Scahill’s Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield gets deep in the mire of the War on Terror, exposing the machinations behind U.S. special operations warfare and the prosecution of secret wars around the globe.
Your book has been out for a few months and the documentary was recently released, what has been the response to the material you’ve unearthed?
I’m really heartened by the response around the country. A lot of military folks have come out, some of whom are very conservative people, and the dialogue taking place around the issues raised in the book has really been fascinating. We’ve had lots of guys who’ve served in the Special Operations community, people who are in the intelligence community, come up and say, “We generally agree with your conclusion, but if you continue on this path we’re gonna be hit again.” And that was unexpected, to hear that from them, from people in the CIA. That’s the most fascinating part for me.
A war on journalism runs parallel to these Special Operations engagements and you acknowledge the work of then-imprisoned Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye and call for his release. Do you know what his situation is post-release?
He relayed a message to me and said that it wasn’t just me, but several other journalists advocated specifically for his release. He said that he believed that the attention that we gave to his case played a central role in his freedom. Iona Craig, from the Times of London, and I are going to receive on his behalf a human rights prize for him. He wants to go but the Yemeni government will not give him a passport as a condition of his release. The U.S. has dictated the terms of his release; he’s basically in a default state of house arrest. He’s not allowed to leave the capital, Sana’a, or to have a passport; he’s been banned from engaging in journalism. But the White House doesn’t make much of a secret about it, they want him in prison.
The Yemeni al-Awlaki family figures prominently in the book, do you have any updates from them on what their situation is?
Anwar Awlaki was engaged in pretty reprehensible behavior; I found his statements to be deeply offensive and I think that if the U.S. government has even a fraction of the evidence that they claim that they have they should have charged him with the crimes. But instead he was basically executed by the Nobel Peace Prize-winner constitutional lawyer in a series of actions that reflect the edicts of a king who decides who lives and dies without any trial or charges. But Anwar’s family understands why the U.S. government wanted to kill him. For them I think the lingering painful question is why was his 16 year-old son killed in a drone strike two weeks later? The kid had nothing to do with terrorism, he’d been raised by his grandparents who were upstanding people who had a very positive view of the United States, were educated in the United States. They are continuing to hope that they’ve found some justice in the U.S. court system. So they’ve filed a lawsuit seeking answers as to why their grandson was killed, and the hope is that they get their day in court.
You worked with Richard Rowley to produce a documentary on the making of this book, how did you manage that?
It was a grueling process doing the book and film at the same time. I am stunned that we were able to pull it off. Originally I was thinking of doing a book to examine this continuity of American foreign policy from President Clinton to President Obama and make an argument that, with a few tweaks and rebranding efforts here and there, U.S. counterterrorism policy remains largely static under the Democrats and Republicans. You could see early in Obama’s administration that he was going to be pretty hawkish. He was talking about going into countries without those governments’ permissions to pursue Osama Bin Laden. And it was clear that he was a fan of Special Operations. So Rick, the director of the film, and I wanted to do something like a series of half-hour documentaries, and he came up with the idea to follow me as I did the book and do the film as an investigation. Really the film is about a journalistic investigation and that investigation became the book Dirty Wars.
Now you’re working on a project with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Pierre Omidyar. What will this entail?
Pierre was clear from the first time I started talking to him that he wants to create a news organization that takes an adversarial posture towards the government’s attempts to violate the first and fourth amendments of the constitution. And so initially we thought this was going to be a hybrid model of serious investigative journalism, long form journalism, working with whistleblowers, and also having analysis and reporting on a wide range of issues. Obviously because Glen and Laura and I tend to work in the national security beat, that part of it is being built up right now, but we’re gonna build a full-spectrum news organization and we’re going to bring in a lot of exciting veteran reporters as well as really hungry young reporters who we think are untapped resources and deserve to have their work read on a wider scale.