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Jeremy Scahill talks about his book, Dirty Wars, in Toronto, on April 23, 2015

"As a journalist, if those stories don't haunt you at night, if you don't have the faces of people who let you into their lives, or let you into their loved ones deaths. You should probably stop being a journalist. If you stop having human emotions, or reactions, or caring, or you stop thinking that objectivity is total bullshit. That sometimes the truth is true. It's probably time to step back and go do something else."

Jeremy Scahill, writer, journalist and co-creator of the online journal, The Intercept, gave a talk in Toronto on April 23 for his book  and film of the same name "Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield" as part of the Canadian Journalism Project's J -talk series.

Full Livestream recorded video:

Film Trailer for Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield:

Speaking with Globe & Mail editor-in-chief,  David Walmsley, to a packed room, Scahill began his talk responding to the recent news of an attack in Afghanistan that killed one American (suspected) Al-Quaeda fighter as well as an American and an Italian aid worker saying that "(He) thought it was interesting about  President Obama's public statement, today, was that he didn't use the word 'drone'. 

Scahill's book, 'Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield' is about the United States use of unmanned drones and covert (deniable) operations to kill suspected militants (American and foreign) anywhere on the globe and the ramifications that has for International Law and respecting human rights. 

"There have been eight American citizens killed in drone strikes since 2002. Of these eight American citizens, who we know have been killed, one of who was a teenager who no one has alleged had any connections to terrorism outside of the fact that his father, Anwar al-Awlaki ,a famous (Yemini imam) and propagandist known for his praising of Al Quaeda in the Arab peninsula and calls for armed jihad. Only in one case does the US government acknowledge that the American citizen they killed was the intended target, Anwar al-Awlaki. What that means is that there were seven Americans killed that weren't the intended target. So, if you look at a one-in-eight track record and you realize the overwhelming majority of people killed are not US citizens, they are Pakistanis, Yeminis, or Afghans. It makes you wonder how many of those people were not the intended target. How many of them were actually posing an imminent threat to the United States? I bet that John Brennan, CIA director, would be hard-pressed to show us evidence that they have killed almost anyone who was actually engaged in an imminent threat to the United States. Which is the standard that Barack Obama says they use to authorize drone strikes."

Video from 2013:

Commenting on a question of this being evidence of Obama's transparency in regards to the most recently released public statement on the event, he stated, " I would like to see an apology from President Obama for the countless innocent people who are not American citizens, or Italian citizens that have been killed. I would like to see a lot more transparency in the aftermath in these operations. I mean, as reporters in the line of fire and in dangerous areas, that the famous line from I. F. Stone is true, 'governments lie' and it's often the case that only if journalists, or human rights organizations go to the scene of a drone strike, is the official narrative challenged. We are regularly told that eight suspected militants have been killed. What is a suspected militant? and since when is that the legal standard for the death penalty? What the United States is basically doing is implementing a global death penalty that relies on 'pre-crime'. Like from 'Minority Report' with Tom Cruise, where people who we think might, one day, pose a threat to us; we assert the right to kill those people. I think the drone program, like much of the National Security apparatus is shrouded in totally unjustifiable secrecy. This administration claimed that it was going to be the most transparent in history, and in fact, has secrecy policies that would make Richard Nixon blush."

Challenged on the idea that maybe the security apparatus is just trying to do their best to protect everyone, Scahill was skeptical. " As a reporter who has spent time on the ground in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, elsewhere, I would argue we've hit a point, particularly in the post 9-11 world, where our stated counter-terrorism plan is actually encouraging terrorism. I think we are making more new enemies than we are killing actual terrorists, and those new enemies aren't necessarily going to be terrorists. They are going to be people with a legitimate score to settle. George Bush went to the rubble of the World Trade Center and said the people who did this are going to hear from all of us. The tone was all about revenge, but you meet with people whose families, family members were killed in night raids, or drone strikes and how can you look them in the eye and say, 'you know what? You don't have a right to plot an attack against a US government entity. That's the world we're in right now. I think our counter-terrorism officials are some of the leading breeders of terrorism right now.


In response to a question about whether the Obama administration's crack down on journalist breaking secrets' acts hindered his ability to do his work, Scahill was thoughtful and replied, " I look at the incredible risks that journalists are facing right now, and record numbers of journalist are being killed, in Syria, Somalia and Mexico, and Iraq, and the overwhelming majority of the journalists being killed are not famous, white, westerners. They are largely Muslim journalists, working for wire services, or stringing for Western news organizations so they can have that local flavour, or on the ground feel and there's very little outcry when these journalists are killed. When James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two journalists, were beheaded by ISIS, the journalism community and i think, the world, reacted with horror and condemned those atrocious executions, but there's deafening silence when the unfamous, non-white journalists are killed and so, I bring that up because I think the roadblocks we encounter in the safety of Washington D.C., or Toronto to doing our reporting and I feel a little embarrassed that I ever think about all of this 'pain in the ass' type of things. My primary issue that I'm concerned about as a journalist working on national security stories, working with confidential sources is protecting the source."

