New media versus the state – Jeremy Scahill interview

Campaigning US journalist Jeremy Scahill talks to Andrew Dolan about drones, US empire and the prospects for critical media in the digital age

February 17, 2014 · 12 min read

scahill2Jeremy Scahill in Gardez, Afghanistan. © Civic Bakery. Photo by Richard Rowley

We often hear of the ‘battle for hearts and minds’ in relation to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the revelations of Dirty Wars, particularly the covert murder of civilians, suggest the exact opposite. Is this a question of monumental incompetence or divergent interests?

Political leaders wanted to believe that what they were doing was winning hearts and minds. They took something that’s as old as dirt in terms of military strategy and rebranded it as some grand new idea, that they were going to convince the Afghan people of the greater good of the US invading their country. The same was true with Iraq and if you watch the pronouncements of officials from the Bush era they all thought they were going to be greeted as liberators, but they were whistling past the graveyard.

Political leaders want to feel like they’re always doing the right thing but they are also engaged in counter-terrorism and the counter-terrorist mission runs completely contrary to the counter-insurgency mission. The counter-terrorism mission was infinitely more important and far less savoury to talk about in public.

On the one hand I do think they actually believe their own bullshit and military generals can convince those in government that these are great ideas. If look back through history, if you look at Algeria or Vietnam, there’s a belief that ‘we can do this, sir’. On the other hand political leaders want to take down these networks, so they’re doing night raids, drone strikes and cruise missile strikes and in the process entirely undermining the stated purpose of the mission, which is to stabilise a country and win hearts and minds.

What about the soldiers on the ground?

I think the average rank and file soldier who ends up getting sent to Afghanistan, whether they’re from London or from Alabama, has to convince themselves they are doing some good. I hear it from guys in the military all the time: ‘We were in this one village and we were making progress and then a night raid happened and it completely fucked our ability to talk with these people anymore and then we started getting attacked in an area where we had never been attacked before.’

Militaries are not monolithic institutions, they are made up largely of young people and I think a lot of young people who get sent to these places get attached to the people they are around and want to make the best of a horrible situation. This is entirely undermined by assassination campaigns, or the fact that the entire thing is based on a lie: that you are actually going to be able to convert people around the world to your way of life at the barrel of a gun. History shows that this never works. But there is a real sincerity on the part of a lot of the young soldiers that go over there.

You write in your book about the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). Even though the organisation effectively closed in 2006, its former chief executive Gary Schmitt claims it was successful in diffusing its ideas beyond a neoconservative core. How far do you think that influence lingers in the Obama administration?

What the PNAC boiled down to was a view of America as an imperial power; it was a sort of rabid form of ultra-nationalism. If you read the founding documents there was an explicit aim to ensure that the US would be the only superpower in the world and that it would base its military confrontations not just on a quest to secure natural resources but a quest to prevent any other country, like Russia or China, from asserting itself as a rival. Part of the way this played out in the US was in the vision of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld that the executive branch of the US government, the president and his team, would effectively operate a dictatorship after winning a democratic election when it came to America’s foreign and national security policy.

President Obama, when he was on the campaign trail, had a very sharp critique of that mentality and pledged to stop the drive toward what was effectively a dictatorship of one of the three branches of government. He has proceeded to do the exact opposite. Obama has been an imperial president. He has made possible a continuation of the core ideas of the neocons beyond their best administration in history and has given a stamp of legitimacy to discredited policies that liberals and people on the left in the United States would be demanding the impeachment of a Republican president over. That’s why you see him regularly receiving praise from famed neocons; they know that he cleaned up the programme so that it will continue.

We recently interviewed Medea Benjamin and she said ‘the anti-war movement… lost its voice when Barack Obama became president’. Would you agree with that?

What I would say is that the Obama political machine in 2008 was able to co-opt the anti-war movement and essentially convince people of the idea that he may not be perfect but he was the best chance you’re going to get. When Obama was running for president it was clear to me he was going to be a very hawkish Democratic president because what’s more important in American politics than listening to speeches on the campaign trail is looking at where the money is coming from, who the candidates surround themselves with as advisors and potential cabinet members and what their actual policy positions are. He surrounded himself with what I called cruise missile liberals. They want to cloak all of their operations in a shroud of humanitarian legitimacy but at the end of the day it’s still the old-school politics of American empire.

The revelations in Dirty Wars, those of your previous book Blackwater and most recently the Snowden revelations all seem to fit together under the rubric of a democratic deficit. Why do you think that is?

