On Thursday, there was a screening in Washington, DC, for press and friends for journalist Jeremy Scahill’s new film, Dirty Wars. Scahill did a Q&A and also setup interviews with some media organizations the following day.
I arranged an interview with Scahill, who graciously gave me some of his time and sat down to talk about the film.
The interview was done at the Hotel Monaco in DC (and, coincidentally, right by the Spy Museum). In a yellow-painted hotel suite, we discussed how he decided to incorporate his own personal story into the film and how he has to worry about the government coming after his sources. We talked about foreign journalists who are doing great but under appreciated work around the world and the current media climate. He also gave a comment on the importance of Pfc. Bradley Manning’s upcoming trial and spoke about a lawsuit of which he is a plaintiff that involves trying to force the US Army to give the press and public access to records in Manning’s court martial. (I am a plaintiff as well.)
Much thanks to Jeremy for expressing his appreciation for my work covering Manning’s case. I wish him, Rick Rowley, David Riker and others involved in the film the best as it has the rest of its premieres and is seen by the wider American public.
The interview appears below and is accompanied by a transcript.
KEVIN GOSZTOLA, The Dissenter: Thanks for reaching out so I could attend the DC premiere. One of the things that struck me was the style, how you brought in this personal narrative. Before we get into the main subject, I wanted to get a comment on this decision to weave you into the film and follow you as you were transformed by all these stories.
JEREMY SCAHILL, Journalist: First of all, I want to thank you for your reporting. I read you every day and I think you’ve done a real public service with your coverage of the Manning trial but also in general – civil liberties and the war. I hope people actually read your work so it’s nice to talk to you.
I don’t write articles in the first person, and I don’t particularly like telling personal stories. I started off journalism working with Amy Goodman at “Democracy Now!” and sort of begged my way into an unpaid gig as a coffee runner basically for her. And when I started doing reporting in the field in the mid-90s, late-90s, a lot of what I was doing was just going to places with my recorder and asking people how they saw the wars they were living on the other side of—people in Yugoslavia or Iraq. So, a lot of my early journalism was just telling stories who were made voiceless by the fact that there weren’t journalists talking to them and their stories weren’t important enough to make it into conventional media outlets. And that’s a lot of what I did in my life before stumbling into investigative journalism and then ultimately getting into conflict reporting.
So, when we started off the making the film, Rick Rowley, who is the director of it—He and I had worked together on and off for ten years. I had spent a couple years going in and out of Iraq with his wife, who is also a filmmaker. And we had talked about doing a project together and Rick wanted to do something based on my reporting on whatever project I was going to start next.
In the beginning, it’s not that I wasn’t going to be in the film. I was going to not really be myself. I was just going to be like a tour guide going through the archipelago of these covert or not-so-covert wars. And, we started off in Afghanistan looking at the war within a war—special ops night raids that were concealed by the broader conventional operations of the US military. We investigated three, four, five night raids that we had information about and started looking at the Gardez raid that you see in the film where these two pregnant woman and an Afghan police commander were killed in a botched US night raid and then the American soldiers covered up or tried to cover it up by digging the bullets out of the bodies and then blame it on the Taliban or saying that it was an “honor killing,” implying they’d been killed by their own family members. That’s of course how the film starts.
As we investigated it and realized that the force that did that was this secretive ultra-powerful military unit called JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, we started to rethink how we were going to shoot the film and it started to take us to Yemen and Somalia. So, Rick was always shooting me but I wasn’t going to be myself.
We had actually cut a version of the film a year before it premiered at Sundance and it was like two and a half hours long. And I was not me in the film. I was just sort of narrating it and kicking it around. And we asked this friend of ours, David Riker, who is feature film director and writer, to come in for like two weeks to work with us. What David was going to do is help us fix some awkward transitions and cut at least a half hour out of the film so people didn’t feel like they were in school and sort of doctor, be a midwife for the story. And a year later we made a different film.
David was the one who said I really think you’re missing part of your own story, which is that if you open yourself up to letting viewers into your mind and taking your journey with you it’s going to resonate more, particularly with political junkies who don’t follow this issue and so we started having these conversations where David would interview me and then started emailing me back my words and saying, well, you know, in this scene where you’re going to go in and introduce us to this family that survived this missile strike—Instead of just giving us the facts about what happened and figures about what happened, what about if you personalize it and instead we use this thing that you told me about what you were thinking when you went in there. So it sort of changed into a different kind of a film.
I felt very uncomfortable about being myself in it, but I also—At the end of the day, there’s no such thing as objective journalism. There’s just trustworthiness and transparency. Those are the most important things as a storyteller. So, what we try to do in the film is share with the viewer where we’re coming from or where I’m coming from and they can decide whether or not to trust what I am telling them. But I wanted to be transparent who I am and what I think or how I feel in the film. And I think we created a film that is going to be accessible to people regardless of their political perspective or whether or not they’ve thought much about these issues before.
