ENTERTAINMENT
06/06/2013 02:55 pm ET

Jeremy Scahill's 'Dirty Wars' Takes A Noir Detective Approach To Obama's Drone Strikes

Jeremy Scahill's new documentary, "Dirty Wars," is a cinematic chronicle of one journalist's investigation into America's secret global campaign of targeted killings. It raises a stark question: Is Team Obama's aggressive expansion of drone strikes and night raids doing more harm than good?

The film, co-written by Scahill and David Riker and directed by Rick Rowley, is structured like a noir detective story. It follows Scahill from the lawless hinterlands of Afghanistan, where he interviews the surviving members of the family of a U.S.-trained police chief decimated in a secret night raid; to Yemen, where he inspects the wreckage of a drone strike and meets the father of Anwar al-Awlaki, one of four American citizens to be assassinated abroad by the U.S. (al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son was another); to Somalia, where he tags along with Somali war lords on the U.S. payroll, who brag of committing war crimes as they rampage through the rubble of Mogadishu.

Scahill, 38, an award-winning journalist with The Nation and author of an acclaimed book about Blackwater, shares his thoughts and feelings about all this in a voice-over, including his concern that the U.S. may be rushing into the very thing President Barack Obama says he doesn't want: war without end.

Scahill spoke to The Huffington Post about his reporting, his views on what motivates Obama and his initial discomfort with letting his own experiences anchor the film.

Do you think the tide is really changing for the Obama administration, in terms of no longer getting away with stuff that they've been getting away with for a long time?
Well, it's a tough question to answer. I really think President Obama and his administration are trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, in the president's recent speech, he was hitting a lot of notes that -- for critics of the targeted killing program or the drone program -- sounded like the right notes. He said we can't be in a state of perpetual war, we want to bring accountability to this. He acknowledged the killing of four Americans and said that the civilian deaths caused in some of these strikes are going to haunt them forever. That sounds pretty extraordinary for an American president to be saying. But hidden within all of that, and behind the scenes, his administration is simultaneously making moves to ensure that we are going to be in a state of perpetual war and that the strikes that have caused civilian deaths are going to continue.

What are some of those moves?
The U.S. is continuing to use these things called signature strikes, where you don't necessarily know the specific identity of the people you're targeting and you don't necessarily have evidence that they're involved with a terror plot or criminal activity. It's this sort of pre-emptive way of waging war against people that we suspect might, in the future, attempt to commit an act of terrorism against the United States.

It's like "Minority Report," the Tom Cruise movie.
It is! Except in "Minority Report," in most of those cases, they knew the name of the person and what crime they were gonna commit, and they actually were in the process of committing it. It was sort of this imminent threat. Under the Obama administration, we know from the leaked white paper that they've redefined the term "imminent" to mean that you have, at some point in the past, plotted against the United States. Which is not what the word "imminent" means. And so we're using sort of Orwellian terms to justify this war against terrorism.

My biggest concern, to be honest with you, is that when we are killing innocent people in drone strikes or cruise missile strikes or special operations night raids, we're creating more enemies than we are killing terrorists. We're growing the very threat that we claim to be trying to defeat.

Obama has acknowledged that as a concern, and it's strange that so much of what you describe in the film seems to contradict not just what he's said recently but his whole philosophy. Do you have a sense of what is driving Obama to make these decisions?
Well, look, I think that Dick Cheney was sort of this cartoonish villain. I really do imagine him sort of sitting in the bunker, plotting the destruction of the world for the benefit of Halliburton's stock. But I don't see President Obama that way at all. I think he's a sincere, deliberative guy who believes that what he's doing is the best way available to him as the commander-in-chief to keep the country safe. I disagree that that's what he's doing, but I don't question his sincerity.

Right.
But look at it from his perspective. He comes into office after campaigning on the idea that he was going to push back the Bush-era excesses and end the war in Iraq. A lot of liberals projected onto him this idea that he was the anti-war candidate, even though he'd never claimed to be the anti-war candidate -- he claimed to be the anti-Iraq War candidate. So he comes into office, he has no military experience, very limited foreign policy experience based on his couple of years in the Senate, and he's briefed by General David Petraeus, Admiral William McRaven, General Stanley McChrystal, the director of the CIA. And they paint a picture for him of a world where there are hundreds and hundreds of concurrent plots being organized to try to blow up U.S. airplanes, poison American water supplies, attack U.S. embassies. And they say to him, "If you don't continue with the Bush-era authorizations for us to strike in countries where we see any threat pop up, then the American homeland is going to be at great risk."

