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“Dirty Wars” Filmmaker Jeremy Scahill on the “Drone President” & Obama’s Whitewashing of NSA Spying

StoryJanuary 29, 2014
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In his State of the Union address, President Obama called on the United States to “move off a permanent war footing,” citing his recent limits on the use of drones, his withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and his effort to close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay. Obama also vowed to reform National Security Agency surveillance programs to ensure that “the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated.” Jeremy Scahill, whose Oscar-nominated film “Dirty Wars” tackles the U.S. drone war and targeted killings abroad, says Obama has been a “drone president” whose operations have killed large numbers of civilians. On NSA reform, Scahill says “the parameters of the debate in Washington are: Should we figure out a way to streamline this and sell it to the American people, or should we do more surveillance?”

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Let’s go back to President Obama’s State of the Union. Here he talks about his counterterrorism strategy.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So, even as we aggressively pursue terrorist networks, through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners, America must move off a permanent war footing. That’s why I’ve imposed prudent limits on the use of drones, for we will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence. That’s why, working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs, because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that privacy of ordinary people is not being violated. And with the Afghan War ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military actions, but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals and setting an example for the rest of the world.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jeremy Scahill, your response?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, on this issue of Obama and Guantánamo, you know, he gets hit a lot from the left in the United States for the failure to close Guantánamo. And part of it is, I think, a little bit disingenuous. On the one hand, I think Obama has not fought hard enough to close Guantánamo. He hasn’t used his political capital in any prioritized way to make that happen, and there are ways that he could have done it. But the Republicans and some Democrats have long been blocking the funding. But the fact is that we had several dozen prisoners who had been cleared for release from Guantánamo on a hunger strike, and the president basically stood idly by while these individuals were being very brutally force-fed. I mean, you can go online and see the hip-hop artist Mos Def doing—being force-fed. He couldn’t take more than a few seconds of the tube going through his nose. And I think if you—you know, I encourage people to watch that to get a sense of what it means when we’re talking about the force-feeding of prisoners at Guantánamo. So, you know, on the one hand, Obama has failed to close it; on the other hand, the Republicans have really obstructed it. And I think, at the end of the day, it’s a combination of those two factors that lead to that.

On this issue of the drones and the permanent war footing, I mean, Obama has been the drone president. And his line with liberals is sort of “Trust me. I know what I’m doing. I’m monitoring this. I’m doing everything I can to make sure that civilians aren’t killed.” But time and time again, we see incidents where large numbers of civilians are being killed, and there seems to be no public accounting for how this happened. They say that they investigate when civilians are killed, and yet we are now two years, almost, removed from the killing of this 16-year-old kid, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who appears to have been killed because of who his father was, was killed in a drone strike while having dinner with his teenage cousin and some other young people from their tribe while they were sitting down for dinner, killed in a drone strike.

AMY GOODMAN: Two weeks after—

JEREMY SCAHILL: Two weeks after his father had been killed. His father is a separate issue. And I think it was extraordinary that Obama sentenced an American citizen to death without even charging him with a crime related to terrorism, and served as the prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner, but that’s a separate issue from this kid. What was his crime that he committed, other than sitting there having dinner with his cousin and other teenagers? The White House told me that when—that they review all cases when civilians are killed. Where is that review? I’ve asked for it, and the White House said they won’t confirm or deny that there has been a review of that case. So, there are a lot of unanswered questions here.

And on the NSA issue, I mean, the panel that was empowered to investigate this was a setup from the beginning. It was largely made up of intelligence industry people, part of the, you know, intelligence- or spying-industrial complex. And the end results of it are going to be largely a whitewashing of these operations. And, you know, the Republicans want Obama to go further than the NSA is already going. So the parameters of the debate in Washington are: Should we figure out a way to streamline this and sell it to the American people, or should we do more surveillance, which is what a lot of the Republicans want?

AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of the NSA, on this issue that’s being debated even within the White House, the attorney general, Eric Holder, this question of whether Edward Snowden should be pardoned, talk more about what’s happening inside, and then what he’s demanding.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, first of all, Representative Mike Rogers, who is the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, made a public allegation that Edward Snowden is an agent for the Russian government and that the Russian intelligence services, the FSB, may have been involved with Snowden prior to Snowden taking the documents and giving them to Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. My understanding—and, of course, I work with Glenn and Laura—is that Edward Snowden did not take a single document with him to Moscow and that he is not cooperating at all with any aspects of the Russian intelligence apparatus. So, these are scurrilous, unfounded, unproven allegations being made by the head of the most important committee in the U.S. Congress when it comes to these matters.

Edward Snowden’s lawyer, one of his lawyers, legal advisers, Jesselyn Radack, was on Meet the Press, you know, with David Gregory, and David Gregory was basically saying, you know, “How is Snowden suffering?” I mean, this is a guy that gave up, probably forever, life in the free world. I wouldn’t want to be stuck in Moscow if I were him. But here’s my question for David Gregory. “Mr. Glenn Greenwald, don’t you think you should be prosecuted for this?” I mean, that’s what Gregory said when Glenn Greenwald was on Meet the Press . NBC News—you should go to their website—just did a major exposé with Glenn Greenwald on the British intelligence services tapping into pipelines and monitoring social media sites and YouTube and other things. David Gregory should have on the NBC journalists. Richard Esposito, the head of the investigations division, should have to sit in front of David Gregory on Meet the Press and be asked, “Richard Esposito, don’t you think you should be going to prison for having done this story?” I mean, let’s be fair here with the Meet the Press release. They should actually have to ask tough questions of their own people.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, before we win—on Dirty Wars, your film—it’s astounding, it’s been nominated for an Oscar—what would an Oscar win mean?

JEREMY SCAHILL: You know, when it was announced, I mean, I was the only person from our team with the stomach to watch the actual ceremony on CNN. I had to rewind it, because I was shocked. But the first thing I thought of is what this could possibly mean to this family in Afghanistan, where two pregnant women were killed in a botched U.S. night raid, and then they watched, the survivors watched, as the bullets were dug out of their pregnant bodies by U.S. soldiers, or the families of the drone strike victims that you see in our film, or the people who were in Yemen in this village of al-Majalah—

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

JEREMY SCAHILL: —where 14 women and 21 children were killed. A win would mean that their stories would be told, and it would send a message that we actually do care in this society about what happens on the other side of our missiles and bombs.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. Jeremy Scahill is starting a new news organization. It will be launching in the next weeks. And his film, Dirty Wars, has been nominated for an Oscar. Bob Herbert has been with us, distinguished senior fellow with Demos, former New York Times columnist. And I want to thank Lorella Praeli with the United We Dream coalition.

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