In one of the most powerful documentaries I’ve seen this year, investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill takes audiences on a chilling ride as he chases down the hidden truth behind America’s expanding covert wars and targeted killing program. Directed by Rick Rowley, Dirty Wars reveals how the War on Terror has fundamentally changed the rules of the game and the rules of engagement as it traces the rise of the Joint Special Operations Command, the most secret fighting force in U.S. history. Today drone strikes, night raids, and U.S. government–condoned torture occur in corners across the globe, generating unprecedented civilian casualties.
I recently landed an exclusive interview with Scahill who talked about what inspired the film, his collaboration with Rowley, the personal narrative they used to immerse the audience in the investigative reporting process, the current media climate and challenges it poses independent journalists, and the hope that the film will contribute to a much needed debate about civil liberties, drone policy and human rights. Scahill also discussed the role journalists play in the pursuit of truth and his views on Pfc. Bradley Manning’s treatment in the media and the importance of his upcoming trial.
Question: Can you talk about your personal philosophy towards journalism? How did you start out as a journalist? What brought you to conflict reporting? Why do you prefer to work for independent media rather than some of the larger media players and publications?
Jeremy Scahill: I believe that one of the most important institutions in a democratic society is a free press. I have chosen to cast my lot with independent media outlets because I believe that only through independent reporting where you are not beholding to the interests of corporations or government are you able to really aggressively pursue the truth. I’m proud of the organizations that I’ve worked with and helped to build. Democracy Now I still list as my university on my social media pages because I went to the School of Amy Goodman for journalism. I’ve never taken a journalism class in my life, and for much of my life as a journalist, I’ve viewed myself as being embedded with civilians and with those people who live on the other side of the barrel of a gun. My philosophy about journalism is simple – that we have a job to hold those in power accountable, to give voice to the voiceless, and to provide people with information that they can use to make informed decisions about what policies they want enacted in their name and what policies they don’t. I don’t pretend to be objective. There is no such thing as being an objective journalist. We all are who we are. What I believe in is being transparent and truthful and always trying to get the facts right. People will make their own judgment of whether or not they want to trust you based on how transparent you are with them and the principles that you bring to the game.
Dirty Wars tells a very important story. What inspired you to make this documentary film and what was your collaborative process like with director Rick Rowley?
Scahill: Rick and I had worked together for more than a decade in various capacities in various countries. In fact, I had worked with Rick’s wife in Bagdad. Soon after 9/11, we started going together in and out of Iraq. These guys had been my friends and colleagues for many, many years, and we had discussed for a while the idea of doing something together on a bigger scale. We weren’t sure what it was going to be. I was wrapping up a multi-year reporting project about Blackwater, the mercenary company, and Rick had been spending a lot of time in Afghanistan embedded, doing short films for Al Jazeera and other media outlets. I was starting to look at, after President Obama’s election, this idea that you’ve got this guy who is a constitutional law professor, this popular Democratic president, who appeared to be continuing some of the major components of the Bush-Cheney counter-terrorism program. And so, at first, the idea that Rick and I had was to do this story about the war within the war in Afghanistan, the idea that you have conventional forces, Marines and what have you, and then you have these night raids that were happening. At the beginning, we would go to Afghanistan. I put up the money for the trip. Rick and I stayed together in the same hotel room. We traveled very cheap and light, and we weren’t sure where it was going to go. We thought we’d do maybe something about Obama’s war in Afghanistan which he was surging. Once we discovered this night raid, and the fact that the guys that did the night raid were members of this elite covert unit, we knew we had something bigger, and that really was when we decided to start investigating this force, JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command.
I liked how you immersed the audience in your investigative reporting process through the personal narrative you used. Was that hard to do?
