The Dirt Under His Nails: A Conversation With Investigative Journalist Jeremy Scahill
“… There’s no such thing as objectivity. Objectivity is a term that is used by the powerful to slander people who actually care. Objectivity is a weapon of the powerful as it is defined in journalism schools or as defined in media discourse in the US or Western society. The most important qualities of a journalist have nothing to do with that fake notion of objectivity. …”
Jeremy Scahill has made his mark as one of US media’s best investigative journalists. Over the span of three decades, first cutting his journalistic teeth with Democracy Now! on radio and then to The Nation, Scahill has broken numerous stories unveiling the shadowy undercurrent of America’s war on terrorism.
Al-Akhbar interviewed Scahill before a screening of his documentary “Dirty Wars,” which recounts his journey investigating the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) – the White House’s secret global assassination squad – at the American University of Beirut.
Scahill discussed the existence of US special ops in Syria, the evolution of the war on terror, and what it takes to make a solid investigative journalist.
The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
Yazan al-Saadi: A lot of your work deals with with drones, private military firms, and recently JSOC. What attracted you to these topics?
Jeremy Scahill: For most of my time as a journalist, I wasn’t doing investigative journalism at all. I viewed my role as a journalist as going to places where the US was conducting military or CIA operations and trying to tell the stories of people who lived under the other side of the missiles. I was trying to humanize the victims of US wars.
When the invasion of Iraq happened, I’ve been spending all this time in Baghdad, and then the killing of the four Americans took place, [the four] were working for Blackwater.
The city of Fallujah was destroyed by the Americans in a revenge assault. I [had] spent a lot of time in Fallujah, I really loved that city, I knew a lot of people there. When it was destroyed, and people I knew got killed, I started with a very simple question: Why were the lives of these four Americans worth the destruction of an entire city?
I started investigating who they were, and that led me into this dark world of private contractors and covert operations. It was after Fallujah that I tilted from primarily doing journalism that was trying to humanize victims of war to asking why we were targeting these people and who benefits from these policies.
Now I see myself doing a mixture: trying to track down the money, trying to hold accountable the people in the US who were implementing these policies or conducting them on the ground, and then trying to put a human face on the victims of war.
YS: What are your thoughts on what’s currently happening in Iraq, particularly the events in Anbar?
JS: Everything that has happened in Iraq since 2003 is related to the US invasion and occupation. Iraq, what happened to the country and it’s people, is a horrifying crime. The US policy has been consistent in Iraq, going back to the first days of Saddam Hussein in power. It’s been consistently anti-Iraqi civilian.
Now, you see the taking of various cities and towns in the western part of Iraq. There are people who are supposedly al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda doesn’t exist as it did in 9/11. What has happened is that there has been a fracturing of a central organization, and now you have these regional cells that have popped up and have been fighting for their own turf. Many of them probably do share Osama bin Laden’s world view, but they are not reporting to Ayman al-Zawahri. They have their own agendas.
The US is going to use this situation in Iraq to justify an escalation in covert action in Iraq. There was a piece in the Washington Post two weeks ago about how the CIA is ratcheting up its paramilitary activities inIraq. I think in both Iraq and Afghanistan you are going to see – or not see – an increase of [American] paramilitary activities.
JS: JSOC and the CIA’s paramilitary divisions.
YS: Does that mean they are going to be involved in Syria too?
JS: They already are involved. I have talked to people in the US special operation community and the intelligence community. There are small cells of Americans that are in Syria. Some of them are attached to rebel groups, and some of them are operating independently. But it’s not some huge American occupation. They are “advisers.”
YS: What do you mean when you say “advisers”?
JS: Advisers could mean anything. Advisers can play an active role in a conflict, or they can be giving satellite imagery, facilitating weapons shipments, doing training, or consulting with the leadership of the Free Syrian Army or other rebel factions. I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of what they are doing, I’m just telling you what the range of options are. But I have heard from people in the special-ops community and the intelligence community that there are in fact actual American citizens inside of Syria.
Russia is there, too. Russia has mercenaries, Iran has maybe people from al-Quds force or others that are inside. Syria is a horrid bloodbath, and there is not a single good guy in a leadership position of any of these groups.
In order for Bashar al-Assad to be effectively and credibly tried as a war criminal, Donald Rumsfeld would have to be sitting in a cell. And that’s not going to happen.Who pays the price of this? It’s ordinary Syrians. The US, Russian, Iran, Hezbollah, Qatar, Turkey should all be held accountable for what they are doing, alongside the Syrians that are doing this.
YS: What makes a ‘good’ investigative journalist?
JS: First of all, I don’t think anyone should be a journalist if you think of it as your career. If you think of it as a way to make money, you are in for a long ride. I think being a journalist has to burn in your heart, it has to be who you are as a person.
To me, it’s not a course of academic pursuit that creates a good or great journalist. It’s someone who actually cares about the people they encounter. Journalists by nature are thieves. They steal people’s stories. It’s such a cold, asshole culture. I think the best journalists are people who never forget those who let them into their lives.
In the course of doing [Dirty Wars], I met so many people whose loved ones were killed in drone strikes or night raids or other US bombings, and I was humbled by the fact that they were willing to invite us into their homes and share these stories with us. I’ve seen it over and over in different countries, and heard it in different languages around the world. It’s humbling.
YS: What about the question of ‘objectivity’?
JS: There’s no such thing as objectivity. Objectivity is a term that is used by the powerful to slander people who actually care. Objectivity is a weapon of the powerful as it is defined in journalism schools or as defined in media discourse in the US or Western society. The most important qualities of a journalist have nothing to do with that fake notion of objectivity.
