Australian publication New Matilda published my interview with journalist and author Jeremy Scahill yesterday.
Our recent conversation covered many areas so I’m publishing below a full transcript of the interview conducted by phone on 15th May:
Where are the main places US is using armed drones outside Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia?
One area that has received far too little coverage in the role that it’s playing in the broader US wars around the globe is Africa. In Djibouti, the US several years ago took over this old French army outpost called Camp Lemonier and began building up a capacity to do covert actions throughout Africa but also have used it to strike in the Arabian Peninsula. Teams from the CIA and JSOC and the broader conventional US military and they use Djibouti as a jump off point not only to strike in Somalia but also Western Africa. There’s definitely a drone base in Djibouti. In Ethiopia, the US has been training these Agazi commando units, special operations forces of Ethiopia, to use them as a proxy force. It’s not confirmed that the US has a drone base in Ethiopia. US likely has a drone base in Mali for the targeting of the Al Qaeda of the Islamic Magreb and other militant groups in northern and western Africa will become a serious focal point for US special forces and the CIA. Drone base in Saudi. The drones used to kill Anwar al-Awlaki and Samar Khan seemed to have flown out of Saudi Arabia. Also reports that US has staging ground in Oman, not sure if drones fly from here. Just yesterday I was talking to somebody who was connected to Yemeni intelligence who told me that there’s a base inside Yemen that the US uses sometimes to launch drones and other attacks. In East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, over the past 5 years, the Obama admin has both intensified operations and expanding the archipelago in Africa for US actions and intelligence.
- Would it make any difference in your opinion if the US Army (as opposed to CIA/JSOC) were solely responsible for the drones?
The ascent of John Brennan to CIA director has been a dog and pony show, a farce. It’s staged theatre. The fact is that the US military essentially runs the drone program. The CIA doesn’t have pilots, these are mostly US army personnel from the airforce that are piloting the drones. The US military already has a drone program that it’s running. JSOC has operated drones in Pakistan, Yemen and probably elsewhere. The idea that you can simply tweak the program, move it from the CIA over to the Pentagon, and that’s going to result in any greater transparency is not based in reality. The military can conduct covert operations. People tend to think that the CIA is conducting covert operations and the military is more public. There’s a difference between a clandestine and covert operation. Clandestine operation means that the US military is engaged in an operation where the planning of the mission and the mission itself is kept secret until it’s done but eventually the US will own that it did it. Covert action means that the entire mission itself needs to be deniable so the raid on Bin Laden, although it involved US military forces, was a covert action is because if something went wrong, there was a disaster, if US troops got killed, if Bin Laden escaped, the US would never have to publicly own it and the US would say their soldiers died in a training exercise. At the end of the day, whether it’s CIA or military, the issue is not the technology, it’s not who is in operational control, it’s not even the weapon itself, it’s what do we believe about this program where the US is asserting its authority to assassinate people in countries without any permission from the home government in some cases or without any effective oversight from its own body of law makers. When people talk about drones or cruise missiles or night raids, the more central question is why is the program continuing unabated with very little scrutiny from the very people who are supposed to overseeing US government activities.
- Have you ever been given an explanation (formal or informal) as to why Pakistan govt has consistently refused to give you a visa?
I recently received communication from the Pakistani Ambassador to the US, I’ve tried repeatedly over the last years to get a visa to Pakistan and have been denied, and I was told by a senior Pakistani official that I would not be getting a visa. So I said, are you saying I’m banned and he said you can read into that what you want. The Interior Minister Rehman Malik made all of these ludicrous statements how Blackwater has never been operating in Pakistan. He said at one point that if anybody shows proof that Blackwater is in Pakistan I’ll resign. Shortly after he made that statement I did an expose about Blackwater in Pakistan. Blackwater’s relationship with Pakistan involved very powerful and wealthy Pakistanis, the Pakistani equivalent of Halliburton. I wrote about what Blackwater was doing with the Pakistani Frontier Corp, how they were doing actual operations. I don’t think my banning has anything to do with my reporting on drones but a private company that has caused death and destruction across the Muslim world but about a company that is working with the Pakistani government. They don’t want me poking around powerful Pakistani families and US mercenary companies. One of the problems with reporting on Pakistan is that there’s such hysterics about the role of the US, the CIA and military and you often have exaggeration. The truth is bad enough but there’s a need to take it five steps further and it makes it very difficult to offer a credible argument to what the US is doing in Pakistan because there’s a lot of conspiracy theories. There are some fantastic journalists in Pakistan and some insane conspiracy theories. My reporting has been misused by people who are trying to exaggerate the situation in Pakistan. I don’t know if Blackwater still operates in Pakistan but many US private military companies are there.
