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Jeremy Scahill: Oscar Nod for “Dirty Wars” Could Raise Awareness of Ongoing U.S. Drone Strikes

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Just over six months ago, President Obama gave a major address unveiling new guidelines to limit drone strikes abroad, vowing to narrow the scope of the U.S. targeted killing campaign. But a new analysis by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has raised questions about how much Obama’s new rules have actually constrained the drone program. The Bureau found that while the total number of strikes has slightly decreased, more people were killed in Yemen and Pakistan by covert drone strikes in the past six months than in the six months preceding Obama’s address. We speak with independent journalist Jeremy Scahill, whose documentary film, “Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield,” directed by Richard Rowley, was one of 15 feature documentaries shortlisted this week for an Oscar.

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Just over six months ago, President Obama gave a major address unveiling new guidelines to limit drone strikes abroad. He vowed to narrow the scope of the U.S. targeted killing campaign. Here’s part of what he said then.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: To say a military tactic is legal or even effective is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance, for the same progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power—or risk abusing it. And that’s why, over the last four years, my administration has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists, insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability that is now codified in presidential policy guidance that I signed yesterday.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Obama speaking just over six months ago. Well, a new analysis by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has raised questions about how much Obama’s new rules have actually constrained the drone program. The Bureau found that while the total number of strikes has slightly decreased, more people were killed in Yemen and Pakistan by covert drone strikes in the past six months than in the six months preceding Obama’s address.

AMY GOODMAN: In related news, the U.S. has halted military shipments from Afghanistan through Pakistan due to protests against the U.S. drone war. In a statement, the Pentagon says it’s suspended the removal of military equipment in Pakistan because of the dangers posed to truck drivers. Thousands of Pakistanis have taken part in protests and blockades along NATO supply routes in recent weeks to call for an end to U.S. drone strikes.

In a moment, we’ll be joined by independent journalist Jeremy Scahill, producer and co-writer of the documentary film Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, also the author of the book by the same name. This week, Dirty Wars, which was directed by Richard Rowley and co-written with David Riker, was one of 15 documentaries shortlisted for an Oscar. This is a trailer of the film.

JEREMY SCAHILL: I got a strange phone call. Someone from the inside was reaching out to me, someone close to the heart of the president’s elite force.

ANONYMOUS SOURCE: There are hundreds of covert operations on multiple continents in full support of the White House.

JEREMY SCAHILL: It’s hard to say when the story began.

Greetings from Kabul, Afghanistan.

This was supposed to be the front line in the war on terror.

U.S. SOLDIER: What’s the name of this village out here?

JEREMY SCAHILL: But I knew I was missing the story. There was another war, hidden in the shadows. A night raid.

So there’s the two men in the guest house with the first people killed.


GARDEZ RESIDENT 2: [translated] One woman was four-months, the other was five-months pregnant.

JEREMY SCAHILL: You saw the U.S. forces take the bullets out of the body?

MOHAMMED SABIR: [translated] Yes.

U.S. SOLDIER: On your face! On your face!

JEREMY SCAHILL: Who were these men that stormed into Daoud’s home? And why would they go to such horrifying lengths to cover up their actions?

ANONYMOUS SOURCE: Terror strikes, targeted killings—a lot it was of questionable legality.

JEREMY SCAHILL: How had a covert unit taken over the largest war on the planet?

RACHEL MADDOW: Joining us now is Jeremy Scahill.

LOU DOBBS: Jeremy Scahill.

PAT BUCHANAN: They’re dismissing what you’ve done.

JAY LENO: Why are you still alive? Are you paranoid? Is that the guy we did Maher with? Oh, he’s dead. What happened? He had an accident.

JEREMY SCAHILL: The list of raids read like a map of a hidden war.

MATTHEW HOH: The right guys would get targeted. Plenty of other times, the wrong people would get killed.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Algeria, Indonesia, Thailand, Jordan.

MUQBAL AL-KAZEMI: [translated] If children are terrorists, then we are all terrorists

ANONYMOUS SOURCE: What we have essentially done is created one hell of a hammer. And for the rest of our generation, this force will be continually searching for a nail.

