Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill

The best-selling author shares the backstory of his new book and documentary, Dirty Wars, which looks at America’s covert wars in a post 9-11 world.

Jeremy Scahill is The Nation magazine's national security correspondent and a writing fellow at The Nation Institute. An award-winning investigative journalist whose work has sparked several Congressional investigations, he's reported from around the globe, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and the former Yugoslavia. He's also extensively covered the military-industrial complex and is the author of the best-selling text, Blackwater. Scahill's new book, Dirty Wars, takes readers inside America’s new covert wars and is the basis for a documentary feature of the same name, which won an award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.


Tavis: Just how far this country should be willing to go in the name of national security is, of course, open for debate. For many Americans, the use of drones, CIA-directed assassinations, of terrorists and other covert operations conducted without public scrutiny or judicial oversight clash with our views of ourselves as a country committed to democracy and the rule of law.

Award-winning journalist and best-selling author Jeremy Scahill of “The Nation” magazine tackles this murky issue in a documentary that will be released theatrically next month, and in an impressive new book called “Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield.” Jeremy, I am delighted to have you on this program.

Jeremy Scahill: I’m happy to be back with you, Tavis.

Tavis: I once saw you hanging out with my friend Jay Leno, and Jay just turned to camera and asked, “Why are you still alive?” (Laughter) Because the truth that you tell is so uncompromising, it is so courageous, the conviction that you wear is so real, these are the kinds of truths that get people in trouble, and sometimes dead.

Scahill: Well, I’m more worried about my taxes getting audited at this point, so. (Laughter)

Tavis: I think –

Scahill: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: That’s a foregone conclusion.

Scahill: Right, right.

Tavis: I think you can expect that’s going to happen at some point.

Scahill: Yeah.

Tavis: Let me start before I get into the text, just as we’re talking about this, where it is that this commitment to being a truth-teller comes from. What in your background, what in your upbringing, what in your family, what in your training – I know you started out with my good friend Amy Goodman at Democracy Now. But tell me how this became your vocation, your calling in life.

Scahill: Both of my parents are nurses, and I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They were social justice-minded people. I grew up in an Irish-Catholic family and my dad was very big on liberation theology, so we sort of learned a different part of the faith when we were growing up, and I think that was really influential, this idea that all of us in some way should have a preferential option for the poor, and that we have some obligation in our life to stand with people who are victims.

I wanted to be a schoolteacher, actually, when I was growing up, and then a funny thing happened where I found out I’m not a good student myself at university. (Laughter)

So I had left school in, I guess it was like ’95, ’96. I had dropped out of college and I hitchhiked to D.C., and I was living and working in this homeless shelter called the Community for Creative Nonviolence, and I was listening to a lot of talk radio at the time.

I heard this voice on the radio talking about the rebels who were trying to overthrow Mobutu Sese Seko, the U.S.-backed dictator in Congo, and it was Amy Goodman. I had never heard anything like that, so I started writing her letters.

I said I don’t have any journalism experience, but if you have a dog, I’ll walk your dog or I’ll wash your windows. Like, I wanted to be a part of that world. I think Amy had to decide whether to, like, get a restraining order against me or, like, let me volunteer. (Laughter)

So I started off as a coffee runner for Amy, and I learned journalism as a trade rather than – I didn’t view it as a career. I still don’t view it as a career; it’s a way of life. I got to go to all the – I started off, I went to Nigeria, and then I went to Iraq.

At the beginning, I was just sort of making my way, like, just by luck, kind of, and figuring out how to do this stuff, and I remember the first time when I went to Iraq in 1998 and I was doing a story in Basra in the south of Iraq.

I said, “This is what I want to do. I want to tell stories of people who live on the other side of the barrel of the gun that is U.S. foreign policy. I want to tell their story. That’s how I started in journalism.

Tavis: Speaking of journalism, all of this starts with asking questions and asking the right questions. I’m not naïve in asking this question, but why, then, are there so few Jeremys, so few Amy Goodmans? Why are there so few people in a medium called journalism that are afraid to ask the tough questions?

Scahill: I think we live in a sort of infotainment society right now. It’s more important what JWoww and Snookie and the real housewives of whatever city are doing than what’s happening in a place like Somalia, with the real widows of Mogadishu.

I think part of it is that you see corporate advertising driving the priorities of news organizations. That’s not to say that there aren’t excellent reporters, and some of them work for big corporate media outlets.

But many of my journalists don’t even report in English. They’re working for Arabic-language publications and they’re covering the war in Syria right now, or they’re on the ground in Libya.