- Who are the main corporations that build drones and drones ordinance like Hellfires? Any campaigns going on at the moment to bring legal cases against these companies? What else can citizens do to address the US assassinations program?
One company that has escaped public scrutiny for its role in all of these wars is Lockheed Martin. It’s a parallel US military. Blackwater is a parallel CIA/special operations force. LH is like a government unto itself. Their commercials celebrate that they’re involved in every possible aspect of the US war machine. It’s involved from the production of weapons to intelligence to logistics.
- Thoughts on Obama’s attitude towards the secret war he is prosecuting?
I don’t think Obama is all that conflicted about these secret wars. Obama had no military experience, very little foreign policy experience outside of his short stint in the US Senate, he comes into office after campaigning on a pledge to reverse the Bush era excesses but he’d refined his message to the point where he was going to escalate the war in Afghanistan and taking the fight to the terrorists, which means waging offensive/pre-emptive war. He comes into office and the people he’s surrounded with are the people who ran the most covert aspect of Bush’s wars. Stanley McCrystal, who ran JSOC, Admiral William McRiven, original member of Seal Team 6, who helped the Bush admin formulate its kill/capture program in the early days after 9/11 and then the head of JSOC under Obama and David Petraeus, Cheney’s general and somebody who had pushed for a policy to strike in countries around the world not just in declared battlefields. Those three men pitched to Obama that if we don’t give authority to US military forces to strike at will in countries around the world there’s going to be another attack, that there are people plotting to blow up airliners or poison the US water supply or attack public transportation systems or attack US embassies, if we don’t take the fight to them, and take them out, then this is going to be a one-term President who’s going to be responsible for another terror attack on US soil and he would have been eaten alive by the Republicans. So Obama said he would draw down from Iraq, surge in Afghanistan, and decapitate these terror networks, then once we get into that game, of whack-a-mole, a war of attrition. I think they believed that by killing the heads of various militant groups around the world that they’re actually keeping America safe. I think Obama and Cheney are very different people. Cheney is a caricature sitting in his lair plotting the destruction of the world but Obama has bought into this idea that America needs to wage pre-emptive war to keep itself safe. The result will a state of perpetual war for many years to come.
- Implications of future electronic warfare? US dominance won’t last so what does this mean for the wars of the future?
It’s important to not just fight drone program. We’re living in a country in America right now where Sarah Palin has come out against drones. Why? Because the scary black man is president. They’ve created this theory that Obama will kill US citizens who are members of the Tea Party for publishing their little web zine in the mountains of Montana. A lot of this mood from the right-wing is that this Kenyan, socialist, black president is going to hunt them down with a drone strike in whatever strip mall they’re hanging out in. When a Republican is back in office they’ll become the most enthusiastic backer of the kill program. However, because the Tea Party is a significant feature in US politics the issue has come more into the public light. Senator Rand Paul, when he filibusted the nomination of John Brennan, broke the discussion wide open. His filibuster caused big, corporate media outlets to actually talk about the kill program, some for the first time ever.
On Capitol Hill they don’t even ask the right questions. It was wonderful seeing this young Yemeni guy, Farea al-Muslimi, who I know and spent time with in Yemen, came over to testimony in front of the US Senate. 6 days before he testifies his family’s village had been hit by a drone strike and he was live tweeting text messages from his relatives who were at the scene. He described who the target was of the strike and explained how he could have been handed over to the US if they’d wanted to extradite or charge him. Do we have a kill/capture program or just a kill program? As an American, I want people stopped who want to blow up the subway system. Terrorism is a crime. This isn’t a war. I don’t want our response to a relatively minor threat, a real threat, to put us in greater danger. At the US Senate, this Yemeni guy sat next to 3 professors, most of whom could walk to the capitol on any given day and give testimony, and instead asking him about his views nearly the entire hearing is spent talking about theoretical war philosophy by the blowhard professors.
