The Truth About America’s Secret, Dirty Wars
Harvard University, April 27, 2013
JEREMY SCAHILL: I’m really honored to be here with both Amy Goodman and Noam Chomsky. On my own Facebook page, I list Democracy Now! as my university, because I learned journalism not from the classroom. I wouldn’t have been able to be — you know, I was saying to Professor Chomsky, when we were walking, I’ve never been on Harvard and didn’t actually spend much time in an actual classroom when I was technically enrolled in college anyway. So it’s a little bit odd to be here [at the Harvard Kennedy School]. But I bring that up because I think that journalism is a trade and should be accessible to people. And I learned journalism as an apprentice under the person that I think is a great journalist of our time, and that is Amy. And I had to stalk Amy before she would agree to let me come in and volunteer at Democracy Now! I think she had — I was calling her and writing her letters, and I was saying — this was in the mid-’90s — „If you have a cat, I’ll feed your cat. I’ll wash your windows.“ And she had to decide whether, I think, to get a restraining order against me or to let me come in and volunteer for her. And, you know, she has just been such a dear friend and teacher for so long.
And I like to think of the footnotes in my book as a tribute to Professor Chomsky, because one of the first things I do when I look at a book is to check out the notes in the index to see how serious the book is, how serious the author was about citing every fact that he states in the book. And it was something that I very much learned reading Professor Chomsky’s books. And it’s a real honor to be here with you, Noam.
We’re here at a time when a popular Democratic president, who is a constitutional lawyer by trade, has expanded, intensified, continued and, most importantly, legitimized, in the eyes of many liberals, some of the most egregious aspects of what the Bush administration called its counterterrorism policy and the Obama administration continues to call its counterterrorism and national security policy. And despite the fact that this very popular Democratic president campaigned on a pledge to radically change the way that the U.S. conducted its business around the world and, upon taking power, issued a number of executive orders that were purportedly aimed at shutting down secret prisons, ending torture and closing Guantánamo, what has actually happened is that the Obama administration has made cosmetic changes, tweaked the language, made a few adjustments to the detention program, to the — what’s called the targeted killing program, but it’s anything but targeted, as we’ve seen so often — it’s an assassination program. And this administration has sold the idea to many liberals in this country that this is a clean war, that it’s a smarter war than the ones that were being waged by his predecessor.
If you look at the administration’s claims of bringing the Iraq War to an end, you have to examine what was on President Bush’s desk the day he left office. It was the very plan that President Obama implemented. It was already in motion. So this administration did not bring an end to the Iraq War; the Bush administration’s plan was implemented. But also we’ve seen an expansion of CIA paramilitary activity in Iraq over the past several months. The largest embassy in the world is the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, and strike teams continue to operate out of it alongside thousands of mercenary forces.
In Afghanistan, the Obama administration is waging two wars: the conventional war that you see through embedded journalism, and then the covert war that we seldom see, which consists of special operations night raids, drone strikes and snatch operations. In Afghanistan itself, the U.S. military and the CIA continue to run detention facilities that are categorized as filtration sites, so that people can be held incommunicado because they’re not categorized as prisoners. They’re categorized as potential intelligence assets that can be used in interrogation to produce the next night raid or the next drone strike.
Under this administration, U.S. intelligence agents utilize a secret prison that is buried in the basement of Somalia’s U.S.-funded National Security Service. When Richard Rowley, the director of our film, and I flew into Mogadishu, Somalia, in the summer of 2011, and we landed in the airport — at the airport, at Aden Adde Airport, as the plane taxied and made its way to the gate we noticed what to us looked like a forward operating base that we had seen in Afghanistan. It was a large walled compound with small hangars inside of it, and then a small cluster of buildings that resembled a small village. And it looked just like other forward operating bases, except that it had a pink hue. It was sort of the — the walls had been pinkwashed on this building. And the Somalis called it the „Pink House.“ And when we landed and we started asking our Somali contacts, „What’s that building?“ they said, „Oh, that’s Guantánamo.“ That was the nickname that they had given for it. But what it was shorthand for saying: „That’s where the Americans are based.“
And what it turns out it was, and I found this out from interviewing Somalis who were liaisons with the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. military intelligence, is that the Obama administration had initiated a targeted killing and snatch operation based out of that airport, where they were building an indigenous capability of Somalis that could hunt down individuals that were suspected to be members of or members of Al Shabab, the Somali militant group that pledged its allegiance to al-Qaeda. And these agents, I was told by the Somalis that were helping the CIA to run this program, are lined up monthly and paid $200 in cash for being part of this targeted kill-capture operation.
In the case of captured prisoners, they take the ones that they determine to have intelligence value, and they hold them in the basement of this National Security Services building, which is a bedbug-infested gulag. Prisoners are not given access to the outside world. They are not given access to lawyers. The Red Cross — when I was on Democracy Now! talking about this when I came back from Somalia, the Red Cross said it was — had never heard of the facility. And then I gave them the address on the air and told them where they could go and find it. And, to my knowledge, they haven’t followed up on it.
But I discovered — I discovered that prison because I met a colleague in Somalia, who works for an international news organization, who’s Somali, who had been put in that prison in retaliation for filming an operation that the U.S.-backed Somali forces didn’t want him taking pictures of. And he was put into that prison as a warning. And he said, when he was there, he saw American and French agents interrogating prisoners.
So I started to investigate the story, and I found out that there was a prisoner named Abdullahi Hassan, who was a Kenyan of Somali descent, who was in that prison. And he had been snatched from his home in Eastleigh, the Somali neighborhood in Nairobi, and shackled, hooded and driven to Wilson Airport in Nairobi and then shipped to Somalia, where he was put in this basement prison. And we were able to get testimony smuggled out of that prison of him describing the story and describing how he was interrogated by American agents around the clock and how he hadn’t seen a lawyer, can’t communicate with his family and has no access to the outside world. When I called the CIA for comment on the condition of this prisoner, they confirmed that he had been snatched on orders from the United States government and that he was being held in that prison, and they said he was dangerous and it’s good that he’s taken off the streets. They said that he was one of the advisers to the then-head of al-Qaeda in East Africa, Saleh Ali Nabhan.
And so, this man was snatched on orders from the U.S. government while President Obama is in office, sent to a secret prison in the basement of a U.S.-funded agency, and then interrogated, at times by U.S. intelligence and military intelligence personnel. And the CIA did not dispute any of those facts that I reported. They simply said, „Well, it’s more that we sit in on debriefings with Somalis when they’re interrogating them.“ So, that is the reality of one aspect of the rendition program, the secret prison program.
And I think it also speaks to torture and definitions of torture. So, President Obama and CIA Director Panetta said in early 2009 that we’re out of the secret prison business, that we brought an end to torture. But what we know and what we can prove is taking place is a sort of back-door continuation of the policy by tweaking it. In fact, it’s very similar to the rendition program under President Clinton in the 1990s.
People try to heap everything and say that the beginning of all the problems happened when Bush and Cheney were in power. Bush and Cheney continued many of the Clinton-era doctrines on these core issues. President Clinton tried to assassinate Saddam Hussein. President Clinton authorized cruise missile strikes that blew up a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan and bombed Afghanistan, as well. Clinton sustained the longest — initiated the longest-sustained bombing campaign since Vietnam under the guise of the so-called no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq. And he also initiated the rendition program. And so, President Obama spoke of bringing an end to all of these things but then found a way to continue them.
And as the surge happened in Afghanistan and the drawdown happened in Iraq, we saw the Obama administration unveil what would become one of the lynchpins of its counterterrorism policy, and that is the intensification of U.S. drone wars. So, in Pakistan, the number of drone strikes increased exponentially under President Obama. He also began issuing a series of secret orders, at times through General David Petraeus, who was theCENTCOM commander responsible for all military operations in the Middle East. And they started to issue what are called execute orders for joint special operations forces commandos, elite SEALs, Delta Force, Army Rangers and others, to begin penetrating countries that were outside of the stated battlefields, like Yemen and Mali and Somalia and elsewhere in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and began constructing drone bases in Saudi Arabia, in Djibouti, where the U.S. has its major hub of operations in East Africa. Camp Lemonnier was a French military base that was taken over by the U.S. And so you had the expansion of these wars where you didn’t have embedded journalists, you didn’t have congressional hearings, and the administration tried to portray its drone wars as a smarter, cleaner war. But there is no such thing as a clean war.
