Jeremy Scahill has emerged in 2013 as one of the most trenchant and scathing critics of President Barack Obama’s prosecution of an open-ended war and unprecedented tactical framework launched by George W. Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney. “Obama,” Scahill writes in his new bestseller Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield (Nation), has gone from a candidate campaigning against Cheney’s War on Terror abuses to a president guaranteeing “that many of those policies would become entrenched, bipartisan institutions in U.S. national security policy for many years to come.”
Scahill’s 642-page critique, and the accompanying IFC documentary of the same name, picks up the journalistic baton from late-Bush-era books such as Charlie Savage’s 2007 Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy and Jane Mayer’s 2008 The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals. But while those books helped galvanize an anti-imperial, pro-civil liberties left in opposition to Republican politicians, Scahill’s tome, and his ongoing commentary on Twitter and for The Nation, stands as a harsh rebuke to those on the left who sold out those principles once Democrats regained power in Washington. “I think if McCain had been elected,” Scahill explains, “liberals would be crying impeachment over some of the stuff that Obama has done.”
Scahill, the 39-year-old author of the 2007 bestseller Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army (Nation), is steadfastly a man of the left—he has worked in the past with documentary polemicist Michael Moore and progressive Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman. But he’s also a skilled and intense reporter with good sources inside the shadowy worlds of American special ops, rendition, torture, and assassination. If Democrats finally begin to hold the Obama administration to the standards by which they once judged its predecessor, Scahill will be a prominent reason why.
reason Editor in Chief Matt Welch sat down with Scahill in June to talk about the way America now conducts its covert wars, how Obama intervened to keep a respected Yemeni journalist in jail, and what “human rights” can possibly mean when the entire world is a battlefield. To watch video of this interview, scan the QR code at bottom left or go to reason.com.
reason: Most people know about the Authorization for the Use of Military Force on September 14, 2001, which was signed into law on September 18. You say there was another, more secretive finding signed into law on September 17, 2001, that is even more momentous. Tell us about that.
Jeremy Scahill: Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld came into office with an agenda. I mean, they of course had no way of knowing 9/11 was going to happen, [but] they really wanted to conduct what Rumsfeld called a “revolution in military affairs,” and to transform the way that the U.S. military operated around the world. Those guys—and also President Obama, [he] views this the same way—they saw the executive branch as operating a dictatorship when it came to national security policy. Cheney thought of Iran-Contra not as a scandal but as the model for how U.S. foreign policy should be waged.
So when 9/11 happened, they already had their hands on the levers, and they started to issue a series of secret presidential directives that would authorize the CIA and U.S. special operations forces to conduct what are called kinetic operations—either kill or capture operations in a variety of countries across the world—and to have minimal to no congressional oversight. They started a program called Greystone—the abbreviation for it was GST internally—and that was the umbrella under which many of what are now viewed as the more unsavory things that were done during the Bush era were conducted. The black sites of the CIA were set up, the use of waterboarding and other torture techniques, and the snatching of people from both declared battlefields such as Afghanistan and other countries around the world. Basically, they created an archipelago of black sites, interrogation centers, and started to develop alternative legal reasoning for prosecuting what they started to call a Global War on Terror.
reason: Part of this was to remove the usual functions of oversight. But there had been snatch operations before. There had even been assassination authority, though seldom used. Walk us through what changed from a legal point of view.
Scahill: Gerald Ford was the first president to put on the books a ban, or a supposed ban, on assassinations. It’s not that Ford was some great opponent of assassination; it’s that there was this scandalous period where the CIA had been involved with a number of coups, with various targeted killing operations, with overthrowing democratically elected governments, supporting juntas, and there were very aggressive congressional investigations—the Church Committee, [named after] former Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, and others. And so Ford, coming out of the Nixon era, decided that he was going to issue an order saying that it’s the policy of the United States that we do not conduct assassinations. What’s interesting is that every president since has updated or renewed some version of that executive order. Congress has never passed a law saying that the United States doesn’t assassinate. My thinking is that Congress doesn’t want to take up that question.
Every president from Ford to the present has engaged in something that I think reasonable people could argue is assassination. President Clinton was directly targeting Saddam Hussein’s palaces. President Reagan attempted to kill Qaddafi. President George W. Bush was involved in all sorts of targeted killing operations that they refused to call assassinations. You had this era preceding 9/11 where every president sort of found a way around it, and Congress didn’t want to take up the question.
Under President Clinton—and a lot of liberals don’t like to talk about this—that’s when the “rendition” program was started: Clinton was the first president to really create a policy framework for snatching people in countries and not sending them to CIA black sites [but] sending them to Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, or Assad’s Syria, or in some cases Qaddafi’s Libya, where people could be interrogated, sometimes with U.S. personnel in the room. It was a way of saying, “We’re not doing this, but we’re facilitating or aiding other governments in their fight against terrorism or extremism.”
When 9/11 happened, the CIA created its own network of black sites, and instead of sending [prisoners] exclusively to third countries, the CIA started taking custody of them and interrogating them on their own. So there’s been a continuous arc of U.S. policy toward escalating the use of assassination, although rebranding it as something else, and using secret prisons, either other countries’ or in the case of the first six or so years of the Bush administration, actual black sites run by the CIA.
reason: You talk of this pivotal moment when we go from the tradition of illegal or rare kinds of snatch programs to this world that we’ve had since September 11. That moment was the case of [Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi] in 2002. Tell us about that.
Scahill: There’s this book by a former senior FBI interrogator, Ali Soufan, called The Black Banners. Ali Soufan tells this story about how really early after 9/11, the Clinton Doctrine was still on the books for how terrorism was viewed, which was basically a law enforcement approach. The Clinton folks had created what Richard Clarke, the former senior counterterrorism adviser, called an almost Talmudic set of qualifications in order to conduct an actual targeted killing operation.
reason: Or in order to never do it.