Dwight Eisenhower, the post-World War II era president, gave a famous speech at the end of his administration where he warned about the dangers of the rise of the military-industrial complex. What he said in that speech – often quoted but which very few people have read in its entirety – was that following World War II the US created an industry of war and it gave an incentive to political figures and to the machine itself to continue to look for new wars.

By allowing huge corporations to contribute financially to the campaigns of politicians it would ensure that war as an institution always had a constituency in government. Eisenhower was right and what has happened since then is that there has been the rise of a beast that comes in the form of the national security state and that beast defies the political system. If you have a president that wants to try to tame the beast, the beast can wait that president out, knowing that it has to do so for at most eight years before it can be unleashed again. Or in the case of people like Bush and Cheney, they were feeding the beast.

Obama is trying to say ‘the beast is our friend’, but it is a permanent structure where there are no term limits, they don’t have to worry about campaigning and their interests are solidified because of the institutionalised corruption that is the American electoral system, where corporations can literally purchase members of congress… what would be called in other societies bribery.

With the Wikileaks and Snowden revelations and what I’m talking about in Dirty Wars, it’s because the beast is the most powerful institution in the United States and it has almost no oversight from the people who are tasked with monitoring its activities, because to do so would be to end their political careers.

I’m assuming that one of the motivations behind your involvement with Glenn Greenwald in a new media venture is a belief that addressing an informational deficit is the first step to enacting real change?

What we intend to do with this organisation is to create a totally adversarial media outlet, adversarial in its relation to the state. It’s not just that we want to be able to push back against the state’s violation of freedom of the press or of the privacy of ordinary people in the US and around the world, it’s that we want to engage in a confrontation with the state over these issues. In the US we have much stronger law protecting journalists than you have in the UK but it largely exists on paper and in reality there’s a war against journalism.

So part of what we intend to do is to reassert the role of a free press in a democratic society and to hold government accountable. I think that with a few exceptions that’s not what journalism is in the United States and I don’t think it is either in the UK. We’re going to be involved in long form investigative journalism, we’re building technologies to encourage whistleblowers to provide us with documents and information and we’re going to continue to report on the NSA stories. We have some pretty huge stories that are already in the works. I don’t know when it’s going to launch but it’s going to be some time early 2014.

The death of adversarial journalism is rooted in corporate control of the media. What would you say to those who question the financial involvement of eBay founder and billionaire Pierre Omidyar in your new media project?

I never in a million years thought I would be involved in any project with someone who founded eBay and who is worth billions of dollars. If someone had called Glenn or me and said we want to offer you X amount of money to come and work for us at my big corporate media outlet neither of us would have taken it. In fact we were stunned at the possibility of [Omidyar’s involvement], but when we talked to Pierre, he talks like a journalist and he made very clear from the beginning that he is not going to be interfering in the process of journalism and I think he is entirely sincere in that.

Also, this is not his next big product that he is trying to make money on. If the point of it was to make money as a business venture then that would be a very different beast to what we are talking about here, which is a guy who took resources that he could have used to live out the rest of his life in pure luxury and said: I want to spend the vast majority of my money for projects for the social good, and one of those is building an independent media organisation. I think that anyone who knows me, Glenn or Laura Poitras knows that we are not in the pocket of anyone. If there are stories that we need to do that are self-critical none of us are afraid of that and none of us have been told we can’t do those things. One of the new editors we hired, Eric Bates, was a senior editor of Rolling Stone; he’s a fiercely independent guy. I don’t know anyone that we’ve hired who would ever roll over for a pay cheque – it’s just not going to happen.

How do you relate this new media project to existing adversarial outlets like Democracy Now?

Democracy Now was where I learned journalism and it is an adversarial journalistic organisation, so I think in that sense it’s good. Democracy Now is a radio and television programme, which has its limitations. We’re going to build a full spectrum news site that’s going to have a robust video journalist division as well as long form print journalism and rapid response journalism, so I think that in the way it’s structured there isn’t another organisation we are modelling it on.

We are trying to build something new from the ground. We are working with insanely brilliant tech people trying to build a site that is unique. I look at models like Propublica in the United States, which is a fantastic investigative news site, and then you look at the work of new media journalists and I think there are opportunities to fuse the proven old school techniques of muckraking and investigative journalism with an exciting younger form of social media engagement. Striking the right balance between the two is the challenge of building an exciting new media organisation and that is what we are trying to do.

Dirty Wars can be viewed online. The book of the same name is published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail

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