He continued on the topic of sources and leaking information. "You can tell a lot about the US position on whistle blowers versus official leaks by who's in jail and who is on a book tour. (Referencing Chelsea Manning's 30 year sentence as opposed to General Petreaus' 'slip' of information to his mistress for which he received two years probation and a $100,000 fine and still an advisor to the CIA). "It's incredible the hypocrisy there". Scahill continued, "Jose A. Rodrigues, Jr. who created the CIA 'black site' torture program is, he wrote a book that sounds like some sort of Norwegian porn film. It's called, "Hard Measures". In it he says,'I know a lot of people, they think that what we did was torture, but some of us had to put on the 'big boy pants'. That's what he called it, to torture people. This guy's on a book tour. Donald Rumsfeld is on a book tour. John Kiriaku, who spoke out publicly about waterboarding, former CIA operative, just out of a federal prison stint."

"You're right," he continued, "Obama, his administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the 'Espionage Act' , which was enacted in 1917 officially to go after people who were collaborators with Germany, but in reality it was to target dissidents and to be able to say by opposing American war policy, or opposing American security policy, that you are actively collaborating with the enemy. The public face of it was to go against spies in our midst but the intention of it was to go after dissidents. That's essentially what is happening now. The White House seems to want the only information we get to come from government, to be what they tell us in their background briefings, or what they officially release and that the number one goal for journalists, or what it should be, to challenge the official line, and fact-check them is unacceptable, and in fact, might be criminal. That's very dangerous." 

Q & A

Mr. Scahill was asked about how he saw the convictions and sentencing of the four Blackwater mercenaries responsible for killing fourteen Iraqis in Nisour Square in 2007 and if it would effect any future prosecutions.

His response was, "This is being portrayed as holding Blackwater accountable, but the reality is, those guys weren't there in a vacuum. They were sent there by people who didn't value Muslim, or Arab lives, and I'm not saying that in a rhetorical way. Erik Prince (CEO of Blackwater) and other people created an environment that encouraged the killing of people because they were Muslim, or because they were Iraqis. They would go night hunting with night vision goggles and gun people down. They were shooting people for sport. They were using steroids and other drugs and they were riding around just shooting people. The fact these people were convicted is some justice. These were the guys that did the actual shooting at actual Iraqis and they killed them, but what about the people at the top? Real justice will be when, we live in a society in the United States, where our supreme court says that corporations have the same rights as people, when a corporation like Blackwater gets the death penalty. I'm against the death penalty for people, but totally supportive of it for corporations that kill people."

Scahill testifying about Blackwater in congress:

As to thinking of whether the convictions will lead to more legal actions Scahill said, "No. I think it was the token case. I don't think it has any meaningful implications going forward."


Last July, The Intercept made public the 170 page rule book  the government uses when it puts together the No Fly lists. Interestingly, it was discovered "that the number two city that people who were on the 'terror watch-list' resided in was Dearborn, Michigan, population 96,000. Why? Because it has the greatest percentage of Muslim Americans,or Arab Americans, per capita of any U.S. cities and that's why it's being targeted. It's abundantly clear. I mean, you can't look at that and come to any other conclusion. This is a very serious issue of racial and religious profiling that's happening."

Speaking about war in Iraq, " I think Islamohobia is on the rise. I think there is a very effective fear machinery in play, that manifests itself in the media and in the statements of politicians, but I do think that Muslims and Arabs and Pakistanis, Afghans and increasingly Somalis are being de-humanized in a systematic way and the so called 'lone wolf terrorist' problem which you are hearing and debating in Canada; it's like if you put the word 'Muslim' or 'Islamic' next to any characteristics of the gunman it's like it catapults it into this other category. I mean, we should be profiling deranged white dudes who play videos in the basements and then go and shoot up schools in our country. It's not that there's not a problem, that there are not Islamic radicals who believe what they are doing is going to result in them going to paradise. That exists, but that doesn't even rank in the top 10 problems we face in our society in terms of violence."

"Media is at its best when there are tragedies like the school shootings, or the Charlie Hebdo massacre happens because the victims become human beings to us. It's great journalism and it makes you care about the story. Our challenge is how do we replicate that same sense of empathy, or concern, or care for the people who live on the other side of the missiles, a world away? That should be the real challenge for a journalist. I don't give a flying fuck about the Real Housewives of Jersey, but I do care about the real widows of Baghdad and yet, we don't ever hear those stories unless journalists go there and tell them. I don't think it would end the war, but I think it would force a debate that we aren't having."