And what we see happening right now is that the signature strikes … has become the tip of the spear of U.S. policy in both Yemen and Pakistan, where you have what is almost — it’s a grotesque form of pre-crime, where people, because of the region that they live, the fact that they are, quote-unquote, „military-aged“ males, and they may or may not have had association with certain people, makes them worthy of preemptive designation as terrorists. And so, when they are killed, and then we hear a report about 11 militants being killed or suspected militants being killed, oftentimes those are people that have been determined through the pre-crime process — and that’s even not the right term, because who knows if they were even going to commit a crime? When you’re killing people whose identities you don’t know, who you have no intelligence to speak of that they’re actually involved with criminal activity or plotting terrorist acts, and you bomb them, what you’ve done in doing that is to create new enemies that have an actual legitimate grievance against the United States. Our actions in Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia are going to come back to blow against us. It will be blowback. We will pay a price for our actions around the world. There is no clean war in Yemen. There is no clean war in Pakistan.
When President Obama was asked about his resolve during the political campaign, he said, „Ask the 22 or 30“ — I forget which number — „leaders of al-Qaeda who have been killed under my administration about my sense of resolve.“ And it’s true. They’ve killed a number of leaders. The number three man in al-Qaeda has been killed 20-something times. There’s Said al-Shihri. Said al-Shihri, who’s one of the heads of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, by my count has died eight times this year — and just released a new audiotape last week. But there have been individuals that we’re told are these notorious leaders of al-Qaeda that have been taken out, and some of them very clearly have been involved with horrid activities. But for the most part, the end result of the drone policy has been to inflame hatred, to inspire new enemies.
And a story that has affected me very deeply, that I think should be of great concern to everyone in this country, is the story of what happened in September and October of 2011, when President Obama authorized operations in Yemen that resulted in the deaths of three U.S. citizens.
Now, I want to preface what I’m about to say with this: I don’t believe that we should ever view the lives of American citizens as worth more than any other people in the world. On a moral level, there should be no difference in how we view the killing of someone in a village in Pakistan to how we view the killing of a kid born in Denver, Colorado. But it is a relevant story to us here in the United States because it cuts to the heart of how far off the cliff we’ve fallen, particularly since 9/11, and under Democratic and Republican administrations alike.
We now have a process in the chambers of power in Washington where a small group of men and women meet on Tuesdays — and they call it Terror Tuesdays — to decide who’s going to live and die around the world, to go over lists of people that are on the target list, off the target list. What’s our intelligence on this person? What patterns of life has this person engaged in? Can they be made a legitimate target? And these meetings then result in briefings to the president of people that the CIA or the Joint Special Operations Command want taken out. There are at least three separate kill lists that are being run in the U.S. government. The CIA has a kill list. JSOChas a kill list. And then the National Security Council has a working group that also keeps its own list of high-value targets. For all I know, there could be more, but those are the three that we know exist. And they’ve also developed something called the „disposition matrix,“ which is an attempt to create a sort of algorithm for determining if someone could be captured or we need to kill them, if someone can be taken by cooperation with a local government or we need to send in a team of SEALs, if someone should be taken out by a drone strike or if we should try to seek to capture them through other means.
This administration is normalizing the process of assassination as a central component of U.S. policy for many generations to come. And I don’t believe for a moment that if John McCain had won the election or Mitt Romney had won the election, that you would see polls indicating that 70 percent of self-identified liberals support drone strikes and that the support for it would drop only negligibly in the case of a U.S. citizen. I think that this has been a political campaign to sell this idea and this program to liberals, and the results are going to be far-reaching for generations to come.
So, on this particular operation I started to tell you about, on September 30th, 2011, President Obama was presented with a choice by Admiral William McRaven, who was the head of the U.S. special operations forces, and by the CIA. And it was a decision about whether or not he should kill an American citizen with a drone strike that had not — and this citizen had not been charged with a crime and had not been indicted and had not had evidence publicly presented against him to back up the leaks that were being used to litigate the case against a man named Anwar al-Awlaki. There was no indictment. There was no charge. There was no evidence publicly presented against him. And on this day, September 30th, 2011, President Obama served as the prosecutor, the judge, the jury, and ultimately the executioner of a U.S. citizen who had not been charged with a crime, and authorized a drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki and another U.S. citizen named Samir Khan, who was a Pakistani American from North Carolina.
Samir Khan was widely believed to have been the editor-in-chief of Inspiremagazine, the publication of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But I know the Khan family, and I spoke to his mother, Sarah Khan, and she described to me the repeated visits of the FBI to their house before Samir’s death. And the FBI said, „There’s no indictment against Samir. He’s not charged with a crime. We want to encourage you to get him to come home, but he hasn’t done anything that we feel — that we believe is unlawful. But we’re concerned about who he might be with.“ And so you have this American citizen killed in this operation who, the FBI was telling the family, hadn’t been charged with a crime.
After those two were killed, one Republican congressman said that, „Well, if Samir Khan wasn’t on the kill list, it’s still a bonus. It was a ‘twofer,'“ he called it. So these two individuals were killed in this drone strike, and the response in Washington fell into two basic camps: silence or enthusiastic support. Hillary Clinton, Dianne Feinstein, John McCain all rushed to celebrate the assassination of two U.S. citizens. The only people on Capitol Hill that made a peep after those killings were Dennis Kucinich, the former congressman from Ohio, and Ron Paul from Texas, who at the time was running an insurgent campaign for the Republican nomination for president.
Congressman Kucinich is an interesting character in this story, because he — when we first found out that they had Americans on the kill list, which it happened because The Washington Post had published a story in January 2010, Dennis Kucinich put forward a bill that said that the United States government does have the right to extrajudicially execute its citizens without due process. And only six members of Congress signed onto that legislation, not a single senator. You know, it’s ironic to watch the filibuster with Rand Paul that day and some of — and the tea party cavalcade or cavalry coming through there. Where were all of these people before the killings started in this way, when Dennis Kucinich was trying to actually get people to pay attention to it? Even after this killing, it wasn’t an issue at all in most political circles, and certainly not in the political elite circles in Washington.
But then, two weeks later, another drone strike occurred in Yemen. And this time, among the victims was a 16-year-old boy, whose only crime in life appears to have been that his last name was Awlaki and that his father was Anwar Awlaki. This was a kid who was born in Denver, Colorado, in August of 1995. He spent the first seven years of his life in the United States. And when he moved back to Yemen with his father and mother and his siblings, they were living in the family’s home in Sana’a.
And Nasser Aulaqi, his grandfather, Anwar’s father, is an upstanding citizen. He is a man who came to the United States as a Fulbright scholar in 1966 and adored and still adores the United States. He is a man who wanted his children to have a college education from the U.S. When he had come here to get his education, he wanted to stay, but he decided to devote his life to dealing with Yemen’s water crisis, which is severe. And he built the Department of Agricultural Engineering with money from the U.S. Agency for International Development in Sana’a and was trying to raise his children to be academics or to be scientists or to be engineers. And when Anwar took a different path and became an imam — and that’s a whole story that I tell in the book of his, how he became who he was. That didn’t happen in a vacuum. It had a lot to do with what the U.S. did after 9/11 that pushed him to become what he eventually was.
But this boy, this teenage boy, Abdulrahman Awlaki, hadn’t seen his father since May of 2009, because when his dad went underground, Anwar left his children with his father to raise. And this kid — I looked through all of his Facebook posts, their family videos, talked to his friends — was into hip-hop music. He had this huge unruly afro that his grandfather and his mother were constantly picking on him to cut. They wanted him to cut his hair. There’s photos of him posing with his friends like rappers. We have one video where he’s sort of in the streets reenacting a video game scene with his friends. And the videos that we’ve seen from their family show a gentle older brother to his younger siblings, and everyone we’ve talked to said that he was a quiet, gentle, smart boy. And this kid is living with his grandparents while his father has become public enemy number one, and the Americans are hunting him with the CIA and JSOC. And his grandfather is raising him with dreams of sending him to the U.S. to go to university.
