Inside 'Dirty Wars': An Interview With Investigative War Reporter Jeremy Scahill

Last week, PolicyMic’s Anna Therese Day caught up with award-winning investigative war reporter, Jeremy Scahill, to discuss his new film, Dirty Wars. From Afghanistan to Somalia, the film follows Scahill through the shadows of America’s counterterrorism strategy and puts him face to face with the repercussions of American foreign policy on the ground. In addition to Scahill, the production team of Dirty Wars includes an all-star team of journalists, filmmakers, and activists, from Richard Rowley of Big Noise Films to Anthony Arnove of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal. In this three-part PolicyMic series, we speak with Jeremy Scahill about Dirty Wars, the American counterterrorism program, as well as his advice for young people interested in these fields. Stay tuned the rest of the week for Parts 2 and 3! 


Anna Therese Day (ATD): Dirty Wars tells the story of the world as America’s battlefield. Yet, throughout history — particularly in the Cold War era — proxy wars, extrajudicial killings, and covert CIA operations have always characterized American foreign policy abroad. What’s new here? Where’s the departure that seems to inform and drive the urgency conveyed in Dirty Wars?

Jeremy Scahill (JS): I think most Americans view some of the history that you’re referencing as somewhat scandalous. There was a period that our government had asserted its oversight role of the U.S. war machine and what was perceived to be a CIA that had gotten out of control. During the Church Committee hearings [of 1975], for example, there was an investigation into the role the CIA was playing in destabilizing countries around the world, assassinating political leaders and political figures, overthrowing governments, giving support to juntas and death squads.

What we’ve seen after 9/11, however, is that not only are these tactics not viewed by those in power as scandalous activities, but they’ve sort of become the model for how the U.S. wages war around the world.

There’s very little that’s new in war other than technology. Why I think there’s an urgency to this question right now of what direction we’re going with our foreign policy and our counterterrorism policy is that we’ve got a president in office who won the Nobel Peace Prize, is a constitutional lawyer by trade, and is a very popular Democrat that I think a lot of liberals in the United States and in fact a lot of people around the world viewed as this transformational figure that was going to represent a real departure from the Bush-Cheney way of running things. Under his administration, there’s been this surreal attempt to normalize assassination and proxy war as not only official U.S. policy, which, as you rightly point out, has been U.S. foreign policy for a long time, but that it’s legal, that it’s actually the smarter way of waging war, that it’s moral. So for me, we didn’t call the project Dirty Wars to be masters of the obvious; we chose that title to push back against this idea that drone wars or using special operations forces is somehow a cleaner, somehow a clean war. The stakes are very high, and I think that, because you have a guy like President Obama in office, the risk of it becoming permanent is very real. 

ATD: Dirty Wars focuses quite a bit on the rise of the Joint Special Operation Command or JSOC. Can you explain the difference between the CIA and JSOC, particularly each operation’s chain-of-command, to whom each is accountable?

JS: JSOC was formed in 1980 out of the ashes of the failed hostage rescue mission in Iran. The Joint Special Operations Command, which is like an all-star team of U.S. military special operations units (the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, Delta Force, and the 75th Army Rangers [Regiment], and the most elite helicopter forces in the world called the Night Stalkers), operated largely in the shadows or in the periphery of U.S. national security policy. Its primary mandate was counter-proliferation, tracking WMDs around the world, doing high-value hostage rescue missions, and counter terrorism. It’s also the only unit in the military that I’m aware of that has been exempted from the Posse Comitatus law (which prohibits the military from engaging in law enforcement activities on US soil). 

So for example, when the Blackhawk down incident happened in the early 1990s and President Clinton withdrew U.S. forces from Somalia, JSOC was basically chained to a pole in the backyard of American foreign policy. After 9/11, Cheney and Rumsfeld in particular let them off the leash and basically empowered them to an incredible degree and created an infrastructure for JSOC where they did not have to coordinate their operations with what are called combatant commanders around the world.

The U.S. has divided the world into different combatant commands: much of the Middle East is covered by U.S. Central Command or CENTCOM, the Southern part of the Western Hemisphere is SOUTHCOM, now we have AFRICOM - the U.S. African Command, which is largely based out of Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. Normally if a U.S. military force is going to operate in CENTCOM’s area of operation, the CENTCOM commander would have to be informed. Throughout JSOC’s post-9/11 history, it has repeatedly conducted operations in these combatant commands without informing the combatant commander and in countries without informing the US ambassador — which, by law, the U.S. ambassador is supposed to be aware of any U.S. forces going into their country. JSOC would carry out actions at the direction of the Secretary of Defense or sometimes it was Vice President Cheney who would actually directly coordinate with JSOC.  

The CIA is a little bit of a different beast because the CIA is engaged in covert operations. JSOC is also engaged in covert operations, but generally speaking, the military operates clandestine operations, meaning that the integrity of the operation is kept secret until it happens but that ultimately the U.S. will take responsibility — that’s the clandestine action. A covert action means that the mission itself can be deniable, and so the CIA special activities division conducts lethal operations on the orders from the director of the CIA. At times, the President is not briefed on what they’re doing for the sake of plausible deniability, and if the mission goes wrong, the U.S. can deny that it had any role in it. 

What has happened though, is that there’s been a blurring of those lines, and JSOC has been conducting covert operations. This means that you have a U.S. military force that is conducting military operations that can be denied if they go wrong ... Or if they go right and they just don’t want to hold responsibility for it. If you look at the way the Osama bin Laden raid was run, for example, it was technically a CIA operation, but it was JSOC doing the raid. It was Admiral William McRaven who, at the time, was the JSOC commander running operations, and they did it under the auspices of the CIA as a covert operations so that they could walk away from it without ever acknowledging it if it had gone wrong.

*SPOILER ALERT!*

ATD: Dirty Wars ends with a question that we’d like to turn to you. In your opinion, “how does a war like this ever end and what happens to us when we see what’s hidden in plain sight?”

JS: That’s the last thing I say in the film, so thank you for spoiling the plot. [laughs] We decided to end the film on a series of questions although I think maybe 10 years ago I might have been so arrogant as to actually answer that question. 

I don’t have the answers, and that’s why we wanted to end the film on those questions. I think it’s been far too long that we’ve gone without having a real debate about what an actual national security policy would look like. I know that what we’re currently doing is something we’re going to pay for later, there’s going to be blowback, and I fear that we’re making more new enemies than we are killing terrorists. 

So for me, it’s not just about do we shift the drone program from the CIA to the military? or do we have a drone court? or do we try to have a more accountable way of watching predator missiles? The real discussion is: are these policies making us more safe or less safe? And if they’re making us less safe, then what do we do about it? I feel like that’s the conversation we need to have right now. 

For more of our PolicyMic conversation with Jeremy Scahill, check back for Parts 2 and 3 later this week! Dirty Wars premiered last Friday and is on tour throughout the United States!