The Dirty Wars, Abroad and At Home

Jeremy Scahill’s new film on drone warfare shows why we need to stop the war on whistleblowers

Trevor Timm

Jeremy Scahill on the streets of Sana'a, Yemen, in the new film, 'Dirty Wars.' (Photo by Richard Rowley, courtesy of Civic Bakery | Big Noise Films.)

Last month, President Obama gave a much-talked about speech on U.S. national security policy, in which he discussed the so-called war on terror’ and curtailing the use of drones strikes by the United States, which have increased exponentially since Obama took office in 2009

The type of excellent investigative journalism on display in 'Dirty Wars has never been under more attack.

One would hope that those commentators who hailed the speech as the beginning of the end of the war on terror’ will also watch Dirty Wars, the new film starring investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, which opens in select theaters today. They will find a global military structure so entrenched in secrecy, drones, and killing that it will be a long time, if ever, before the United States can extricate itself from it.

Dirty Wars follows Scahill from his time reporting in Afghanistan, as he slowly uncovers the secret underbelly of the U.S. war unfolding at night away from the media, as U.S. capture/​kill” squads increasingly raid homes across the country. But his investigation leads him to Yemen and Somalia, which, despite being far away from any declared U.S. battlefields, manage to attract staggering amounts of U.S. money, weapons and Special Forces teams.

The main subject of the film is the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, the secretive Special Forces unit that is divorced from much of the Congressional oversight of traditional military outlets and outside the normal chain of command. Sometimes called President’s private army,” JSOC is led by Admiral William McRaven and was virtually unknown before 2010, when their central role in the Osama bin Laden raid suddenly made them a household name.

But what remains widely unknown is their increasing influence in U.S. foreign policy and sprawling reach across the globe. During his travels, Scahill interviews many of those soldiers, at least half of whom seem convinced we are courting blowback,” that by continually invading and killing so many foreigners (including many civilians), we’re creating more enemies than we’re destroying.

Those who follow Scahill’s work closely at The Nation, where he’s lead national security reporter, won’t find many new revelations in the movie, but it’s one thing to read about Afghan families who’ve been the victim of a kill raid gone wrong, or Yemeni families terrorized by drones, and quite another to see the families in mourning, with Scahill in the midst of it, literally risking his life to tell a story few others dare.

For those unfamiliar with Scahill’s work, this film will be a revelation, and if seen by enough people, could change the way Americans think about the United States at war.

Much of the film’s content is exactly the type of information the government regularly tries to suppress. We hear the story of a London-based journalist who first reported on an incident in Afghanistan where JSOC soldiers killed members of a police captain’s family, only to have the military publicly smear him and try to ruin his career, before reversing course and admitting it was all true.

We also see footage of Abdulelah Haider Shaye, a respected Yemeni reporter who has worked as a stringer for multiple U.S. media organizations. Shaye was thrown in jail after being the first to uncover a cruise missile strike in 2009 that, contrary to official statements, did not kill members of Al-Qaeda nor was carried out by Yemen but rather killed dozens of women and children and was carried by the United States. When Shaye was about to be released, Dirty Wars shows how Obama personally made a phone call to the Yemeni president to make sure he stayed there.

While the film’s eye-opening subject matter is extremely timely given Obama’s speech about the scope of the war on terror (and the recent revelations on the extent of the NSA’s domestic surveillance), how Scahill and other reporters get such information can be just as important, and has never been under more attack. Much of the information the film discusses was or still is considered classified — whether it’s the drone strike that took out Anwar al-Awaki’s innocent teenage son in Yemen or the untold amount of U.S. money flowing to murderous warlords in Somalia. As such, the only way the public gets such information is not through official channels of Congress or the executive branch, but through journalists.

The government’s unprecedented investigations into leakers to the press and whistleblowers, who often feed the public vital information about the goings-on of government in this everything-is-classified era, is putting that all in danger. The New York Times reported last month that some officials are now declining to take calls from certain reporters, concerned that any contact may lead to investigation. Some complain of being taken from their offices to endure uncomfortable questioning.”

There appears to be an intensifying war on serious journalism,” Scahill told the Times.

This is troubling news for the American people, who increasingly depend on the type of investigative journalism on display in Dirty Wars. Hopefully in the future this film will serve as a template for how journalists should scrutinize government claims, and not a reminder of how it used to be done.

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Trevor Timm is the executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation, which defends and supports cutting edge journalism organizations dedicated to bringing transparency and accountability in government.
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