Scahill: Oh my God, it was excruciating. I resisted it fiercely. I would argue with Rick about it. In fact, in Afghanistan, I know my own facial expressions, and there are scenes where we’re out in the car and I can tell from the look on my face that I probably had just yelled at Rick and said, “Get the fucking camera out of my face,” because Rick was filming me. At first, we didn’t set out to make a film about me at all. It’s not that I wasn’t going to be in the film. I was sort of going to be like a tour guide, but not myself. I was just going to be a journalist and taking people through this archipelago of covert war sites. We had actually cut a rough cut of the film that was about four hours long about a year before it premiered at Sundance. We asked our friend David Riker who’s a feature film writer and director to come in for a couple of weeks to basically consult with us and help us cut this behemoth four-hour thing down to at least two hours, but hopefully ninety minutes. And he was going to help us with fixing some of our narration in the storytelling. A year later, the three of us had been working together for that entire year and we made a totally different film. It was really David who said, “I think you’re burying an important part of your story, which is that this process, this journey, has really changed you guys, and the stories you tell me informally when we’re having a beer or when we’re sitting down for a meal, I think you should put those in the film.”
When we’d have these conversations, David would be writing everything down. He started sending me back in emails my own words and suggesting, “In this place, in Yemen, instead of just giving facts and figures about this particular place, why don’t you open yourself up to the viewer and take them with you by sharing with them what you’re thinking or how you’re feeling at this moment?” I didn’t want to do that, because I don’t write articles in the first person, and I didn’t want to be the character in that way. But ultimately, when I agreed to start doing a little bit of it, we went back and we pulled footage that Rick had shot, and we’re lucky that he did shoot that very annoying footage – I mean, from my perspective, it was annoying — of me being a reporter, because we ended up putting a lot of it back into the film that had been completely gutted from it when we’d had the first version of the movie. It was not something that I wanted to do. In the end, though, I do think that what became clear to me is that if we don’t tell a good story about this, and this is a fact-based film, but if we don’t tell the story in a way that’s accessible to people, including those who are not just junkies for this stuff or following the minutia of everything going on around the world in the world of counter-terrorism, that it would have been a failure and people would have felt like it was just a catalogue of horrors, instead of trying to make sense of how far we’ve come over these past twelve years since 9/11.
Scahill: I’m talking to you on a day when Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian has broken this huge story about the NSA ordering Verizon to hand over phone records of American citizens to the National Security Agency. We are in an atmosphere with national security reporting where journalists are very much in the target sights. The Associated Press had its phone records seized on orders of the Justice Department. You have this Fox News reporter (James Rosen) whose name was included in this criminal indictment. You have a journalist in Yemen (Abdulelah Haider Shaye) that’s in prison in part because President Obama personally intervened to keep him in prison, and his real crime was exposing a U.S. missile attack that killed a few dozen women and children. And you have whistle blowers being prosecuted under the Espionage Act in record numbers. When you take all of that and you combine it with the intensification of the drone war and the assertion by our constitutional law professor, Nobel Peace Prize-winning President that he can kill American citizens without even charging them with a crime or presenting any public evidence against them that would show or prove that they’re involved with terrorist or criminal activity, it’s a pretty chilling landscape that gets painted about our society.
Do you think we’re making more enemies than we’re killing terrorists? Are we making ourselves safer in the process? It seems like an endless war and I’m wondering if part of the hope is that this film will spark a much needed conversation about that.
Scahill: I hope. If the film can contribute to a discussion or a debate that I think we should have had a long time ago in this country, then I’ll feel like we did our job. I wish it didn’t take this long. One of the things that I think is true about President Obama’s speech at the National Defense University a couple of weeks ago is that it opened a door to have a conversation that a lot of people weren’t willing to have earlier. But to directly answer your question, yes, I believe that we are making more new enemies than we are killing terrorists at this point, and I think it’s time that we stepped back from this aggressive assertion that we can just go to any country and conduct these lethal operations. In effect, what’s the real impact on our national security? My fear, as an American, is that our own actions are going to contribute to an inspiration for terrorists to want to harm us or kill us. I also think that we’re operating out of fear in our country. It’s not that terrorism is not a threat, but it’s not an existential threat. It is not the preeminent threat facing most Americans on any given day, and yet the power of nightmares is so strong. I think we’re going to look back and realize that the civil liberties that we’ve given up in the name of security, the authority that we’ve given Democratic and Republican presidents, all have contributed to a fraying of the fabric of our democratic republic.
