“My personal opinion is that they executed Bin Laden,” begins Jeremy Scahill, unblinkingly.
“If you strip it down, what you had is an unarmed elderly man, in his bedroom, shot in the face by the most elite force in the world. Almost everything that the White House officials told us that happened in the compound that night turned out to be a total fabrication.
“I would have loved to have seen Bin Laden put on trial for his crimes. He had been indicted, in the 1990s, and was a reprehensible criminal, but I don’t believe for one second they were given orders to capture him, I think the whole point was to kill him.”
“I wasn’t like, boo hoo, Bin Laden’s dead, but I wasn’t jumping. America’s a very nationalistic country, and in episodes like that of his death, it becomes jingoism. People are drinking, dancing in the street, chanting USA like they’re at the World Cup, like they won it… It’s sick that we turned it into a sporting event.”
Scahill is a man used to saying the unsayable. As the National Security Correspondent for 'The Nation' magazine, his previous efforts to shout across the Washington walls resulted in ‘Blackwater’, his bestselling account of how a private military company became integral to US strategy for dealing with conflict overseas.
That tireless digging for Blackwater led him further into the murky maze of covert operations, private companies, the CIA, joint special operations command and the NSA. Scahill admits he’s “obsessed with that world of people. I think about it all the time, even when I’m watching fictional movies, all I see now are the guns”.
Like ‘Blackwater’, Scahill’s latest revelations, in book and film form, are bound to ruffle feathers in the corridors of the Pentagon and other Washington enclaves.
Initially, he was reporting on a night raid gone wrong in an Afghan village, leading him to a cover-up by an elite military unit. Scahill expands this investigation into America’s expanding theatre of covert operations. ‘Dirty Wars’ is the result.
Scahill’s accusatory arrows into the heart of the US industrial-military complex have led to inevitable accusations of where his loyalties truly lie, something by which he remains impressively unfazed.
“On any given day, I can have three or four people saying I’m in the CIA, trying to get the USA to invade Syria, or I’m a Republican funded by libertarian organisations, or that I love Al Qaeda or that I’m a communist, or American nationalist,” he rattles off.
“If I were to read about me purely on Twitter, I wouldn’t know what to make of me.”
One of the criticisms levelled at the film ‘Dirty Wars’ (he’s also written a book) is that Scahill’s telegenic face (described in Vanity Fair as belonging to the lovechild of Ryan Gosling and Jake Gyllenhaal) is centre-stage, up close and personal, making it appear the journey of another middle-class white man, determined to do good. Another critique is the tone of the film, somewhere between Matt Damon’s Green Zone and Ben Affleck’s Argo. One of these he rebuts, the centre-stage problem he takes on the chin…
“I can't stand to see it. I hate it. I get embarrassed,” he physically squirms at this idea, his body language supporting his words. “I think there is a very legitimate criticism of our film on that front. I agree with it. I’m self-critical. It’s my least favourite part of my film… my face.”
“The Argo thing…,” he tuts, “We started our film before we even knew Argo was coming out.
“But we tried to tell it a different way. It wasn’t working. I was thinking, how would my non-political family members watch this? We didn’t want to make something that felt like being in school.”
I agree there’s no point going to all the trouble he has if no one sees it. Scahill has been this single-minded since working in a homeless shelter in New York, and listening to the radio work of Amy Goodman – “I was blown by the scope of her reporting” – this, and a visit to Iraq during the first Gulf War.
“Clinton was President, and the US was waging war through economic sanctions in Iraq. I travelled to all these hospitals and it was like visiting death row for infants. The Iraqi people were essentially being punished for not overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and I had a sense that what I wanted to do with my life was tell the story of people that were voiceless.”
Another by-product of this approach is the increasing profile of Scahill himself, and I wonder if this makes life easier or harder as a guerrilla filmmaker, determined to get into the nooks of what really decides and comprises foreign policy.
“It’s a two-edged sword,” he acknowledges. “On the one hand, when I was writing the Blackwater book, no one from Blackwater would ever talk to me, but afterwards I started getting approached by people. I can’t tell you how many times I ended up going out for beers with some special ops guy.
“But certain officials and members of Congress will flee if they see me coming, they think they’re going to be asked questions they don’t want to answer. The same is true of the big corporate media outlets in the US.”
Does he feel endangered by his vigilante stance? He scoffs.
“It’s far more scary to be in war zones than in the US. There are 30 journalists missing right now in Syria. I don’t think of myself as a great risk-taker walking around Brooklyn in a world of lattes and baby strollers. But the risks are of a different nature in that there is mass surveillance going on in an effort to find out who our sources are and prosecute those individuals, so it’s more the information war that I’m concerned about where I am.”
So, if he’s successful and, in true screen thriller fashion, the buck stops in the right place, and some high-ranking official comes clean and, I don’t know, apologises for the practices Scahill is throwing at him, what then? What does he actually want?
“There is a national security state beast, also in the UK, created over many decades, almost completely unaffected by the democratic process. It can outlast any politician, no constituencies apart from war.
“The only beneficiaries are large corporations. Ultimately, there is an epic battle between large corporations and ordinary people. Part of what I’m trying to do is unmask that conflict, but I have no illusions about how difficult that is.
“But if we don’t confront that, don’t realise that the entire system of corporations being in control of political systems is leading us down a road of disaster, then we’re doomed. The premier issue should be to get corporations out of our political process.
“On a broader level, if a state like the US asserts a right to assassinate people in any country it pleases using its weaponised drones, it sets a dangerous precedent. It’s only a matter of time before one of the other 80 nations that possess this capability starts to do it.
“The gloves come off. And then what kind of world do we live in?”
'Dirty Wars' is on release now. Click here for more information, and watch the trailer below...