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Part 2: Ted Cruz Taps Anti-Muslim Neocon Adviser; Scahill on US Drones & “Crowd Killing” in Somalia

Web ExclusiveMarch 25, 2016
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We continue our conversation with The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill and national security reporter Matthew Cole, who examines Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s pick of right-wing neoconservative Frank Gaffney as a foreign policy adviser. Gaffney has a history of Islamic fear-mongering, and Cole says his “incendiary and false” views shaped Cruz’s call to monitor Muslim neighborhoods after the Brussels attacks.

Scahill responds to the Obama administration’s announcement that it will for the first time release tallies of the number of people it believes it has killed in drone strikes in countries that lie outside of conventional war zones. “Whatever the White House releases is going to have a stunningly low number of civilians that were killed,” he says, noting the U.S. considers anyone it kills in a drone strike an “enemy killed in action” unless later determined otherwise. “This shouldn’t really be taken seriously as an indicator of how many innocent or unknown people have been killed in these drone strikes.”

He also discusses claims that U.S. coalition forces killed Hajji Imam, a major ISIS commander, earlier this month. Defense officials say Imam was a senior religious leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria.

Watch the rest of this conversation.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue with Part 2 of our conversation with the co-founder of The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill, formerly with Democracy Now!, and Matthew Cole, who is the national security reporter for The Intercept, formerly with the NBC investigations unit. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in Yemen, as many as 50 people have been killed in a U.S. airstrike, making it the deadliest single attack by the United States in that country in the last five years. The Pentagon says the strike hit an al-Qaeda training camp in Yemen’s southeast on Tuesday. Local medics say the attack struck the camp as people were queued up for the dinner line. Tuesday’s attack was at least the sixth U.S. airstrike in Yemen this year.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, U.S. airstrikes in Somalia killed more than 150 people the Pentagon identified as militants at an al-Shabab training camp, one of the deadliest U.S. attacks to date in the so-called war on terror. The strikes, carried out by drones and manned aircraft, hit what officials said they believe was a graduation ceremony of al-Shabab. Officials said they were unaware of any civilian casualties but were unable to independently verify that. White House spokesperson Josh Earnest emphasized the targets posed an “imminent threat” to U.S. and African Union forces.

PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: The fighters, who were scheduled to depart the camp, pose an imminent threat to U.S. and African Union mission forces in Somalia. Their removal, the removal of those terrorist fighters, degrades al-Shabab’s ability to meet the group’s objectives in Somalia, including recruiting new members, establishing bases and planning attacks on U.S. and AMISOM forces.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Obama administration later announced it would be—it would, for the first time, release tallies of the number of people it believes have been killed in drone strikes in countries that lie outside of conventional war zones. This is Lisa Monaco, President Obama’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism.

LISA MONACO: I can announce today that in the coming weeks the administration will publicly release an assessment of combatant and noncombatant casualties resulting from strikes taken outside areas of active hostilities since 2009.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Lisa Monaco, Obama’s assistant for homeland security.

For more, we continue our conversation with Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of The Intercept His forthcoming book, he’s lead author on, The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program. And we’re joined by Matthew Cole, of The Intercept.

Jeremy, the significance of these two strikes that have come in the last month?

JEREMY SCAHILL: First of all, the—you know, what Lisa Monaco is talking about—and she came in to her position after John Brennan, and that was a position that was created for John Brennan when he failed to get through the confirmation process of becoming Obama’s director of CIA in the first time—now he is, of course, the director of the CIA. And that’s a very powerful position. You know, it was sort of called the drone czar, because of the expansion of drone strikes under Obama.

But one thing that we found when we published “The Drone Papers” was that the U.S. military and the U.S. government use a sort of mathematical equation to determine the number of civilians killed in drone strikes that almost always produces the number zero at the end by basically preemptively categorizing anyone that’s killed in a drone strike as EKIA, as an enemy killed in action—unless they’re posthumously proven to have been a civilian or they were easily identifiable from after-action assessments or visual imagery that they were a woman or an elderly person or a child. So, whatever the White House releases is going to have a stunningly low number of civilians that are killed and shouldn’t really be taken seriously as an indicator of how many innocent or unknown people have been killed in these drone strikes.