In light of the posture the Obama administration and the FBI have taken towards reporters engaged in national security journalism, how do you operate in that world without putting people at risk – either yourself or your sources?
Scahill: It’s very difficult. I have these conversations all the time with sources. I mean, people are nervous right now that all of the communication is being intercepted and that calls are being listened in on and that emails are being seized. It’s like a cat and mouse game now. I was saying the other day that I think that we almost have to become Luddites just to do our job because the internet has become a very dangerous place to do this kind of work. On a security level though, it depends on the country where you are. I had never traveled with so many bodyguards before as I did when we went to Somalia. I hate that. I was so afraid that they would shoot someone, not that we would get shot, but that they would shoot someone in the pursuit of defending us, and I would have to live with that for the rest of my life. In each country, it’s different. In Afghanistan, we rolled light in a Toyota Corolla with no weapons and dressed locally with beards. Then, in Somalia, we had twelve armed guys, decoy vehicles and motorcycle scouts going and checking the safety of the roads. There’s no foolproof plan for coming out alive, but you can do as much diligence as possible before you go somewhere to try to protect yourself and the people around you.
How have instant connectivity and the easy availability of cell phone cameras changed the way you are able to report these stories?
Scahill: Oh man, game changing! Game changing! One of the first things we ask people now when we’re out in the field as reporters is, did anybody record it on their camera? And a lot of times, people have. Almost every time that we’re investigating a raid or a bombing, somebody somewhere has either photos that they snap on their camera or video that they took on their camera, and you see that in our film. We have cell phone images from the Yemen bombing. We’ve got cell phone images from the soldiers walking over the dead bodies. We’ve got the cell phone images of the party that night before the Americans raided the home in Afghanistan. We have cell phone video from Somalia too, but it didn’t make it into the film. We had cell phone video of the suicide bombing that had happened. Everywhere you go, people have recorded or captured events in real time on their mobile phones. It becomes one of the first questions you ask when you go in to investigate something.
Can you comment on the importance of Pfc. Bradley Manning’s upcoming trial? Has he been portrayed fairly and why is this trial so important?
Scahill: Well first of all, by way of disclosure, Bradley Manning had been in email touch with me before he ever leaked any documents to Wikileaks. He had tipped me off to a story that Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, was preparing to leave the United States at a time when his company was being investigated and was going to relocate to the United Arab Emirates. I didn’t know who he was when he had emailed me, but now I do. So I had been in touch with him. But also, by way of disclosure, I am a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the government in the case of Bradley Manning attempting to challenge the secrecy of the proceedings against him. I believe that Bradley Manning has been smeared in the media. I think this is a young man who was operating out of conscience, who was deeply concerned about the actions that the United States government was taking around the world that would potentially harm the United States, harm Americans.
I think a lot of the reporting about him has tried to… On the one hand, there’s this homophobic attempt to portray him as a degenerate, and on the other hand, to portray him as sort of this weasily, scared, mentally ill child, and I think when he gave his statement in his court martial in the pre-trial portions of this and the audio that leaked into the media, what you heard was a calm, collected, principled guy who viewed himself as a whistleblower. And I think that the action that he now has admitted to having taken, leaking those cables, provided the American public and the world with a far greater understanding of how the U.S. conducts its operations around the world, and it certainly has tremendously benefited my reporting and the reporting of many, many, many journalists around the globe. So, I think it’s shameful how little media attention his prosecution has received throughout the duration of his time in custody. Major media organizations basically had to be shamed into covering it. There really have only been four independent journalists that have been in that proceeding from the beginning, and I give them a lot of credit for the reporting that they’ve done.