Ethics Matter: Jeremy Scahill on the World as a Battlefield

June 10, 2013

Introduction

MARLENE SPOERRI: Hi and welcome to Ethics Matter. I'm Marlene Spoerri, program officer for Ethics Matter here at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

Since 9/11, the conduct of war has changed in controversial and deeply unsettling ways. The war on terror has been used to legitimize drone strikes, covert warfare, targeted killings of U.S. citizens, and even domestic surveillance here at home. Few have done more to expose the ethical repercussions of the war on terror than today's guest.

Jeremy Scahill is the national security correspondent for The Nation magazine. His 2008 best-seller, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, exposed the sort of consequences that have followed the outsourcing of the U.S. War on Terror.

He has since set his sights on the covert shadow wars being waged with the consent of the White House in places like Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan. His latest book is The New York Times best-seller, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. It has since been accompanied by a spellbinding documentary of the same name.

Mr. Scahill, I'm so happy you could join us here at the Carnegie Council.

Remarks

MARLENE SPOERRI: Congratulations on a fantastic film and book. I had the pleasure of watching the movie just a few days ago, and it was clear that it was a real emotional process of working your way through this movie. I found myself in tears more than once.

I was wondering if you found that the making of the film affected you in ways that writing the book did not.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yes, absolutely. I realized when we were finishing up the film that I sort of was gutted as a person in the process of doing it. I'm not someone who writes articles in the first person. For most of my adult life I have been a reporter, and much of what I do is go to places and try to be on the other side of the missiles, embedded with civilians. I'm not a military journalist. I generally don't embed.

When we first started out to make the movie, I was going to be in it, but I wasn't going to be myself. I was going to be more like a tour guide through this archipelago of covert war sites. When we decided to make it more of a personal journey, then I think I had to confront the reality of what it means to spend 15 years with victims of U.S. bombing raids or night raids.

It does change you. I think when you cover war you think that you can just jump from one place to the other and it doesn't set in. In the process of doing that reporting, the floodgates opened and I realized how many stories I carried with me and internalized. So yes, it was very personal. And it was strange for me, because I usually don't talk about those things.

MARLENE SPOERRI: You have really chosen to dedicate your career to the conflict zones and war zones. Why is that? Why do you keep on going back?

JEREMY SCAHILL: One of the first trips I ever took as a reporter was in 1998. I went to Iraq. At the time, President Clinton was in office and there was very little attention being paid to Iraq outside of Saddam Hussein. Of course, President Clinton conducted a bombing campaign in December of 1998, where there was an attempt to degrade Saddam's military infrastructure in Baghdad.

But what actually was the story in Iraq under Clinton was this devastating regime of economic sanctions. That was a form of economic warfare. In theory, it was aimed at weakening Saddam's regime. But what I found when I started reporting there is that it generally was having a devastating impact on the civilian population and, in a way, strengthening Saddam's stranglehold on power, because people were struggling just to live, and no one could really organize against the regime.

I visited hospitals throughout the country. They really were like death rows for infants. Basic medical supplies weren't there. They were reusing syringes. There were birth defects that didn't exist in modern medical journals because of some of the munitions that were used starting in the 1991 Gulf War.

I remember being in a hospital in Basrah and watching a woman give birth to a stillborn child that had a gaping hole from his nose to his throat. The doctors were saying, "We've been seeing this happen often." Her husband had been in the Gulf War.

I remember thinking—I was very young at the time—"Americans need to see this. They need to know these stories. We're told that these are our enemies, but what did these people actually do to us?"

A lot of what I've tried to do over the years is to humanize people on the other side. I loathe the term "collateral damage." I just despise it. I think it makes war easier to wage when you don't see the "other" as a human being. So a lot of my reporting has been aimed at trying to humanize people on the other side, so that we have a real debate in this country, not an abstract one, about people who are categorized as "enemies" or "collateral damage."

MARLENE SPOERRI: I think one of the more controversial theses of your latest book is the notion that the war on terror is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Can you talk a little bit about that?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yes. I think after 9/11 the majority of Americans supported going into Afghanistan with the narrowly defined mission of bringing those responsible for the 9/11 attacks to justice. Here we are, 12 years later, in a totally different administration, justifying drone bombings in Yemen or a covert campaign in Somalia, in some cases aimed at people who were toddlers on 9/11 and had no actual connection whatsoever to those attacks.

I think what we've done over these 12 years of both Democratic and Republican administrations is to implement a policy in the name of security that ultimately degrades our national security. We are giving people a legitimate reason to want to harm the United States or take up arms against it.

I have come to the conclusion that our own policies are creating more new enemies than they are killing terrorists. I think we are encouraging a radicalization of people and giving them an actual incentive to want to harm us. That's a pretty sobering thing to say as an American, but I think it's true.

MARLENE SPOERRI: Part of what you said is that "we can't kill our way to victory or peace," as you put it. Then how can we deal with this problem?

JEREMY SCAHILL: I think if you look at it from what President Obama is facing—he comes into office and has no military experience, very limited foreign policy experience. He had campaigned on a pledge to surge in Afghanistan and to be more vigilant than John McCain and the Republicans in hunting down Osama bin Laden and other terror leaders. He has read into all of this classified intelligence from the generals, the admirals, the CIA, where they paint a picture for him of a world where there are hundreds, if not thousands, of concurrent threats being plotted on a daily basis.