GOSZTOLA: And by the way, I’ll just say that I like some lines in there and I have to say if Hollywood was not co-opted by the Pentagon totally maybe like Bruce Willis might be delivering some of those lines. They’re really nicely crafted.
SCAHILL: Well, I mean they came out of these conversations. I was going to say if this film bombs we’re going to say this is just a stand-in. Brad Pitt is going to come in and do it. A buddy of mine told me I look like a mundane Jason Bourne.
GOSZTOLA: On a more serious note, there’s a lot that you have to go through in order to make this possible and especially in this climate right now with all this talk of a war on the press in the news and the sort of aggressive nature that FBI and the Obama administration has this posture towards reporters who actually engage in national security journalism. How do you have to guard against that as you’re doing this film? It’s something that is probably at the top of your mind as you’re producing.
SCAHILL: I mean, my computer was hacked in the course of doing this investigation and a note was left on it. And I still don’t know who hacked into my computer. I’m not making an allegation against anyone, but the reason that I know it relates to my reporting is because I had a system of classifying, internally classifying different sources and giving them different names. I never put anyone’s real name in my computer or anything that’s searchable online. And when my computer was hacked, a text edit file was left just with a name on it, the name of a guy I had been talking with, whose name I actually had never put anywhere on the computer. And it was frightening, to be honest, and then I had to talk to the source and say I don’t know how this happened or who did it but you were compromised.
I changed my online behavior completely after that happened. You know, I use encryption and I use OTR software to do encrypted chats. A lot of the people who used to consider that an acceptable way of communicating, because of the crackdown on whistleblowers and journalists, have stopped. I told the New York Times that recently asked me some questions about this and how it changed my journalism you almost have to be a Luddite to operate in the world of national security journalism without putting people at risk.
I assume that many reporters that do this work are having their communications intercepted and monitored on a daily basis. And I think some of it is authorized and some of it is unauthorized. There are various entities in the US government that are doing this kind of surveillance. And corporations—private espionage. So, the stakes are very high and, if you take war on whistleblowers and the use of the Espionage Act and combine it with the recent seizure of the Associated Press phone records and the fact that President Obama is keeping a journalist in prison in Yemen, whose crime appears to be being a real journalist and exposing a missile attack that killed dozen of civilians, and you look at the general climate of secrecy in the country and lack of effective oversight, it’s chilling. It’s been chilling to watch and I don’t know a single journalist doing this kind of work that isn’t concerned about it.
GOSZTOLA: And when we talk about the secrecy, I think there’s a lot of focus on this end but there’s also a lot of ability as you’ve shown to go into these countries. Because there’s no secrecy to the people who are being killed by these drone strikes. So, it seems that it’s almost—There’s no impossibility of going in and seeing what happens. Obviously, you have the issue of them confirming or denying, but talk about that.
SCAHILL: There are great reporters. In Yemen, Iona Craig, who’s sort of become of the dean of the foreign press corps in Yemen and is always helpful to journalist who come in, and this great young reporter, Adam Baron—They’ve been doing top-notch reporting for years now and both of them pretty much learned journalism as a trade by being there and doing the reporting. But their stories don’t get picked up in the United States by major media outlets. And they’re great reporters.
Most of the reporters doing important work in Yemen and Pakistan are not Americans and their fate doesn’t matter when something happens to them, when they’re killed or they’re kidnapped or imprisoned. There are many journalists missing right now in Syria. If you look at the number of journalists that have been killed over the past couple of years around the world, look at Somalia, Mexico, Colombia—These aren’t famous journalists to the American republic but they are real news gatherers, who are providing a public service.
I always cringe when people say, oh, you’re brave. You went to Somalia. You did that. No, I can tell you stories about truly brave journalists and you might not know them because they might not be reporting in English or their name doesn’t get filing credit for the work they do for major media outlets.
I can parachute into a place and, yes, it’s dangerous. You have to really do your homework about the safe routes and what kind of security, if any you need, and when it’s safer to roll around in a soft-skinned Toyota Corolla versus having a bunch of militia guys in a car with you. It’s dangerous work, but it can be done. But look at our media climate right now.
We have an infotainment culture. You have MSNBC, on the one hand, looks like state media when President Obama is in power. Fox News is just this clown show of bizarre conspiracy theories and “Saturday Night Live” could not do a funnier parody of “Fox & Friends” than they do on their own by just being them. And this sort of polarized culture where liberals have sort of closed the ranks around Obama and it’s heresy to criticize them.
What does independent journalism look like in that witches’ brew? Well, it should look like someone willing to go to the other side of the barrel of the gun and talk to the people who we are told are our enemies.
The basic principles of journalism are simple. You should be giving voice to the voiceless, holding those in power accountable and providing the public with information that they can use to make informed decisions on what policies they want to be enacted in their name and a lot of times none of those three are happening with what passes as journalism in our society today.
