Jeremy Scahill is having a surreal day. He just got back from an impromptu radio interview while on a Chicago press junket for his Sundance prize-winner, “Dirty Wars.” He was walking back from his appearance on Good Day Chicago when Mancow spotted him and called him over via megaphone. “I ended up on Mancow discussing the covert war on terror while standing next to a 19-year-old swimsuit model,” Jeremy laughed. And now, mere minutes later, the acclaimed investigative journalist and bestselling author of 2007’s “Blackwater” finds himself in a hotel room being interviewed by his cousin (your’s truly). Life doesn’t get much more surreal than this.
At various holiday get-togethers over the years, Jeremy would tell me about the painstaking research he was conducting in some of the most dangerous parts of the globe, while hinting at the documentary he was hoping to make about it. He literally laid his life on the line to make a movie that would expose audiences to the covert warfare waged by America’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and the murder of innocent civilians (including a 16-year-old American, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki) that routinely occurs as a result of White House-approved raids and drone strikes. Before the Chicago premiere of “Dirty Wars,” I chatted with Jeremy about the evolution of his film, the risks he faced during production and his complex feelings regarding the presidency of Barack Obama.
Q: To what extent did you initially want your own personal story to be a part of this film’s narrative?
A: I did not want to be in the film in that way. When we started on it, [director] Rick Rowley and I had been friends for more than ten years. We met in Seattle in ’99 during the protests against the World Trade Organization, and had worked on and off together in war zones, covering stories in the U.S. while I was finishing off the Blackwater stuff. We talked about doing a bigger scale project together, and we went to Afghanistan on an initial trip. We weren’t sure if we were going to do a series or a short video piece for Al Jazeera. What we wanted to look at was Obama’s war—the night raids in Afghanistan that were not being covered by journalists. When we realized that an elite unit was performing the raids, we started tracking it and looking at what we had missed.
We had a four-hour rough cut about a year before going to Sundance. It was like a kitchen sink movie about the war on terror. The Somalia section was 40 minutes, and in the current version, it’s about three-and-a-half minutes. My role in it was more of a neutral tour guide. I wasn’t myself at all, I was just the vehicle to tell the story. [Co-writer/co-editor] David Riker originally came in to work with us for two weeks. He was going to help us cut down four hours to two hours—ideally, 90 minutes. We didn’t want it to be some huge thing. When we started working with him, he was the one who told me, “I think that you’re making a mistake by not being you in the film, letting viewers into your own thoughts and being more transparent with them.”
He started interviewing me, asking me about personal feelings and experiences that journalists don’t often talk about. Then he would start sending back e-mails with comments like, “In this scene, what if you handled it this way on a more personal level instead of giving all these statistics?” We ended up making a totally different movie. I was against it because I don’t write in the first person. I don’t talk about myself, I talk about the people I meet. But in the end, our goal was to make a film that would be accessible to people even if they don’t follow these issues on a regular basis.
Q: Considering the astonishing amount of information covered in your book of the same name, which was released April 23rd, what was the challenge in deciding what stories stayed in the film?
A: This isn’t a film about a book, it’s about an investigation that became a book. If you’re a political junkie or reporter, you often make the mistake of thinking everyone else is as obsessed with these issues as you are. To me, there are core issues that we, as a society, should be debating. For the most part, the only people who ever have to think about these issues are people who have loved ones in the military deployed around the world. I don’t think that’s right in a democratic society. This is being done in our name with our tax dollars, so we all should have some skin in the debate. It’s a challenge because people are struggling economically in this country. It isn’t their priority to care about what happens in Yemen or Somalia or Pakistan.
We could’ve made a film that told people how to think, and there were colleagues and friends who told us, “You should have a call to action at the end of the film.” We didn’t want to make that kind of a film, we wanted to make a film that ended on a series of questions because it’s a debate that we should be having in this society. We don’t have a monopoly on the truth, either. Our film is meant to capture an era of U.S. history. Think of young people who were toddlers on 9/11. They’ve grown up in this perpetual state of war. What does the world look like to them, what have we all been through during the past 12 years, why are we in Afghanistan anymore? These are questions that people are starting to ask, and if we don’t have this debate, then we ignore it at our own peril. I think there will be blowback from these policies, and this is the wake up call that our film is trying to initiate.
Q: How were you able to capture this footage, such as your encounters with warlords, in such dangerous areas?
A: There was a scene that didn’t make the final cut where the warlord, Mohamed Qanyare, basically accuses me of being CIA, and says, “Journalism is easy, but intelligence is complicated.” We had to roll very light. In some shoots, we had a second camera, but for the most part, Rick and I traveled around the world, and he had two cameras with him. When we’d go into certain places, Rick would occasionally train our driver or a local colleague to use a camera so that we could get other footage like reaction shots. I’ve never in my life hired bodyguards, but in Somalia, there’s no way we would’ve lived if we hadn’t hired a militia. We were riding around with these twelve armed men, and you see this in the film. We had decoy vehicles and scouts that would go ahead of us, because there are serious kidnapping and assassination operations going on in that country.