We hear about it when a famous American correspondent goes missing somewhere, but there are scores of journalists who get killed or go missing every year and we hear nothing about it because they’re not famous on our airwaves.

So I think there is heroic journalism that’s being done around the world, and real journalism, but I think part of it has to do with our culture. We’re a sort of Ritalin society right now where everything is expressed in 140 characters on Twitter, and that passes as journalism or media coverage.

So just to be able to sit with you and have a conversation longer than three minutes is unusual in our society right now.

Tavis: Yeah. So a few weeks ago all the White House correspondents had a good time hanging out with the president at the White House correspondents dinner, and he killed. He was amazing. All the jokes worked and people laughed and had a good time.

But when they’re not in that room once a year laughing with the president, this particular White House corps, press corps, has been really on the president’s back of late about the access that they are denied to him, and this White House has become really, really slick at circumventing the White House press corps, and they will go to a talk radio show or they’ll go over here, they’ll go to –

Scahill: Or the late-night shows.

Tavis: Or the late-night shows, or they’ll go to “The View.” I’m not casting aspersion on them. If you can get the president booked on your program, God bless you, I ain’t mad at you.

I’m talking about from the other end of this prism, the White House’s perspective of the way the media works and the way to get their message out is to avoid the Jeremy Scahills of the world, to avoid the Amy Goodmans of the world, to avoid whoever is going to ask the tough questions.

Scahill: Why, has the president been on here with you?

Tavis: Is that a serious question? (Laughter)

Scahill: No, no, I’m putting you in that same category.

Tavis: Yeah, no, I’m in that category. He ain’t been here, and I don’t think he’s coming. I still love him; he can come any day he wants.

Scahill: Right.

Tavis: But that’s the question, though. Why is it that the highest office in the land gets away with avoiding the tough questions? Even the last “60 Minutes” interview.

I love “60 Minutes.” Watch it every week; it’s on my TiVo, my DVR or whatever. I watch it all the time. But they softballed that President Obama / Secretary Clinton interview. It was just a wet kiss.

Scahill: Yeah, puff pieces, right.

Tavis: Yeah.

Scahill: But it’s part of the infotainment society. But also, look actually the issue of drones. When was the first time that President Obama spoke publicly about drones? Was it in a hard-hitting interview with Chuck Todd or someone?

No. On a Google+ hangout, and it was because an ordinary person asked about it when the president was doing one of these Google hangouts. Then he makes a joke about drones at the White House Correspondents Association.

This shouldn’t be acceptable, that that’s how we’re discussing what is one of the centerpieces of America’s counterterrorism policy right now – jokes at a dinner with celebrities and journalists, and talking about it on a Google+ hangout. These are life-and-death issues.

This White House also is waging a war against whistleblowers. They have used the Espionage Act more than all past administrations combined. They’re going after anyone that’s blowing the whistle on the Bush-era torture program. They’re trying to get them locked up and shut up.

Yet people who were a part of that program, torturing people, people like Jose Rodriguez, the former senior CIA guy, he’s getting book contracts and is being profiled in interviews and having movies made about him.

So I think the priorities are so out of whack, and I think that because you have this popular Democratic president who is a very likeable guy, and I think that a lot of those journalists are very honored to be hanging out, and maybe they’re going to get to shoot hoops with Reggie Love and the president.

But that’s not journalism. That’s sort of – it’s almost like celebrity worship. So I don’t put all of the onus on the White House. I think a lot of it has to do with a culture of lazy journalism. There are not tough questions that are often being asked of the president and his advisers by the highest-profile journalists in this country, and that’s part of the problem.

Tavis: But if the White House snubs you to even sit down and talk to you, what’s a journalist to do?

Scahill: Oh, I know. Well, first of all, journalists could have solidarity with each other and say we’re not going to participate in the dog-and-pony show anymore. I think that news organizations should be collaborating on pressuring this White House to be more transparent, to make the president available more often, to actually answer tough questions. So it’s a two-way road.

Tavis: So why aren’t they more transparent about the drones? It’s clear that they’re not forthcoming about it to Congress, much less the American people. What are they hiding? Why not talk about it?

Scahill: I think we have a real problem with overclassification right now. I think every state needs to keep some secrets, and I think that it’s important that certain information be kept from the public in the pursuit of trying to save American lives.

But I think that this administration has overclassified many of the programs that I think the American people have a right to know about. With the drone program, it got to a ridiculous degree, where we knew that the drone strikes were happening in Pakistan and Yemen, and the White House wouldn’t even use the word “drone.”

They wouldn’t comment on it at all. I think that part of it is just the culture of secrecy. I also think that President Obama and his advisers are very concerned that if there is some kind of a terrorist attack against the United States, that the Republicans would eat them alive and say that he’s weak on national security, we’ve known it the whole time.