And a few days before his father was killed, this kid runs away from home, from his grandparents’ house. He stole the equivalent of $40 from his mother’s purse. He packed a small bag. He hopped out the kitchen window. He boarded a bus in Babel Yemen, in the old city in Sana’a. And he took the bus to where he thought his father was, which was Shabwa province, the scene of repeated drone strikes by the U.S. trying to kill Anwar al-Awlaki. His grandmother told me that she was afraid when he left that it would be bait for the CIA, that they were maybe going to track his telephone calls, if he managed to get in touch with his father, or read his text messages. They also wonder if maybe the CIA was following him the whole time. When Rick — when Rick and I, the director of our film, when we went into the Awlaki home in Sana’a the first time, all of the — we couldn’t find an open frequency to record the audio of the interview, because there were so many waves going through the house. They were being monitored from every angle. We couldn’t find an open channel. So that family, we know, was being followed. But this — and I tell the story about how Anwar al-Awlaki’s youngest brother, Ammar, who works for an oil company, they approached him in Vienna, Austria, the CIA, and tried to pay him $5 million to give up the location of his brother. The CIA also found a bride for Anwar al-Awlaki, using a Danish spy named Morton Storm. They arranged a marriage for Anwar al-Awlaki, and so they supported his wife underground.
But this kid, Abdulrahman, he’s there. He’s looking for his father. He’s waiting in Shabwa province. And he is there when his father is killed in a drone strike — not in Shabwa but in the north of Yemen. And his grandmother called him and said, „Abdulrahman, it’s finished. You have to come home. Your father is dead.“ And he said, „Yeah, I’m going to come home, but the roads are blocked,“ because the Arab Spring was happening, and there was a revolt against Ali Abdullah Saleh, the U.S.-backed dictator in Yemen. So he couldn’t make it back to Sana’a, so he had to wait in his family’s tribal province. And he went into a depression. And his relatives were saying, „Abdulrahman, you need to get out and do something. Go out with your cousins. Go out with the other kids from the neighborhood.“ And one night they were all out, gathered in an outdoor restaurant at about 9:00, and a drone appeared above them and launched a missile and blew up 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, his 17-year-old cousin Ahmed and all of the other kids that were with them.
And when the reports came that this kid had been killed and was among the dead, a military — U.S. military official leaked a story that he was 21 years old. And then the Awlakis had to produce the birth certificate showing that he was born in August of 1995 in Denver, Colorado. And then they said that he was a suspected militant himself and that he was at an al-Qaeda meeting. And then they said he was actually collateral damage; he was killed because he was meeting with an Egyptian member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula named Ibrahim al-Banna. And then AQAP releases a statement saying, „That’s a lie. Ibrahim al-Banna wasn’t there, and he’s still alive.“ And AQAP actually has a much better track record than the U.S. government at deciding when the number two guy in al-Qaeda gets killed. I mean, they’re generally reliable when they say someone is alive or dead. And Ibrahim al-Banna, as far as we know, is still very much alive.
And so, then the question became: How was it that this kid was killed, this 16-year-old U.S. citizen, who was not his father, who played video games, hung out in the Change Square with the nonviolent revolutionaries, had an afro, listened to hip-hop, and spent most of his time being an older brother and a goof-off? How is it that he was killed two weeks after his father? The coincidence just seemed impossible to take. And I’ve spent the past almost two years trying to get an answer to this question, „Why was Abdulrahman Awlaki killed?“ because, for me, the answer to that question says a lot about what kind of nation we are and what kind of nation we want to be.
And yet, there are no answers. The Obama administration has never been asked about it. President Obama has never been asked about it at all of those press conferences. He has never had to face the direct question, even though he’s in charge of the program. When Robert Gibbs was asked by an enthusiastic young reporter named Sierra Adamson about why Abdulrahman was killed, Robert Gibbs’ answer was: „He should have had a more responsible father.“ There is no — I can think of almost nothing more shameful than blaming the killing of a child on who their parents are or were. The paying for the sins of your parent, it is a reprehensible, criminal idea, that you would blame the killing of a child on something that their parents had done when that kid wasn’t even with his father.
Then they tried to say, „Well, he was sitting next to him.“ When Harry Reid, the leader of the Senate, the Senate majority leader, was asked on CNN by Candy Crowley about the killing of Anwar Awlaki, Samir Khan and Abdulrahman Awlaki, his answer was that if there were any three Americans that deserved to die, those three did. And I went after Harry Reid and tried to get him to answer, „When you said those three did, you realize that one of them was a 16-year-old boy who had never been charged with a crime and wasn’t with the other two at the time?“ And his office would never provide a response as to why he said that. And as the majority leader of the Senate, he has access to the intelligence on these strikes and refused to talk about it.
Then I recently met a former senior official who was working on the kill program for the first — the entire duration of the first term of Obama and was part of the process targeting Anwar Awlaki and at the highest level of the U.S. government. And when I asked him what happened there, he said that the CIA and JSOC had told the president that Ibrahim al-Banna was alone. And he claimed we didn’t know — he said, „We didn’t know that the kid was there.“ And I continued to press him on that, and he said that John Brennan, who at the time was the senior adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security, believed that either JSOC or the CIA had intentionally targeted Abdulrahman Awlaki and that Brennan ordered a review of that strike to determine how it was that he was killed. No review certainly has been published, if it ever will be. And the official said he wasn’t sure what ever happened with the review. But then he assured me, „It all was, I’m sure, a big misunderstanding, an outrageous mistake.“ And I said, „Well, if it was simply a mistake and he was collateral damage, why didn’t you own it? Why don’t you say it publicly?“ And he said to me, „Look, we had just killed three American citizens in a two-week period, two of whom weren’t even targets — Samir Khan and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. That doesn’t look good. It was embarrassing.“ „It was embarrassing“ is the most current answer we have as to why this administration has not answered how it was that a 16-year-old U.S. citizen was killed in this drone strike.
I’m looking forward to talking with Amy and Noam, and I want to wrap up by just saying something that brings things back locally here. You know, we all watched, of course, with horror what happened in your city, in Boston. And I’ve been thinking a lot about the way that the media coverage has unfolded, the leaks, the presumptions about motivation for these attacks. And we live in this society now where this other young man here who was — his image was put around, and it’s this student who was missing, and they said that he’s a suspect, and now he’s been found dead. And that family was dragged through the mud and tarred for something that their son had nothing to do with. And you saw the racism and the bigotry that grips people when these events happen. I was asked on this — about this when I was onMSNBC the other day by Martin Bashir. He asked me to comment on this. And I said, „Well, at the risk of seeming out of place on cable news, I’m not going to speculate until we see actual evidence or information that indicates what’s happened.“
And then, a few days after this Tsarnaev kid was taken into custody, something extraordinary happened. And that was a young man named Farea al-Muslimi from Yemen testified in front of the U.S. Senate. And I know Farea. I met him in — I met him in Yemen. And he’s an extraordinary young man, incredibly articulate, sharp, manages to say scathing things about al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and in the same breath turn it to the U.S.-backed dictatorship. He’s consistent in his morals. And he’s such a young man, but he has a moral clarity that I wish so many of us had. And when he was asked about Boston, he said something that I think is profound, to the reporter who has a kid, a young man, in front of him whose own village was drone-bombed in Yemen six days before he testified in front of the U.S. Senate. And he was live-tweeting the bombing of his village from text messages he was getting from his relatives who were near the scene. And then he ends up in front of this powerful body in the United States, and reporters are asking him, „What do you think of Boston?“ And he said, „The difference between you and me is that I condemn both of them. I condemn both of them.“ And it’s profound, if you think of it.
The media coverage of the victims of that bombing has been outstanding, of the bombing in Boston. We know the names, the stories of heroes who responded. We know the future taken away from children and grad students, because the media — the journalists are doing their job. They’re informing the public. They’re humanizing the people who were victimized and targeted in that bombing, because only if we have empathy for others and we realize the humanity of others can we actually muster up the strength to stand and do the right thing or to call for justice.
