Jeremy Scahill
Jeremy Scahill
Jeremy Scahill, born October 18, 1974, is the National Security Correspondent for The Nation magazine and author of the international bestseller Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, which won the George Polk Book Award. | Photo: Philip Hunt | Jeremy Scahill, The Nation, Author, National Security,

Seven Questions for the author of "Dirty Wars"

Jeremy Scahill's "Dirty Wars: The World is A Battlefield," a deep-dive account of U.S. counterterrorism tactics, has become an improbable, 642-page best-seller. Next Friday, June 7, a full-length documentary film version of the book starring the author opens in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC.

SpyTalk caught up to Scahill a week ahead of the opening, with seven questions about his critical take on US drone strikes and kill/capture missions by special operations troops.

SPYTALK: I've heard you say that the so-called global war on terror is spinning out of control. What do you mean by that?


We're in a reality right now where our constitutional-law-professor, Nobel peace-prize-winning popular Democratic president has engaged in a program to solidify many of the core components of the perpetual war machine and is streamlining, and attempting to legitimize, assassination as a central component of US national security policy, and has been pretty aggressive in authorizing strikes by either JSOC or the paramilitary division of the CIA in countries where the United States is not in a declared war.

And so the idea of "spiraling out of control" is not that you have a sort of a global rise of new Al Qaeda cells, it's that United States is making a series of assertions that it can strike at will in countries wherever it pleases. And that's something that's going to be left as a legacy for the next president, whether Democratic or Republican ... an official legitimized system for perpetual war. To me, that is indicative of an out-of-control mentality, where the United States is asserting, and not just in secret, its right to do these kinds of things, by a popular Democratic president who seems pretty intent on solidifying it as a central tenet of US national security policy.

SPYTALK: Is the big problem the lack of congressional oversight?


You know, part of the issue is not that forces like JSOC, or even some of the sort of more unsavory elements of the CIA, are not subjected on paper to oversight. It's that a lot of lawmakers don't want to ask questions that they don't want the answers to. And so I don't think we have a very robust oversight of the kill program, and I think a large part of the responsibility of that should be placed on the shoulders of members of Congress.

Look at the targeted killing program, for instance. What is the oversight right now? Well, it's that a handful of senators and representatives are allowed to go into a secure classified intelligence facility, and they can't bring writing utensils, and they can't bring paper, and they can't bring any recording devices, and are allowed to look at certain memos the White House has authorized them to see.And they're not allowed to tell anyone what they've seen in those memos.

That's the state of oversight right now of the most sensitive targeted killing operations that the US is doing. To me that sort of scandalous that you would have members of Congress with very high security clearances, who by law should be overseeing all these actions, including covert action, and who are really just in this padded room and can't say anything about it. That doesn't seem to me like real oversight.

SPYTALK: The heart of your book comes from talking to the victims of mistaken drone strikes and nighttime raids by special operations troops. Bad intelligence seems to be at the root of the problem.


I think there are two things in play. Ali Abdullah Saleh, when he was the dictator of Yemen, understood that he could play US counterterrorism teams like a piano. So he would say, "This is an Al Qaeda figure,' and we would go kill that person. And, oops, it would turn out that this was a deputy governor of the province and a political opponent of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Or he would say, "I need hundreds of thousands or tens of millions of dollars to beef up my counterterrorism forces so we can go kill Al Qaeda." So we'd give him all this training and weapons and capacity and then they'd use the elite counterterrorism unit to defend the flailing regime.

In Afghanistan, people know that they can engage in "death by Americans" when they want to take out one of their political rivals or when they want to take out someone who stole their goats five years ago. They can just send their family members to an American base and say, "Oh, there's an IED factory in this particular location," or that "there's a suicide bombing class going out in this compound." And you know, JSOC guys go and raid this place thinking they are taking out a dangerous Taliban cell, and, oops, they've killed a couple of pregnant women and an Afghan police commander. And things like these keep happening across the board. Anyone who served in Afghanistan can tell you a story or two about these kinds of raids, where the US was fed bad intelligence.

But the other part of it is that we are engaged in "pre-crime." Particularly under the Obama administration and its "signature strikes," we don't even know the identities of the people we are intentionally killing and don't even have actual intelligence to say that they're involved with criminal or terrorist activity. So we go in and look at it pattern of life and say those are probably terrorists or probably will be some day so we'll just take them out. To me, that reflects a total dearth of actual intelligence on the ground. Particularly in Yemen, and parts of Pakistan, I think that we've moved away from old- school intelligence work and developing sources and agents and networks and we're just sort of going for the kill-them-before-they-become-bad guys philosophy.

SPYTALK: The administration has signaled that signature strikes are at an end. Do you believe that?


Well, that's interesting. On Twitter, there's been this debate going around that's involved Charlie Savage and Jonathan Landay and Glenn Greenwald on whether that's actually true. Andrew Rosenthal had an interesting blog yesterday where he was saying that while Obama's speech seem to indicate that [signature stripes have stopped], that when you actually talk to White House officials behind the scenes, or military officials, the signature strikes are going to continue on for some time.

