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Midday Movies: 'Dirty Wars'

June 19, 2013 8:21 a.m.

Beth Accomando, KPBS Arts Reporter
Jeremy Scahill, Journalist and Author of "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army" and "Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield"

Related Story: Midday Movies: 'Dirty Wars'


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Revelations about how the U.S. government has collected huge amounts of data on average Americans have been dominating the headlines. The Obama administration claims such sweeps by the NSA have kept us safe from terrorist plots. Now comes another revolution about efforts to keep America safe from terrorism. But this story, if true, is far more deadly. Jeremy Scahill travelled around the world in an effort to document America's covert military actions against suspected terrorists. His film, dirty wars, opens in San Diego this week. Beth Accomando spoke with him when he was in San Diego.

ACCOMANDO: Before we start, let's play the trailer from dirty wars to set the scene.


>>> I got a strange phone call. Someone from the inside was reaching out to me. Someone close to the heart of the president's elite force.

>> There are hundreds of covert operations. On multiple continents. With the full support of the White House.

>> It's hard to say when this story began. This was supposed to be the frontline in the war on terror. But I knew I was missing the story. There was another war, hidden in the shadows.

ACCOMANDO: Putting a film like this together can take a lot of time. When did you start planning to make this into a film?

SCAHILL: Richard Raleigh, the director of the film and I had been working together for more than a decade. I had been in Iraq with Rick's wife who is also a journalist. And we had been around each other in various conflict zones and wanted to do a project together. And in 2009, I started on a new investigation. And I was planning on going to Afghanistan to look at the war within the war. You have the conventional military and you have embedded journalists, and wean what's happening with marines and others. But there was this sort of war buried within it, a special operations war of Navy seals and other guys who are hunting down high-level targets. And we realized it was a much bigger story than Afghanistan and that these units were operating globally with very little congressional oversight. So we ended up going to Yemen and Somalia and elsewhere around the globe.

ACCOMANDO: What kind of context would you like viewers to have to appreciate your story?

SCAHILL: We wanted it to be accessible to people even if they aren't political or they sort of know that we have drone warfare going on. I think all of us in this post-911 reality that we find ourselves in are tired of the wars. So we wanted to pose a series of questions in our film that I think all of us should confront about whether our policies are making us more or less safe, whether we're killing more terrorists than we are making new enemies and the consequences of expanding our battlefield at a time when we have a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan and a significant drawdown in Iraq, the wars seem to be spreading into new countries. So the context for it is trying to present people with a story that I think cuts to the heart of how our society has changed over the 10, 12 years of what Bush called the war on terror and Obama has rebranded as something else.

ACCOMANDO: There's a lot of emphasis placed on the need for objectivity in journalism. But I don't think subjectivity is necessarily a bad thing. And you have a lot of experiences that give you a subjective point of view in this story.

SCAHILL: Yeah, I think there's a myth of objective journalism. I think there are some fantastic New York Times reporters but I don't think they're an objective player. When Judith Miller was -- she was basically serving as a conveyor belt for whatever propaganda they were putting out. I think there's something that's intellectually honest about a journalist who says I've been to these places and this is what I think. The dishonesty would come in if you aren't revealing your hand to the reader or the viewer and are sort of pretending as though you see as well. There's what he said and then there's what she said. And what was interesting about making this film is that we started off doing something very different. It was going to be much more of a linear documentary. I wasn't going to be the character the way they am in the film where it's sort of a personal narrative. I was going to be facilitating this journey where you'd go from country to country. And we ultimately decided that it's important to share with the viewer the journey that the person that they're supposedly following in our film, which is me pause I'm not an actor, I don't like being on camera, but ultimately felt like we needed to have some personal aspect to it so that people could understand who this stranger is that they're being asked to spend 88 minutes with.

ACCOMANDO: I see you as more of an activist than a journalist, and I mean that in the sense that I see you as advocating for the truth.

SCAHILL: Yeah. The only reason I object to you saying that is because if you look at the book that I wrote, it has 150 pages of footnotes. And I try to make sure my facts are in order. But I do have very deep concerns as an American about our policies and the potential for it to harm us, but also what it does to the moral character of our society. And I don't pretend that I have a sort of view of these wars where there's this way and that way of look at it. I've been doing this basically my entire adult life, traveling in U.S. conflict zones. And I've come to the conviction that we're actually making more enemies than we're killing terrorists. But in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, the media coverage was excellent on who the victims were. And we know all of their stories. And one of the reasons that coverage is so powerful is because we relate to the victims and the first responders because they're human to us. And that was true of the school shootings too. If we applied that same standard to people who are wrongly killed in drone strikes or missile strikes and I don't just view them as oh, that's Yemen, they're half a world away, we'd have a different dialogue in this country. And that's what we wanted to do, to humanize stories of people we wouldn't recognize know. It was important to me to look at the sameness of humanity. Because people that were killed in Boston have every right to have their lives recognized for how they lived them, but also what they lost in terms of the future. But it's also true for people in Yemen or Somalia. The same is true. And that's really what I think motivated Rick and myself in making this film, was to try to put a human face on these covert wars.

ACCOMANDO: Why did you feel that a documentary was the best way to get this information out there to the public as opposed to doing something on television or print?