When asked about ISIS Scahill stated that "the core, the military core of ISIS is largely made up with former military members of  Saddam Hussein's military and the documents that Der Speigal published showed that they came up with this idea of structuring an insurgent force and putting as a political figure head of the organization, this guy who was a nobody, saying he could be the head of the caliphate and they say in the documents that part of the aim was to encourage non-tribal international support for what was essentially the same war the Baathists were fighting the moment American tanks rolled into Iraq. So the stories about ISIS, the caliphate, chopping off heads, radical sharia law, all of that is true to a certain extent and to a certain part of the organization, but that's not as interesting as to who is really running ISIS? Where is ISIS getting its weaponry? People running ISIS, the military people, Saddam's military, the weapons they had were largely seized from the US supplies left behind for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi government. So to just make this about Islam, or radical Islam, or 'savages' or 'people who want to live in the 13th century', that is so missing the actual point here. I mean, this is in a way 'blow back'. In order to fight this you can come at this like from the perspective that you are at war against radical Islam, which is the dominant theory in the west, or you can say 'how do we negotiate with the people who are actual in charge that are mostly fighting to retake land that they had when Saddam was President'. That's the big motivating factor in large parts of Iraq. I'm not trying to discount the radical militant elements there, but they have largely been attracted to it so they can die as fodder that is basically a tribal war about certain parts of Syria, and certain areas of Iraq. I don't want to understate how atrocious the beheading is and some of that stuff, but I also think we are missing a huge part of the story and lessening our ability to negotiate with who is actually in power, even IF we want to negotiate. I don't see a military solution to what's happening, because I think you would have to kill off every single local person from certain areas of Iraq and Syria, who are basically fighting the war they've always been fighting"


Talking about the leaders showing up to 'March for Free Speech', Scahill said it was a 'circus of hypocrisy' in that so many of the leaders who marched were fighting free speech in their own countries. "I was absolutely horrified by what happened at Charlie Hebdo. I am a free speech absolutist. I believe in free speech even for despicable white supremacists in the United States. I also believe that people have the right to respond to it in whatever way they feel appropriate, but i believe they have the right to their free speech, but I think that those world leaders were jumping on a bandwagon. In a way i felt that they were parading on the graves of the media workers who were killed. I thought the indigenous outpouring of support from people was really moving, but the leaders? Those are plastic tears. I must say, and this is disturbing, the backlash, the targeting of Muslims in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre is a story that's been under-reported. France was attempting to criminalize people that tweeted with the hashtag #IAMNOTCHARLIEHEBDO. That's part of the danger here. When western societies get hit in these ways, the immediate instinct is to lock everything down and intelligence agencies are just waiting to implement policies. I'm very concerned that there's a disproportional balance between security and privacy in our society, and that's not by accident. It's not like there are a bunch of dumb law makers that accidentally voted for something, i mean there are financial and political interests in play as part of the parallel national security state."

Ending the evening. Scahill spoke about what he thought journalists should be focusing on. "We journalists should be extremely skeptical when our law enforcement agencies claim to have broken up a terrorist plot. Their track record is too dirty, at least in the US, I'm sure there's some of this in Canada as well. "

"I think that we should be examining how it is that young people from Canada, have traveled to either Somalia, or areas controlled by ISIS in an effort to join up with the group. The same is true in the US. I see those young people more in the way I see the Columbine shooters than I do Osama Bin Laden. I think that they are falling and they are struggling with their identity and they are at a vulnerable stage in their lives. Who catches them when they are falling? This is true for a lot of young people in general in our society. It's true of the kids who shoot up schools. It's true for the Somalis from Minnesota who wanted to join Al Shabab. They aren't born wired with some perverted idea of Islam that's going to motivate them to go blow themselves up at the gates of the African Union Peace Keeping Force compound. Something is happening there on a human level and I think we should be focusing on looking at the similarities between the young people that are going over there and try to address how there is systematic failures that lead to them wanting to go over there."

The final question asked about any suppression of his stories that he's experienced in the US;
"I get really embarrassed by this question. I was counting recently and I know 13 journalists, personally, that were killed since 9-11. I have certainly received threats. I have been stonewalled. I'm not allowed to go to certain press conferences. The government is trying to figure out sources for stories I'm doing, but at the end of the day I get embarrassed because I think of, James Foley had his head chopped off. Abdulelah Haider Shaye (Abd al-llah Haydar Al-Sha'i) a Yemeni journalist, was put in prison because he exposed a US missile strike that the US was trying to blame on the Yemeni government. Journalist are being gunned down in Somalia for writing about powerful people. All journalists that go at the heart of power face challenges and 'm certainly no different than anyone else, but I wish we would focus not on someone who is invited to speak in front of this prestigious group of people, with the editor-in-chief of a major newspaper. I wish we would focus on the unfamous, unknown journalists who are in the line of fire. So I guess I'll use my last minute to say that I want people to look into the cases of journalists, in particular, non-white, or western journalists who've been killed."


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