GEOFF MORRELL: Despite whatever conspiratorial theories, there is nothing to it.

MALCOLM NANCE: If they are dangerous, if they are too strong, definitely has a missile in its future.

SEN. RON WYDEN: It’s important to know when the president can kill an American citizen and when they can’t.

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] If the Americans do this again, we are ready to shed our blood fighting them.

MOHAMED QANYARE: When you are fighting the enemy, any option is open. No mercy. America knows war. They are war masters.

AMY GOODMAN: A trailer from Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. The book and the film came out right about the same time. The film has just been shortlisted for an Oscar for best documentary. Jeremy Scahill, the co-producer and writer, is with us right now. It was directed by Rick Rowley.

Jeremy, congratulations on the film. What a difficult subject, how important it is right now.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, thank—I mean, we’ve been, you know, over the past day, emailing all of the people that worked with us on it in Yemen and Afghanistan and Somalia and elsewhere. And, I mean, I—the hope with this is, is that people pay attention to these stories, that Americans will know what happened to the Bedouin villagers in al-Majalah, Yemen, where three dozen women and children were killed in a U.S. cruise missile strike that the White House tried to cover up and allowed the Yemeni government to take credit for, or the people that are killed in night raids in Afghanistan or drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan. I mean, that’s our hope with this. It’s been our hope from the beginning. And so, you know, we’re—in the 15 films that are on the short list for an Oscar, there are some incredible films on that. Jehane Noujaim’s film, The Square, about the Egyptian revolution is—you know, it’s a fantastic movie. The Act of Killing, of course, you had Joshua Oppenheimer on the show. And, I mean, there’s just—we’re honored to be in that field with people, and we just hope that this results in more attention being paid to this issue of the U.S. assassination program.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, this report that just came out from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that more people have been killed in drone strikes in the six months after President Obama gave his speech—


AMY GOODMAN: —saying they’re reforming or changing drone policy, than the six months before?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, this—it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. I mean, you know, the drone czar, or the assassination czar, John Brennan, who now is the head of the CIA, you know, he worked very hard to create something called the “disposition matrix,” which basically is a program that’s going to be used to determine who should be assassinated, who should we try to abduct, who should we try to render, who should we—which terror suspects should we leave it up to local authorities in Yemen or Pakistan to try to deal with. And basically what Obama and his team have done in his second administration is to create an infrastructure for whoever happens to come into office next, whether they’re a Democrat or Republican, and they have ensured that this policy of pre-emptive war—that’s really what we’re talking about here. It’s—these are pre-emptive, pre-crime strikes, where the idea that we should even view terrorism as a law enforcement activity or terrorism as a crime is completely thrown away by the constitutional lawyer president. And so, what I think one of the major legacies of Obama is going to be on this front is that he has tried to put a stamp of legitimacy on what most countries around the world would claim—you know, plainly view as a global assassination program run by the empire, run by the most powerful nation on Earth.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the situation in Afghanistan and the most recent drone strikes there, the impact on the continuing controversy over the status of forces agreement, what’s going to—how the United States will stay in Afghanistan.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, well, as you know, I mean, the U.S. has propped up corrupt warlords, narcotraffickers, gangsters, for the past 12 years in Afghanistan. And, you know, the Taliban still control a large swath of territory, and they will, in perpetuity. And I think—I mean, the question I think a lot of military families in the U.S. and in NATO countries have to ask is sort of what—what was the purpose of the past, you know, 12 years? I think a lot of nations understand the initial incursion into Afghanistan, under the argument that you’re going to dismantle the al-Qaeda network that was responsible for 9/11. But what do you tell the families of—you know, of soldiers that are going to be killed in the year leading up to the so-called withdrawal? I think what we’re going to see in Afghanistan is an asymmetric war that’s going to continue on, where the United States continues to have special operations teams, there’s going to be a very large CIA paramilitary presence, and I think that they’re going to try to present the veneer that it’s an Afghanization of the occupation, but in reality the U.S. strike forces will not be far away.

