Exclusive: Americans are finally waking up to what George W. Bush created with his “war on terror” – and what Barack Obama has continued – a national security state that violates privacy and dispatches “special ops” teams or lethal drones to roam the world killing “terrorists,” a topic addressed by “Dirty Wars” and Lisa Pease.
By Lisa Pease
In “Dirty Wars,” journalist Jeremy Scahill and director Rick Rowley have crafted an amazing, heartfelt, intimate look at the “war on terror,” and how it grew from seven names after 9/11 to untold thousands. The film makes the point that the “war on terror” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: for each “terrorist” we kill, we make many more.
The documentary moves at a thoughtful pace, following the journey of Jeremy Scahill as he was reporting George W. Bush’s Iraq War. He chose not to be an embedded reporter, to have his stories spoon-fed to him with ready-made clips and sound-bites. Instead, he journeyed out into the darkness, risking being shot at during night Taliban raids, to meet the people we were at war with, to try to figure out what was going on and whether we were doing the right thing.
In the course of his journey, Scahill stumbled upon an American attack on a family by a deeply secret group (at the time) called the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Many Americans only learned about JSOC in 2011 because of its role in the killing of Osama bin Laden.
But at the time Scahill was filming his story, he was learning about JSOC’s leadership and unraveling its mission. These secret warriors weren’t just killing terrorists. They were killing pregnant women, children and noncombatants – and creating new terrorists in the process.
The story moves beyond the atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan to the undeclared wars in Yemen and Somalia and many other countries. The film also raises the question of when should the government be allowed to kill an American citizen in this “war on terror.”
Anwar al-Awlaki, a native of New Mexico, had been one of the moderate Muslims the media turned to in the wake of 9/11 to show that many Muslims did not condone the attacks on America. But in the wake of the way Muslims were treated at home and abroad post-9/11, al-Awlaki became more radical in his preaching, and finally left the country to preach the need for jihad against America.
The film does not explain why the U.S. government targeted al-Awlaki with a lethal drone attack on Sept. 30, 2011, leaving the impression that it was because he spoke out against the Iraq War and the treatment of Muslims at home and abroad. And that’s unfortunate, because that point is crucial to the current debate in America regarding whether the government should be allowed, under any circumstances, to kill an American citizen without legal due process.
In a letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Eric Holder spelled out some specific allegations against al-Awlaki, maintaining that he had gone beyond online sermons that urged the killing of Americans to aiding would-be suicide bombers and even getting involved in development of the explosives.
Holder’s letter read, in part, that al-Awlaki “was a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most dangerous regional affiliate of al-Qa’ida and a group that has committed numerous terrorist attacks overseas and attempted multiple times to conduct terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland.
“And al-Aulaqi was not just a senior leader of AQAP – he was the group’s chief of external operations, intimately involved in detailed planning and putting in place plots against U.S. persons. In this role, al-Aulaqi repeatedly made clear his intent to attack U.S. persons and his hope that these attacks would take American lives. For example, in a message to Muslims living in the United States, he noted that he had come ‘to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding upon every other able Muslim.’
“But it was not al-Aulaqi’s words that led the United States to act against him: they only served to demonstrate his intentions and state of mind,” Holder wrote. “Rather, it was al-Aulaqi’s actions and, in particular, his direct personal involvement in the continued planning and execution of terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland – that made him a lawful target and led the United States to take action.
“For example, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – the individual who attempted to blow up an airplane bound for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 – went to Yemen in 2009, al-Aulaqi arranged an introduction via text message. Abdulmutallab told U.S. officials that he stayed at al-Aulaqi’s house for three days, and then spent two weeks at an AQAP training camp.
“Al-Aulaqi planned a suicide operation for Abdulmutallab, helped Abdulmutallab draft a statement for a martyrdom video to be shown after the attack, and directed him to take down a U.S. airliner. Al-Aulaqi’s last instructions were to blow up the airplane when it was over American soil.
“Al-Aulaqi also played a key role in the October 2010 plot to detonate explosive devices on two U.S.-bound cargo planes: he not only helped plan and oversee the plot, but was also directly involved in the details of its execution – to the point that he took part in the development and testing of the explosive devices that were placed on the planes.
“Moreover, information that remains classified to protect sensitive sources and methods evidences al-Aulaqi’s involvement in the planning of numerous other plots against U.S. and Western interests and makes clear he was continuing to plot attacks when he was killed. Based on this information, high-level U.S. government officials appropriately concluded that al-Aulaqi posed a continuing and imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.”
Holder added: “Before carrying out the operation that killed al-Aulaqi, senior officials also determined, based on a careful evaluation of the circumstances at the time, that it was not feasible to capture al-Aulaqi. … While a substantial amount of information indicated that Anwar al-Aulaqi was a senior AQAP leader actively plotting to kill Americans, the decision that he was a lawful target was not taken lightly.”
Ideally, such serious government accusations should be brought to trial in a court of law and subjected to challenge and cross-examination. The credibility of a witness such as Abdulmutallab could be tested along with any other evidence that the government would choose to present. If the charges could have been verified, some Americans no doubt would have felt death was the correct penalty for al-Awlaki.
