‘Dirty Wars’ Star Jeremy Scahill On War Reporting, The Obama Administration’s War On Leakers, And Objectivity

(Courtesy Entertainment Weekly)

Jeremy Scahill, a reporter for The Nation, has done extensive reporting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on the companies like the former Blackwater, who have profited off those conflicts. And Dirty Wars, the Rick Rowley-directed documentary that premiered at Sundance and opens in wide release today, is an extension of Scahill’s reporting on the Joint Special Operations Command’s night raids program and on drone strikes in Yemen. But it’s also a story about what it takes to do war reporting in our current conflicts, whether that means venturing beyond the areas most protected by U.S. troops or combing through the public record for information hidden in plain sight. I talked to Scahill about his experience stepping in front of the camera, how he protects his sources, and what kinds of reporting he thinks count most in a war characterized by extreme secrecy. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The movie is bifurcated between two different stories: the story of the raids program, and the story of your reporting to uncover it. How did you figure out the balance between those two stories?

I actually didn’t want to be in the movie at all as myself. The original idea, Rick Rowley, the director and I, have worked together for more than ten years. I spent several years going in and out of Iraq with his wife. For years we had talked about doing something together. I was sort of just finishing up the multi-year Blackwater project and was looking to do something else, and had started to explore the idea of doing some more in-depth reporting in the war of Afghanistan. Rick had spent a lot of time embedded in Afghanistan. So we decided to take a trip together to Afghanistan to see if we wanted to a series on night raids or a movie. Rick and I rolled very cheap, we stayed in the same hotel room. We ended up doing that for the entire project because we became like siblings… We started investigating these night raids. And when we realize that the force that was doing the raids was actually [the Joint Special Operations Command] and started to discover who they were, and discovered the head of JSOC William McRaven, this epically powerful figure, had almost no public record on him, we realized we were going to do a film with a much bigger scope.

The first year or so that we were shooting, 2010-211, I was sort of this tour guide through this archipelago of war sites…And we had done a multi-hour rough cut, I don’t remember if it was two and a half hours or three and a half hours. Rick remembers it as four hours. We had this cut of the film, say, January 2012. Are we going to break it into a two-part movie, are we going to cut it into a series? So we asked our friend David Riker to basically come and consult on the film for two weeks, and we ended up working with him for an entire year. David started interviewing me. And he started to suggest that “Instead of giving facts and figures as you’re driving into this village, why don’t you share with me what you’re going through your head?” I really fiercely resisted that. But I realized that David was right, that if you let people into your head, or don’t pretend to being an all-knowing voice of God, you establish a rapport with journalist. That was hard for me to agree to do that. What we ended up going back then and looking at all this footage of me being a journalist. It was hard for me. I don’t write articles in the first person. That’s not my normal way of being. I like telling other people’s stories.

Dirty Wars begins and ends with you feeling like you’re in situations where you can’t do much reporting of substance, first in the most heavily-controlled areas of Afghanistan, and then in Somalia. Do you think it’s worth going to war zones at all, under those circumstances? How should reporters decide which risks to take?

Those are great questions. Look, the embedding program, which of course has gone on for decades, but which really intensified in the first Gulf War and became blanket policy with the U.S. invasion of Iraq has created a culture where we think we’re seeing the war. There’s censorship that happens officially. But then there’s also a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. If you’re traveling with a group of soldiers in Afghanistan for a number of weeks or even a couple of months, and they’ve saved your life, are you going to turn around and do a critical expose of the people who saved your life? Much of what we know about the wars has come through this kind of controlled or stage-managed program. The range of stories you can do is determined by the military. It’s important to try to escape the Green Zone mentality. Sometime it’s literally getting out of the Green Zone, sometimes it’s mentally getting out. We are being told there are these evil people who want to kill us and we have to hunt them down…Who’s the enemy? What is there perspective on this? And what are the impact of our policies on this?…The motivation for going to Somalia, Somalia turned out to be very frustrating and depressing. Sometimes you do meet bad guys. They are nefarious characters who want to do harm to America. And sometimes it’s, “Shit, they told us this was an Al Qaeda camp and it looks like we blew up a bunch of innocent people.” Time and again by being unembedded, I saw the impact of our policies. In Yemen and in Pakistan, we are making more enemies.

So do you think journalists should refuse to participate in embedding programs?

No. The short answer is no. Because I think it’s a key part of this story. You look at how many Americans, more than one million Americans have been in thse war zones. For military families, it’s important to know what the experience of U.S. forces are in these war zones. It’s a key part of the story. We have to cover the war zones. There has to be, this goes for everything in general, whether it’s the seizure of the AP’s records, or the imprisonment of a journalist in Yemen, who’s been imprisoned because Presidnt Obama wants him there. I think journalists have to stand in more solidarity with each other. And I think we should realize that our default position should be to not trust public officials, to verify what they’re saying by independent pursuit of the facts…I think it undermines the democratic press. If we allow the Pentagon to put restrictions on reporters in war zones, it undermines a democratic press. Absolutely we need reporters traveling with the military. The problem is that it’s almost all that we have had in the years of this war.

You also talk about doing a lot of reporting that’s essentially finding things hidden in plain sight, like basic information about JSOC or the readout from the call on the White House website. Is there more work journalists at home can be doing?

It’s interesting. I think there’s a sort of weird, inverse relationship between the facts and on-the-ground micro-exepriences. My experience covering the war in Yugoslavia, covering the war in Iraq, is often colleagues back home would know more about the bigger scope in the country I happened to be in. As a reporter, part of your job is to tell smaller stories about events or groups of people. I have gotten so involved in some of the small events that I haven’t stepped back to look at the bigger picture. When you’re reporting on a couple of night raids, you don’t always step back and look at the bigger picture. I tended to look at the special operations forces as monolith.

