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“Dirty Wars. The world is a battlefield”: An interview with Jeremy Scahill

Jeremy Scahill  found his way into journalism by volunteering at the independent news channel Democracy Now! where he assisted the investigative journalist Amy Goodman. His apprenticeship with Amy Goodman put Jeremy Scahill on good ground and he soon covered stories all over the world, predominantly in conflict zones like Iraq. The defining story and reason for his current notoriety came to him in America though. Reporting from New Orleans after hurricane Katrina,  Scahill stumbled across the paramilitary company Blackwater and ended up writing a book about the company’s involvement and significance in US foreign policy and national security. It was his work on Blackwater that led him into the world of the history of paramilitary forces in the US. His research has culminated in his latest book and film called “Dirty Wars. The world is a battlefield”, which investigates how murder has become a central instrument of the US national security state and policy. The book uncovers how America conducts secret wars all over the world with special forces like JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command).  Despite the US declared intention to fight terrorism through these (often illegal) means, according to Scahill, they actually strengthen and spread terrorism around the globe.

Q.: Your investigations of covert military and secret paramilitary actions by the US have led you to look at the use of drones as well. What is your take on drone strikes by the US in countries like Pakistan or Yemen? Are they ever acceptable and can they actually diminish the strength of al-Qaida for instance?

I think the discussion on drones is a platform. Currently there’s an over obsession with drones. To me it’s not about the use of drones as such. It’s about: What is the operation? Is it self defense or is it an attack? I think there are things done with drones  which are immoral but legal under international law. For example in certain regions of Pakistan international law says it’s legal to deploy drones because they are active conflict areas. We might think it’s immoral but there is an argument for it’s legality.

Still, there are two kinds of drone strikes. There are personality strikes – when you know the person you want to kill, you hunt them down and kill them. And then there are signature strikes – when you hunt people who you don’t actually know, and you might not even have evidence that they’re involved in terrorism, but they gave you enough of a reason to make you believe that they’re up to terrorist activity. Maybe through sms or phone conversations or they attend a certain mosque, and you authorise a strike against them, simply on the potential that they’re involved in terrorism. Those strikes are limited to certain areas of Pakistan and I don’t think the US has ever done one elsewhere. Those strikes, to me, are very dangerous because it amounts to pre-crime execution.

Q.: As a journalist and someone who believes in freedom of speech as a fundamental right, how would you describe the circumstances for journalists in the US at present?

I often cringe when I hear people characterizing the US as a totalitarian, anti-democratic society. Not because I don’t think there are some totalitarian tendencies in the state, but you know we have laws in the US that are – within the scope of Western laws – incredible. After all we have the first amendment which enshrines freedom of speech in the constitution. You don’t even have that in Britain. At the same time the state violates these laws on a regular basis. The NSA scandal is starting a dialogue I think, that is scrutinising some of these things. There are wonderful things about American law and I feel lucky that I live in a country where I can point to things and say: “You’re violating the law.” I’ve known journalists who have been outright murdered in the streets of other countries and no investigations have ever followed. In the US journalists face a real regime of pressure. We’re under  surveillance and questioned or held at airports. Occasionally journalists are locked up. But my primary concern for journalists’ lives is still in other countries. Journalism globally is under attack. Something else I can say about journalism how I see it is that: there is no such thing as journalistic truth or objectivity, as it’s often taught in journalism schools. I think every journalist is an activist at some level and I think it’s important to be transparent about that. People need to know where I’m coming from in order to make up their own minds. 

Q.: Finally, why did you called your book “The world is a battlefield?”

The title refers to a detail I learned about in my research. Donald Rumsfeld used to send notes on little pieces of paper in the White House called snowflake memos. And on one of those snowflakes Rumsfeld wrote “if we’re at war against al-Qaida, and al-Qaida doesn’t have any actual territory, they could be anywhere. Then what is the battle space? The world is the battle space.”  

You can find out more about Jeremy Scahill’s extensive investigation “Dirty Wars” here:

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