However, by operating in Yemen, al-Awlaki was keeping himself out of easy reach of American law and Yemeni authorities may not have had the capability to arrest him, leading to President Barack Obama’s decision to target Al-Awlaki with a lethal drone.
But that decision – combined with delays in officially acknowledging the strike and the absence of any public proceeding for testing the evidence – has created doubts in some quarters about al-Awlaki’s guilt, a sentiment reflected in “Dirty Wars.” Yet, in brushing past the U.S. government’s arguments, the film misses the opportunity to present the complexity of the issue, including whether al-Awlaki’s capture was feasible.
Sadly, capture does not appear to be the mission of JSOC. The group appears to be a killing machine, moving from the Middle East to the African continent, searching for and killing alleged terrorists. And that’s what scared me about this film.
The United States has been revered by much of the world for many years as a beacon of hope and admired for a certain level of morality. But the reality that America kills anyone who gets in its way or the way of its business interests has now become so shockingly clear that America isn’t just losing fans, it’s making militant enemies.
We are still seeing the results of our actions 60 years ago in Iran, when the CIA covertly overthrew a moderate, secular, popular and democratically elected leader to replace him with a brutal dictator who was then overthrown by brutal Islamic fundamentalists.
Actions done without our knowledge and therefore consent have come back to haunt us, several generations later. What world are we now creating for our grandchildren? Think of the grandchildren of the innocents killed by America. Will they love us? Or are we creating a world filled with people who want to see America fail?
“Dirty Wars” is not a diatribe or a screed. Nor does it have Michael Moore’s humor. What it has, however, is haunting images and personal stories that tug at one’s conscience, challenging us to do more. Do we really, as a country, approve in the targeted assassination of literally thousands of people in other countries, including an American citizen like al-Awlaki?
The film is about bringing that which is secret to light, and could not be more timely, given the current debate between secrecy, privacy and crimes of state. Citizens have less and less privacy every day, while the government is allowed to hide war crimes behind secrecy agreements. Clearly, something is out of whack here.
One of my favorite scenes was Scahill’s interview with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon. Scahill wants to ask Wyden about JSOC and other secret operations. And Wyden clearly wants to answer, but cannot. A lawyer stands off camera, telling Wyden which questions he can and cannot answer. It’s a picture of a government held hostage by the national security forces to the extent that our security appears more threatened than protected.
I have not been so affected by a film since the first time I saw “Hearts and Minds,” a sensitive documentary about the Vietnam War, and how the way we tried to win the war guaranteed we wouldn’t. This film has a similar message, and brings together stories I had heard about in passing and focusing my attention on the sheer scale of the killings, the lack of any kind of appropriate oversight, and the degree of hatred toward America that grows with each killing.
I hope President Obama meant it when he said the “war on terror,” like all other wars, must eventually end. The problem was, the “war on terror” should never have been started, because you can’t fight terror with more terror and expect to win anything but a death sentence. I hope that is not the future for our children. But it will be, if we don’t make a radical change in course.
The film opened the same weekend we learned new details that the National Security Agency has been collecting information on our phone calls en masse, indiscriminately. And in the second of the one-two punch, we learned of a secret program called PRISM where the NSA collects digital data from the Internet. The assurances that only foreign citizens are targeted and that no one is listening to individual calls go against history.
The last time a massive spying scandal broke out, with Sy Hersh’s exposé of illegal CIA domestic activities in 1974, we were told the same thing – that only foreigners had been targeted, and that no one was reading Americans’ mail. But those proved to be lies, and the CIA was exposed as having done all kinds of illegal spying on Americans, including intercepting letters of elected officials like Bella Abzug.
Similarly, the CIA denied having any kind of relationship with Lee Harvey Oswald, which a later look at the agency’s files proved to be a bald-faced lie. He was not only of operational interest but was important enough for CIA to lie about to other agencies of the government shortly before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
So excuse me if I take National Intelligence Director James Clapper’s assurances that we have not been spied on with a large grain of salt. We’ve been here before, and the first step is always a blanket denial. But that’s never been the full story.
I hope between the film “Dirty Wars” and the NSA revelations that Congress will take back its authority, which it has largely ceded to the Executive Branch over the last decade, and rein in the overgrown intelligence community. But every time we’ve had a serious investigation of the intelligence agencies, it has always ended the same way: their past crimes are excused, laws restraining them are loosened, and the intelligence community gets more money. I don’t want that kind of “investigation” again.
We need a radical change in thought. We need to ask ourselves some tough questions: What do we do that makes “terrorists” so angry that they are ready to strap explosives to their own bodies to kill us? Can’t we stop – or at least dramatically reduce – our actions that generate such hatred?
It surely makes sense for the United States to commit to being a better global citizen – which would mean giving up our kill lists, our weapon toys, our greed, and yes, perhaps even a level of our quality of living. It’s long past time we stopped ripping off the rest of the world to support our way of life.
Lisa Pease is a writer who has examined issues ranging from the Kennedy assassination to voting irregularities in recent U.S. elections. She is also a movie buff.