In some cases they try to link it to the draw down in Afghanistan to say that the need for signature strikes will end when we draw down, but ... I think it's a bit of a dog and pony show. I think Obama is trying to have it both ways. He wants to seem like a kinder, gentler warrior-in-chief and wants to bring legitimacy to this and is concerned about civilian deaths. And on the other hand, I think he's trying to continue pretty much unabated the way he has the past five years of his administration. So I do feel that they're talking out of both sides of their mouths on this, and it remains to be seen. We'll see what happens in Yemen and in Pakistan, the two premier places where the strikes are happening, and we'll see what the next drone strike looks like.

SPYTALK: As in Vietnam, where I was a military intelligence operative, there seems to be no way to prevent bad intelligence from getting into the system and preventing the kind of abuses you're talking about.


No, because we elected to engage in a war of attrition where our strategy is basically "Kill them before they can kill Americans," and to try to decapitate networks. When you've already bought into the idea that you're going to try to kill your way to victory, then you're constantly moving on anything that's actionable intelligence. In some cases you've been told that someone is a serious terrorist, and that their movement might change the next morning, so you have to make a decision: Do you take them out or do you try to vet the intelligence on this person more? And I think that all too often, there's a rush to to say, well, if there's a one percent chance, let's just take them out. So Dick Cheney lives on, in a way, in this popular Democratic president. The thinking is, if there's just a chance that they're going to do something, let's take them out.

And I think part of it is political. I think the White House, particularly when Obama was not yet elected for a second term, I think they were terrified of an attack on American soil, (partially) out of the fear that it would wipe out their reelection chances and Republicans would be a will to seize the moment. I also believe that the president genuinely believes that this is the most effective way possible to keep the country safe. I just disagree with him.... I think he probably sees it that he's taking the least bad option available to him.

SPYTALK: But what's the alternative to drone strikes and kill-and-capture raids?

First of all, if we're talking about a sniper who has his weapon pointed at a crowd of innocent people, you're not gonna go and try to seek an indictment of him that he's plotting to kill these people, you're going to do what you have to do to take him out so that he doesn't murder a bunch of people. In cases like that, the US has all sorts of options available to it. But that's not the vast majority of what we're talking about. We're talking about people who may be engaged in plotting a future attack against the United States. So then the question becomes, how do we effectively confront those threats? I of course don't want American airplanes blown up. That's why I'm doing this work, because I think that our own policy is making it more likely that these plots will expand and not recede.

So how do we handle it? If you don't like drone strikes, and you don't like the targeted killing program, what's your answer? Well, I think we should actually return to viewing terrorism as a crime and try to give law enforcement a chance. You know, the US will often say, we didn't seek an indictment because we wouldn't have been able to get them handed over by Yemen. But have they really tried? I was in Yemen talking to tribal leaders in the south of the country, where Al Qaeda has it's strongest presence. I talked to many tribal leaders who said if United States came and negotiated with us, and made it worth our while, we would handover people. But we don't never hear from them, we only hear the drones.

SPYTALK: So you think we could've negotiated the surrender of Anwar al-Awlaki?


I don't want to be na?ve and say that we could have had him extradited. But first of all, we didn't seek an indictment of him, so how could we have gotten him to surrender when he hadn't been charged with a crime? That's the first answer. But to take your question straight up, the head of the Awlak tribe, Sheik bin Fafeed, told me that if the United States had come to them and presented evidence that Anwar was engaged in a terrorist plot, that they would've executed him themselves. I do think it would've been possible at a point to facilitate the handover of Anwar al-Awlaki but it would have required diplomacy, and it would have required presenting evidence to his tribe that he was involved in these things. They don't want at war with the United States.

I think that part of the problem is that we don't have credible enough diplomacy going on on the ground in Yemen and Pakistan. Adam Baron, a great young reporter on the ground in Yemen, has done some fantastic work lately on this issue of whether people could be handed over. In the case of a recent drone strike on the village of this kid Farea al-Muslimi, who testified before the Senate he said clearly that if United States wanted [the target] handed over, we could've facilitated handing him over.

But I don't think the United States wants to take these guys into custody. Where is Obama going to put them? He doesn't want to send them to Guant?namo. That would be a horrifyingly embarrassing thing to do, so I don't think he wants to do that. I also don't think they want to give them access to the US court system, and they don't trust the local government, so kill-capture just becomes kill in a lot of these cases.

For me, it's what kind of nation do we want to be? How we treat the most reprehensible of our citizens says a lot about who we are. And so, in cases of people who are not an active battlefield shooting at us, and we say if they're engaged in any plots we are just going to assassinate them, then we should just stop projecting this image that we're a nation of law and order, and say that in some cases we just get the proverbial mob-with- the-pitchforks out, and the pitchforks are drones, and we meet out citizen justice.

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Updated Jan 2, 2019 12:28 PM EST | More details


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