If we had that kind of coverage of the victims in the drone bombing of Farea Muslimi’s village, or we saw the humanity of Abdulrahman Awlaki and his teenage cousins who were bombed in an operation authorized by a popular, Democratic, constitutional law professor president, if we saw the humanity in the real widows of Baghdad instead of being obsessed with the real housewives of Los Angeles or Beverly Hills or whatever, if we actually see them as human beings, then the game changes, the equation changes, because you don’t view it through a nationalist lens, you don’t view it through the lens of American exceptionalism. You view it as all of our responsibility as human beings to stand up, even when someone is in power, especially when someone is in power, who you may have voted for, or who you like, or who you think is the lesser of two evils. That’s when your principles are tested. You know, a society’s values are not defined — our values are not defined by how we treat the rich and the powerful and the popular. It’s defined by how we treat the least of our people, how we treat the poorest.
And it’s also how we treat the most reprehensible. And so, I could talk for an hour about all the things that I think Anwar Awlaki did that were reprehensible. And I could talk about orders to target specific cartoonists. And we can talk about the smoke around his interactions with various people that the U.S. has determined to be terrorists. All — everything they’ve leaked in the media, maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s not. But if we are not going to give that man due process, then we should change our Constitution. We live in a different society then. We shouldn’t project this idea that we have anything resembling the rule of law, unless it can apply in the most inconvenient of cases. That’s the standard that we should be judged by. And that’s our challenge. And it’s the challenge of young people — and there’s a lot of young people in the room tonight — to keep the struggle going to build a world where justice prevails and where humanity is recognized, with no difference between nationality or citizenship. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: What an honor it is to be here with Jeremy Scahill and Noam Chomsky. And I wanted to start with Noam responding Jeremy’s investigations and the description, putting it in the context of the history of U.S. foreign policy.
NOAM CHOMSKY: … Well, I happened to get an email this morning from a person whom many of you know, Fred Branfman. He’s a counterpart of Jeremy from back in the ’60s. He’s the person who worked for years, with enormous courage and effort, to try to expose what were called the „secret wars.“ The secret wars were perfectly public wars which the media were keeping secret, government. And Fred — this was in Laos — was — he finally did succeed in breaking through, and a tremendous exposure of huge wars that were going on — a war in northern Laos attacking a peasant society that was so remote from what was happening in the Indochina wars that many of them probably didn’t even know they were in Laos. Actually, with Fred, I met many of them in refugee camps after a CIA mercenary army drove them out from areas where they had been hiding in caves for two years under intense bombardment. He then proceeded to help expose the even worse wars in Cambodia and then the air wars, in general. Anyway, background.
One thing he pointed — what he pointed — he’s a great admirer of Jeremy’s, I should say, for very good reasons, which you’ve just heard and, I hope, will read and see. But Fred made an interesting point. He reminded me of a comment by a high American official back in 1968, who Fred was trying to get to speak. It’s not easy to get these people to speak, but he did. And this official — he was asking him, „Why is this intensive bombing going on of northern Laos?“ Nothing to do with the war in Indochina, just destruction of a poor peasant society, one of the most malevolent acts of modern history, I think. And he finally — the official finally explained. He said, „Look, there’s a temporary bombing of North — a cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam, and we have all these planes, and we don’t have anything to do with them. So we’ll bomb Laos.“
OK, I think that’s the lesson of history that we should bare in mind in reading Jeremy’s exposures of, first, Blackwater and the mercenary army, and now JSOC, the so-called secret army — secret the same way the secret wars were secret. If you have a reporter who’s willing to — that has the courage and integrity to expose it, you can expose it. These resources are there. They’re growing. They have a self-generating capacity. They’re going to get larger and larger. They’re going to want more and more to do. And if one target disappears, they’ll be turned somewhere else. And as Jeremy hinted, they’ll be turned here.
And there’s a history of that, too. If some of you want to read about it, there’s a very important book by a historian, very good historian, Al McCoy, who, among other things, studied the history of drugs and torture and so on. But he’s a Philippine historian mainly, and he did a study of the Philippine War, the U.S. counterinsurgency war in the Philippines in the — over a century ago. It was a brutal, murderous war, hundreds of thousands of people slaughtered, a horror story. And he pointed out that, at the time, after the war was over, when the so-called pacification began, the U.S. forces were — the Marines, mostly, in those days — were using the highest technology available to develop a surveillance system over the Philippine society, so they could do what — what, by our standards now, at a primitive level, the kinds of things that Jeremy described. And they did. And it’s turned the Philippines into a — this is the Philippines a hundred years later, have never escaped from this. Philippine society is permeated by the consequences of this long terror war.
But McCoy pointed out something else. He pointed out that these measures, from before the First World War, were very quickly picked up domestically, both by the British and the United States, and applied to surveillance and control techniques within their own societies — the FBI here and so on. And now that’s what we can expect, and signs of it are already around. The resources are there. They’re self-generating. They’re kept under a veil, so not too much inspection of them, though there could be, as you’ve seen. They’re going to grow. They’re going to develop. If the current targets disappear, they’ll move on to new targets, because that’s the nature of these systems, just like the planes who had nowhere to bomb so they decided to send them to bomb northern Laos. And they’ll come home. Already happening. And we can expect more and more of it. I think that’s the historical background that should very much be kept in mind.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy?
JEREMY SCAHILL: … You know, there was a time when Amy and I, I think we were in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and we were — I’m from Milwaukee, but we were doing Democracy Now!, the show, from there, and Amy had been on a speaking tour going all around the country and had given probably, you know, 200 speeches in like 199 days or something. I mean, it was this incredible tour that she was on. And in the middle of a show, she lost her voice in — I mean, had some coughing and then lost her voice. And it was this moment on the air no one knew what to do, because this — the voice we all listen to all the time all of a sudden like went sort of dead on the air. And I think there was a congresswoman or someone on the show, who was left to kind of deal with it. And Amy’s like going like this, like — and she’s not — she’s just meaning, like, „Let’s go to break.“ But anyway, so, I think it’s a product of as much great speaking as you do.
One thing, though, in response to this, you know, I think that one thing that’s important to keep in mind is that very little of what this administration or the Bush administration did was actually new ideas. They were old, existing ideas and resurrections of certain plans and programs. I mean, if you look at the Phoenix program in Vietnam, which was this assassination program that was being run in Vietnam, there are very serious parallels to what the United States was doing in Iraq.
You know, the dominant historical narrative is that the surge won the Iraq War. And General Petraeus, had he not gone down for — you know, the only thing that seems to be capable of taking down the powerful is these sort of — you know, what they do in their top-secret chambers. They can wage all the so-called secret wars they want, but if they do something in their own secret life, then, you know — then you can bring them down. But Petraeus is often celebrated as this sort of hero who won the Iraq War because of the surge. But in reality, you had this merciless killing campaign that was being run by General Stanley McChrystal and Admiral William McRaven, where they were just bumping off the leadership of any cell that would pop off — pop up, but also just killing a tremendous number of people, in general.
And so, you had military figures that grew up in a certain era with an understanding of these programs. And when Cheney and Rumsfeld came into power with Bush, they really saw — but even before 9/11 happened, saw the historical moment that they had in front of them to sort of redraw maps and implement a vision of the world where Iran-Contra was a noble act and sort of the model for how the U.S. should be conducting its foreign policy. I don’t know if you — if many of you know this, but Cheney was in Congress at the time that Iran-Contra was being investigated, and he authored the minority report in the House defending Iran-Contra and viewed it as a sort of heroic, necessary action. And they had this view of the unitary executive, the idea that when it comes to these national security issues, that the White House is essentially a dictatorship and that Congress’s only function is to fund the operations but not be involved with overseeing them or having any meaningful oversight of these operations.
And President Obama really had an opportunity to roll back some of the executive branch power grabs that Bush and Cheney had engaged in. And instead, he sort of doubled down on them and has been waging this unprecedented war against whistleblowers and using the Espionage Act and reserving the right of the state to keep secret from the American people evidence that would indicate why someone was being assassinated, to keep secret — to use the state secrets privilege in repeated lawsuits brought against former officials or torturers, having cases thrown out of court, using the full power structure of the executive branch in the same excessive way that was being used under Bush and Cheney.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, you were talking about U.S. officials. Can you talk about McRaven and Gardez?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, that’s one of the stories in the book, and also you’ll see this in our film, one of the characters in our film is Admiral William McRaven, who is, I think, one of the most powerful military figures in modern U.S. history. McRaven is the current commander of SOCOM, the Special Operations Command, in charge of all special operations activity across the globe in more than a hundred countries. But McRaven was actually an original member of SEAL Team 6, the Naval Warfare Development Group — DEVGRU, it’s called now. He was an original member of SEAL Team 6 and spent much of his career in the shadows of covert and clandestine U.S. military operations. And he would have been forward-deployed to Afghanistan shortly after 9/11, but he had injured his back in a parachuting accident at a training exercise in California, where there was a — where his SEAL team was based at the time.
