Talking to Jeremy Scahill on war, drones and Wikileaks

My following interview appears in today’s New Matilda:

Journalist Jeremy Scahill has spent his life exposing the dark recesses of US foreign policy. He talks independent media, drones and terror in this exclusive interview with Antony Loewenstein

The Weekly Standard is the neo-conservative bible that backed the US wars against Iraq and Afghanistan and today advocates military intervention in Syria, Iran and any country deemed an enemy of Washington. In its latest edition, Bruce Bawer… reviewed… journalist Jeremy Scahill’s new… book and documentary, “Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield”. Scahill, a New York Times best-selling author, is “a radical ideologue out to discredit America and debilitate its defences”, Bawer writes:

“What Scahill has given us here is, in short, an indictment of the West’s entire post-9/11 struggle against jihad. To offer serious criticism of American strategy is, of course, thoroughly legitimate. But Scahill isn’t a patriot who wants to see America triumph. On the contrary, it seems clear that the only thing he would hate more than a mismanaged war on jihad would be a successful one. Indeed, it’s hard to avoid feeling that this book’s definitive goal, like that of [Anwar] Awlaki’s sermons, is to swell the jihadist ranks—anything to bring down the Evil Empire with which Scahill has been at war all his professional life.”

Bawer believes journalists should be propagandists. In an exclusive interview with New Matilda, Scahill challenges this understanding of his profession: “I don’t view journalism as my job. It’s a way of life. I believe in independent media to the core of my being.”

Scahill,… national security correspondent… for The Nation, contributor to Democracy Now! and author of best-selling book… Blackwater, gives a devastating account of how, under America’s foreign policy post 9/11, targeted killings, covert wars and “kill lists” are the new norm. Although he slams former US president George W. Bush for an escalation in these policies, he’s equally damning of Barack Obama and his partisan followers. He argues that Obama “isn’t conflicted about these secret wars” and came into office in 2009 with a coterie of advisors who all believed in pre-emptive war.

He cites three individuals as the key influences on the militarily inexperienced president. “Stanley McCrystal, who ran JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] and… Admiral William McRiven, an original member of Seal Team 6 who helped the Bush administration formulate its kill/capture program in the early days after 9/11 and is today the head of JSOC under Obama. Finally,… David Petraeus, Dick Cheney’s general and somebody who pushed for a policy to strike in countries around the world and not just in declared battlefields.”

Scahill, through his research in America, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond — he’s currently banned by Pakistan for… revealing… the connections between the Pakistani elites and American mercenary company Blackwater — says that, “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, poison the US water supply, attack public transportation systems or attack US embassies and 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.”

Obama bought this narrative and the result, Scahill tells NM, is “a state of perpetual war for many years to come”. The legality and morality of the missions are rarely discussed in the US mainstream.

This posture has brought a massive expansion in America’s footprint across the world, especially in Africa. Scahill says that the US now has bases, some allowing the launch of drones, in Mali, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia. “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 five years, Obama has both intensified operations and expanded the archipelago in Africa for US actions and intelligence.” This territory will be a key battleground in the coming decade in America’s war against what it perceives to be terrorism.

But Scahill argues along with Noam Chomsky and many others, that Washington’s actions are creating new enemies across the globe. As Chomsky… said in the wake of 9/11, “If you want to stop terrorism, stop participating in it”. Scahill meets local communities in Yemen and Afghanistan who tell of horrific stories of US-led violence against them and their desire to inflict revenge.

When a Yemeni, Farea al-Muslimi,… appeared recently at a US Senate hearing… to demand the end of US drone attacks in his country, politicians expressed little interest in hearing his perspective. Scahill says that days before he testified, al-Muslimi’s 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. Despite this, Scahill says, “nearly the entire hearing was spent talking about theoretical war philosophy with blowhard professors.” The political and media class prefer to question how Obama is selling his message and not the effect on people under American bombs.

Scahill is a rare independent journalist who refuses to embed with American troops in conflict zones. While researching Dirty Wars, Wikileaks documents were essential in understanding the scope of Washington’s reach. “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. 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 and got them on record. I would never have known that these people even existed but for Wikileaks.” Scahill criticises the smear campaign against Wikileaks as “politically motivated” and designed to protect the cosy arrangements between insider reporters and the state.

The author reveals that he had contact with Bradley Manning, the US army private currently facing life in prison for leaking US cables to Wikileaks, before the 2010… Collateral Murder video. Scahill only recently spoke publicly about his communication with Manning, believing that the whistleblower’s role as a source should be protected (he had told the journalist that Blackwater head Erik Prince was planning on leaving the US and feared he would never face justice for his company’s crimes).

“My motivation for talking about it”, he told NM, “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 he felt that the greater good was being served by him going to prison was so important that he couldn’t not blow the whistle.”

Scahill has spent a career working with independent media. “[P]art of my bigger mission in life is to build 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. How do we merge the energy of new, creative media folks with the proven old school tactics?”

A… recent study… by American anthropologist David Vine discovered that at least $385 billion has been spent since 9/11 by private companies hired by Washington to establish global US bases. Scahill’s investigations remain essential to understanding the historical unprecedented nature of the American war machine and how it affects us all.

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