So I think part of it is operating based on a fear of another attack, and part of it is that I think the Republicans are engaged in such dingbattery with the way that they attack the president that we don’t actually have any legitimate opposition in Congress that’s calling the White House to account on these issues, whether it’s secrecy or the killing of American citizens in drone operations.

Tavis: So you’re telling me then that politics or political calculation is the justification for the Obama administration putting the Bush drone program on steroids?

Scahill: (Laughs) Well –

Tavis: They’ve used these drones – I’m not being funny here –

Scahill: No, no, no –

Tavis: They’ve used these drones – you wrote the book.

Scahill: Yeah.

Tavis: They make the Bush administration look like child’s play when it comes to drone use.

Scahill: I think when President Obama came into office he realized that he wasn’t going to be able to close Guantanamo, and part of it has to do with he didn’t put up enough of a fight on it, but part of it is also the Republicans are blocking the funding of it.

They don’t want to put people in Guantanamo. They don’t want to deal with sending U.S. troops on the ground into a place like Yemen or Somalia to snatch people, although some of that has happened. I think that they just took the kill-capture program and erased the “capture” part of it.

Right now is just when we have a sense that someone’s a bad guy, we’re going to go and kill them. Tavis, one of the most devastating, I think, egregious aspects of the drone program that has grown under President Obama is the institution of what are called “signature strikes.”

We, in both Pakistan and Yemen right now, there are people that if they’re categorized as military-age males and they’re in a certain region of those countries and they’ve been in contact with someone that we believe is a terrorist, we preemptively declare them to be terrorists and then go in and take them out. It’s almost like “Minority Report,” a form of pre-crime.

So we’re killing people, we don’t even know their names or their identities, and we don’t necessarily even have any information to indicate that they’re involved with planning acts of terrorism against us.

That is going to be one of the enduring legacies of the Obama administration, is normalizing assassination as a central component of what they call national security policy. I think Cheney thinks wow, Obama’s really the man, because (laughter) I don’t think –

Tavis: That’s scary.

Scahill: – John McCain would have gotten away with this. I think a lot of liberals would have been pushing back on it.

Tavis: But how did these targeted assassinations, how did the increasing use of these drones, how did that, to your earlier point, end up as the centerpiece of our military efforts without Congress being involved in that, to a large degree, and certainly with the American people not being made aware. How did that shift happen?

Scahill: I think that because President Obama is a constitutional law expert by trade, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, he’s a popular Democratic president, I think that a lot of liberals just check their conscience at the door and say, “Well, he’s my president and I’m going to support him.”

I think on Capitol Hill the same reality sort of set in where you had people that were asking tough questions during the Bush era about these same policies that just shut up the second that Obama was sworn in.

To me, the fact that we’re only starting to have any kind of congressional hearings on the use of drones, five years into Obama’s presidency, speaks volumes about how incompetent and lazy folks are on Capitol Hill when it comes to issues that actually matter.

They give the president a free pass on all of these issues. I’m talking about the Democrats. Then the Republicans are engaged in bizarre conspiracy theories about President Obama.

First we went through the birth certificate stuff, now it’s the Benghazi stuff. It’s like there’s no one that’s actually serious that’s taking on these issues. I think a lot of it is just partisanship, which is really – as a journalist, I’m not going to view President Obama in any different light than I would have viewed President Bush or President Clinton when it comes to holding them accountable.

It’s refreshing to have a president who actually speaks the English language in an effective way after eight years of Bush and cowboyism, but look, we as journalists have to look at them all as equal and say what is their policy, what are their actions, and what are we going to do as responsible journalists to hold them accountable.

Tavis: Since we’re talking about Capitol Hill, let me ask you about two people in particular who’ve been in the news of recent that connect to this drone program directly, or at least one directly, one indirectly. Let me start with Rand Paul.

He had a moment. He had a moment there where he seemed to really be ratcheting up a real conversation, was prepared to filibuster on the floor of the Senate. What did you make of that Rand Paul moment, and was that authentic, were there politics behind that? How did you read that moment?

Scahill: Rand Paul is a Libertarian. I think it’s really unfortunate that the one senator that started to raise legitimate questions not just about the drone program but the targeting of U.S. citizens and what’s the standard, how does an American get on the kill list, how do they get off the kill list, how do you surrender to a drone.

I would say that about a third of Rand Paul’s filibuster was sane and some of the best information that’s been put on the public record, and then the other two-thirds was this kind of bizarre Tea Party carnival where it was almost like a burlesque show or something.