And so, instead of forward-deploying to Afghanistan, Admiral McRaven was tapped by General Wayne Downing, who was coming up with the — with the process for putting people on these kill lists after 9/11 and trying to take down all of the leadership of al-Qaeda or anyone that they could attach to the 9/11 attacks. And Downing asked Admiral McRaven to come and advise the National Security Council. People think of the National Security Council as this huge body. It’s the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense and the secretary of state, and then staffers. But it really is just the core officials who dictate this policy. So, if the NSC is making decisions about targeted killing, it’s really the principals that are doing national defense, national security, counterterrorism.
So McRaven became the adviser to the most powerful officials in the U.S. government in developing how to implement the hunting down and killing of Osama bin Laden and others. And at the beginning, there were, by some estimates, between seven and two dozen individuals that were put on this list for — in the beginning it was kill or capture, but the emphasis was often on kill. And McRaven saw firsthand how the White House worked, and he learned a great deal about the politics of an administration, because he was there helping to craft a policy that he would later then run when he became the head of all special operations forces.
So, McRaven is there for a couple of years, and then ends up going to Iraq, where he was the deputy commander of the Joint Special Operations Command under Stanley McChrystal, who was very close to Dick Cheney. Cheney had gotten him a fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations. And McChrystal was the commander of JSOC for much of the Bush administration. McRaven is working under McChrystal, running the kill campaign in Iraq and coordinating all of these actions against against both the — what was called al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia or al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and also going after Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces and others. So he sort of understood both ends of the game: how it was run in the White House and then how it was implemented in the field.
And when President Obama came into office, the two people who were responsible for the most covert, sensitive operations, being run by primarily Cheney and Rumsfeld, outside of the chain of command, were General McChrystal and Admiral McRaven. And they became the two most influential figures in shaping the Obama administration’s counterterroism policy. And, so, President Obama really empowered those forces and actually had McRaven in the White House helping to shape the policy — not just implement the military actions, but actually shaping policy. And most people had never heard of Admiral McRaven. And, of course, he’s now a kind of iconic figure because he commanded the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. And, of course, Disney tried to trademark SEAL Team 6 after the bin Laden raid — it’s a true story.
But what I — the way that I discovered the identity of Admiral McRaven was, in February of 2010, there was a raid in Gardez in Afghanistan, in Paktia province. And a U.S. special operations team had intelligence that there was a Taliban compound and that people living in a particular compound in this area were members of the Taliban who were plotting attacks against American forces. And they raid this compound in the middle of the night, and they end up killing a number of men and two pregnant women. And it turned out that this was not a Taliban family. In fact, they weren’t even ethnic Pashtun; they were from a minority ethnic group in the province. And the man of the house was a senior Afghan police commander who had been trained by the U.S. forces. And his family showed me his documents. He had actually been trained by a private security company called MPRI, which is made up of very — of high-ranking former military officials, intelligence officials and others. And so, these women were killed, this Afghan police commander who had fought with U.S. soldiers against the Taliban and against the Haqqani network in his province, and whose house was filled with pictures of him and U.S. soldiers smiling in these pictures, had just been killed.
And when the commandos that — the U.S. commandos that raided the house realized that they had killed these women and that the men that they had killed were not in fact Taliban, and that what they were doing that night was the most anti-Taliban of things they could have been doing, which was to be having a party with live music celebrating the naming of a child — the men were dancing and playing instruments, and it was this loud, boisterous party, and we have their cellphone video from that night. So, they raid this house; these people are killed. Instead of saying, „Wow! We really messed up,“ and owning it — and that stuff happens every day in Afghanistan. People are getting killed all the time that have no attachment whatsoever to the Taliban or al-Qaeda or the Haqqani network, and the U.S. will often just pay them a little bit of money and move on, and it never makes it into the papers. That wouldn’t have been out of place. But instead of doing that, they dug the bullets out of the women’s bodies, and then they told their commanders that what had happened in the compound that night was a Taliban ambush of this family and that they had come upon these women who had been killed by the Taliban. And then they — there were leaks saying that, well, no, this was actually an honor killing, and the women were killed by their own family members. And they put out a press release, and spokespeople made these statements saying that this — that the U.S. soldiers were essentially heroes that had gone in there and saved everyone else.
But then, the family members, because they were a prominent family — one of the fathers of the women was the vice dean at Gardez University, who spoke fluent English, started calling reporters and telling people, you know, this is not what the — what NATO is saying. Then a very great reporter named Jerome Starkey actually went down there — he writes for The Times of London — and interviewed the family members and did a story saying that this was a NATO raid — he didn’t know it was JSOC at the time — that this was a botched NATO raid and that NATO had tried to cover it up. And he told the story of these families. And when Jerome Starkey did this,NATO did something extraordinary: They named him in a press release and said, „Jerome Starkey of The Times of London is lying.“ They actually accused him of lying. And, I mean, that could have ended Starkey’s career. And Starkey, to his credit, kept pushing and pushing, and ended up doing a number of stories and got close to that family. And Rick and I also went to this family and filmed with them, and you see this in our video, and tell this story and tell the story of what happened to Jerome Starkey, as well.
So, media attention is focused in now on this village and this one family’s compound. And eventually NATO calls up Starkey, and they said, „We’re about to put out a press release. We’re going to change our version of events.“ And they admit that their forces had killed, that NATO forces had killed these pregnant women and that the men were not Taliban commanders. So, the family told me and told Jerome Starkey the same thing, which is that they got a call, and a person they believed was General Stanley McChrystal was going to be coming to visit them. And at the time, McChrystal was the commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. And they actually were plotting — they wanted to kill General McChrystal. They wanted to stab him to death when he came into their home. And one — and one of the men told me that „When they did this to my family, I wanted to put on a suicide vest and blow myself up among the Americans.“ Remember, these were U.S. allies, and now they’re saying, „I want a suicide vest, and I want to kill General McChrystal,“ who was the leader of the war. And an imam at their local mosque said, „No, you’re not to do that. You’re to give him hospitality, like our people do, and you’ll welcome him into your home and hear what he has to say.“
So they thought that General McChrystal was coming to see them. They called Jerome Starkey. Starkey goes down there with his photographer, Jeremy Kelly, and they’re waiting with the family, thinking that McChrystal is going to show up. And up pulls this convoy of vehicles with countless Afghan military officials and some Americans interspersed with them. And in the center of this crowd is a guy with a name tag that says „McRaven“ on it and has three stars on the lapel. And they’ve brought with them two sheep. And they approach the compound in the very place where the women had been killed and this police commander had been killed, and they offload these sheep, and they put a knife up to the sheep’s neck, and they were going to sacrifice the sheep. And what they were doing was a ritual from these people’s culture, the people who were the victims of this. And they were — it was like a forgiveness ritual. So they were coming — Admiral McRaven shows up with some sheep, after this family had been gunned down and then they — and they had blamed it on the family and then said it was Taliban, and that —
So, this is unfolding. This photographer, Jeremy Kelly, starts taking photos of — he didn’t know who he was at the time — of Admiral McRaven. And at the time, Admiral McRaven was the commander of the most elite, secretive U.S. military force. And he shows up with the sheep in Gardez, Afghanistan, and they’re offering to sacrifice it. And the American and Afghan forces try to stop the photographer. They try to hit the camera away. They say that Starkey and Jeremy Kelly are not allowed in. But the family — and it was so smart of them — the family said, „No, we want him here as a witness, so that someone independent is here to know what goes on today.“ And so they have photos, and Starkey took, in shorthand, all the notes of what McRaven said in the room that day. And McRaven admitted to the head of this household that it was his forces that had killed these pregnant women and the Afghan police commander. And he apologized.