No American company would insure us. We had to go out of the United States to get insurance for the Somalia trip. If we would’ve rolled like that in a place like Afghanistan with a bunch of armed men, we would’ve been targets for an attack. So in that country, we grew our beards longer and dressed local. We rode around in a beat-up Toyota Carolla, because it was the safest way to travel. You don’t want to draw attention. In each place, it’s about understanding where you are, and working with local colleagues that you trust. That’s why we have such a long credit roll in our film. A lot of people took risks to make this movie.
Q: The score by David Harrington, particularly the theme that plays during the film’s final moments, is guaranteed to haunt audiences.
A: We originally met with David to ask if we could use some music he made with the Kronos Quartet in our film, and had him watch parts of our four-hour rough cut. We were using music from other films because we didn’t know what the score was going to be. We used music from the Brad Pitt film, “Spy Game,” and for the Somalia sequence, we stole some music from “Black Hawk Down.” Harrington brought his violin with him, and he sat down to watch a few minutes of the rough cut. He took out his violin and just started playing music. He was making it up on the spot, and he said, “I want to score this film.” He was also deeply involved with the editing of the film. We changed some scenes because of David’s influence. He’d say, “If we slow this scene down a bit, I can envision a musical bed here that we can write.” David is an incredibly deep guy and has a really good eye for film. He did this as a labor of love. He’s not going to make bank on this movie.
Q: Attorney General Eric Holder’s letter to Congress commenting on the White House-approved killing of American citizens was released May 22nd, two weeks before the opening of “Dirty Wars.” Do you feel this long-delayed response was, in any way, a reaction to your work?
A: I don’t know if it was, but I think there are a couple things at play here. In Obama’s first term, a lot of liberals were afraid to criticize the White House for fear that it was going to help Romney or help the Republicans. I disagreed with that sentiment, I think that we should always stick to our principles, but I understand why people viewed it that way. In his second term, I think that there is a greater willingness among some liberals to be critical of the White House. If you back up and look at it—with the NSA leaks that have happened and President Obama’s intensification of the drone wars and Guantanamo remaining open, while the targeting of journalists and prosecution of whistleblowers continues—we’re living in a moment where political lines are being erased between right and left in some ways. The timing of the film is really important, and obviously, we had no way of planning it. I think we’re at the beginning of a debate that we should’ve had a long time ago in this society.
I don’t believe that it’s right for the White House to hide behind an iron wall of secrecy. It happened under Bush and it’s happening under Obama. Obama campaigned under a pledge to roll back on all of this stuff. On a domestic level, of course I don’t want Republicans to be in charge of policies for women’s health care. I believe that all Americans should have access to health care and I believe that organized labor should be able to create robust unions. So it’s not that I don’t see any difference between the Republicans and the Democrats, but on foreign policy issues, Obama’s presidency has been devastating. He’s cleaned it up for the Republicans. Dick Cheney is probably glad that Obama is president because the next time the Republicans are in power, how are liberals going to have any ground to stand on in criticizing the same policies? There aren’t Democratic cruise missiles and Republican cruise missiles. I don’t know if our film or the journalism that we’ve been doing played any role in it, but the timing of [Holder’s] letter was interesting.
I view Obama as one of the more brilliant presidents that we’ve had, certainly in our lifetime. This is a very serious guy, and I think he’s very sincere. I don’t see him in the same light that I see Cheney or Bush. Oftentimes, I think that he’s making the least bad decision from his perspective on these policies. Obama has said that civilian deaths will haunt him until the day he dies, and I can’t imagine Bush saying something like that or even acknowledging it. So I give him credit—even though it was five years too late—for coming forward and discussing his policies. But when you boil it down to its rawest components, he’s asserting that the United States has the right to assassinate people around the globe, and that it’s defensible to kill American citizens without even charging them with a crime, even when they’re not posing an imminent threat. The White House has redefined the term imminent.
I think we need to cut through the partisan bulls—t and ask, “What do we, as a society, think about this policy?” Most liberals don’t agree with me on this. Most liberals are supporting the president’s drone policy, but most of them haven’t gone to Yemen or Pakistan or Somalia and actually witnessed the impact of it. So my call to action is just a call to dialogue and debate. We should assess who we’ve actually been killing and what the impact is going to be. My sense is that we’re creating more new enemies than we are killing terrorists, and that’s a pretty sobering thing to say as an American.
“Dirty Wars” is now playing in select theaters, including the Landmark Century Centre Cinema in Chicago. Jeremy Scahill will be at the premiere of his film in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Friday, June 21st, and in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Saturday, June 22nd. For more information on the film, visit its official site.