I think that he became very seduced with the idea that elite special operations forces and the CIA could wage a sort of surgical decapitation campaign. With the exception of Afghanistan, I think that President Obama wanted to get away from large-scale troop deployment. So I think he picked what he thought was the smartest way of going after these terror networks. The end result, though, of that campaign . . .

There are parts of Afghanistan that, I think, benefited from the U.S. going in, but in the vast majority of Afghanistan, that’s just not true, in fact it’s worse.

So, I also don’t think it’s my business to tell the empire how to run its affairs. I’m a journalist and my job is to go to these places and provide people with information they can use to make informed decisions. But to put on a policymaker hat for only a second, I don’t even think we’ve had a real debate about the impact of our national security policy in this country, on whether it’s making us less safe or more safe. We don’t even know who we’re killing in many of the drone strikes. We’re targeting people based on the fact that they’re military-age males in a particular region of Afghanistan, Yemen, or Pakistan. And if you don’t know who you’re killing, then you can’t actually assess what the impact of your policy is.

So, for me it’s not about, “Oh, well we need to shift the drones from the CIA to the military” or “We need to have a drone court that reviews each strike instead of the process of it being done in the executive branch.” We're at ground zero in this discussion. This has gone on for 12 years with no effective debate. The jackals on Capitol Hill are totally asleep at the wheel and are not asking the right questions, Democrats and Republicans. The extreme partisanship, where on the one hand the Republicans portray Obama as the "scary black man, the Mau Mau, Marxist Manchurian Candidate," and then, on the other hand, you have Democrats that have totally checked their consciences at the door of the Obama party and aren't asking the same kinds of questions they would if a Republican was in office.

So when I'm asked that question and I actually take it seriously and think about it, I don't even think we are having the same conversation with the policymakers in Washington. I think that it's time we do, that we have to actually face tough questions.

MARLENE SPOERRI: In May, President Obama gave a speech examining the drone strike policy. He argued that this policy was in fact moral. He laid it out as both legal and morally just. Can you envision a drone policy that is based in morals?

JEREMY SCAHILL: First of all, I think it's not a really wise path to go down, obsessing too much about drones. Drones are a platform, they're a weapon.

I understand what people are concerned about. It's the idea that you have these aircraft that don't have a pilot inside of them, and the person who is operating that aircraft is sitting in a trailer somewhere in the southwest of the United States, and they're piloting this drone and they engage in a bombing raid in Pakistan or Yemen, and then they finish up war for the day and they get into an SUV and they drive off-base and pass a sign that says, "Buckle up—this is the most dangerous part of your day."

That's a true story actually. The idea that you have a greater likelihood of being injured in a car accident than in the bombing raid that you're operating in Pakistan or Yemen I think is part of why people have become obsessed with this. And then the idea that drones are used or could be used for domestic purposes.

But to me the issue is the policy itself. If you boil down what President Obama said in his speech, there was a lot of rhetoric aimed at liberals who are increasingly concerned about this. So he says things like, "I'm going to be haunted until the day I die by the civilian deaths" and that it is not constitutional, nor does he believe that any president should use a weaponized drone on U.S. soil to kill an American citizen, and that we want to narrow the scope of these drone strikes.

So there's one way of looking at it and saying, "Wow, he's really trying to reform the program." I think to a degree that's true.

But there's another way to boil it down to its rawest form. What we have is a Democratic president who is very popular with liberals asserting that the United States in fact has the right to conduct assassination operations in any country around the world that it deems there to be a threat—now the term de jure [in law] is "against U.S. persons," which is a very vague term.

The way I see it is that Cheney and company are probably sitting somewhere in their caves, somewhat thankful that Obama has cleaned it up for them, because the next president, particularly if it's a Republican, that takes office is going to have pretty firm ground to stand on in re-expanding these operations. And liberals, who are largely silent, are going to have a very difficult time criticizing a Republican for wanting to do some of these same things.

You know, there's no such thing as a Democratic Hellfire missile and a Republican Hellfire missile. I think that sometimes the debate in our society seems to encourage the idea that there are somehow Democratic cruise missiles and Republican cruise missiles. It's just simply not the case.

MARLENE SPOERRI: We've learned recently that the National Security Agency [NSA] has been collecting the telephone records of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top secret, court-issued order. The administration has defended this decision as a necessary tool of the arsenal against terror. Essentially, the president has cast it as a tradeoff between civil liberties and national security. Do you concede that that is a tradeoff that needs to be made?

JEREMY SCAHILL: No. I would point President Obama to Senator Obama's comments on this, because I think Senator Obama was right about this. It was painful in a way to watch the president the other day. He was playing ping-pong with his former self on this issue.

I think that it's not that there aren't serious threats against the country—of course there are—and the United States has a right to engage in intelligence operations against those who are trying to do harm to the country. I think it has gotten so out of control, though.

The idea that you have the national security agencies just vacuuming up the data of U.S. citizens and saying that they have the right to go into the records if there is a 51 percent chance that it is a foreigner and not an American—how do they determine the 51 percent foreigner equation? I mean it really is kind of astonishing that there is this entire infrastructure just sucking up the data. And we don't know what is being done with it.

Former NSA people have come forward recently, whistleblowers—Bill Binney, Thomas Drake; now you have Edward Snowden, who is the whistleblower who has been providing the information to Glenn Greenwald and Barton Gellman—all saying that NSA officials go in front of Congress and lie about the extent of what they are doing.