And then there were all these stories that went out on ABC News and others that the head of the household had accepted the apology. When I spoke to him, he said, „I don’t accept their apology at all.“ He said, „The special forces did cruel things to us. They beat us. They ruined our life. They wiped out our economy in our compound by taking away all of these people. And they killed our pregnant women. I wouldn’t trade my two sons for the entire kingdom of the United States,“ is what he said. And another man chimed in, and he said, „These are these commandos with beards. We call them the American Taliban.“ And this is an anti-Taliban family.
And so, you know, when I watched the bin Laden raid coverage, and people started saying JSOC publicly, and we were showed that the dog was named Cairo and was a French — Belgian Malinois, or whatever, and then we know what guns were used. And, you know, Rick and I talk about this all the time. We know every detail that was leaked — and, of course, a lot of it turned out to be not true, but that’s for a different story. I was thinking, where was the coverage of — like, wall-to-wall coverage of this operation that they did? Because that would give us a little bit more of a balanced picture of what happens in the thousands of night raids that happen every year in Afghanistan or in Pakistan or in countries that we’re not even aware we’re raiding right now. And so, that story, for me, really resonated strongly, because I think we only have a tiny fraction of understanding the extent of the kinds of operations that are being done on a daily basis around the world, and we often hear about them when they go the way that those in power want or when the version that they want publicized is the one accepted by powerful media outlets.
AMY GOODMAN: Noam, if you could respond to what Jeremy said. And also, you have written extensively about the killing of Osama bin Laden, and I was wondering if you could comment on that.
NOAM CHOMSKY: ….I’ve written plenty of unpopular articles, and one of the most unpopular had to do with the murder, not killing, of Osama bin Laden. Osama bin Laden was a suspect. There are principles, believe it or not, that are not only in the Constitution, but that go back to 800 years, to Magna Carta, the foundations of Anglo-American law. That’s — I mean, they put it in narrow terms, but the general principle, including — Jeremy is quite correct — expansion of it to people other than our own citizens, is that a person can’t be punished by the state without due process of law and a speedy trial by his peers. That’s a reasonable principle. It’s in the Constitution. It was narrow, if you look, so in the Constitution it didn’t — naturally, it didn’t apply to Native Americans, it didn’t apply to blacks, and it dubiously applied to women, who at the time were considered property, not people. But over the years, it’s been expanded. And unless it gets to the point where — that Jeremy was talking about, where it’s just human beings, we can’t call ourselves a civilized society. Anyway, those are the principles.
Osama bin Laden was a suspect. In fact, personally, I don’t have any doubt that he was responsible, but my personal opinion is nothing that stands up in a court of law. You have to have evidence. You have to have a trial, a serious trial. And it was pretty clear that the U.S. government didn’t want that. He was captured, apprehended, by, you know, the most skilled masters of war — to use the Somali warlord’s expression — that exist in the world, 80 of them, I think. He was defenseless. The first story that came out was that they had to shoot him because his wife lunged at the SEALs. And what could they do? You know, they had to kill everybody. But that story was later withdrawn. It was nothing. He was just apprehended, defenseless, murdered, body throw into the ocean, leaving obvious questions as to why. And the dangers of this operation — a lot of the aspects of this operation — so it was a criminal — in my view, just total — a complete criminal act. No justification.
But, there’s more to it than this. And I was kind of reminded of it when Jeremy talked about the Yemeni testimony at the Senate. Now, those of you might have looked at the little, tiny report on that hidden in The New York Times. He said something else, this man who testified. He said that, for years, the al-Qaeda — the Islamist radicals — al-Qaeda, they call them — had been trying to turn the people of this village against the Americans. And they didn’t succeed. But you’ve succeeded with one drone strike. You’re creating more people to kill you, as you pointed out. And the same is true of the Osama bin Laden assassination. First of all, the action itself was extremely hazardous. The Navy SEALs who were sent in were under orders to shoot their way out if they got into any trouble. Well, if they had started — the Pakistani army is a professional army, very committed, committed to the defense of the country, the sovereignty of the country. If they had been caught there and tried to shoot their way out, they wouldn’t have been left alone. The American forces next door would have come in in a massive force, and, you know, we might have been involved in a nuclear war. I mean, it was quite possible. That was part of the threat.
But there was something else that happened. Actually, it’s been reported recently, I think in Scientific American. But it was no — I mean, the way that they identified bin Laden was through a fraudulent vaccination campaign. They had doctors posing to do a anti-polio vaccination in a poor area of this town. Well, they pretty soon figured out it’s not the poor area, it’s the rich area, so they stopped the program in the middle, which is criminal in itself. Actually, running the program was criminal. You know, using a vaccination program and doctors to try to apprehend a suspect, I mean, that violates principles going back to the Hippocratic Oath. But then they stopped it in the middle, because they thought they were in the wrong area. More crimes. Then they finally identified him. But one consequence of their actions was to — there is always in these societies serious concern about what outsiders, Americans, are up to when they come in and start, you know, sticking needles in people and so on. It’s always there. Takes a lot of work to overcome that hostility. And it was being overcome in Pakistan. Now it’s gone. They will not permit people to come in carrying out vaccinations. Polio is almost gone in the world. Pakistan is one of the last places where it survives. OK, we’re encouraging the spread of polio. And as one commentator pointed out — back to the Yemeni in the Senate — one of these days, people are going to look at this crippled child and say, „You did it to us.“ And you can guess what’s going to happen then.
AMY GOODMAN: If you missed that testimony in the Senate, in the first-ever Senate drone hearings of this young Yemeni activist and freelance journalist, you can go to democracynow.org, because last Wednesday we played it in full. And you can watch him and also read the transcript. But, Noam, I wanted to ask you to follow up on Jeremy’s opening point around the killing — and closing point — the killing of Americans versus people anywhere.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, Jeremy’s point is exactly right. And the murder of Awlaki — and we should be honest about it — was — you take a look at The New York Times the next day. There was a headline which said something like, „West Celebrates Death of Radical Cleric.“ You know, good, we murdered a radical cleric. Then, concerns began to mount over the fact that he was an American. You know, bit of a problem if we go around killing Americans. And that’s pretty scandalous. I’ll just reiterate what Jeremy said. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Americans or whatever they are; they’re people. Going back to Magna Carta, the concept of people free of these — should be free of state terror, has been expanded over the years, substantially. And it should be expanded to include people. They should be free of state terror.
And I should say that I, myself, am kind of hesitant about some of the things I do myself. Right now I’m a plaintiff in a suit on the — against the NDAA, at least the NDAA proposals, Obama’s latest. The National Defense Authorization Act included — includes provisions which make it — which — optional for the government, if it chooses, to place American citizens under indefinite detention in military prisons, which is an incredible crime. You know, again, back to Magna Carta, much worse. And Chris Hedges organized a suit to try to oppose this, and I signed on, but with reservations, because what difference does it make if they’re American citizens? I mean, the same NDAA act authorized — in fact, makes it mandatory in some circumstances — for the government to place non-Americans under indefinite preventive detention. Should be — that’s what we should be — that’s what we should be concerned with.
This suit, incidentally, has taken an interesting course. Obama originally had said that he was opposed to those provisions in the act, but he would sign them. Then, when the case went to court, at the lower court level, the government case — the plaintiffs won. The judge threw out the government prosecution, on the — because the prosecution refused to answer a simple question: Will these plaintiffs be subject to administrative detention? Could they be? And they refused to answer that, so the judge threw that out. Obama immediately took it to the higher court. That shows you how much opposed he is to it. It will work its way to the Supreme Court. And given the Supreme Court, the government will probably win. Well, you know, these are things we should really be concerned about.
It’s not — if you want to know what — I’m sure you all know, but if you really want to know in detail what happens to non-citizens, read some of the testimonies. So, for example, there’s a recent book that came out by an Australian — David Hill, I think his name is. Very much worth reading. He’s a young man who was hiking around somewhere in northern Afghanistan. He was picked —
AMY GOODMAN: David Hicks.
NOAM CHOMSKY: David Hicks, yeah. He was picked up by the Northern Alliance, the U.S. allies. They sold him for bounty to the American forces. And then he describes his years in Bagram and then at Guantánamo, and it was six or seven years. The torture, the sadism, the cruelty are just indescribable. These are American soldiers, you know, elite American soldiers. You just really have to read that to — I mean, if anybody knows American history, it won’t surprise you that much, but it’s right in front of our eyes.