SCAHILL: It's a very good question. Films really resonate with me. I'm a movie junkie. And you're asking people to spend an hour and a half with you, and you're taking them down this journey. And a lot of times it could be that you're watching the Bourne Identity, and you're zoning out. We wanted to make a film that would tell a very serious story but also engage people on an artistic level. If you look at your film, our director is a really talented guy with an unusual style. I didn't ever imagine myself making a film or being involved with a film, not to mention being in a film. But it was a really challenging amazing way of telling a story. I'm used to writing, and when you're writing, you're trying to paint a picture that someone will never see in real life. You're painting it with words. And to have the camera almost felt like cheating because you actually can show people what you saw. And I think film is a very powerful vehicle for changing hearts and minds or spurring debate or discussion. And I feel like we did something that is going to contribute to a discussion in this country, and that was the whole point.

ACCOMANDO: We get a lot of narrative films that try to look like documentaries. But you give us a documentary that develops a really strong narrative story line.

SCAHILL: You know how that happened, we were making a pretty different film before. It was going to be more linear, and the narration was going to be nonpersonal and just sort of this is what's happening in Somalia, Yemen. And we thought we were done with our film about a year before we actually were done with it. And we asked this friend of ours who is a fiction writer, and he made a couple of wonderful films, and we thought he was going to hang out with us for a couple weeks and help us craft our story and figure out what the holes were. And David ended up working with us for a year. And we totally rewrote the film. And David didn't sort of -- didn't write the narration and say I think you should say this. He spent endless hours interviewing me and Rick and taking notes. Then he started to send me back my own words but structured in a way that added some kind of a human dimension to our story. And he really was the driving force behind making the film a personal narrative journey. And it was largely just through him sending him back things that I said to him. Our film was really top-heavy at first. And David said you have to take people on a journey. And one of the themes of our film was that a lot of these things are hidden in plain sight. Our own story had been hidden in plain sight, and David helped us realize that. He's such a fantastic story teller, and he really helped us to tell the story we should have been telling all along. I was honored to work with him. But we thought we were done and just going to tweak some things here and there, we made a completely different film.

ACCOMANDO: Were there any surprises in the film?

SCAHILL: I was banned from Pakistan. We tried to go to Pakistan because that's the center of the drone war. And it turns out I'm banned from Pakistan for reporting I did years ago about the private security company Blackwater. So we were looking at other countries to go to. And when the WikiLeaks cables were released, we were already looking at Somalia. And we dug up these references in the WikiLeaks cables to she's Somali war lords that were on the U.S. payroll. So we set out to find them. And I was stunned that they actually agreed to talk to us. One of the war lords in our film, a guy who says America knows war, they're war Americas was this notorious thug who was on the CIA payroll from very soon after 911, working and hunting down people the U.S. designated as enemies. And I met him for the first time in my roby, Kenya. He was living at a hotel that was owned by Muammar Gaddafi. And I waited outside the gym one night and approached this Somali warlord, who is this massive imposing figure, and ended up tracking him down and getting him to sit down and talk to me. And I was stunned they was sitting face-to-face with a approximate guy who I had been reading about in these classified diplomatic cables that was basically the American man in Mogadishu. Some people, like teenaged girls or whatever, they scream when they see Justin Bieber. He was like my Justin Bieber. I know all about your greatest hits!

ACCOMANDO: What impact would you like the film to have?

SCAHILL: I would have pretended I had all these answers if you asked me ten years ago. And we struggled with how to end the film, and we wanted to stay away from it feeling like a preachy thing. And we ended our film on a series of questions about what has happened to us as a society, what will happen to us if we start to humanize the people that live on the other side of the missiles. And I think our ask is quite a modest one. We want people to face these questions we should have been asking a long time ago. And hopefully it'll be something that people will leave the theatre and want to discuss then when they go to dinner or hang out. It's not right that the only people who have to pay attention to these wars are people who have loved ones deployed in the U.S. military. And that's for the most part who is paying attention to these wars. I think we want to contribute to a dialogue that should have started a decade ago about what the potential impact of these policies will be on our own security, but also in our standing in the world and how this impacts other societies. We've lost a lot of moral credibility in the world because of what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and the perception that we're operating with a double standard. And I think we need to have a real serious reset of our approach to how we perceive national security.

ACCOMANDO: Does the film offer a call to action for the audience?

SCAHILL: I think we can win the battle of asking the White House to actually provide the American people with an explanation for how one gets on and off a kill list besides being drone-bombed. How do you surrender to a drone if you haven't been indicted? How do you respond to it? I think we can apply pressure so at a minimum, we have some basic understanding of how the kill list works. But as far as radically changing U.S. foreign policy, people put a lot of hopes in Obama. And I think that there's a sort of disingenuous critique of him as though he was this radical left wing guy. He wasn't. Anyone who's going to be president of the United States first and foremost is going to be engaged in American exceptionalism. So Obama has been a pretty militarized president. And I think it would require us having several hundred different people in Congress who actually cared more about these issues than they did raising money for their next campaign. To me, money in politics should be one of the biggest issues. Because corporations are in control our electoral process. And that affects everything. So it would require throwing the crooks out. I don't know if that's ever going to happen.