No Concessions: Dirty Wars, Shady Drones and Tapped Phones

June 07, 2013

Wednesday's headline news that the NSA was collecting the phone records of millions of U.S. citizens elicited a rising swell of public anger. Al Gore dubbed the phone debacle "obscenely outrageous," and Thursday's New York Times editorial didn't waste much ink, putting it bluntly: "The administration has now lost all credibility." The White House, though, seemed unfazed by the revelation, calling the program "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats."

It feels almost serendipitous that this weekend marks the premiere of Jeremy Scahill and Rick Rowley's Dirty Wars, a scathing documentary that follows Scahill--a National Security Correspondent for The Nation magazine--as he traces the blood-strewn path of the covert component of America's War on Terror. The two journalists' story begins with an investigation of a Afghanistan night raid gone wrong. Donning disguises, Rowley and Scahill travel to a small village near the city of Gardez, where reports persist of a vicious U.S. raid that left several individuals dead, including two pregnant women.

Rowley and Scahill uncover two things in Gardez: a grizzly massacre and a mysterious photo. The image is a clue that helps Scahill uncover a shadowy unit known as the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), an elite military organization that answers to the president and freely, and lethally, operates around the world. As the two follow JSOC's trail, they investigate the effectiveness of drone strikes, question the constitutionality of killing untried American citizens, and explore our government's ties with warlords in Mogadishu. Dirty Wars is a wide-reaching journalistic scavenger hunt for what Scahill calls "a hidden war" from Afghanistan, to Somalia, to Yemen, and finally back to the United States. For the price of admission, we can come along for the harrowing ride.

Though there are moments when the dramatic voice-over and camera filters make Dirty Wars feel theatrical, there is an earnest power to this film: the story unravels naturally and it's obvious that Scahill is as eager to see where this investigation takes him as we are. In turn, Dirty Wars comes alive with suspense and intrigue, coiling and sparking with the force of a live wire.

"I called it Dirty Wars," Scahill told Amy Goodman in a recent interview, "because in the Obama administration I think a lot of people are being led to believe that there is such a thing as a clean war." Dirty Wars puts that notion to bed, suggesting that like the countless conflicts that came before it, the War on Terror is a dangerous, unfortunate, and bloody mess.

Earlier this week I had a chance to speak with Rick Rowley and Jeremy Scahill about how they stayed safe reporting while making Dirty Wars, what they were most humbled to discover, and whether there's an Arrested Development: War on Terror in the works.

Rick, how did this project land on your desk? I’ve known Jeremy for over a decade and both of us felt that the global War on Terror was the most important story of our generation, and yet it remained almost entirely in the shadows. It’s gone on for over a decade—the longest war in America’s history—killed hundreds of thousands of people, cost I don’t know how many billions of dollars and yet the American people don’t know anything about it.

Jeremy and I were covering the war in Afghanistan and I was seeing that the covert war was eclipsing the conventional war; that the units that didn’t officially exist were killing and capturing more Afghans than the conventional forces.

When we began this film we thought it would be just about Afghanistan. When we got to what we thought was the end of our investigation at Gardez, it seemed like the story was over. Except, we found a photograph that we couldn’t explain: It was a U.S. admiral in Gardez apologizing to a family and offering to slaughter sheep on their doorstep. But we didn’t know who the admiral was—at the time, he was completely unknown.

Jeremy, through his research, quickly discovered that he was the head of JSOC, an elite unit that operates globally and is responsible directly to the president himself—a unit outside the conventional chain of command. So then the question is, Why is this elite unit that’s supposed to be doing hostage rescue missions and taking out terrorist masterminds kicking in the doors of farmers in the middle of Afghanistan?

Watching the film you get the sense that you're discovering the facts of the case at the same time as the viewer--is that true? This isn’t a film based on a book, or a book based on a film. It’s not an investigation that happens and then we go back and document it. We filmed an investigation—there was a process of discovery along the way. We broke multiple stories in the countries we were in during the process of filming. When the film opened at Sundance, it broke stories the moment it was released. It was journalism happening in the process of making the film.

Part of the reason you make such surprising discoveries in this film is that you stray off the beaten path of journalists reporting in Afghanistan. Was that  a difficult risk to take? There are great embedded journalists and I’ve been embedded many times. But embedded journalism is made very easy for you by the military. When you arrive at the Kandahar airport, you’re picked up by the Army. Every morning the Army's public affairs officers come by with a brief and four story ideas and soundbites with everything you need. If you’re working on a normal production schedule and you need to fill a certain number of inches of print or minutes of broadcast, it’s made easy for you. It’s hard to tell your editor, I’m going to take six weeks off from that and not report anything during that time and come out with a story that’s better and deeper. And on top of that it’s going to be more expensive because I’m not going to be protected by the military anymore. And I’m going to be risking my life every day.

In the film you travel to some pretty hairy locations--how did you keep safe? In every country we had a different strategy. In Afghanistan it was a beat-up Toyota car and with just the two of us. We tried to fly under the radar—Jeremy and I would be in local clothes with our beards grown out driving as far outside of Kabul as we thought was safe and coming back by sunset. But we often miscalculated. In the film there’s a Taliban ambush on the road and we get trapped. We had to stay in a little shack at the side of the road overnight.

