is, now we’re using this force that has almost no rules governing it and we’re using it like a sledge hammer when it used to be used as a scalpel. These guys are the most elite force, they report directly to the White House, they were intended to be used for surgical operations; they have now become the policy.

JSOC was around prior to Bush, they were founded in the 1980s?

Scahill: They started in 1980 because of the failed hostage situation in Iran, you know, the Argo stuff.

Jeremy Scahill in Afghanistan. Photo: Richard Rowley/ IFC Films
Jeremy Scahill in Afghanistan. Photo: Richard Rowley/ IFC Films

Thanks for tying that into a major motion picture for our pop blog readers. So we’re almost out of time but I wanted to ask, when you’re working on a documentary as opposed to just working on a piece for The Nation in these closed societies, does the camera give you any special permission to go to these dangerous places in a relatively safe way?

ScahillIn theory, you should have protections: journalists are protected under international laws and conventions, but record numbers of journalists have been killed in the past ten years.

And you seem to keep reporting from places where journalists have been killed or in danger in recent years.

ScahillWe tell the story in the film of this journalist in Yemen, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, who is in jail in part because President Obama told the Yemeni president he wants him to stay in jail. He was arrested for exposing the U.S. bombing there that Yemen had taken responsibility for and tried to cover up the U.S. role in. He’s sentenced to five years in jail for being an Al Qaeda facilitator which is complete nonsense, he’s a well known and respected journalist. A week of two after we left Somalia, a cameraman was killed doing what we were doing, riding on the backs of trucks with militia members. We felt really lucky to have gotten out of there and to all be alive.

Final question: where do you feel safer now in light of all the revelations you brought forth about our government: in a place like Yemen where there’s a very real danger of getting shot or kidnapped, or Washington D.C.?

Scahill: (laughing) I certainly prefer Yemen to Washington D.C. although not on a security level. D.C. is such a vapid place. Obviously, I feel safer in my own city, Park Slope in Brooklyn. People ask about risks or threats, I’m not a special person, everyone who does this type of work faces serious struggles, confrontations, occasionally threats. There are journalists in prison, there are journalists who are missing in Syria. There’s a young journalist named Austin Tice who has been missing in Syria for over a year. Anthony Shadid, one of my heroes, this great war correspondent, died in Syria. So whenever I’m asked about that I always think of the people that I think are a thousand times braver than I am but also about people who actually have lost their lives or are at great risk as I talk to you sitting in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in San Francisco. It feels so surreal that I’m sitting here talking to you. I should take a picture and send it to my mom.

Dirty Wars opens Friday, June 14, 2013 in select Bay Area theaters.

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Tony Bravo

Tony Bravo is a San Francisco freelancer covering fashion, menswear, lifestyle and entertainment stories. He is a regular contributor to The Bold Italic and the San Francisco Chronicle's Style section.

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