There should be a far more transparent investigation into what exactly the NSA is doing, particularly against American citizens. I don't think we have any sense of the scope of this program, even in light of these revelations.

What I find particularly disturbing is that the people that have blown the whistle on this, people like Thomas Drake, their careers are being ruined for having the audacity to say, "I have seen things and been a part of things that I think are unconstitutional, potentially illegal, and certainly immoral, and I believe the American people have a right to know this." Their careers are being ruined and they are being targeted, while the architects of the CIA's torture program—people like Jose Rodriguez, who developed the black site archipelago and continues to enthusiastically promote torture, is on a book tour. Someone like Paul Wolfowitz is somehow considered a legitimate member of society, but an NSA official who blew the whistle on warrantless wiretapping is being criminalized. That says a lot about where we are.

So I think we can have a debate about the balance between security and privacy, but every indication that we have is that it is dramatic overreach that's happening. If Congress had a stiffer spine in standing up to this and said, "You know what? We're not going to accept that only eight members of Congress go into the padded room and look at the documents. This should be an issue that the representatives elected by the people of this country have a right to oversee."

I blame a lot of this on Congress. It is not just President Obama. Congress plays a huge role through sins of omission in much of our foreign policy and internal civil liberties policy.

MARLENE SPOERRI: I'm going to turn a little bit now back to Dirty Wars. You complemented the book with a movie. Amnesty International has also launched a campaign to eradicate this notion of "the globe is a battlefield."

In terms of how you envision the role of investigative journalism, clearly you see a need to reach beyond just writing the book. Do you view this as a need for a more multifaceted kind of activist campaign?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yes. When we were making the film, we had colleagues that were watching rough cuts of it. The film is 90 minutes long and at one point it was four hours long. We had to figure out how to cut it down to 90 minutes, and we left a lot on the cutting-room floor that I wish we had been able to keep in it.

But we had some pressure to make it like an activist film and to end it with a series of calls to action, and this is what people can do and this is what you can tell your congressperson. We really fiercely resisted that.

So, instead, we ended it on a series of questions about what happens to us as a society when we start to see what has been hidden in plain sight, and how does a war like this ever end. Because I think we really are sort of at ground zero in this discussion.

We are working with Amnesty International on a couple of specific issues that I think we can have some success on. One is this notion that the United States is asserting the right to conduct war operations anywhere around the world. That ultimately is going to backfire on us. When China or Russia starts to subscribe to those same doctrines, how are we going to stand up and say, "Oh actually you can't do that"?

I mean the hypocrisy of the U.S. government on the issue of an international criminal court and international law in general, our assertion that we can use cluster bomb munitions and won't sign on to those treaties. But when other countries use devastating anti-personnel weapons we condemn them at the United Nations—the sort of hypocrisy that is underlining our policy under Democratic and Republican administrations should be confronted.

The other issue we are working with Amnesty International on is that there is a journalist in Yemen, named Abd al-Ilah Haydar Al-Sha'i, who had exposed the impact of the first military strike that President Obama authorized on Yemen. In December of 2009, Obama started authorizing a bombing campaign in Yemen. That first strike, we were told, was not a U.S. strike but a Yemeni strike, and we were told that it was against an al-Qaeda camp and that 34 al-Qaeda members were killed.

Well, this Yemeni journalist goes there and films the carnage afterwards and films cruise missile parts there and then emailed them to Amnesty International, where they had a munitions expert look at them and say, "These have to be U.S. weapons." So he started reporting on this, and he had video footage of bodies of children being pulled from the rubble, and women. Then I eventually went and investigated this on the ground in Yemen.

But this reporter who first went there and broke the story was eventually arrested in Yemen and put in prison and then put on trial as being an al-Qaeda facilitator. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

When the dictator of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was preparing to pardon him—there was tremendous pressure from human rights groups and media freedom groups around the world—word leaked in the Yemeni media that he was going to be pardoned. That day the dictator of Yemen got a phone call from the White House—not from some undersecretary of something, but from President Obama personally. President Obama said, "We're deeply concerned that you are going to release this guy," and the pardon was ripped up. He remains in prison to this day.

I have looked deeply into who this journalist was. He was a great independent journalist who was asking tougher questions than anyone in the Washington press corps ever asked a U.S. official. He was asking them of al-Qaeda members. He was reporting on an expanding covert U.S. war in the country.

I believe he is in prison because of his journalism. Amnesty International has agreed with us, and we have launched a campaign to urge President Obama to drop his position that this journalist should remain in prison.

When you take that in combination with the targeting of phone records of the Associated Press and the citing of journalists in criminal indictments and the general surveillance state, it is hard to feel like there's not a kind of emerging war against journalism and whistleblowers in this country that I think ultimately undermines our democratic values and principles.

MARLENE SPOERRI: If you look at your work as a whole, I think you can get a pretty pessimistic view about the role of the United States.

JEREMY SCAHILL: We have Dirty Wars razor blades that we pass out. [Laughter]

MARLENE SPOERRI: You can come away with a pretty negative perception about how the United States engages abroad. Do you envision a role for the United States abroad in terms of promoting its values and promoting democracy? Is there a role to play?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Of course. But I think that we have damaged our credibility in the world so dramatically, particularly under—I mean Bush had a Ph.D. in damaging our credibility around the world, so I don't mean to make it seem like Obama—and I do truly think of Cheney as a cartoonist villain, like in a lair somewhere plotting the destruction of the world for the benefit of Halliburton's stock.

