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Jeremy Scahill: WikiLeaks Cables Confirm Secret U.S. War Ops in Pakistan

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Despite sustained denials by the Pentagon, the leaked cables from WikiLeaks confirm that U.S. military special operations forces have been secretly working with the Pakistani military to conduct offensive operations and coordinate drone strikes in the areas near the Afghan border. A U.S. embassy cable from October of 2009 states: “These deployments are highly politically sensitive because of widely-held concerns among the public about Pakistani sovereignty and opposition to allowing foreign military forces to operate in any fashion on Pakistani soil.” The cables confirm aspects of a story about the covert U.S. war in Pakistan published in The Nation magazine last year by investigative journalist and Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Despite sustained denials by the Pentagon, the leaked embassy cables confirm that U.S. special forces have been secretly working with the Pakistani military to conduct offensive operations and coordinate drone strikes in the areas near the Afghan border. A U.S. embassy cable from October 2009 states that, quote, “The Pakistani Army has for just the second time approved deployment of U.S. special operation elements to support Pakistani military operations.” The cable adds that allowing U.S. special forces to deploy in Pakistan represents a “sea change” in Pakistani thinking and happened, quote, “almost certainly with the personal consent of [Chief of Army Staff] General Kayani.”

Another cable from Islamabad reveals the private support from the Pakistani leadership for U.S. Predator drone attacks inside Pakistan. In an August 2008 U.S. embassy cable, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani is quoted as saying, “I don’t care if they do it as long as they get the right people. We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, the cables confirm aspects of a story about the covert U.S. war in Pakistan published in The Nation magazine last year by investigative journalist and Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill. When the story first came out, Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell called it “conspiratorial.” Here’s an excerpt from his press briefing last November taking a question from Al Jazeera’s John Terret.

JOHN TERRET: Does the Pentagon have any comment on a report in The Nation today that puts Blackwater, now Xe Services, firmly at the center of a covert operation in Karachi in Pakistan, from an anonymous source within the military? And my question is —

GEOFF MORRELL: Yeah, I guess I —

JOHN TERRET: The question is, you keep denying covert operations in Pakistan, but isn’t this yet more evidence of one?

GEOFF MORRELL: OK, the best person to address this would be the State Department spokesman, who has already put out a statement or a correction, basically saying these accusations are entirely false. OK, but I — for more clarity, more specificity, I urge you to talk to them.

As for what we are doing in Afghanistan, or in Pakistan, rather, I think we have been incredibly forthright about this. And we have basically, I think, a few dozen forces on the ground in Pakistan who are involved in a “train the trainer” mission. These are special operations forces. We’ve been very candid about this. They are — they have been for months, if not years now, training Pakistani forces so that they can in turn train other Pakistani military on how to — on certain skills and operational techniques. And that’s the extent of our, you know, military boots on the ground in Pakistan, despite whatever conspiratorial theories that, you know, magazines or broadcast outlets may want to cook up. There’s nothing to it.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell in November 2009 denying that U.S. special operations forces are involved in combat missions inside Pakistan.

Well, for more on this story, we’re joined by investigative journalist, Democracy Now! correspondent, Jeremy Scahill.

Jeremy, welcome to Democracy Now! Your piece has just come out. Talk about the cables and what they say about what Morrell said.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, first of all, what the cables say is that on two occasions U.S. special operations forces were embedded with Pakistani units and engaged in offensive combat operations. I have to say, though, that it seems as though either U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson is out of the loop — she’s the ambassador to Pakistan — or she’s blatantly lying, because U.S. special operations forces have been operating in offensive — in an offensive capacity in Pakistan basically since 9/11. And some would say even before 9/11 there were U.S. covert operations going on there.

In '03-'04, the Bush administration issued an execute order that authorized U.S. forces to go anywhere in the world where al-Qaeda was to fight them and essentially declared the world a battlefield. And it was a big part of the neocon strategy — Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Cambone and Stephen Hadley and others. So, U.S. forces started — special operations forces started operating in Pakistan. In 2006, General Stanley McChrystal, who was then the head of the Joint Special Operations Command, struck a deal with Pervez Musharraf’s government that would allow JSOC forces, U.S. special operations forces, to do cross-border raids into Pakistan if they were pursuing Osama bin Laden or his cohorts. That really intensified the period where U.S. special operations forces were operating in Pakistan. General Petraeus then issued another order in September of 2009, when Barack Obama was president, that closely mirrored that Bush administration strategy that the world is a battlefield, and U.S. forces started striking in Yemen, Somalia, as well as inside of Pakistan.

So, Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon spokesperson, was well aware of this. The U.S. embassy clearly was either lying about it or wasn’t in the loop on it. But the reality is that when Richard Holbrooke stood up in July of 2010 and said, “People think that the U.S. has troops in Pakistan; well, we don’t,” Richard Holbrooke was lying blatantly. The U.S. was engaged in a parallel drone campaign, one operated by JSOC, the elite special operations force of the military, the other by the CIA, as well as hunting high-value targets and being embedded with a federal Pakistani force known as the Frontier Corps, which operates under the Pakistani interior ministry but is commanded by an Army general. And so, the reality is that these special operations actions have been ongoing inside of Pakistan for many, many years, and this is just a confirmation that it’s continued under the administration of President Barack Obama.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, and it seems to me that these cables would have an even bigger impact in Pakistan, when you have the Prime Minister say we’re publicly going to say one thing in public, while — and lie about what’s going on, similar to the releases on Yemen, that these are going to have enormous impacts on these countries in terms of the credibility of their own leaders before their own populations.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right, I mean, you have the Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani saying, you know, “We’ll go and lie to the National Assembly.” Then you have the President of Yemen, Saleh, saying to General David Petraeus, you know, “When you guys continue to do these air strikes, we’ll just lie to our people and say that it’s our bombs that are doing it and not yours.” I mean, you know, arguably — you know, people talk about how WikiLeaks is putting lives at danger, I mean, the U.S. getting into these kinds of relationships, where they’re having the Pakistani government blatantly lying to their people, when you have the Yemeni government blatantly lying to their people, both of those are countries where al-Qaeda presence is growing, it’s getting stronger. So what the U.S. is doing is setting these guys up to become public enemies number one, if they weren’t already, in their own countries. It’s the U.S. policy that’s endangering lives here.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me read excerpts from the cable classified by Ambassador Anne Patterson in Islamabad, Pakistan on October 9th, 2009. Quote: “The Pakistani Army has for just the second time approved deployment of U.S. special operation elements to support Pakistani military operations. The first deployment, with [SOC-PAK elements] embedded with the Frontier Corps in [BLANK], occurred in September. Previously, the Pakistani military leadership adamantly opposed letting us embed our special operations personnel with their military forces. The developments of the past two months thus appear to represent a sea change in their thinking.”

It also says, quote, “These deployments are highly politically sensitive because of widely-held concerns among the public about Pakistani sovereignty and opposition to allowing foreign military forces to operate in any fashion on Pakistani soil. Should these developments and/or related matters receive any coverage in [the Pakistani] or U.S. media, the Pakistani military will likely stop making requests for such assistance.”

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, that’s one of the reasons why these kinds of operations, these kinetic, direct actions, these lethal operations, are not done by the State Department and they’re not done by the conventional military. When JSOC forces go into a country, as we’ve seen throughout the course of the so-called war on terror, they don’t inform the ambassador as a matter of practice that they’re going to be operating there. In fact, these operations are so compartmentalized, so highly classified, that when I talked to a military veteran who worked with JSOC on Pakistan about these cables, he expressed shock that this was only classified at the secret level. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the JSOC designation in a U.S. embassy cable talking about offensive combat operations. He was outraged that the U.S. embassy even put this on paper, because of where it would go. But the point I’m making here is that oftentimes — and was particularly true under the Bush administration — the U.S. embassy, the CIA station chief, the government of the country where they’re operating, wouldn’t even know if JSOC guys were there. So, you know, this is just the tip of the iceberg of what we know.

I wanted to also say, Amy, that after I did the story for The Nation in November 2009 talking about JSOC’s operations inside of Pakistan and the involvement of Blackwater, elite soldiers from a Blackwater unit called Blackwater Select, I couldn’t get the Pentagon or anyone else to comment. I receive a call, unprompted, from a Captain [John] Kirby, who was the spokesperson for Admiral Mike Mullen, calls me on my cell phone, wouldn’t tell me how he got my cell phone number, wouldn’t tell me who told him about the story — this is hours from publication — and told me that if we published the story in The Nation, that I would be, quote, “on thin ice.” That was a direct quote from Admiral Mullen’s spokesperson, Captain John Kirby. Called me up. And I said, “Well, I want to know how you heard about the story, and I want to know how you got my number.” And he said, “Let’s just say that I heard about it.”

And so, then what happened is that the military did a — went over —- and I learned this from a member of Congress. The U.S. military orders an investigation on the ground inside of Pakistan. They apologize to General Kayani after my story came out. And they did a report essentially characterizing me and Sy Hersh as being crazy people who are making -—

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Seymour Hersh, right, who’s done a lot of reporting on the — and this is the first time that I’ve talked about this publicly. My understanding is that there’s a classified report that smears me and Sy Hersh, and it was distributed to members of Congress after my story came out — and Hersh had a story a little bit before it about Pakistan’s nukes — essentially accusing us of making things up and not actually having sources for these stories.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, since you had a spokesperson on the phone for Admiral Mullen, did you ask him to confirm the story?

JEREMY SCAHILL: And he wouldn’t. I mean, this is how it works in Washington. Juan, I’m sure you know this well. You know, you say to them, “OK, well, if it’s not true, if none of it’s true, let me just say, 'Captain Kirby says this.'” No, he doesn’t want to put his name to it. And I said, “Well, can I have another official that’s willing to talk on the record.” I don’t want some background thing where somebody says it’s not true. I want a name to someone who’s going to say this story is not true, because that’s accountability. That’s what journalists should be demanding, not anonymous sources when it comes to officialdom. No, we want to know what person in the military is going to put their name on it. And they wouldn’t do it.

Geoff Morrell says, well, the State Department has put out a statement saying that this is — that the allegations in the story are totally false. That’s not true. When the State Department was asked about it that day, they said, “Oh, you’ll have to ask the U.S. embassy in Islamabad.” Then the U.S. embassy in Islamabad puts out a statement, unsigned, saying that the story was totally false. So now, all of a sudden, you have the U.S. embassy, not a named official, being somehow the spokesperson for the most clandestine unit of the U.S. military? I mean, you know, the first rule of journalism in these things is, you know, never believe any story until it’s officially denied. And it took a long time, but they officially denied it. And lo and behold, because of these cables, we find out, of course, it’s true. Of course it’s true.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. Jeremy Scahill, thank you very much for being with us. Jeremy is author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.” He blogs at

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