Americans will die on your watch, basically.
Right. So what's President Obama, who has no military experience and limited foreign policy experience, gonna say to those guys? Is he gonna say, "Stand down, General"? What would happen then, if a month into his administration or two months, there was what they call a "spectacular" terrorist attack against the United States? Politically, I think his advisers -- Rahm Emanuel and [David] Axelrod and those guys -- they knew that if there was a major terrorist attack against the United States, that Obama would have been a one-term president.

So I think that you had a combination of political considerations and the fact that he didn't want to be sending in troops to countries around the world. And he basically embraced JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] as the policy -- not just as the implementers of the policy, but as the policy itself, this idea that you can go and decapitate networks, systematically take out people that are plotting against the United States. And I think that that's what they believe that they're doing. And he's killed, under his administration, several dozen known terrorists around the world. No question about that. But what they won't acknowledge is that they've killed a tremendous number of innocent civilians in their so-called surgical campaign.

If you had to estimate, how many civilians would you say they've killed?
I think it's very dangerous to get into that game. There are very conservative reports that were pulled together by Peter Bergen and others at the New America Foundation. Then you have estimates that I think are more reliable from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, out of London. But whether it's 1,500 people or 2,000 people or 4,000 people, in a way it's irrelevant. The fact that we have killed civilians in large numbers, regardless of what those numbers are, is encouraging the very threat that we claim to be fighting.

You've spent a lot more time on the ground in these places than President Obama has. What's your sense, from being on the ground in those places, of what's really happening?
Look, I'm not naive. I've talked with people who are sworn enemies of the United States. I've met with tribal figures in south of Yemen who were among those that were giving shelter and protection to Fahd al-Quso, one of the USS Cole bombing plotters who actually was killed several months ago. So I have no illusions that there are people who want to blow up American airplanes and kill Americans because they're Americans. The threat is there.

How big of a threat is that? It's not an existential threat. It's not even in the top 10 of the real threats facing most Americans in the world. And I think we're largely operating on fear. And what I've seen from my reporting on the ground, it's tribal leaders, for instance, in Yemen saying to me, "I saw Said al-Shihri and Nasir Wuhayshi" -- the two heads of [militant group] Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula -- "I saw them the other day at a restaurant in Shabwah. How come I can see them and the Americans can't find them, but your drones seem to be able to find our children in Bedouin villages? You say that al Qaeda is terrorist -- well, we say your drones are terrorism." And I think we've lost a real opportunity in Yemen to bring people over to our side and give an incentive to tribal leaders to bring to justice the relatively small number of wackos who are plotting to attack the United States on any given day. I think we've engaged in an extraordinarily stupid counterterrorism policy in Yemen in particular, and it's backfiring.

So the clumsy behavior of the government and these forces may not outstrip the terrorist threat, but it's creating substantial problems.
Look, we have engaged in a strategy in Yemen where we've outsourced our intelligence to drones. We actually have no serious on-the-ground intelligence capacity in Yemen. I've reported on numerous strikes that the U.S. has conducted in Yemen where it seems abundantly clear that we were fed bad intelligence by the Yemeni government in an effort to take out people who were domestic political opponents of the regime, and not al Qaeda figures. We are being used in Yemen, and in night raids in Afghanistan, to settle scores of local people or of officials against other officials.

I'm at a point now where I really think that we should have a moratorium on drone strikes. Whether you ultimately agree with drone strikes and with the president and you think that that's a legitimate way to wage war or not, I think we all can accept that innocent people have been killed. I think we should have a moratorium on the drone strikes so that we can assess who have we killed, what were their connections to terrorism, and is this making us less safe or more safe as Americans.

Do you think that there will be any significant change with Susan Rice coming in as national security adviser?
I always feel like I'm the wet blanket in these conversations. I mean, Susan Rice is cut of what I call the cruise-missile-liberal cloth. She's a pretty hawkish interventionist. And I think that when she is advising the president as the national security adviser, she's going to be a passionate advocate for what they call humanitarian intervention, or "military humanism."

What does that translate into, in actual fact?
She's been pushing for the U.S. to enter into Darfur [a war-torn region of Sudan], for instance, militarily. I think she's going to be pretty hawkish in her advice to the president. She's definitely on the hawkish end of the Democratic Party.