And he said something quite interesting in his testimony, which I was struck by. He says the soldiers — of course, these guys were shackled, bound, you know, couldn’t move, surrounded by all kinds of military police and so on. But he said the guards were afraid of the prisoners. He said the guards had been so brainwashed by whatever training they went through, that they thought these prisoners were superhuman. He said that guards would come to his cell sometimes, where he’s shackled and, you know, so on, and ask him to perform some of his feats, like, you know, climb on the ceilings. „Will you show us how you do it?“ And this kind of thing. And, in fact, when they took them out to be interrogated, they’d have like a platoon of marines around them to make sure that they didn’t carry out some incredibly monstrous act that these soldiers had probably seen in a video movie somewhere. But he said they really were terrified of the prisoners.
And that tells us something else about our own society, that what are we doing to our own society when we’re creating such terror and fear among ordinary people? I mean, it’s kind of like having guns in — you know, armed policemen in schools. Is that what you want your children to see, that we live in a society where you have to have people with guns around to protect you from some unimaginable danger? And here, there’s another serious — as far as American culture is concerned, something very much to be concerned about. This is a very frightened society, always has been — goes back to colonial times. Very striking. Today it is taking a remarkable form. If you look at the — you know, the gun culture, the people who are pressing for having guns are terrified. A lot of them are simply terrified. They’re like these guards standing outside the prison. What are they terrified of? You’ve got to have guns to protect theirselves from who? The federal government, the United Nations, aliens, whoever it may be. We don’t know what horrible force is coming after us, but we have to have guns to protect ourselves. I mean, put aside the fact the guns wouldn’t do you any good and you’ll probably kill each other, but the fear throughout the society is simply incredible.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Just a couple of things in response to that. I was remembering, when you were talking about David Hicks’ story, this case that I came across in Yemen of a journalist named Abdulelah Haider Shaye. When President Obama first authorized the bombing of Yemen was in December of 2009. The first strike that we know of authorized under the Obama administration was on December 17th, 2009, in Yemen. There hadn’t been a bombing, a U.S. bombing, there, that we know of, since November of 2002. The first drone strike, actually, that was conducted outside of Afghanistan was in Yemen in 2002, and it killed a number of people, including a U.S. citizen named Kemal Derwish. And he actually was not — was not supposedly the target of that strike, but they claimed that he had ties to a terror cell called the Lackawanna Six, which, like many of the plots we’ve seen lately, seemed to have been the — in large part, the FBIbreaking up its own plot, and which is really scandalous if you look at how many times this has happened and all these cases of entrapment.
But so, President Obama starts — decides to start bombing Yemen in December of 2009. They do this strike on what they are told by the Yemeni government and by U.S. intelligence is an al-Qaeda training camp and that there is this notorious al-Qaeda figure who’s known to be in the camp. Well, it turned out that this guy, when we investigated it and went to Yemen and spoke to people that knew him and knew the infrastructure of AQAP, that he was an old jihadist who had fought in the mujahideen war in Afghanistan and had a very peripheral connection to al-Qaeda. So it seems like what happened is that, you know, the U.S. outsources a lot of its intelligence gathering in Yemen to notoriously corrupt Yemeni officials and agencies and to the Saudis, and the Saudis have their own war that they’re waging inside of Yemen. The U.S.-backed dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh was playing multiple sides — playing the Saudis, playing the U.S., playing various tribes inside the country. There were several occasions when Saleh fed the U.S. intelligence saying someone was al-Qaeda, and it turned out to being a political opponent of the regime that was being killed or assassinated by the U.S. on behalf, in the service of the dictator of Yemen.
And so, in this case, on December 17th, 2009, they bomb this village, supposedly to kill this one guy, who does not seem to have been anything even vaguely resembling a senior al-Qaeda figure in the country. And after the missile strike happens, the Yemeni government puts out a press release taking credit for the strike, saying it had conducted these air strikes. And the Obama administration congratulated the Yemeni government on taking the fight to the terrorists in Yemen.
A number of tribal leaders in Yemen got phone calls from this small, poor Bedouin village called al-Majalah that these missiles had slammed into the area and had shredded people into meat. And these tribal leaders went there, and also a young — this young journalist, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, who had done reporting and work for The Washington Post, for ABC News, for Al Jazeera. He was a very, very well-known journalist in Yemen. And he was known because he was a brave guy who would go and actually interview al-Qaeda figures. Much of what the United States knows about certain leaders in al-Qaeda comes from the reporting of Abdulelah Haider Shaye. You could look at one way and say he was a very valuable guy to have out talking to these people, because it helped the U.S. intelligence officials understand or operatives understand who it was they were supposedly trying to kill. But that’s for a different story.
So this guy goes there. These tribal leaders go there. And they take photographs of the missile parts. And they then show them, broadcast them on Al Jazeera and other outlets, and share them with Amnesty International. And Amnesty International has a weapons expert come in and analyze them, and they determined that they were — that it was a cruise missile attack. And when Rick and I were in Abyan province, we had the parts filmed. They’re still there in the desert, by the way. You can go — if you want to try to go to al-Majalah, you can go there, and they’re still in the middle of the desert, with „General Dynamics“ and „Made in the U.S.A.“ right there, visible, and we show this in our film. We show the aftermath of this bombing and the missile parts that were still there, you know, well after the bombs had dropped.
But the U.S. also — but the other bombs that they found there were cluster bombs, which of course are banned under international conventions. And the cluster bombs are basically — I saw the effect of them when the U.S. was using them in the Kosovo War in 1999. I went to the Nis marketplace after it was bombed in Serbia and saw the aftermath of it. They’re like flying land mines, and they shred everything in its path into meat and limbs. And it is horrifying to see the aftermath of any bombing, but cluster bombs are a particularly brutal weapon. And there were unexploded cluster bombs that were left there, and after the bombing had taken place, some children were playing near a cluster bomb and picked one of them up, and it blew them to pieces, two days after the bombing had happened.
So they take these pictures. They send them to Amnesty International. And these sheikhs, tribal sheikhs, organized a gathering to say that this is not the Yemeni government that did this, because Yemen doesn’t have these missiles. Amnesty does an analysis of them and determines that they were in fact U.S. weapons and that only the United States could have been responsible for that bombing.
And so, this sort of scandal was brewing inside of Yemen because the people who were killed there — there were at least 46 people killed. Fourteen of the people killed were women, and 21 were children. When the Yemeni Parliament, which is a — which is supported by the United States, went to investigate it, they listed all of the dead — their ages, their names, their genders — and I got a copy of that report and have the list of every single person that we know of that was killed in that strike. And we added it up, and it was 14 women and 21 children among the 46 dead, and in the pursuit of trying to kill this one person who the president of the United States had been told was this high-value target, who everyone in Yemen says was an older mujahideen who had primarily done his jihad in Afghanistan and not inside of Yemen.
When this started to become public, this Yemeni journalist was going on Al Jazeera and was helping other U.S. media outlets report that story, that it was in fact a U.S. strike. U.S. officials were denying it, and eventually then anonymously said, „Yes, we were behind the strike,“ but General David Petraeus said that no civilians were actually killed in the strike and that it’s all a big exaggeration, which was very offensive to Yemenis of all political stripes. And so, it was an enduring scandal.