They roll onto the floor of the Senate and it was like a hodgepodge of every crazy conspiracy theory that they have about President Obama – how he wants to come after the Tea Party zine editor in a café in Montana, and they’re going to drone-bomb this person from the Tea Party.

I think it was a sort of two-edged sword. On the one hand I’m glad that Rand Paul did that, and he tried to hold up the nomination of Brennan on these very serious issues. On the other hand, I think it diminished the seriousness of the issue, because quite frankly, I think Rand Paul has utterly reprehensible views on so many things.

We could spend hours talking about some of the despicable positions of Rand Paul and other people within the Tea Party. On this issue, I do think that he was being sincere in wanting to raise issues about it, but then he flips his position on it a couple weeks later and talks about drone-bombing someone who robbed a liquor store.

So that’s unfortunate. If someone like – if we had a credible Democratic senator, someone like Dick Durbin out of Illinois, who said, “You know what? I’m a major supporter of this president, but this has gone too far and I want to hold serious hearings of this to see is our national security being degraded by our pursuit of a small group of terrorists and our killing of a larger group of civilians? What are the actual national security implications of that?”

Instead, we’re talking about hypotheticals of if Jane Fonda would be drone-bombed in a café, which they brought up multiple times. So at the end of the day, I think that unless the Democrats really regain their conscience on this issue, it’s going to go on unabated under Obama.

Tavis: I want to ask in a moment here what the repercussions are for our national security if this continues to run amok, but the other person I want to ask about you mentioned a moment ago happened to be John Brennan.

So there is this moment weeks ago in hearings where Brennan got some pushback and the nomination was held up. He had some pseudo, semi-tough questioning in the hearing, but then he sailed right on through.

Scahill: Right.

Tavis: But this is the guy from the White House who was in charge, basically, of running this program. So what do you make of the fact that when all was said and done, more was said than done and he went right on through to the CIA?

Scahill: Right. I think that that was a foregone conclusion that that was going to happen. I don’t think that any Democrats were seriously going to block him. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon has been working under both the Bush administration and the Obama administration to try to get answers to how Americans end up on the kill list.

Also to ask for the memos, the legal authorizations for operating these kill lists, and has not been given those documents. We have members of the Senate that essentially have like a double oath, and they are given a high enough security clearance where they’re supposed to be able to look at the memos authorizing these operations.

The White House wouldn’t hand those over, even to the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who are by law supposed to be overseeing these operations.

So that was part of the issue, and it was a legitimate issue that was being raised. But if you look at it from the bigger perspective, we have White House officials meeting on Tuesdays in these Terror Tuesday meetings where they’re going through – that’s what they’re called, “Terror Tuesday” meetings – they’re going through rosters of candidates to be put on the kill list.

They then recommend them to the president. The president then meets in a smaller group and he goes through, almost like baseball cards, looking at the stats on should we take this person out in Somalia, should we take this person out in Pakistan.

That whole process, though, is being done in secret with no oversight from the courts and no oversight from the judicial branch.

Tavis: And he does make that final decision.

Scahill: He does. My understanding from people I’ve talked to within the administration is that he is very hands-on in deciding who’s going to die and who’s going to live in these operations. He was the one who said, “I want Anwar al-Awlaki,” who was this American cleric who they were hunting for a number of years.

The president himself was the one who said, “I want to take him out.” He served as prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner against this American citizen, who, I think, did all sorts of bad stuff, but we never saw it in a court of law.

So think about it from the – remove the fact that it’s Obama for a moment, and I think liberals should do this exercise regularly. Say it’s not Obama. Say it’s Jeb Bush, and Jeb Bush is saying we have the right to kill American citizens who are not in an active warzone, are not firing at our troops.

We don’t have to present any evidence to the American people that they are a terrorist. We are simply just going to say they die next Tuesday. That should be a chilling reality, regardless of your political perspective, to face.

Tavis: You know what really (unintelligible) me, and I suspect that there’s a certain level at which I can say this and you can’t, so I’ll say it, but I do want, since you’re the expert here, you’re the author here, and the documentarian, I do want to get your take on this.

What troubles me now, and certainly into the future, when the historians look back on this moment at how this drone program just went haywire, and how these drones were killing so many innocent women and children, there were two Black men who should have known better who were at the center of that.

One was named Barack Obama; the other was named Eric Holder. I like both of them. One’s the president and one’s the attorney general. One of them has a bust of Dr. King sitting in his office. I wonder how often Dr. King whispers to him late at night, “What are you doing?”

It just unsettles me and unhouses me that two people who come out of the tradition of nonviolence and social justice, who are making these decisions every day, just don’t seem to get it where this drone program is concerned.