Al Franken and other Democrats are saying we should have drone courts, a judiciary who decides who lives and dies. If that’s the level of discussion in official Washington, it’s probably better not to have hearings on this. If you’re just looking for a more efficient way to kill people or we’ll give it the veneer of legitimacy by involving the courts. Obama admin’s war on whistleblowers is causing a chill through the military and intelligence communities and speaking out.
Anyone who is doing this work is subjected to some degree of surveillance. I try and be careful in protecting sources. My computer was hacked a few years ago. A message was left on my desk top that revealed the actual name of a source of mine that I’d only referred to with code names in my digital life. I think it was a warning. I’m not sure who did it but it suggested that we know who you’re talking to. After that I changed my behaviour online and protected my information. But short of becoming a Luddite, those of us involved in international journalism need to use a computer and have to find a way to use it in the safest way possible. My biggest concern is not somebody snooping into my life but protecting the people I talk to. We’re up against powerful forces.
- Failures of MSM post 9/11, too many journalists embedded physically and psychologically. Importance of alternative/indy media? Have you ever been tempted to take a bigger salary and work for the big media players? Personal philosophy towards journalism?
I started off in community media being a coffee runner for Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now! I’d never taken a journalism class, I begged my way into a job with Goodman and learned journalism as a trade, like you’d learn to be a carpenter or plumber rather than a course of academic study or viewing it as a career. I don’t view journalism as my job, it’s my life. It’s a way of life I believe in independent media to the core of my being. When I’m at an event and a young person comes up to me and asks how do I get involved, I’ll always stop and encourage them to get involved because we need fiercely independent people serving as reporters around the world. Part of my bigger mission in life is to built independent media. I’m not interested in going to a bigger publication because it will bring fame or a bigger pay cheque. I stick with an independent publisher when I write a book, I work with independent media outlets because I believe in building them up. I support independent media that has truth and justice at its core. We’re all trying to figure out how to sustain independent media with the economic situation in the world with the consolidation of corporate media outlets, infotainment media culture, pictures of cute cats, we need to create a culture where citizen journalists, the ones you see on Twitter doing a fantastic job, often better than corporate journalists, how do you take the energy of citizen journalist movement and combine it with the necessary components of good journalism; fact-checking, peer review, editing, old school muckraking techniques, document diving.
How do we merge the energy of new, creative media folks with the proven old school tactics? To fund it, unless you want to sell out to click bait with cute cat pics, we have to look at alternative ways to funding our media. My advice to young journalists, if you don’t have obligations or have to look after a sick parent, is to find a job that doesn’t drain your brain, like picking apples or working the night shift somewhere, and spend 6 or 8 months saving up money, with the goal of trying to go somewhere for 3 months that you’re interested in reporting on, whether it’s Palestine, Egypt or somewhere in Africa. And even if you don’t have an employer and nobody is sending you there, act like you do have an assignment and develop a discipline. Even if all you’re doing is starting a newsletter to send back to your friends or your community, you treat yourself like you are working for a real media outlet and you get that experience. The best journalists I’ve met in the world almost never have degrees in journalism. They’re united in one thing, a passion for the truth. We need to mainstream that kind of program, where we develop apprenticeships for young people. Journalism isn’t rocket science. It should be a working class course of work where you are getting your hands dirty and not the [New York Times’] Thomas Friedmans of the world about what taxi drivers he’s met. If I hear about one more taxi driver or concierge he’s met I want to shave off his mustache.
- Significance of Wikileaks/Bradley Manning connection?
It would be impossible to quantify the significance of Wikileaks not just to my or your work but to the world’s understanding of US covert and overt operations. It was the most significant document dump in modern history. It altered history. It was like an earthquake. It was the most real confrontation of American empire certainly since the Pentagon Papers but it may prove to be more significant. The idea that you had a democratisation of classified documents and access to them, you can go in and search any country and figure out what the US relationship is with various political forces or factions. I dug deep into the relationship between the US and Somalian warlords. I found individuals who were on the CIA payroll because of Wikileaks and went and found them and got them on record. I would never have known that these people even existed but for Wikileaks.
The smear campaign against Wikileaks is clearly politically motivated, it’s retaliatory, there’s an attempt to portray Wikileaks as responsible for putting America in jeopardy. I would argue that Wikileaks has done a tremendous public service, not only to the American public but to the world. We have a right to understand as Americans what is being done in our name. But the rest of the world has a right to understand how they’ve being targeted economically or militarily by the most powerful nation on earth.
