Q&A: Oscar Nominee Jeremy Scahill on Drones & Dirty Wars

By Scott Stenholm

Dirty Wars (2013) Poster

During his fifth State of the Union address, President Obama touched on Al Qaeda’s resurgence in nations around the globe like Yemen and Iraq. Though noticeably absent was mention of the negative effects of the United States’ military policies abroad that have not only killed countless civilians but have arguably spawned more terrorists than they have put down.

I recently spoke with acclaimed investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, who’s documentary, Dirty Wars, is nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. He shared his on-the-ground incite about America’s sometimes cruel, and often under reported, covert wars overseas.

Countless innocents continue to be murdered by American drone strikes overseas. You have spent a lot of time in Yemen, and other countries, investigating America’s covert wars. Why are these atrocities not more widely reported here at home?

I think part of the reason is that not a lot of journalists go to these places where these strikes happen. Even journalists who are based in Yemen or Somalia, they can’t even make it to the scene of a drone strike. A lot of them go unreported or accept the official version given by the CIA or the Pentagon or the White House – usually through anonymous officials – saying “ten suspected militants were killed” or “six Al Qaeda operatives were killed” and no one ever follows up on it to see if that’s true or not. And what’s happened under the Obama administration.

John Brennan and others have created a mathematical equation for determining when civilians are killed that is a rigged machine that always produces the number ‘zero’ unless someone can go and prove otherwise. What we’re seeing is a propaganda state. I don’t even think that the people in the White House who are pulling the trigger on these things actually know who they are killing in many cases.

In a word, who is most to blame for our often counterproductive military policies abroad? Bush, Obama, the CIA, the Pentagon?

Well, I can’t really put it in a word. You just named several entities that are responsible for this. You always have to ask who benefits from this. The only entities who have benefited from the so-called War on Terror under republicans and democrats are big corporations who service these wars and own many members of congress through a legalized form of bribery and corruption called campaign finance. The whole system is rigged in favor of more war, not less war. When the Lockheed Martins’ make their toys, their drones, they want them to be used and the people who take possession of them want them to be used.

We have a national security beast that has been created out of the second World War to the present day that is fueled by corporate profit motive that is completely endorsed by both political parties and is given carte blanche to operate around the world by Democrats and Republicans alike. So you can parse it and say well, “The CIA is responsible for this part…the military is responsible for that part…” but at the end of the day its a huge beast that all of those entities feed into.

Do you think that our military policies abroad, i.e.; indefinite detention, drones, will eventually find their way home under the rationale that it is necessary for national security?

I think there would be push back. If they actually tried to do indefinite detention on U.S. soil. I mean, anytime it gets put into a bill by Congress…

Like the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act – which has some controversial provisions that have the potential to lock up Americans indefinitely if they are seen as a threat to national security)?

Yeah, I’m saying its a more nuanced discussion. I think Americans would rebel against the idea that there could be indefinite detention… But to your broader question – which is a very good one – absolutely were going to see these policies come home that we are seeing unleashed around the world. Part of what we have seen in our society is a paramilitarization of law enforcement. Everything is framed as a war: the War on Drugs, the War on Crime, the War on Terror. And this story hasn’t been reported on much but one of the things that happens when the U.S. moves its military equipment out of places like Iraq and Afghanistan is that they donate it to local law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and there has been a militarization of just rank and file law enforcement agencies in this country. The communities that will most experience a kind of war on terrorization of the domestic scene will be poorer communities. Communities of color and where ever there is mass dissent.

It looks like we aren’t really leaving Afghanistan anytime soon. December 2013 was one of the deadliest months for allied troops in years. Are your U.S. military contacts over there at their wits end?

I do think that the conventional military will be withdrawn from Afghanistan and they will keep in place small scale strike forces so they can do raids, they can do targeted killing assassination operations. The CIA will maintain a robust presence there but I think there is going to be a massive drawdown. Obama is staking a lot of his credibility on that right now. But Iraq is flaring up again. The U.S. is still deeply involved in Iraq even though you don’t see it in the news at all. The same week as what I call the “Nancy Grace Christmas week” – the trial of that Jodi Arias, the week that the verdict came in – CNN announced it was closing its Bagdad Bureau. To me, that just said everything about where we’re at with our media culture.

But in Afghanistan they are going to give the perception that the U.S. is totally leaving and its not going to be the case. I don’t talk to anybody in the military who understands why were even there. Most people who has served in Afghanistan view the initial mission to dismantle al Qaeda – to bring to justice the people who perpetrated 9/11. Generally the country agreed with that. I was actually against us going into Afghanistan but I understand the logic of that. Now here we are thirteen years later. What are we still doing there? And thats the sense I get from a lot of military folks. John Kerry, in his former life as a person of conscious as a young Vietnam vet, talking about “who wants to be the last to die in a failed war.”

What does it mean to both Afghan citizens, and American soldiers, for U.S. troops to have full immunity if they abuse their power and commit a crime while deployed?

There was this poll done a couple years ago of young men in Poshtun areas of Afghanistan – the dominant ethnic group of the Taliban – and I think its 92% of the people polled had never heard of 9/11. They didn’t know that the World Trade Center had been taken down, the Pentagon had been hit. So what’s their understanding of why the U.S. military is there when they don’t know anything about 9/11? For a lot of Afghans, illiteracy is rampant in many parts of the country and many just perceive it as if the Russians are back. That its the occupiers. I don’t think its the nuanced thing…its just “foreign forces are coming in and trying to take our country.”

There are certain areas of Afghanistan where when the U.S. and NATO withdraw, there’s going to be very serious trouble. I think its going to be, in part, a return to the stone ages. And here’s the parts that they want to show to journalists: “Here’s where girls are going to school, here’s where we have this safe community.” But the rest of the country has been made much worse by the fact that the U.S. is there. The Taliban is still in control and they have the added horror of night raids and bombings. In the end, the people who will pay the biggest price will be, of course, ordinary Afghans.

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