Our own Ryan Grim recently quoted you in an interesting piece drawing a connection between the Justice Department's investigation of journalists and the case of Abduleleh Haider Shaye, a journalist in Yemen who remains in prison at the request of President Obama.
I've been reporting on his story for years now. You know, I find it shameful that the powerful U.S. media organizations that worked with him -- The Washington Post, ABC News and others -- have said nothing about his imprisonment. Americans have to understand: There is an independent, good journalist who is in prison in Yemen because our constitutional law professor/Nobel Peace Prize-winning president is keeping him there by intervening in his case. And when you put that in the context of what's happened with the Associated Press and the seizure of their phone records, with the crackdown on whistleblowers, that sends a very disturbing message about the state of media freedom under President Obama. And I think all of us as journalists should form a unified front in saying, "These attacks against the press have to stop."

You mention in the film that you believe your laptop was hacked --
Well, I know it was.

Do you think the U.S. government was responsible for that?
I have no idea, and I haven't accused anyone of doing it. Look, I'll just tell you the real story of what was going on then. I was starting to do my initial reporting on JSOC. I was working also on a story involving the CIA and a network of companies that were part of the Blackwater empire. And what happened is that my computer was compromised really late one night. I got a hacker friend to go back and reverse-engineer the hack and look at how it happened. So my computer was breached, and parts of my hard drive were copied -- the files that pertained to the investigations I was working on. And then a TextEdit file was left on my desktop, and it just had a name on it. And it was the name of a confidential source of mine. And I had never put that person's name in my computer, on my phone, in any searchable way that you could access. It was chilling. And I had to then get in touch with that source and say, "I'm not sure who did this or how it was compromised, but someone is aware that you've been talking to me."

I don't think I'll ever find out who did that. It could have been a private company, or it could have been someone else. But it was clearly someone who was privy to communications outside of my computer, because they had the name of someone that I had been communicating with -- his actual name. And you know what he actually said, when I finally was able to meet with him and tell him this? "F**k them." [Laughs.]

One of the interesting things about this film is the way you put yourself into it. Talking to you now, you seem upbeat, but does this type of work beat you down at some point? Do you sometimes look around and think, "Why the hell isn't anybody paying attention to this? Why is everybody keeping up with the freaking Kardashians?"
[Laughs.] I unfortunately don't keep up with the Kardashians. I've never been invited to the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, so I don't get to chuckle with the commander-in-chief about drone strikes. But having said that, I was gutted, as a person, in the process of writing the narration for the film, because I don't write articles in the first person and I don't tend to talk about myself when I'm reporting. And I think that I had been trying to run away from some of the realities of what I was witnessing and the stories that I was hearing. And by personalizing the story -- which I didn't want to do at the beginning -- it was like floodgates opened and you start to remember all of these people and stories. It's like 10 years of your life flash before your eyes, and the past 10 years of my life has been spent talking with people, for the most part, who experienced loss in such a horrible way. But I will say that I love to laugh. Maybe I feel liberated now that the film is coming out and I can laugh again.

I'm glad to hear that. Are there any re-creations in the film? It seems like you guys shot some amazing things in real time, but is there anything that was re-created after the fact?
Re-creations? No. What happened is that Rick [Rowley], the director of the film, was driving me insane by constantly filming me when I wasn't supposed to be the character -- and I think somewhere he knew that he wanted to do this. We had cut a version of the film where I was not me, I was just sort of like a tour guide through the archipelago of these covert war sites. And then when we started to change the way we were going to tell the story, we went back to the cutting room, and all the s**t that I told Rick not to film became the stuff that made the film possible.

In other words, he just ignored you and kept filming.
Yeah, it drove me kind of nuts. And I know my own facial expressions. I can see myself in the movie where I'm in a car, and it might look like I'm really tense about something, but it's just that I've just yelled at Rick and told him to get the f**king camera out of my face. I'm like, "I'm trying to file my story, man, leave me alone." I still have trouble watching it, to be honest.

Is there any talk of adapting the documentary into a narrative feature?
I've been pressuring Mitchell Hurwitz to actually make a fifth season of "Arrested Development," but based on our movie.

I like that idea!
I mean, what if they had a "Never Nude" convention in Afghanistan, and Dr. Tobias Fünke was the keynote speaker? It would be amazing.

And then they could have drones that look like bananas from the banana stand.
I would support drones that fired frozen Bluth bananas, rather than Hellfire missiles. That's a national security policy I can get behind -- banana diplomacy.

"Dirty Wars" opens in limited release on June 7.

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