These attacks in Somalia that the U.S. engaged in was one of the biggest incidents of what is known sort of within the kill industry as crowd killing. And, you know, the idea that all 150 of these people, that they had a dossier on them, intelligence that showed that they presented an imminent threat to the United States or actually were involved with terrorist activity, is—it would be stunning. And so, you know, I don’t doubt that the U.S. is actually targeting al-Shabab’s leadership, but, you know, when you kill 150 people in Somalia, which is a tribe-oriented society, the—

AMY GOODMAN: A country we’re not at war with.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, not officially at war with, although, you know, the U.S. has been engaged in covert operations in Somalia since the early 1990s.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Jeremy, it seems to me that what’s happened in—at least with these last two attacks, is that it’s—there seems to be even an escalation—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —because before, it was a targeted killing of an individual—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that maybe other people around that individual were killed, as well. But now you’re looking at attacks on groups of people, which obviously they don’t have the names of, and they couldn’t have determined individually that they should be killed. So this is sort of an escalation of these kind of airstrikes.

JEREMY SCAHILL: You know, and this is—this is just speculation on my part, but I think it’s fairly well-informed speculation. I think part of what we’re seeing is that, you know, Obama, the individual, knows that a big part of his legacy is—on a foreign policy level, is going to center around drones. And when Obama is criticized from the right, he will point to the fact that Osama bin Laden is dead. He’ll point to the decimation of a variety of terrorist leaders in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Somalia. And it seems like they’re trying once again to run the table, as they said they wanted to do after bin Laden was killed, where they started escalating their strikes in Yemen again. And I think that they want to be able to say that they’ve destroyed al-Shabab and have that sort of, you know, stick. But also you have people within the Joint Special Operations Command and the broader special operations community that have—that really are advocating for these strikes and want to be taking the fight to the enemy, as they put it.

Yemen is a little bit of a different beast. The Saudi government is very deft at manipulating the United States. And the U.S. has largely outsourced its counterterrorism policy in Yemen to the Saudis for many, many years. The Saudis now are in their own proxy war against Iran. And, I mean, Saudi Arabia has basically destroyed one of the oldest civilizations on the planet. I mean, in Sana’a—and I spent a good bit of time in Yemen—I mean, there’s so many World Heritage Sites that the Saudis have just blown up. And, you know, the city of Sana’a is this gorgeous, amazing, beautiful, historic place, and the Saudis have just mercilessly destroyed the entire infrastructure of Yemen—all in the name of fighting against Iranian-backed terrorism.

The Houthis, you know, who are a Shiite minority in Yemen, never really got solid support from the Iranian regime. In fact, if you go back and you look at the WikiLeaks cables from the Bush era, Fran Townsend, who now is on CNN all the time as a commentator and was a senior Homeland Security official under the Bush administration but was one of the key negotiators with the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen—the WikiLeaks cables show that Fran Townsend understood the reality, which was that the Iranians had very little influence over the Houthis. And she recommended to the administration—and Bush agreed with her—that the U.S. was not going to buy the idea that the Houthis were an Iranian front and—because the dictator of Yemen was trying to convince the U.S. to allow him to use counterterrorism funding and assets, that were meant to fight al-Qaeda, to fight against the Houthis.

What has now happened is it’s sort of the—and this happens a lot in the post-9/11 world, is that a self-fulfilling prophecy has sort of unfolded, where now the Iranians are actually stepping into Yemen, the way that they stepped into Iraq when Saddam was overthrown. And so you do actually have a pretty hot conflict going on between the Saudis and the Iranians.

And so, you know, the U.S. says that it is striking at al-Qaeda in Yemen. I’m not so sure that that’s who they’re hitting there. You know, I would imagine that the intel that they’re getting is not necessarily based on signals intelligence and more based on target lists being developed by Saudi agents. So—and there have been numerous cases where the U.S. has been used by Yemeni or Saudi political figures or intel agents to wipe out their political opponents. And so, you know, I don’t think we know who they’re actually killing. And I would imagine that there are a lot of people within the U.S. intelligence community that don’t even know who it is they’re actually killing.

AMY GOODMAN: The most recent strike in Yemen happened right after the Brussels attacks.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think—I mean, if you look at what happened with the Charlie Hebdo and the Paris attacks and then the second round of the Paris attacks, I think that world governments, in Europe and the United States, felt that they needed to show strength. And so you saw the same thing happen in the aftermath of those attacks, where they go in, and it’s not necessarily that you’re killing the particular snake that bit anyone—any snake will do at that moment. And I think that that’s part of what we’re seeing.