Are your facts straight? Are you being accurate? Are you transparent with your reader, your viewer, or your listener about where you are coming from, who you are, and what your perspective is on the topic? And is what you are doing providing a public service? Is it information that people can use to make informed decisions?
The way objectivity is been defined corrupts journalism, because it presupposes that the state always has a right to spin its version of events. I just don’t believe that.
YS: Doesn’t it go further, as in it’s certain states that have that right?
JS: Maybe you’ll disagree with what I’m going to say, but I’ll say it. I think [Syrian president] Bashar al-Assad is a war criminal. I would like to see Bashar al-Assad stand justice for what he’s done. I also think that there are various so-called rebels who should be sitting right next to him and their factions should be held accountable.
But not a single word I’ve just uttered means anything when the US is the chief force in the world blocking the establishment of an international criminal court.
In order for Bashar al-Assad to be effectively and credibly tried as a war criminal, Donald Rumsfeld would have to be sitting in a cell. And that’s not going to happen. The US and its allies support a system where it’s victor’s justice. To me it’s totally morally bankrupt. It’s part of why these wars continue.
YS: How do you reconcile that as a journalist? Do you not feel disgruntled or feel like you should simply give up?
JS: We may not see the end results of our work for decades or generations, but I’m not obsessed with short-term efficacy. I’m obsessed with the idea that the role of journalists is to do the unpopular, and the role of journalists is to be a check against the powerful. That’s what motivates me.
The bravest journalists in the world right now, no one in the Western world knows their names because they are not reporting in English. I take great inspiration from the stories of my colleagues who are unfamous journalists, who do the hardest work out here.
YS: There’s a quote in Dirty Wars: “As an investigative reporter, you rarely have people’s attention.” Can you elaborate on that more?
JS: I can read any day of the week a fantastic investigative story by a great journalist, some of whom work for great powerful media outlets, many of whom work for small poorer outlets, and it’s like no one cares, no one is paying attention to it.
It goes back to the question you were asking earlier, “Why don’t you just give up?” I admire people who have the tenacity to keep going, even when it seems no one is listening.
YS: Is that why you are involved in this new [media venture] with Glenn [Greenwald] and Laura [Poitras]?
JS: It came about accidentally. Glenn was at The Guardian, Laura is independent, but she was doing a lot of work with the German media, and I was at The Nation, and we were talking about creating a place where if established media wouldn’t publish our work we would have a place to publish it, and we wanted it to be also to be a repository for documents from whistle blowers and others.
Right about that time, someone got in touch with Glenn, who was a mutual friend of his and Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, and started a series of discussions between them.
It became clear that [Omidyar] wanted to build an adversarial news organization. So we’ve been trying to carve out what we think an ideal news organization would look like. At its center would be investigative journalism, but it’s also going to take an adversarial position to US government’s violations of freedom of the press, privacy of the American and non-Americans, and sort of upending war, power, and the military-industrial complex.
YS: Returning to the topic of the War on Terror, how has it evolved?
JS: Let’s be clear, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush ran Murder Inc. These guys had PhDs in mass killings. People ask: Is Obama worse than Bush? On a body count level – which is a disgusting way of calculating these things – of course not.
In my perspective of what happened, what started in Afghanistan, the public was told was a limited campaign to bring to justice perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. Fast forward to January 2014, it’s become a borderless war, where the US – under a Democrat president – reserves the right to assassinate anyone it pleases in any country it pleases at whatever moment it pleases.
It has evolved from being a response to an act of terrorism that has become a permanent way of American war-making.
YS: What lessons can we in the region learn from that?
JS: I just came from Cairo. There are posters of General Sisi, who is basically America’s client now, everywhere. There are posters of how Egypt is in a war against terrorism. They’ve now classified the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, which is an astonishingly stupid and ominous thing for the dictatorship to have done.
Hezbollah has adopted that rhetoric now. The Russians says that it’s in a war against terrorism. Iran has adopted it. The Syrians say it.
And Syria has become a microcosm for all of these proxy wars. With all these players – Hezbollah, Russia, Qatar, Turkey, Egypt to an extent, and others – they have all taken a lesson from the American playbook and they said: “Oh, the best way to justify our military or paramilitary actions is to say we are fighting against terrorism. It worked for the Americans, it worked for us.” It’s an Americanization of the rhetoric.
YS: Where do you see the future of journalism?
JS: I think we are in a very exciting moment because of WikiLeaks, and because of what Edward Snowden did. There is a whole generation of young people who speak a different language. Their activism is online. They are very taken with various hacker collectives that have popped up.
I don’t know what’s going to happen, but to me, the real hope is if old school journalists – and I count myself among them – if we can figure out the way to combine the proven tactics of muckraking journalism, fact checking, and on-the-ground reporting with the innovation and creativity of young journalists who speak this different language online, then I think we can build something exciting.
What I would say to young journalists is: If you don’t have someone editing your work or fact-checking it or reviewing it and giving feedback, then you are going to go down a path of disaster. We have to preserve that part of the old journalism model, where facts actually matter and it’s not just everyone’s opinion and our stories are not just done in 140 characters at a time. I think we can do that.
If you do not have dirt under your nails, you are not a real journalist. It’s not that you should be an unhygienic person [laughs], it’s that you have to be out in the field and getting your hands dirty talking to people. It’s trying to figure out those two worlds and take what’s good in both of them and create a new model. That doesn’t exist, but I think it will.