If you look at I.F. Stone’s career, his bred and butter was searching the public record, pulling out facts and details…One of the best journalists in the U.S. right now is Marcy Wheeler. And Marcy Wheeler is basically embedded in her living room. Marcy Wheeler is an I.F. Stone-type figure who will pull out details, statistics, facts, that corporate U.S. media outlets have missed. She is so on top of everything that she knows what she’s looking for…We need the Marcy Wheelers of the world, but we also need the un-embedded journalists who are going to these countries and tell these stories of the human aspects of the war. One of the things we did when we went to Yemen was film the missile parts left over from when President Obama ordered the first bombing of Yemen. There are unexploded cluster bombs that were used in the attack on this village. 46 people were killed in that attack. …By going on the ground and interviewing survivors and filming missile parts, we were able to make real things that had largerly been reported by going through documents.

The movie also doesn’t follow up on the threatening phone calls you received, or the copying of your hard drive. What was the upshot of those events? What risks do you think reporters need to be prepared to accept?

I think we’re living in a climate right now where the government is cracking down on national security reporting, particularly when reporters are talking to sensitive sources who have not been cleared to speak to the press. This White House is a big fan of official leaks. It’s sort of like a sieve when it wants to be. There are a lot of stenographers who are just happy to print whatever’s given to them…I think we’ve seen with the seizure of the AP phone records that journalists are very much in the crosshairs. All of us who are doing serious national security reporting right now assume at some point that our private communications are going to be accessed at some point…People who used to agree to use encrypted emails to communicate or do off the record chats are less willing to do that and are insisting on meeting in person and not talking for a while. It has really sent a chill through the national security reporting community. I’ve gotten emails from former CIA people who say don’t think for a moment that your emails are your own…I’ve long assumed that’s a possibility, but I won’t be paralyzed by that. Then you live your life in a more careful way. And you take care to protect your sources in a way I didn’t three years ago. Journalists have to wage preemptive acts of security. I learned a big lesson when my computer got hacked. I don’t know who hacked it, I’m not saying the government did it. It could have been a company, they’re certainly engaged in espionage for hire. A note was left in a text file on my desktop that had a name of a source I’d never put into text. It was someone who works within the special operationss community who had been giving me information. That person’s identity had been compromised by someone. I had to call that source and say someone knows your’re talking.

I have multiple times gotten emails from people who I have then had to communicate with to say don’t send me emails like that anymore. I get communications all the time from people offering to talk to me about various aspects of the national security program. I cringe because I don’t want to be responsible for someone getting caught up in this mess. Some of it is stepping away from people for a while. A lot of it is finding ways to meet in person or communicate in non-searchable ways. A lot of us are looking at all the cutting-edge encryption and data protection, but none of it is fool-proof. I was joking with the New York Ttimes the other day, saying you almost have to be a Luddite now to do national security reporting in a safe way. Before you could have done it through chat or email. There’s such a double standard about secrecy in our society. The drone program was supposedly classified and then we have the president joking about it in the White House Correspondents Association dinner or in a Google Plus hangout. There is a selective prosecution of people. Thomas Drake has his life and his career ruined for having the audacity to speak up about abuses in the inteligence community. ohn Kiriakou is sitting in a prison cell and he had the audacity to reveal the U.S. torture program…Bradley Manning is facing a couple of decades in prison, he could get the death penalty, for admitting to providing the collateral murder video to wikiLeaks..I’m party to a lawsuit trying to open up the proceedings and to dismantle the unnecessary secrecy surrounding parts of those procedures. I think there’s a lot of stake right now in the prosecution of whistleblowers, the Bradley Manning case. If we don’t step back and look at the bigger picture of the precedents being set now, I think we’re going to realize we were really asleep at the wheel.

You mention that “life at home was dull after being in a war zone,” and say that you didn’t know “how much the journey would change me,” but the movie doesn’t really follow up on those threads. Did coming back from Afghanistan, even given some of the risks you describe in the movie, make you want to go back out again? How did reporting this particular story change you?

I mean, the problems that really hit me. When I got back from Somalia, it’s this place where you’re being shot at. A cameraperson had been killed a couple weeks after we left Mogadishu…And I’m back in my Park Slope land of lattes and baby strollers. I felt shell-shocked, to be honest. It’s kind of a haunting reality when you’ve come to a point in your life when you feel more alive in a place like Yemen than when you’re in your own familiar home. It’s not just that it’s dull. That’s something that I had said in the course of conversation with David Riker. it’s actually deeper than that. It’s more that you feel that you can’t relate to your own surroundings anymore. I think we as journalists don’t process that in a healthy way. It catches up with you. It takes a toll on you. It takes a toll on the people around you. In terms of how it changed me, I wasn’t so much referring to that as a realization of how many of the stories I carry around with me every day, and how much I think of the people I met on that journey…[Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a drone strike] I don’t know exactly why, but his killing just gutted me as a person. I remember before we back to Yemen to film the interview with his grandfather, I remember saying to Rick and Dave, I always apologize to people when I am in the home of a family whose members have been killed in a raid or a bombing. I tried to unpack what I’m doing, because I”m not a representative of the U.S. government, who am I to apologize? But I might be the only American these people ever talk to…I feel a moral, human obligation, if I’m going to be the American who meets with them, I want to say we’re sorry for this, we’re sorry for what we did to you. Some journalists might criticize me this for this, saying it’s unethical or unprofessional. But screw this. What rule is there that says journalists can’t be human beings?…I don’t pretend to be oobective, because there’s no such thing as objective. You can be transparent…You can have your facts in order, absolutely. But by opening up, I think you pull people in or push them away.