Now, look, Obama is getting attacked for dancing the tango, you know, in Argentina. And, you know, Morning Joe did this whole thing about how shameful it is that Obama was dancing in Argentina after the Brussels thing. And then, you know, you can look at George Bush reading the My Pet Goat after he already knew that the World Trade Center had been hit. But a lot of this, I think, is image control. There’s a huge list of people that could be—that could be targeted at any given moment. I mean, the kill lists are very long. And I think that sometimes they choose to do it at what they feel is an opportune moment.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Matt, I’d like to ask you about—we were discussing in the earlier segment one of the foreign policy advisers of Donald Trump, but you were mentioning that there’s a pretty interesting foreign policy adviser for Ted Cruz who hasn’t gotten much attention.

MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, it came to my attention that Cruz has an adviser named Frank Gaffney, who is a far-right-wing neocon, but even more so is a, you know, neo-crusader, to steal Jeremy’s line. Gaffney is the person responsible, when he was running a think tank, his own think tank, for pushing the story line and the claims and allegations that Michele Bachmann, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who rode the tea party wave into Congress and then rode it out, pushed, which was that there was a Muslim Brotherhood penetration of the U.S. government under the Obama administration and that Huma Abedin, who is Secretary Clinton’s closest aide—and say what you will—

AMY GOODMAN: And the wife of Anthony Weiner.

MATTHEW COLE: And the wife of Anthony Weiner. And say what you will about—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Almost like her adopted daughter.

MATTHEW COLE: Yeah. And say what you will about her or what you think, she certainly is not, you know, a Muslim Brotherhood plant. And it was a—the type of Islamic fearmongering that is pervasive on the right and sort of startling for—to be an adviser for a major political candidate for president, is—I think Gaffney deserves a lot of attention. And I think, recently, when the—in the reaction to the Brussels attack this week, Senator Cruz made a statement that the Muslim neighborhoods in the United States needed essentially to be surveilled and patrolled to prevent such things. And I think what you will find is that his views on those things tack very closely and drift towards Frank Gaffney territory. And Gaffney, I think, deserves—and Cruz, subsequently, deserve a lot of scrutiny for his previous proposals, ideas, claims, which mostly are incendiary and false.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, you know, the other thing—I mean, to go on, Matthew mentioned previously this figure, General Jerry Boykin. And if you recall, you know, he sort of came to public prominence—I mean, he was a well-known guy in the covert ops world and, you know, Black Hawk Down, all of that. You know, he had a long history. But because William Arkin obtained a recording of a speech that Boykin had given, where he was saying that—you know, that he knew that they were going to win in Somalia, because our god was stronger than their god—and it was a real, you know, crusader-type speech. And Boykin is sort of the most well-known example of religious fanaticism within certain elements of the U.S. military. But there—it’s pretty widespread in certain circles. There are a lot of people within the special operations community and elsewhere that subscribe to that general worldview that we’re seeing articulated by the selection of foreign policy advisers for both Cruz and Trump.

And so, you know, the—in a lot of ways, something that has been—you know, Matthew and I have both worked on these stories for a long time involving religiosity within that community. But something that’s sort of been quietly known is now being overtly and very publicly expressed by Cruz and Trump. And people like Gaffney and Joseph Schmitz—I mean, if either Trump or Cruz win and those guys are in Cabinet positions, they are basically going to declare war against Islam in an overt manner. And, you know, I think that we can laugh at the ridiculousness of Joseph Schmitz and Frank Gaffney, but if Cruz or Trump actually win and these guys are in positions of power, not just blabbing on Fox News, I think there’s going to be serious consequences. And they will have support in some elements of—very powerful elements of the U.S. military and intelligence community, which is very disturbing.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about breaking news, this just out: U.S. coalition forces took out another major ISIS commander this month, Hajji Imam, a senior religious leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, in an operation inside Syria. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, flanked by chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, will announce the operation today, says The Daily Beast. Hajji Imam’s real name is said to be Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, considered in line to be a second-in-command for ISIS, though some ISIS watchers say his Turkoman background ruled that out. Again, this a report from The Daily Beast.