You also have a reality where foreign reporting budgets are being slashed. CNN is closing its Baghdad bureau now. Iraq is an after-thought, if any, and yet there are daily bombings there. We were deeply involved in creating that reality because of that war and yet we just dropped it. Journalists just dropped it.
Who goes to Iraq anymore to do serious reporting? Who is going to Somalia or Yemen or doing real reporting outside of the bubble in Kabul? There are people that do great stories, but there’s no drumbeat coverage of it. Matt Akins does amazing reporting from Pakistan, as does Anand Gopal in Afghanistan. But there’s few and far between and that doesn’t serve a democratic society if we don’t have real journalist providing real information that people can use as actionable intelligence, to borrow a CIA term.
GOSZTOLA: One of the things that Farea al-Muslimi talked about was the ubiquity of cell phone cameras. I was wondering, from your experience, this seems like it would be an actual threat to the ability of the United States to put out its propaganda and show these cultures that what they’re actually doing is justified when you can actually see the carnage on these cell phone cameras.
SCAHILL: Yeah, and you see it in our film. There are several scenes in spanning the different countries where we use cell phone video that was taken by survivors of, in the case of Afghanistan, the night raid where these pregnant women were killed; in another, in Yemen, cell phone images of the bodies of children that had been pulled from the rubble in a strike that the US and Yemen claimed had killed 34 al Qaeda members. Because people had cell phone cameras there, they were able to take real-time video of infants that had been killed, their bodies being pulled from rubble. And we show that in our film.
It’s amazing to me how many places we go and people are telling us this story and they’re saying, look at this video. We’ve been trying to show this to people. And you see it and you’re like, this is definitive proof that kids were killed. Or, this woman, she was pregnant. And it’s remarkable. It does change it. I mean, you’re right. People can be their own criminal investigators at the scene of crime if it’s in their village or in their house. It is changing the way that we report these stories.
One of the first things I always ask when I go to investigate something now is, does anybody have cell phone video? Because nine times out of ten someone has cell phone video of something.
GOSZTOLA: My last question to you is I am going to be putting this up before the most biggest military justice case in the history happens with Bradley Manning going on trial. I know that you have shared some comments. You’ve talked about the cables that were released and how that’s influenced your work and you attached your name to the case to try to get the court records released. Do you have any general comment about the weeks ahead? This is going to be going on all throughout the summer into the end of August.
SCAHILL: The trial of Bradley Manning is one of the most important trials in the history of the United States.
If as Manning said in court during his court martial because of the leaked audio that we heard—And I recommend that people listen to that because the way that Bradley Manning has been portrayed, it was proven to be so bankrupt and false when you hear this calm guy clearly motivated by principle and conscience describing deliberately why he took the action he did to leak the cables and to provide them to the world.
This trial is incredibly important for a number of reasons. One is it calls to question on acts of conscience within the military and how are we going to deal with people motivated by true principle, that do something that technically has violated the law but ultimately served a greater good. But also it cuts to the heart of what kind of nation we are.
The cables that Bradley Manning provided to the world shed incredible light on the overt and covert wars that the US is running across the globe. And I think the fact that his trial has been mostly completely ignored by large corporate media outlets, including outlets that sold newspapers based on writing stories about the cables that he leaked. That the New York Times had to be shamed into covering that trial by other independent journalists and activists speaks volumes to the priorities of how you protect sources and value the sacrifices of people that made it possible for you to grab the headlines around the world with your articles.
And part of the reason I’m party to a lawsuit seeking to open up the Manning trial so that public can see the evidence against him is they’re making allegations that Bradley Manning jeopardized national security and threatened lives of American personnel because of this leak. He has the right to see that evidence against him. We as journalists have a right to see that. Secrecy is spinning out of control in our society and it’s happening under a popular Democratic law professor Nobel Peace Prize-winning president. And I think it’s really kind of devastating that larger media outlets have not stepped up to ensure that there’s going to be complete, open and transparent coverage of this trial.
GOSZTOLA: And as you understand it—and I do—this could potentially be something that you could have the whole opening up of the military court martial process because right now there’s all this secrecy. It could benefit you that in a future case you’d be able to get court records.
SCAHILL: Right, what we’re fighting for—Most lawsuits of this nature are about the precedent that it sets, not just the short-term goal. There’s a short-term argument that we’re making that has to do with a specific case of Bradley Manning, but what is at stake in this case is over-classification and ultimate declarations of secrecy that do not serve a democratic society. It actually undermines.
When you undermine a free press, you actually undermine the democratic process. That’s I think what’s at the heart of the case we filed regarding Bradley Manning is trying to hold the line at the basic rights as journalists at a time when there really is a war on journalists and whistleblowers. So, for me, this is about the whole battle for transparency. It’s all one fight. All of these lawsuits but also journalists struggling to protect their sources and the integrity of their information, I think it’s a very serious battle. I think all journalists should be standing up and being counted.
The review I wrote for the “Dirty Wars” film can be read here.