I don't see President Obama in the same way. But what I think, from traveling particularly in the Muslim world, I think what's happened is that we have sent a message, particularly because of the drone issue—and also Guantanamo, the failure to close Guantanamo, which of course is part Republican and part the White House at play here—we have sent a message that it doesn't actually matter who the president of the United States is. I think for large sections of the Muslim world, that has been the message that we have sent.

President Obama had said that he wanted to reset that relationship, and he gave the speech early on in Cairo. But I think largely what has happened is that people feel like it really doesn't matter who America elects. That's a problem.

One specific example I'll give you. When the CIA used this doctor in Pakistan to run the fake polio vaccination program, the impact of that is devastating. Pakistan is one of the few countries in the world still facing a polio problem. No aid organizations can do vaccinations now because they are assumed to be spies.

That to me is sort of a microcosm of the broader picture of what we have done. We are taking all sorts of actions in the pursuit of killing a relatively tiny group of terrorists and in the process, I think, damaging our relations with the rest of the world.

So yes, I see that, and I would want nothing more than our nation and our government to be able to project that kind of message to the world or encourage that kind of perception of the United States. But I don't think we can do that right now. I think we as a society have to take a humility pill about what our own role in the world has been.

MARLENE SPOERRI: The area right now that everyone is talking about in terms of potential U.S. intervention is Syria. Do you believe that there is a role that the United States can play there in terms of humanitarian intervention at the very least?

JEREMY SCAHILL: The United States already has played a devastating role in Syria. We are almost solely responsible for destroying Iraq, and Iraq is Syria's neighbor. The vast majority of Iraqi refugees poured into Syria. The United States has been encouraging a proxy war in Syria by supporting Qatar and Turkey. Iran on its end is engaged in the conflict. It is a civil war that has a tremendous amount of foreign involvement already.

I fiercely oppose John McCain's call to arm the rebels, whoever they are. We don't even know in the case of Libya and Syria who it is we'd be supporting. You can isolate certain former members of the Syrian military and say, "These are the legitimate rebels and we are going to vet them."

But look at what happened in Libya. Who butchered Ambassador Chris Stevens? Who overran the consulate in Benghazi? How did that happen?

I think that we sometimes—and I think it is because ordinary people are motivated by a desire to stop mass slaughter. So it's easy to say, "We have to intervene and do something." But if you actually look at the U.S. track record, America almost never intervenes for purely humanitarian motives. There is always something else at play.

I spent a lot of time in the Balkans during the wars in Yugoslavia. That was portrayed as a purely humanitarian intervention. While the United States was intervening in Yugoslavia, you had the United States selling a tremendous amount of weapons to Turkey at the same time that were being turned around and used to mass slaughter the Kurdish population. So on the one hand we say we're intervening to stop genocide here. On the other hand, we're encouraging a genocidal campaign against an ethic minority in a country of one of our allies.

So I think that there is a great deal of hypocrisy on this level, and I think it's important to know we already are intervening in Syria. If it was up to John McCain, there would be 200,000 troops in Iraq right now. I don't think he's a particular expert on how to best stabilize the Middle East.

MARLENE SPOERRI: I'm going to take a little bit of a departure now from the talk of war zones. In terms of your personal background, you began your career in journalism as an unpaid intern for Democracy Now.

JEREMY SCAHILL: "Intern" is too strong of a word. I was like a coffee runner maybe. [Laughter]

MARLENE SPOERRI: Well, the unpaid internship has become something of a rite of passage in the United States today. Do you have any qualms about that?

JEREMY SCAHILL: About the unpaid nature of it?

MARLENE SPOERRI: Yes.

JEREMY SCAHILL: I think people should be paid for their labor. But, if I had money, I would have paid for it at the time. Basically, what happened is that I was working at a homeless shelter and listening to the radio all the time, and I heard this woman on the radio, and I was like, "Wow, I've never heard anything like this." She was talking about the campaign to overthrow Mobutu Sese Seko and the sanctions on Iraq, and then I'm hearing about protests in the United States.

I look her up. It's Amy Goodman. I never heard of her before. I wrote her an actual handwritten letter. She didn't respond to it. I wrote her another one. Then, eventually, I went to an event that she was speaking at and came up to her afterward. I started stalking her basically. [Laughter] I think she had to decide whether or not to let me come in and volunteer or to get a restraining order against me. Luckily, she didn't get a restraining order against me.

But I would say to her, "I'll walk your dog if you have a dog, or feed your cat, or wash your windows." I think she thought I was a real oddball.

Eventually she let me come in. So I learned journalism sort of as a trade, like as an apprentice. I still list Democracy Now as my university. It belongs to the NSA, but it's my Facebook page—all of your Facebook pages also belong to the NSA [Laughter].

But anyway, I learned journalism very much just by watching other journalists work. Many of the best journalists that I know are people that decided one day, "You know what? I'm going to save up a little bit of money by working in some job that I really can't stand, but I'm going to save up that money and give it a shot, and I'm going to take myself seriously enough, even if I don't have an assignment, and I'll give myself assignments. Even if I'm just writing a newsletter back from wherever I am, I'm going to give this a real run for it." Some of the best journalists I know, that's how they got started in journalism.

