Q&A with Jeremy Scahill on drones, counterterrorism and ‘Dirty Wars’

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Jeremy Scahill is an investigative correspondent for The Nation magazine and has reported from hot spots around the world including Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. "Dirty Wars," a new documentary on U.S. covert wars based on Scahill's book of the same name, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is set for release in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, June 7. Yahoo News recently spoke to Scahill about drones policy, President Barack Obama's recent speech on U.S. counterterrorism policy, and what Scahill believes are the greatest security threats still facing the U.S.

The Obama administration last month acknowledged killing Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who called for jihad against the U.S., in a drone strike in Yemen in Sept. 2011. His 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, also an American citizen, was killed in a U.S.-sponsored drone strike two weeks later. You explore the circumstances of these deaths in “Dirty Wars” and interviewed Anwar al-Awlaki’s father. Describe that experience.

I really got to know many members of that family well and got a real clean sense of who they were. I developed an emotional attachment to them. Anwar al-Alwaki did things I found absolutely reprehensible, but that family is not him. Not a single member of that family is him and he wasn’t raised to be who he was. His parents are actually extraordinary people.

At the end of the day what I think about Anwar al-Awlaki is this: Everything that President Obama has said publicly and that his administration has leaked anonymously may be true. Maybe Anwar al-Awlaki spent every waking moment of the last two-and-a-half years of his life plotting to poison U.S. water supplies. Directing (suspected underwear bomber) Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s plot, and telling him to blow it up once you’re over American airspace. And maybe he was involved in the Ft. Hood shooting and other plots we don’t know about but that the CIA has information on. All of that could be true.

But if it is, and if the president was being sincere when he said he would have preferred to prosecute Anwar al-Awlaki, why not indict him? Why not present enough intelligence to say, 'We’ve got the intel on this American, that he is actively plotting against the United States.' What would the harm have been in indicting him? Why indict John Walker Lindh, who legitimately took up arms against the United States in a war zone and may have been involved in a firefight against U.S. forces? Why give John Walker Lindh access to the civilian court system? Why give a trial to (Ft. Hood shooting suspect) Nidal Hassan, who very clearly shot up all those people—13 of his fellow soldiers—and wounded scores of others? For me, the issue is not whether Anwar al-Awlaki was a great man. Of course he’s not. He’s reprehensible. In his words alone I view him as a reprehensible guy. But that’s how our society is defined—how do we treat a guy like that?

President Obama delivered a major speech on counterterrorism two weeks ago, addressing, among other things, the morality of U.S. drone policy. He also renewed his call to close the military prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. What was your reaction to the speech?

There was a lot of rhetoric there that was meant to reassure liberals on the idea that this is a president who cares, and takes seriously the issue of civilian deaths. It was pretty unprecedented to hear an American president say that the civilians killed in the strikes that he authorized would haunt him the rest of his life. It’s easy to get caught up in what appears to be the amazing frankness of that speech. But I’m always in the position of being a wet blanket on this issue. There’s nothing in that speech that indicates to me a substantial shift in U.S. policy from the day Obama was sworn in, except for the framing of it and the branding of it.

On this issue of Guantanamo, there are two primary reasons why it remains open. One is that the Republicans are blocking its closure on a legislative level. The other is President Obama did not make this a serious priority. He really did fail to deliver on one of the major tenants of the foreign policy platform of his campaign.

Guantanamo is a stain on our society—an absolute stain on the image of the U.S. that has endured for 12 years now. The fact they are force-feeding people who have been cleared for release in many cases—we should all feel a sense of utter collective shame that this is still going on, and that it’s going on under the Nobel Peace Prize-winning, Constitutional law professor president.

Obama won the Democratic nomination in 2008 largely based on his opposition to Bush-era national security and terrorism policies. Don’t you think that Obama, once president and confronted with the myriad global threats the U.S. faces, was forced to rethink his positions and ultimately stick with Bush-era policies?

A lot of people projected onto Obama what they wanted to see, not the actual policies he was advocating. Obama actually assembled a fairly hawkish team of Democratic Party heavyweights. You look at his vice president, Joe Biden, a hawkish Democrat. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a hawkish Democrat. He had (special adviser on Pakistan and Afghanistan) Richard Holbrooke, a cruise missile liberal. Anthony Lake, former CIA director. I saw at the time people were putting on Obama a leftist, progressive label that they want that just isn’t consistent with who he has around him.