JEREMY SCAHILL: I mean, I don’t know. I mean, when they say killed the number two or they killed the senior commander, I mean—

AMY GOODMAN: And also they say Carter will also confirm the reported killing of ISIS’s minister of war in a strike this month. Tarkhan Batirashvili , called Omar al-Shishani or Omar the Chechen, was reported to be badly wounded by an airstrike, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

JEREMY SCAHILL: I mean, look, I mean, there’s no question that U.S. special operations or the CIA have killed a tremendous number of people that have committed acts of terrorism or are plotting to commit acts of terrorism. But I always take all of these things with a very serious grain of salt. I mean, I wouldn’t doubt that these people are fanatical loony bins and that they want to commit acts of terrorism. And I’m not—you know, this is in no way trying to dismiss the fact that ISIS is filled with a bunch of murderous gangster thugs. But I also think that the core issue of—what’s the military power of ISIS? It’s not Jihad John and the people making the propaganda videos. You know, this is really a territorial battle that was being waged for a long time in parts of Iraq and Syria, where you have elements from the Baathist military of Saddam Hussein that are not fighting for the caliphate. They’re fighting to reclaim their territory. They’re fighting because the U.S. gave tremendous military and intelligence support to Shiite factions within Iraq.

So, when they say, “Oh, well, we’ve killed so-and-so the Chechen,” or “We’ve killed the number two in ISIS,” I don’t doubt that those people are, you know, bad people. But if you want to—if you want to really look at how this happened and figure out how to address it, it’s going to require looking at the role of U.S. foreign policy and going all the way back to the 1980s with the remnant of Saddam’s military figures. The point I’m making is that the U.S. can kill all of these guys, and others will pop back up. The only way that there’s ever going to be any sort of a resolution to this or “defeat” what is now known as ISIS is if these tribal factions decide that the ideological loonies from ISIS need to leave. And we’re only making ISIS more—this faction more powerful by targeting them in this manner.

MATTHEW COLE: I’ve always—I just want to say—

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Cole?

MATTHEW COLE: I’ve always found it troubling that the U.S. government consistently acknowledges that in counterterrorism, the war on terror, the struggle against ISIS or al-Qaeda, that they can’t kill their way to victory. You hear that constantly: “And we know that we can’t kill our way to victory, and that we can kill”—you know, they call it mowing the grass, right? They can mow it down, but it continues to grow. And yet, every time they mow the grass, they are very, very proud of themselves, and they push it out. And so, I think it’s important to remember that when they make these announcements, without getting into the bearing of whether this person was a bad guy or whether he was a true leader of ISIS—and I have no reason to doubt that he was—but it’s important to remember that, as Jeremy says, that the larger issue, the government is having—this U.S. government is having a really difficult time articulating how they’ve come up with any kind of solution to the larger problem and phenomenon. And then, I think they’ve failed thus far.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, this is not a new problem. Back in the days of the Vietnam War, General Westmoreland was famous for announcing the kill counts of Viet Cong. And it was always largely civilians that were being killed, but, as you said earlier, they were all Viet Cong. And no matter how high the body count got, the strength of the Vietnamese resistance kept growing.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, the framing of all of this—I mean, it was utterly brilliant, this concept that Rumsfeld and Cheney and others came up with, this idea that what we’re doing is fighting a war on terrorism, because there is—there can be no victory, and there really is no sort of empire-ending defeat. And so, you know, the groups like ISIS, when they put out their propaganda—and then you have Donald Trump constantly saying, you know, they’re chopping off—you know, these are people that are chopping off people’s heads. And, you know—and, of course, they are. They’ve decapitated journalists and aid workers, and they’re horrifying, monstrous individuals. However, at the core of this is not really a clash of civilizations. At the core of this is not really a battle between the West and Islam. What’s really happening in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere is not about a caliphate. This is the same exact war that these tribes have been fighting for a very long time. And the branding of it as a war on terrorism is a very convenient way to just continuously justify it.

So, I mean, and I have to think that there are very smart people within the Obama administration that actually understand that history, that are probably a bit horrified at the way that this has unfolded and how strongly Obama bought in to the idea that, you know, mowing the lawn is actually the least bad thing to do, when in reality it’s going to come back to bite us and there’s going to be blowback from this.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, Jeremy Scahill and Matthew Cole, both of The Intercept. And we’ll link to your articles at democracynow.org. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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