Questions

QUESTION: My name is Charlie Liebling.

I thought your timing speaking today was good because it's just two week after Jeh Johnson spoke here, the former general counsel of the Department of Defense, and in my opinion a real proponent of dirty warfare. You, as somebody who has had your own criticism of Johnson in regard to his ideas about Martin Luther King, that he would have loved the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—I was just wondering where you place him in the spectrum of dirty warfare.

JEREMY SCAHILL: I'll just give a little bit of a context for this. Jeh Johnson, as general counsel at the Pentagon, worked with Harold Koh, who was the State Department's senior lawyer working on counterterrorism issues. The two of them would be asked to sign off on each drone strike. They would review the intelligence and then they would sign off on it. So President Obama has these lawyers that he brought in to be part of these operations.

Not just Jeh Johnson, but also President Obama, would invoke on his first inauguration the name of Martin Luther King, who was a pacifist, in the same speech where he is saying "I'm going to surge U.S. forces in Afghanistan." I think it's sort of ironic, the use of Martin Luther King by people who are waging wars, and to appropriate that legacy for that purpose.

So that's what you're referring to about Jeh Johnson, and I criticized him for saying that. Pretending to know what Martin Luther King would have thought about anything is obnoxious, but to specifically say, given his publicly available record, that he would have loved these wars was, I thought, really kind of outrageous.

But on a different level—I mean it goes into the notion of the banality of evil, that when you create a process—the dispostion matrix they now call it—where you have an algorithm for determining when someone should be killed or captured, and you are bringing in lawyers who had respect before they were in power in the human rights community and you are asking them to sign off on these operations, people in power start to believe that they are sort of Saint Augustine and that they are the bearers of the just war. I think that that really became a pervasive view within this administration. I think both Jeh Johnson and Harold Koh convinced themselves when they were there that they were the good guys in all of this.

When I talked to people who served in that administration on the kill program, as I did recently, and asked them: "I went to the ground and filmed the missile parts of these things that you guys signed off on, and I have cellphone video that was taken from the scene that day of limbs of children being pulled out of this. What do you say to that?"

"Oh, that didn't happen. That was an al-Qaeda camp."

They are in total denial about what they have done. I've spent more time in Yemen than President Obama. I don't think that they're in touch with the reality of what their missile strikes are actually doing on the ground. They believe the CIA reports taken from their satellite imagery, that "Oh, there was only one or two civilians that were killed. Everyone else was al-Qaeda." There are so many cases, well-documented cases, that we have of civilians being killed.

But it's a machine now. There's all these cogs in it, and one doesn't know the other's function. It's very easy just to say, "We've crossed all the T's and dotted all the I's here and this is a perfectly legitimate strike," and then you move on to the next one.

I think Jeh Johnson was a part of a lot of really dirty stuff that was going on in this administration, and then they whitewashed it all in public and said, "It's a more clean war."

QUESTION: When you say "dirty," do you mean covert, meaning like secret, no transparency? And if that is the case, then do you think, if it had been more transparent and it had gone through the Congress and been more out to the public, things would have been different?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, part of the reason why we called it "dirty wars" was not to imply that there is such a thing as "clean war." It also was a kind of macabre tip of the hat to a different era in U.S. foreign policy, the dirty wars in Central America, when the United States was giving weapons in support to the contras and backing military juntas and had covert actions from both the military and the CIA, and Congress was largely kept unaware of what the United States was doing. That was part of the reason why we called it that, is that we are returning to that era where there was going to be a fairly widely spread footprint around the world of these kinds of operations.

The dirty aspect of it is the tremendous number of civilians that are being killed, the fact that there are lies being told to lawmakers, and that there is a totally secret process for determining how people get on kill lists or off kill lists. So that's the scope of it.

If it was more transparent—first of all, I don't think at this stage in the game that they would be able to get Congress to agree to the current policy, which is why they are relying on this 2001 authorization for the use of military force. President Obama didn't say that he wanted it fully repealed yet—he did say he wants it to be repealed, but he said that we first have to basically update it. I think that would be very dangerous. I think there should be a full repeal of it.

But we should be clear of what the actual position of this White House is. Article Two of the Constitution, the commander in chief clause, even if they repeal the authorization for the use of military force, President Obama and his senior advisors have asserted that they believe he has the right to do these operations even if there is no authorization for the use of military force as the commander in chief.

That was like the pipe dream of Cheney and Rumsfeld's view of the executive branch, that when it came to matters of national security there was effectively a dictatorship of the executive branch and that Congress only served a function of funding the operations and overseeing the spending of the money, but not having any oversight function when it came to the operations themselves. To me that's a very controversial and dangerous assertion, particularly from a constitutional law professor president, because then it comes with a veneer of credibility. It would require Congress to actually assert itself into this discussion.

The final thing I'll say on that is that there have been repeated lawsuits over the years. The first one I remember as an adult happened over the Clinton administration's bombing of Serbia in 1999 for 78 days, where there was a challenge to the War Powers Act, saying that President Clinton actually was in violation of U.S. law by bombing Serbia for 78 days. Those cases have never succeeded. They tried to file it against Bush, and more recently there was one against President Obama.

But this is a serious constitutional question that it would require Congress to confront. I think because the Democrats are concerned about undermining the president, because of the vicious, vitriolic attacks from the right, many of these issues go un-debated or un-discussed.