I’m not excusing them alone. John Brennan ain’t a brother, so they’re not doing this all by themselves. But one is the president. The other is the attorney general. They’ve come out of the Black experience, which at its best has taught this nation how to go the other way, how to figure out another option, how to value life.

I just don’t – I don’t have a language for it yet, because it’s just so – it just untethers me when I think about it.

Scahill: I remember talking to Reverend Jesse Jackson when he secured the Democratic nomination in 2008, and he gave this speech in which he simultaneously said he was going to escalate the war in Afghanistan and he also was quoting Dr. King.

I said to Reverend Jackson, who was on the floor there that day, “Isn’t there a contradiction in that?” It’s not that you have to sort of say well, we shouldn’t talk about Martin Luther King in the same speech as the war, but don’t you see the sort of irony of that? Because at the end of his life –

Tavis: It’s not just irony, Jeremy. It’s hypocrisy is what it is.

Scahill: Well, okay, so hypocrisy. But Dr. King at the end of his life, he got a lot of pushback from civil rights organizations initially when he said, “I want to take a stand against the war in Vietnam,” and every young person in this country should listen to Martin Luther King’s speech coming out against the war in Vietnam, because it wasn’t something that he – it took him years to come to that position.

I think that one of the things that’s happening in our society is that there’s so much racism and bigotry toward the president right now coming from the right, I think a lot of liberals feel like they’re in triage mode. Do I push back against this or do I try to hold him accountable?

But the fact that you have Eric Holder giving a speech defending the killing of American citizens without due process and you have President Obama expanding these operations ultimately is going to benefit the political opponents of the president, because they’re going to use that and say, “Your guy was the one expanding all this. Your liberal, Nobel Peace Prize winning president is the one that normalized all of these policies.”

Tavis: What are the implications for this program if we don’t reel it back in politically, militarily, and I have to imagine that we’re creating a lot of enemies around the world, starting with the family of these victims who we kill with these drones, who, as you said earlier, don’t – you can’t surrender to a drone.

Scahill: There’s going to be blowback. We don’t examine the impact of our policies at our own peril. I think the worst thing that we could do right now is to give people a legitimate reason to want to kill or harm Americans, and as an American, I fear for our future.

I go to a place like Yemen, imagine being in this situation. You go to Yemen and you go and you’re examining the aftermath of a Cruise missile strike that killed 14 women and 21 children in the pursuit of one al Qaeda figure, and you hear people in that village saying, “If you kill children and call them terrorists, then we’re all terrorists,” and people saying, “We hated al Qaeda, but you’re pushing us into their fold,” that’s real.

These aren’t people that are media-savvy, trained how to talk to reporters. It’s coming from their heart. I met a family in Afghanistan where several women were killed and a senior Afghan police commander who was on our side, who was fighting on the side of the U.S.

After these people were killed, the siblings in this family said, “We spent our lives fighting against the Taliban. I want to put on a suicide vest and blow myself up among the Americans.”

This isn’t a movie. This isn’t Hollywood. This is real life, and I think if we don’t examine why attacks happen and the motivation of the people that did it, then we’re not understanding our own history.

9/11 was not about people hating our McDonald’s. There were reasons why 9/11 happened, and part of it had to do with our foreign policy. That may be controversial to say that. Our foreign policy will cause blowback, and that’s my biggest fear.

Tavis: I got 30 seconds left here. If fellow citizens watching this right now feel helpless to do anything about domestic policy, what agency do they have vis-à-vis these foreign policy issues?

Scahill: Remember when Governor George Ryan of Illinois called a moratorium on the death penalty? It wasn’t because he was a card-carrying member of Amnesty International. It was because DNA was showing that we were putting to death innocent people, or that we were sentencing to death innocent people.

We’ve reached a point where there should be a moratorium on the drone strikes. Let’s see who actually is being killed, because I don’t believe Americans want innocent civilians being killed in their name.

That, I think, is a battle that we could win, and it’s something that you actually can put pressure on your representatives and say we want you to call for a moratorium on this so that we understand who’s actually being killed.

Tavis: There’s a book, there’s a documentary. The book is called “Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield,” by one of the most courageous journalists in the business today. I am – we are all the better, whether you know it or not, or accept it or not, for the work that he does.

So again, the book, “Dirty Wars,” the documentary, and I think on newsstands now the new issue of “The Nation” magazine. You will find his work on the cover of the latest issue. Jeremy, honored to have you back on this program.

Scahill: It’s my honor to be with you, Tavis. Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you, sir. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: June 3, 2013 at 4:16 pm