There was this recent drone strike in Pakistan on the eve of negotiations between Tehreek-e-Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, and the Pakistani government, and the U.S. killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. And it enraged—I was just speaking to a Pakistani diplomat in London. I mean, they believe that the United States intentionally did that to undermine any kind of a negotiated solution with the Taliban. And it’s counterproductive even to U.S. interests. Even if you take the most conventional interpretation of what American national interests are, to have that kind of instability in that region, especially when Pakistan is a nuclear power, is antithetical to the idea that this is a national security policy. I mean, the only way that this is resolved is by negotiating with the Taliban. And the U.S. seems to be giving—paying lip service to that, while then bumping off the people that they’re supposed to be negotiating with.

The last thing I’ll say about this, when I met with Mullah Zaeef, who was in the Taliban government and actually wrote a fascinating autobiography called My Life with the Taliban—he was put in Guantánamo for six years, and then he was released, and he now lives sort of in a default form of house arrest in Kabul. When Rick Rowley and I met with him, he was saying to us, “When I was in Guantánamo, the Americans kept telling me, 'The Taliban is finished. There's no more Taliban. All of you—all of your people have been killed or are in prison.” And then he’s like, “Then I come back to Afghanistan, and I find that there are actually more people in the Taliban than when I was originally snatched and taken to Guantánamo.” And the point he made is, “If you kill those of us who grew up, you know, in the '60s and ’70s, who speak English and understand the outside world, if you kill all of us, you're not going to have anyone to negotiate with, because this younger generation, that you’ve produced as a result of your global war, are far more militant than we were, and they don’t care about diplomacy at all.” And I actually think he has a really valid point there.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Erik Prince for a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: You tweeted about this.


AMY GOODMAN: Erik Prince, the founder of the private military company known as Blackwater—or it was once, now Academi.

JEREMY SCAHILL: There’s a new name every week.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, Jeremy, you wrote the book about Blackwater, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Well, he recently told The Daily Beast the national security state he once served has grown too large. Prince said, quote, “America is way too quick to trade freedom for the illusion of security. … I don’t know if I want to live in a country where lone wolf and random terror attacks are impossible ’cause that country would look more like North Korea than America.” That was Erik Prince’s quote. I mean, he doesn’t live in this country, does he?

JEREMY SCAHILL: I mean, well, he lives in Abu Dhabi. He lives in the Emirates. He was here recently on a book tour. Not only—that was a piece by Eli Lake that you’re referring to there. Not only did Erik Prince make that statement, which I agree with, and I have no problem saying that I agree with Erik Prince, as I agree with libertarians who have been the primary voices speaking out about the drone program and the question of whether or not the president can, by edict, decide that an American citizen should be assassinated. The Democrats have been totally asleep on this. I mean, I do think there’s politicking here. I mean, Erik Prince is a very right-wing libertarian, in many ways, except he does embrace, you know, the full-spectrum war.

The other thing, though, that he told Eli Lake is that he believed that Anwar al-Awlaki—he was against the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who was assassinated in Yemen in September of 2011. But he also said that he believes—and remember, Erik Prince is a guy with very close connections to the CIA and JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, and is a former Navy SEAL himself and has done all sorts of dirty covert ops stuff for the U.S. government. He said he believes that the killing of 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Anwar al-Awlaki’s son, who was killed two weeks after his father, that he believes it was intentional.

And that’s interesting because, as I reported on this show, a former senior White House official, who was involved in the kill process at that time, told me that Brennan and Obama both believed that there’s no way that that could have been a coincidence that this kid gets killed two weeks later. And my understanding is that they ordered some kind of a review. When I’ve tried to get that review, there’s no comment on it from the White House. But the answer to that question has to come out at some point. It’s interesting that people like Erik Prince are raising it more than Democrats in the Congress. So, I’m in the unusual position of saying that I agree with Erik Prince on these issues, but I also think he should be held accountable for all of the crimes that his company committed in Iraq and elsewhere, killing of many, many civilians.

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“There is a War on Journalism”: Jeremy Scahill on NSA Leaks & New Investigative Reporting Venture

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