QUESTION: This may be a silly question, but I think a lot of people are genuinely worried that there will be another 9/11. Do you have a sense of how big the threat is? How many terrorists are there out there and how worried should we be that we would give up our civil rights and do immoral things?

JEREMY SCAHILL: I don't even think that international terrorism ranks in the top 10 threats facing the country. I think that terrorism does not pose an existential threat to the country. I think our economic situation for most Americans represents a far greater threat to their livelihood and their lives, and also to the stability of our country.

That's not to say that there aren't terrorists that are plotting to blow up American airplanes. There are. I don't live in La-La Land on that.

My concern is that in pursuing these individuals who are plotting against the United States and in widening the sandbox of where we're targeting them that we are encouraging others to want to engage in those kinds of plots.

I recently have been reading Clinton-era documents on the kill program. If you read Clinton and his advisors, their strategy on terrorism was that terrorism is a crime and that it should be dealt with through the lens of law enforcement and that the use of military force outside of a declared battlefield should be almost off the charts completely but, if necessary, should be extremely rare.

Richard Clarke, the former senior counterterrorism advisor, said that the Clinton authorizations for the initial go-ahead to assassinate Osama bin Laden were Talmudic in nature, and they were almost built so that there would only be one scenario—if he was in a certain kind of a house with a particular brand of lock on the door and only three trees and not four, then you can strike the house. I mean there were all these sorts of qualifications in it.

But I think there was some wisdom in that. After 9/11 there were these secret hearings, and some Clinton-era official said, "I'm concerned that we are going to create an Israeli-style hit list and give this perception that America is assassinating people."

So I think that the actual debate to be having is when we have actual evidence that people are engaged in those plots, how do we handle it? If we have a ticking-time-bomb scenario—the president gave this example—if someone has a sniper rifle pointed at a crowd of innocent people, I personally don't believe that law enforcement needs to go and seek an indictment to take that person out. That's just a ridiculous notion. If they are going to shoot a roomful of children, you don't have to go and get a judge to sign off and say you're not extra-judicially killing that person by taking him out simply because you didn't charge him with a crime and give him a trial. So in those narrow cases where we are talking about if this person isn't taken out many, many people are going to die, then that's one debate.

But that is not the majority of the cases that we're facing here. We are engaged in pre-crime. I think it undermines our own values. That's why the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, this American citizen—I'm willing to concede for the sake of argument that he was involved with everything that the White House alleged about him in secret. And then more recently the president came out and admitted that he had authorized the operation that killed Anwar al-Awlaki. So let's say that's true. Let's say he's plotting against the United States, he directed the Christmas Day bomb plot, and he was plotting to poison U.S. water supplies.

They had him under surveillance for 30 days in Yemen, in a village with 10 houses. What efforts did they make to actually apprehend this American citizen before deciding to execute him? He was never indicted on any charges of terrorism. He never had any of the evidence publicly presented against him. He was simply sentenced to death by the constitutional law professor, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Democratic president.

To me it's not a defense of Anwar al-Awlaki. Anwar al-Awlaki, just based on things he said, I found utterly reprehensible, and I'm willing to believe that he was involved with these plots and not just encouraging it with his rhetoric. But it says a lot about who we are as a society, how we deal with it.

I get attacked on this all the time, but I feel that people have to understand one thing about this. If you actually study the case there, what is the definition of the term "imminent"? The Justice Department has redefined that term to mean that if there is a possibility that you are going to strike against the United States at any point, that you represent a permanent imminent threat to the country. If we are going to get into the business then of saying for certain Americans, but also for non-Americans, we are going to fast-forward past the evidence phase and just sentence you to death, to me that is a dangerous line we are crossing as a society.

So I would advocate for an approach where we go back to viewing terrorism as a crime, get out of the business of pre-crime assassination strikes, and only in those cases when there is an actual imminent threat—and by "imminent" meaning what most normal people would think of as the definition of "imminent"—do we consider taking any kind of legal action against people engaged in these plots. That to me would be a more responsible policy that would result in far less blowback against our country.

QUESTION: I would like to argue that last point with you. First of all, al-Qaeda declared war on the United States in 1996 through Osama bin Laden, and we did the same right after 9/11, and any American who is associated with al-Qaeda has given up his constitutional right for protection under the Constitution.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Where was the evidence that Anwar al-Awlaki said that he was a member of al-Qaeda?

QUESTIONER: Well, I don't know the specifics on that one.

JEREMY SCAHILL: If you're going to come at me with something you better have your facts in order. I mean you just said that he said he is an American citizen who joined al-Qaeda.

QUESTIONER: I'll concede that. Okay.

You made a statement that the United States had a role in destabilizing Somalia. I wonder if you could elaborate on that a little bit and specifically what period you are referring to.

JEREMY SCAHILL: When the Siad Barre regime fell in the early 1990s and the warlords took over the country, President Clinton authorized U.S. forces to participate in an international peacekeeping operation. I think what most people know about is the "Black Hawk Down" episode, where JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, and other U.S. special forces and special operations forces tried to dismantle the leadership of Mohamed Farrah Hassan Aidid, the brutal, thuggish warlord's apparatus.

Of course, then the Black Hawk helicopters were brought down and these Army Rangers were killed and dragged through the streets. After that, when the United States pulled out and the UN ultimately pulled out, the warlords basically took control of the country and utterly destroyed Somalia.