And this one journalist was really pushing this story, and he continued to report on other — on the expanding U.S. air war in Yemen. And one night, in the middle of the night, he was — in the middle of the day, he was out with a friend of his who was a political cartoonist, and they were shopping, and he was snatched by U.S.-backed, U.S.-trained counterterrorism forces in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, and was taken to the political security prison and was beaten bloody by the security services and told that he was to stop talking about the missile strikes. And then they released him onto the streets. And what this journalist did was to go straight to Al Jazeera and say, „I was just beaten by the political security officers, and they’re trying to stop me from talking about the U.S. missile strikes that are happening in the country.“
And soon after he did that, his house was raided by the CTU, the counterterrorism unit, which is a JSOC- and CIA-trained entity. And they snatched him out of his home and disappeared him for 30 days. And no one knew where he was. And then they hauled him into a court that had been specifically set up by the dictatorship to prosecute journalists for crimes against the state, and was ultimately convicted of being an al-Qaeda facilitator, because he facilitated al-Qaeda members being able to speak to the media, and which — I’ve talked to people in U.S. intelligence who actually also believe that this case is outrageous, because they said, „You took off the streets one of the best reporters that we would read so we could actually understand what was going on in Yemen, because of the notorious corruption of all of the informants.“
So he is put into this prison. He’s put on trial, total sham trial. His lawyers refuse to present a defense. No lawyer would represent him, at his own request, because he said, „I don’t want to recognize a shred of legitimacy of this process.“ And we have video of him when he is in prison. They bring him in front of the — into the courtroom in a cell. They have him in a cage in a cell. And as they’re pulling him away, he said, „My crime is exposing the American missile attack on the tiny Bedouin village of al-Majalah in Abyan province. They’re putting me in jail because I exposed their cruise missile attack.“ And he said, „This is what happens when Yemeni journalists are real journalists,“ and they pull him away, and they disappear him into this prison.
There was so much outrage in Yemen, from his tribe and from human rights organizations and from mainstream civil society in Yemen, that the dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had no choice but to issue a pardon against Abdulelah Haider Shaye. This happens a lot in Yemen. Someone gets arrests, the tribes protest, and then the person is released. It’s a whole — it’s a game that’s been playing out in that country for a long time. So, he’s going to issue a pardon, and the official news service, the Saba News Agency, does a report saying that this journalist is going to be pardoned.
That day, the dictator of Yemen receives a phone call from the White House — not from some liaison, not from secretary of state — from President Obama himself, personally. And President Obama tells the dictator of Yemen that he’s deeply concerned about news that Abdulelah Haider Shaye is going to be released. And the pardon is torn up. And lest you think I’m making this up or I’ve just heard it secondhand, I know this because the White House put it on their own website in a read-out of the phone call from that day. And when I called the State Department to ask them — this is a year-and-a-half after Abdulelah Haider had been in prison since this phone call — „What is the U.S. State Department’s position on Abdulelah Haider Shaye?“ they said, „Our position remains the same as that articulated by President Obama in that phone call. We believe he should be kept in prison.“ So this journalist is in prison because of the president of the United States making a phone call and having his pardon ripped up.
And he is not doing well in prison. I’m in touch with his family. He is — my understanding is that he’s losing — he’s starting to lose his mind, which is very common with people that are kept in solitary confinement or in these conditions.
And none of news organizations that worked with him in the U.S. — ABC News, Washington Post and — none of them have said anything about his case. Where are they? When he’s getting them sensationalist footage, when he interviewed Anwar al-Awlaki, they all wanted to broadcast his comments about Nidal Hasan, you know, who conducted the massacre at Fort Hood, Texas. And they wanted to ask — they wanted to know what Awlaki said about the underwear bomber. You know why we know what Awlaki thought about that? Because Abdulelah Haider Shaye found him, interviewed him and published it in The Washington Post, on NBC. And yet, when he’s in prison, they say nothing. It’s shameful. It’s shameful.
And that’s often what happens in these cases. Journalists — journalists, like myself and others, we go into these countries. And, you know, I encourage people to read the acknowledgments in my book, because I tell you — I name the names of all of the journalists in Yemen and Somalia and Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world who made it possible for this story to be told. And they’re the real heroes of this. Unfamous journalists, who report oftentimes not in English, take the great risks. People like me, I go in, and I can go somewhere for a few weeks or a month, and I depend on them to be able to tell these stories. And so, when something happens to one of our colleagues — Somalia, journalists are being gunned down in record numbers; in Yemen, journalists are being thrown in prison — if we don’t speak up when we have a platform and defend our colleagues, we should be ashamed of ourselves, and we should be ashamed to call ourselves journalists.
AMY GOODMAN: Noam, as we wrap up, this is the week that the Bush library is being opened in Dallas, where there is an evaluation, a reevaluation going on of his record. It’s the 10th anniversary of the War in Iraq. And today we’re talking about the years of the Obama administration. Can you talk about President Obama’s record?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, let me tell you what I felt, and maybe some of the rest of you felt, when I saw the pictures of the Bush library presentation. There was a group of men standing there, former presidents, the ones that are alive. Every one of them is a major criminal. A major criminal. Obama is continuing the grand tradition — shouldn’t be a great surprise. And I guess the sentence that came to my mind at the time is actually from Thomas Jefferson, who said once that — he said, „I tremble for my country when I think that God is just, and some day will bring us to his judgment.“ Well, if we can’t them to some kind of judgment either, if not in the courts, at least in public opinion, then it’s kind of like what Jeremy said: We’re not doing are duty just as responsible people.
AMY GOODMAN: And let — Jeremy, we’re going to end with you. This is your second major book. Your first book was Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, where you really reframed — you reframed the whole discussion about mercenaries and the privatization of the U.S. military. Suffice it to say, here we are, what, six years later, and Erik Prince had to move, the founder of Blackwater, to Abu Dhabi, and you remain here in the United States. Less — and I wanted to ask, with this second book — and Jeremy is going to be signing afterwards, and I encourage everyone to get this book, not just for interesting summer reading, but that we can see a spring and a summer of U.S. foreign policy. When we are informed, what a difference it makes to begin with those tools, to be empowered, to challenge what we — how we are represented in the rest of the world. But I want to ask you, Jeremy, finally — your new book is called Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. What are you hoping to accomplish with this book? And why you even call it Dirty Wars?
JEREMY SCAHILL: One thing that I think you’ll notice if you read the book — you know, I’ve talked to friends about the — you know, when I wroteBlackwater. I think I’ve grown up a lot since I wrote that book, in a sense, because something really strange happened to me after I wrote Blackwater, and that was that I started to get emails and other electronic communications from people that had served in special operations forces or worked with the CIA — not senior officials. I don’t hobnob with the powerful ever. In fact, when I was talking about this official who told me what he said about the killing of Abdulrahman, I had to chase him around the campus of a university I found him on, and, you know, he did not want to speak to me. I had to sort of chase him. That’s pretty much the only interaction I have with powerful officials is chasing them somewhere.
But I started to get communications from operators and people that were doing these operations. And there was a sort of a pattern to them early on, and sometimes they would come to events and come up to me afterwards. And they would say, you know, „I don’t“ — a lot of them would say, „I don’t care very much for your politics, but you were totally right about Blackwater. You know, I can’t stand them.“ And I got to know people in that world, in that community, because they also were — had problems with Blackwater and didn’t like various actions or problems that the company’s actions had caused for their units or the fact that they were getting paid so much more than the conventional soldiers — whatever it was. But I started a dialogue with some of these people that continues to this day, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from them about how these operations run.
And what I tried to do in the book — I mean, I hope I succeeded, to a degree, with it — is to weave in and out of stories that show the complicated landscape of the killing fields and the men who do the operations on the ground, the figures who are identified as the targets, the civilians that are forced to live on the other side of the barrel of the gun or in the place where the bombs are going off, and to put it in a historical context.
I think if you had asked me years ago what I think — you know, what I wanted to accomplish or what I think should be done, I would have pretended to have an answer, because I think it’s — I was, you know — I was bull-headed.
I think that we, unfortunately, are only at the very beginning of a conversation that we have to — that’s urgent and that we have to have in this country about how far we, as a society, have let things go since 9/11 in the name of protecting our security. And I concur very much with what Noam said about being gripped by fear. You know, fear is a very powerful force. And if you don’t figure out a way to confront it and not be owned by it, then things like the PATRIOT Act happen, and civil liberties get rolled back. And, you know, people say, „Oh, NDAA, the people that are whining about that are crazy, and it’s conspiracy theory,“ and all of these things. And you just have — just study history. It starts somewhere. It starts with an idea, and then a crisis happens, and they implement the idea that’s been laying around. You know, it’s a very age-old concept.
And my hope is that people use the book as actionable intelligence, which is actually an — you know, a term in the CIA or in the targeting business. But I want it to be actionable intelligence to work toward a democratic process of confronting our own fear and also holding those in power accountable, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans. I think all of us should be defined not by the public pronouncements of politicians, but by what we do in response to the actions they’re doing in our name. And that’s the spirit I wrote this book in.