I’d say that with the exception of Guantanamo, I think Obama pretty much telegraphed the kind of foreign policy he intended to implement. I think a lot of the criticism of the president by liberals is disingenuous.

My concern about this is not that we have a president who has turned his back on the liberal base. My concern is that if we don’t look at the precedent that’s being set here, his presidency is laying the groundwork for many of Bush and Cheney’s core programs to remain intact for the next Republican to take office to expand them if they want.

Obama made a provocative claim in his speech, saying we can’t wage the war on terror forever.

So why not just declare it over? His rhetoric is saying, 'I don’t want to be at war forever. We need to draw this to a close. The civilian casualties haunt me. We have to narrow the scope of the drone strikes.' But you look at what the actual program is—they’ve developed a disposition matrix of who is going to live or die, who we can capture, who we can kill. There’s not a clear sense that they are ending signature strikes. It is not abundantly clear that anything is going to change.

For the last five years, he’s been able to implement counterterrorism policy with very few oversight implications. Part of the speech to me sounded like, ‘When someone like me is in office who’s responsible, then these are acceptable policies because I’ll be the check and balance.’ We don’t want to leave this legacy to Chris Christie or Marco Rubio or whomever. There is something fundamentally bankrupt about that. It’s like, ‘Trust us, we’re experts.’

Obama’s approach to counterterrorism has faced blowback from Republicans on all sides. Some continue to say he's too soft on terror. But then Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul drew national notice when he filibustered the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director over the administration’s refusal to rule out domestic drone strikes.

What planet do Republicans live on? Is it because his name is Barack Hussein Obama? From their perspective, the scary black man is in power and he wants to come and drone bomb white tea party activists putting together their little webzines in Montana. It’s complete nonsense.

There’s a racist nuance to what these people are saying. I don’t think they give a rat’s ass to what happened to Anwar al-Awlaki. If you specifically talk about President Obama’s right to kill Americans without trial, all those people would say no, no, Obama can’t do that. But then you say it’s Anwar al-Awlaki, and he’s a Muslim, they’ll say oh, that’s fine then. I guarantee that would be the interaction.

I was a major supporter of what Rand Paul did that day. Because he called the question on something that should have been discussed long ago when we first understood that the president of the United States had put an American citizen on a kill list who had not been charged with a crime. That’s when our lawmakers should have said, 'We demand hearings on this.' That should have been when this happened.

So Rand Paul comes out in 2013 after Anwar al-Awlaki had been killed. After Abdulrachman al-Awlaki had been killed. It was a little too late, but I was glad he did it. I find what else (Rand Paul) stands for utterly reprehensible. He’s just so bad on so many issues that mean something to me. But I give him tremendous credit for the filibuster. I think he’s sincere. I don’t think some of those others are sincere.

Is U.S. counter-terrorism policy creating more terrorists than it’s killing?

I’ve come to that conclusion, yes. I wouldn’t say it’s creating more terrorists. I think we are making more new enemies than we are killing real terrorists. I wouldn’t say the new enemies we’re making are terrorists.

I think there’s no doubt there have been a lot of subcommanders of various Taliban cells that have been taken out, killed, detained, what have you. But what I hear from friends in the military and seen in my own reporting is that there have been scores and scores of botched night raids. Part of it is there are many, many cases the military can point to and say, 'This is who was killed, this is who was captured, this is why we did it.' Then there’s a lot of cases where there’s bad intelligence that leads to a night raid.

But a more important point is, who are we even fighting anymore in Afghanistan? How many subcommanders are there? Most of the senior figures from the Taliban are at large. Who are we even killing?

In Afghanistan certainly we’ve made more new enemies than we’ve killed terrorists. And what’s a terrorist anyway? How do we define that term? For some of these people, we’re terrorists. I can’t argue.

In his speech, the president has also warned of a spike in homegrown terrorism, pointing to incidents like the bombing of the Boston Marathon in April. Do you agree that such events represent a growing threat?

I think we are going to see increased threats inside the United States, of terrorism. We’ll have our public transportation systems targeted. We’ll have our sports events targeted. But I don’t throw around the term terrorism lightly. I do think our actions abroad are going to inspire homegrown acts of terror. I think we face a far greater threat to our security from guns, not people radicalized by our wars around the world. I think we have far greater threats to our security than terrorism. That doesn’t even rank in the top 10. Our economic situation is threatening families in this country every single day. When you look at relative to all the other factors, terrorism is a relatively minor threat. And yet we spend so much money and have all these fancy war toys.

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