After 9/11, Somalia was on the early list of countries that Rumsfeld and the CIA were looking at for U.S. intervention, because initially there was a belief that the people that had blown up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were seeking refuge in Somalia. Most U.S. experts on Somalia at the time estimated that there were maybe seven to twelve al-Qaeda members in the country.

The United States backed away from doing an overt invasion but instead started to hire some of the warlords to hunt down these individuals, including people who were attached to the embassy bomb plots. So the warlords were getting weapons and finances from the CIA, and they started basically a kill program. They ended up murdering hundreds of people in the name of fighting terrorism, and literally at points bringing bodies to the Americans and saying, "We killed this guy." There were reports by the International Crisis Group and others looking at who actually was killed. There were very few people who were killed that had any connection to international terrorism and it was a relatively small threat.

But our financing and funding of the warlords sparked an Islamist uprising within Somalia that led to the establishment in 2006 of a government called the Islamic Courts Union. There were 12 Shariah courts regionally based around Somalia that came together, overthrew the CIA's warlords, and took control of Mogadishu. That government was a Taliban-style government, but it did stabilize Mogadishu. They reopened the ports and the fighting almost entirely ended in the city.

Six months later, the United States partnered with the Ethiopian military—Ethiopia and Somalia are sworn enemies—and Ethiopia invaded Somalia and overthrew the Islamic Courts Union government and then conducted a three-year occupation of Somalia in which there was mass brutality of Ethiopian forces against Somali civilians.

What happened was that that gave rise to a very radical organization, called al-Shabaab, which at the time of the Islamic Courts Union was a relatively minor player, because the Somalis very passionately rejected the presence of foreign fighters.

By going in and overthrowing the Islamic Courts Union government, and the fact that the United States also had forces in the country, JSOC and the CIA, gave the perception that the United States was once again trying to come into Somalia, and al-Shabaab maximized the propaganda value of that and portrayed itself as the Islamist vanguard against the crusaders trying to come into Somalia. So our policy encouraged and aided this organization's rise when they had largely been kept in check.

Today, al-Shabaab has largely been pushed out of the Somali capital. There is still fighting in southern Somalia. But, once again, there is a multi-thousand-member African Union force, primarily Ugandans and Burundians, and you have regular battles in the city. I have great hope that Somalia can stabilize, because they so deserve to not live in utter bloodshed. But I think we have played largely a negative role in Somalia for much of the past 12 years.

I hope that that's going to change. A lot of Somalis I know are hopeful for the first time in a while. But I do think we have played a rather unsavory role in creating or worsening the situation in Somalia over these 12 years.

Did you want to follow up, because I kind of hit at you?

QUESTIONER: I served in Somalia many years ago and I followed that quite closely. I know the CIA is accused of doing all kinds of great things. But I had no idea that we were responsible for all the warlords and this great assassination program. Where is this all written up? How do you know this really?

JEREMY SCAHILL: First of all, I've spent extensive time—and you can go through the footnotes in my book. One of the main tracts of my book is about this and it's all documented.

The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point has, for instance, one of the best reports on the rise of al-Shabaab; the International Crisis Group has done extensive reporting on it; Human Rights Watch—I mean this is all out in the public domain.

Were you a U.S. diplomat in Somalia?

QUESTIONER: Yes, I was CIA station chief there.

JEREMY SCAHILL: If you look at some of the WikiLeaks cables also that have come out about it, a lot of the civilians that were working for the U.S. government at the time were deeply concerned about what the U.S. military and the CIA were doing in Somalia and felt that it was running contrary to the stated position of trying to stabilize the country, and that this freelancing with warlords—but I didn't say that the United States was responsible for all of the warlords. These guys are gangsters and they are all sides.

I'm saying that we were supporting specific warlords—Mohamed Qanyare, who was one of the most brutal, thuggish warlords in the country; Ahmed Madobe, who at one time had been a member of the Islamic Courts Union and then was flipped by the United States. I mean these were guys that had their own little fiefdoms that they were operating.

But Eritrea, for instance, has smuggled a tremendous amount of weapons into Somalia to support the other side of it. So the United States has been engaged in a sort of proxy war that involves other regional players as well. And Ethiopia probably is the chief destabilizer of the Somalia situation as a foreign power, followed by the United States and Eritrea.

QUESTION: Following up on an earlier question, I'm not aware that al-Awlaki ever said on a video or anything, "I am a member of al-Qaeda." But I have seen videos where he said that it was the duty of Muslims to kill Americans.

JEREMY SCAHILL: No doubt.

QUESTIONER: Okay, so we're agreed on that as a matter of fact.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Of course.

QUESTIONER: And if there is clear evidence that someone has declared and has exhorted others to kill Americans wherever they are, and the president has what the president believes—admittedly, I'm not saying it's an independent tribunal—evidence that such a person is plotting to carry out such acts, do you believe that in those circumstances it is permissible for the presiden to take action to have that person killed?

JEREMY SCAHILL: If we claim to be a nation based on the rule of law and we are going to start fast-forwarding in cases where we have evidence that someone is engaged in a plot that is not imminent and they are calling on others to kill American citizens, do I think they should just be sentenced to death by fiat? No. I think that there should be every effort made to apprehend them.