In Somalia, there’s no way to go under the radar. So instead we had to hire security. We had 12 guys with PKM machine guns in the back of a pick-up truck, a decoy car, and motorcycles outriders and an intelligence network of guys around the city who would radio in when stuff started happening. Even then, we could only film until 3 in the afternoon because that’s when everyone starts chewing qat—a leafy narcotic that’s like a soft-grade cocaine—and it became unsafe.

Jeremy, what surprised you most about the people you met during the shooting of the film? What always humbles me is how willing people are to share the most horrifying, sad, crushing things that have happened to them and their families on the outside chance that it’s actually going to make a difference. It’s a profound experience to be welcomed into the home of someone whose family member has been killed in a night raid by American soldiers and the only other American they might ever meet is you the journalist. When I sat down with people, I realized that I would start to apologize to people, to say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ Whether I agreed with the policy or not, they viewed me as a representative of the United States—an ambassador for my country.

Although your film primarily deals with the War on Terror abroad, I wonder what you make of the revelation this week that the government has been widely tracking phone calls at home. The rise of the national security state has been solidified by our constitutional law professor, Nobel Peace Prize-winning president. It’s really remarkable that under this administration you see attacks on journalists doing serious national security reporting, an unprecedented crackdown on whistle-blowers, and the use of the Espionage Act. Domestic surveillance programs of U.S. citizens that were controversial under Bush are being continued under President Obama. When you take all that and combine it with the intensification of the drone war, and the assertion by the president that the U.S. has the right to assassinate people across the globe—even if they are U.S. citizens that have not been charged with a crime and are not on an active battlefield—that’s a pretty harrowing reality.

One of the things we are trying to do is start a conversation that we should’ve had a long time ago in this country. It feels like there are cracks in the armor now—people are starting to wake up and realize that part of Obama’s legacy is that he’s continued large portions of what many people thought was just part of the Bush-Cheney program.

So you think people are more receptive to your message now than they would've been a few years ago? Two years ago when we started this, it was like screaming into a vacuum chamber: no one was listening, and no one seemed to care outside of military families who had loved ones deployed. And now, it’s amazing. The screenings are packed--people want to talk about this. Some of them are people who disagree with us but then say, Thank you for starting the discussion. But a lot people are coming and they say, I didn’t really realize the scope of this. I didn’t realize how far it had gone. If our film in any way contributes to this discussion I’m going to feel really good about what we did.

One of the most intriguing parts of the film is when you discuss the "accidental" drone killing of  Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old U.S. citizen who was the son of suspected terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki--who was also killed in a drone strike. Why do you think Abdulrahman was a target for the U.S.? I don’t know if he was a target, but I want an answer to that question. I don’t think the White House has been even remotely transparent or forthcoming or provided anything resembling an explanation.

When that Attorney General Eric Holder sent out his letter the day before Obama gave his big speech at the National Defense University, he said that the U.S. specifically killed Anwar al-Awlaki. The other three Americans that have been killed in strikes ordered by the president were ‘not specifically targeted.’ What does ‘not specifically targeted’ mean? Does it mean that because they viewed this as a group of military-aged males in a certain region of Yemen that they preemptively decided they were terrorists and killed them? Does it mean they were trying to kill someone near Abdulrahman and that he was collateral damage? We don’t know. By not answering it clearly, it reeks of a cover-up or scandal. I’m not saying there is a cover-up or scandal. I’m just saying it smells like there is. The best way to resolve this is for the White House to come out and say, ‘This is what happened the night a 16-year-old American citizen, born in Denver, Colorado, was killed by a drone strike ordered by the president.'

That family deserves an answer, but as Americans, we all deserve an answer. Why he was killed says a lot about who we are as a society. And, why Anwar al-Awlaki was killed says a lot too. I think he was a reprehensible guy. He said things that were atrocious. But if he was guilty of all the things he was alleged of being guilty of, why didn’t they charge him with a crime? In his speech, Obama said, 'I would’ve preferred to prosecute him.' Then why did he never indict him? How would Anwar al-Awlaki have ever surrendered to a drone? How would he have surrendered to an authority who never even filed charges against him? To me, it’s not about who Anwar al-Awlaki was, it’s about who we are.

You've covered pretty heavy subject-matter in your work. What's next?
I like to think that I’d like to try something different, but I’ve never in my adult life been anything other than a journalist. I somehow think that the pull of another story will capture me again. I really loved working with David Riker, who wrote and coedited the film with us, and he and I talked about maybe doing a fiction project together. As a reporter you have all sorts of stuff in your notebook that you really sense is true, but you don’t have enough sourcing on it to publish it. Or you hear a story that’s wild and says something about the world we live in but you haven’t figured out a way to cover it journalistically. We've been batting around the idea of doing something fictionalized. Maybe I’ll do something like an Arrested Development: The War on Terror. Tobias Funke could become the commander of JSOC.

No Concessions: Dirty Wars, Shady Drones and Tapped Phones