I had hesitated to praise Bradley Manning or discuss Manning’s actions until I heard the leaked recording of him at his court martial owning responsibility. What we’ve become very good at in the American media is litigating cases against people through leaks and we don’t allow evidence to be presented against them. I get asked all the time what I think of the Boston marathon bombers and I say that we don’t know the facts yet. There has to be a judicial process that plays out and evidence. We can’t have a state of justice where for certain kinds of people or crimes you call out the mob with their pitchforks and deliver citizen’s justice. You’re either governed by the rule of law or you’re not.
Once Manning came out and owned that he did it. Every one should listen to that young man’s testimony that he offered at his court martial because there has been a smear campaign against him to portray him as a moral degenerate or to constantly focus on his sexual orientation. This was a guy who calmly stood up, facing potentially the death penalty, and owned his actions as an act of conscience. Once he said that I felt comfortable telling my own small story involving Manning which was that before the Collateral Murder video was published, he had emailed me and I didn’t know it was him. I get emails all the time tipping me off to something. Another journalist had contacted me about a project on Bradley Manning and I’m reaching out to people who have been in touch with him. I said I’ve never been in touch with him and he said that he must have been mistaken because I was told that you were. I said no and that I think I would remember that. He calls me back a few days later and asks me to search my email with this address. So I search it pulls up an email very clearly from Bradley Manning. What’s remarkable about the email is that Manning did not offer me any classified information, he didn’t say he was in the US military, he told me he had a personal connection to someone that had information about the movements of Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater.
Through Bradley Manning I discovered that Prince was leaving the US at a time when Blackwater was falling apart and they were multiple investigations against them and 5 people under Prince got indicted. Manning when he wrote to me was concerned with the idea that if Prince was trying to flee the US to avoid accountability for the activities of his company, Manning found this deeply offensive and he was writing to me just as an ordinary person saying I have this tiny piece of information and I want to offer it to you. It wasn’t a short email and clearly motivated by someone with a conscience. It was very well-written. The point of it was that I don’t want people to get away with potential crimes. I felt stupid later when I realised it was Bradley Manning and reminded me how many people stick their neck out for journalists and we maybe don’t even know their names. When I spoke to that journalist who called me about Manning I didn’t confirm or deny that I got an email from Manning because I considered him to be a source. I didn’t realise who he was. He wasn’t writing to me to interview me.
The reason I feel comfortable talking about that initial communication with him is that because it’s relevant to how Bradley Manning is. My motivation for talking about it is that Manning should be treated as a serious prisoner of conscience. There’s a pattern that’s borne out in his history of believing what he was doing was moral and necessary and he probably was terrified of what it would mean for him but ultimately felt that the greater good being served by him going to prison was so important that he couldn’t not blow the whistle. Manning will face the consequences of his actions, he knew what he was doing was against his oath as a soldier but he felt what he was did served a greater good and I certainly admire this young man’s courage and it’s shameful that only three journalists, none of whom worked for big corporate media outlets in the US, are covering that trial with any regularity. The New York Times should be ashamed of itself. They sold newspapers based on the documents Manning provided to Wikileaks and they had it splashed across its front pages for days on end and when Manning goes down they ignore his situation.
Julian Assange is living in a small room in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. I would like to see Assange be able to respond to the allegations against him in Sweden. I don’t know the facts of what happened there but I believe that he should be able to respond to those allegations. The issue here is if I was Assange I’d be concerned about my life. You have prominent political commentators in the US going on TV to call for his assassination on the most powerful media outlets in America. There have been rumblings about grand juries. Perhaps there’s a sealed indictment against Assange. Whatever you think about him as a person, and I want to hear his explanation for what happened in Sweden, but this is a guy who has been threatened by the most powerful nation on earth for having been responsible for the significant exposure of secret, covert US activities around the globe in history. The idea that the New York Times has tried to turn this into a twisted tale of sex and ego misses the entire point of it. This man was responsible for an epic exposure of the empire and of course he has reason to be concerned. But for the New York Times, when Assange was convenient to their agenda to scoop other US media outlets and to break this incredibly significant story, then he was a legitimate partner. But then the pile on begins against Assange and [New York Times’] Bill Keller and others throw him under the bus and act as though they don’t owe him some debt for what he did for them, it’s shameful.