I know a tremendous amount about the al-Awlaki case, not just from going to Yemen and talking about it but talking to people who worked this beat for the CIA and the U.S. military. There was never a request to the Yemeni government to extradite al-Awlaki, because what would he be extradited on? There were no charges. The tribal leaders of the al-Awlaki tribe in that area were not asked to hand him over. Why? Those are questions the White House should answer.

To me the idea that you are going to take out someone who admittedly—and I said this at the beginning—probably was involved with all sorts of reprehensible stuff, but that we are going to somehow say "for certain people we are not going to apply our own system of laws"—I mean the president seemed to kind of contradict himself even in that speech. He said that he doesn't think it would be constitutional to conduct an operation against an American citizen who has not been charged with a crime, but then said, "Well, there's an exception here because al-Awlaki was no longer an American citizen and was engaged in active plots against the United States."

I'm not saying that I know more than the president. I'm saying that he hasn't convinced me that this was necessary to the national security of the United States to kill one of our own citizens in this manner.

The idea that he was involved in an imminent plot—I'd like to see the evidence of that. I mean, now that he has been dead for over 600 days, why can't they produce actual evidence instead of just declarations in the form of letters from the attorney general or statements from the president? That is the issue to me.

But no, I don't think we should be bumping off our own people in the absence of an imminent plot without having charged them with a crime or presented evidence against them publicly.

QUESTION: Let us assume it had been Osama bin Laden and that we knew that they were plotting 9/11. He's not a citizen.

JEREMY SCAHILL: To me it's irrelevant whether they're American citizens under the law.

QUESTIONER: Is it your position there also that the imminent threat requirement also should exist?

JEREMY SCAHILL: I am against assassinating people, period. You could say that I'm soft on terror, whatever. I've been accused of worse. I am against assassinating people. I don't believe we have the right to run around assassinating people, whether they are heads of state or they are potential terror plotters. I think we have gotten so far away from our own principles and values here, it really is out of control.

Just simply saying, "Oh, it's Osama bin Laden" doesn't do it for me. Osama bin Laden is this frail old guy, admittedly an atrocious human being, who I wish had been put on trial for all of the plots that he was involved with. But the idea that we send Seal Team 6 in there and shoot an unarmed old man in the face—I'm sorry, I think that should be investigated. I think that should be investigated.

QUESTION: Jeremy, I want you to know I've been a huge admirer of your work and your courage for a long time. Keep it up. Be safe.

My question is: You mentioned Afghanistan and the mess we're leaving behind. Could you expand on that a little bit and say some of the things that most Americans haven't heard?

JEREMY SCAHILL: There was a poll conducted, I think it was about a year-and-a-half or two years ago, of Pashtun men in Afghanistan. I think 92 percent had never heard of 9/11, didn't know that the 9/11 attacks existed. I thought it was interesting because how then do they understand why we're there? I've met people in Afghanistan who thought that the Soviets and the United States were the same thing; it was just sort of one general force.

In the case of both Iraq and Afghanistan, my fear is that we are going to leave them in a worse situation than what we encountered when we went in.

In Afghanistan, there are parts of the country where girls are going to school now, and people have some semblance of freedom of speech, and where I think there was tremendous support for the United States being there and a great deal of fear of what's going to happen when the United States leaves. That is undeniable, and I have seen those areas of Afghanistan.

In large parts of the rest of the country, you are still going to have the reality that the Taliban are largely in control, or entirely in control, and you have the added U.S. military presence with night raids and air strikes that have killed a tremendous number of people. I think that we are going to leave those areas much worse than when we came in because the reality of the Taliban will still be there, but then there are also thousands and thousands of deaths that have taken place as a result of our having been there.

I am hard-pressed to find anyone these days that I know that has served or is serving in Afghanistan that understands anymore what the mission is there. The vast majority of Americans, I think, believe that we shouldn't be there anymore.

To circle around, though, to something that you were saying about Iraq—look, I know a tremendous number of Iraqis who were killed. It hits a real nerve for me, the idea that we have ever been a force for good in Iraq. I think we have had a consistent policy, we have been consistently anti-Iraqi civilian. So for me it rings somewhat personal on this level.

But what I will say is that under Saddam's utterly atrocious, brutal regime there were not suicide bombings and women weren't having acid thrown on them for not wearing head cover, and there was no freedom of speech but there was some basic daily life that could be safe as long as you kept your mouth shut and didn't believe you would ever be a free human being. That's an awful reality to live in.

Now you have that same reality in many parts of Iraq but the added instability of militant groups, suicide bombings, sectarian clashes, sporadic representations of civil wars. I wonder if it actually was better when Saddam Hussein was in power. I don't say that lightly. I know a guy who had his tongue cut out because his son told the teacher that his dad was smarter than Saddam Hussein, and they surgically removed the guy's tongue. That's how sick and despicable that regime was.

Mass murder—I was in Abu Ghraib prison when it was emptied by Saddam Hussein on the eve of the war. People were coming out of it chanting "Down, Down, Qasim." They didn't know who the president of Iraq was at the time because they had been in that gulag for so long. But then we take that prison and turn it into our own torture chamber. To me it was sort of a symbol of what we actually did there.

When Bremer said, "Iraqis have only known two leaders in their lifetime, Saddam and me," I'm like, "Yeah, man, that's kind of a deep statement that you're making and not in the way that you think."

MARLENE SPOERRI: Thank you so much.

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