Jeremy Scahill: From pursuing Washington over its secret war on terror to becoming a rebel fighter in the global war against journalism

He is no friend of the White House. Sarah Morrison meets Jeremy Scahill.

Jeremy Scahill has been dubbed a “one-man truth squad”. The American journalist has spent more than a decade reporting on what he describes as the “so-called war on terror,” from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. Attentive readers will have already worked out he is no friend of the White House.

He has received death threats, and his computer has been hacked. Chilling warnings have even come from high up in President Barack Obama’s administration. Why? He has never minced his words. “We are making more new enemies across the world than we are killing actual terrorists,” he tells me. “I think there will be blowback.”

But the 39-year-old is moving out of the shadows and on to British cinema screens this week, as his new award-winning film Dirty Wars, an adaptation of his second book, is released. The documentary-style thriller follows the journalist as he meets the victims of those swept up in the USA’s covert military operations. If Scahill were not there, centre stage, you might be mistaken for thinking you had come across an episode of Homeland. Here are the wall of clues, the drones, the assassinations. But this time, it’s not fiction. It’s real.

Glenn Greenwald, the Brazil-based journalist who broke news of the data leaked by US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, has called it “one of the most important political films of the past 20 years”. He is a close friend of Scahill’s, and now his colleague; early next year the pair, along with film-maker Laura Poitras and others, will launch a new global media organisation funded by billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

It’s easy to see why they get on. Greenwald has uncovered the murky world of state surveillance; Scahill uncovers the murky world of war. In Dirty Wars, directed by Richard Rowley, Scahill begins his quest for answers in Afghanistan after finding that a lethal night raid by the US has been covered up. The film charts his almost obsessive need to understand Washington’s expanding wars. As he tracks the rise of one of the US military’s most elite and secretive units, operating in countries where war has not even been declared, he concludes the “war on terror” is “spinning out of control”.

Now, he is back in New York to collaborate with Greenwald on an investigation into the NSA which, he says, is “much more involved on a tactical level, with covert and overt military operations, than is publicly known”.

And Greenwald? “Glenn is one of the most fiercely brave people I’ve ever met... I have this vision of Glenn that I love, because I have seen it first hand: Glenn is taking on the most powerful institution in the world in a house with 10 dogs, who are barking around the clock. [Greenwald and his partner, David Miranda] have 10 dogs, a cat that thinks it’s a dog, and monkeys running over the yard. And thousands of top-secret documents, that Glenn is going through every day.”

If Scahill sounds earnest, that’s because he is. Ever since he cut his teeth, aged 21, at the American independent news programme Democracy Now!, he has believed journalists have “an obligation to hold those in power accountable, regardless of their political affiliation”. He later became national security correspondent for The Nation magazine and published Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, about the controversial private security firm. 

Scahill does not believe in “objective” journalism. He calls it “bullshit” and adds: “We aren’t robots. ‘Objective’ is generally defined, by those who attack people like me, as someone who has a default position that the State is telling the truth and those in power are to be believed.”

For Scahill, the US’s “entire political system is legalised corruption”. He is happy to accuse former President George W Bush, and his Vice-President Dick Cheney, of launching “murder incorporated around the world”. He adds: “It’s hard to compete with the scale of chaos, bloodshed and killing that they unleashed.”

Obama fares little better. Scahill says he realised early on that the President was actually going to “intensify the most egregious aspects of Bush-Cheney counter- terrorism” such as a bombing campaign in Yemen and escalating covert ops in Somalia. “That, to me, is going to be the enduring legacy of counter-terrorism for President Obama. He made possible a continuation of the very policies he purported to campaign against.

Does Scahill vote? “I actually do vote, but I don’t have any illusions that my vote is doing anything,” he says. “There are far more important things than voting. I care more about what people do the day after they vote.”

Echoes of Russell Brand? Well, Scahill holds the British comic in high regard. “It is a devastating commentary on the state of affairs in the UK and US that someone like Russell Brand has emerged as one of the most prescient, sharp critics of the times. There’s something wonderful about what he has been doing lately, and yes, I totally agree. I wish he’d run for office.”

Scahill is an optimist. He believes there’s a “global war against journalism” as the White House spreads a message that “publication of any top-secret document is a threat to national security,” but he is adamant that independent journalism will endure. He describes his new media project, which has hired former Washington Post and Huffington Post journalist Dan Froomkin and former AlterNet editor Liliana Segura, as a “journalistic dream” that is going to “challenge the assertions of those in power”. He assures me they are building a serious news organisation packed with editors, fact-checkers, veteran journalists and young reporters.“This is not a blog; this is not Twitter.” It will have contributors in New York, Washington DC, Rio and Berlin. Business offices will be based in San Francisco, and it sounds as if whistleblowers and leaks will be central to its mission.

“We have a whole technical team dealing with internet security and creating engines where we are going to be able to move sensitive information around without it being intercepted,” he says, before warning that people shouldn’t assume they’ll go in any one political direction.

And why should they? Scahill, the son of working-class Midwest stock, does not identify himself as Democrat or Republican. Independent journalist is his true “political orientation”.

Used to operating behind the lens, he “resisted” starring as the central character in Dirty Wars, and did not enjoy the role reversal. But of one thing he is adamant: his film was in production long before a certain award-winning drama. “We weren’t cribbing on Homeland,” he insists, wryly.

Curriculum Vitae

1974 Born Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to “socially justice-minded” parents.

1992 Graduates from Wauwatosa East High School. Graduates and goes on to University of Wisconsin.

1995 Leaves university in his third year and hitch-hikes to Washington to live in a homeless shelter where he helps by mopping floors and taking people to GP appointments.

1998 Starts Democracy Now! as a producer. Wins radio reporting award for work on “Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria’s Oil Dictatorship”.

2005 Exposes presence of Blackwater personnel in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina in The Nation. Sparks a Congressional inquiry.

2008 First book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army wins a George Polk Award.

2013 Dirty Wars: The World is Battlefield makes New York Times’s bestsellers list. Documentary version wins the Cinematography Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Media & Advertising Sales Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This national business publishi...

Recruitment Genius: Media Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£14500 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Guru Careers: Bathroom Showroom Manager / Bathroom Sales Designer

£22 - £25k basic + Commission=OTE £35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Bathroom Sh...

Guru Careers: Account Executive / Account Manager

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive / Account Manager is ...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea