by George Sax
Jeremy Scahill really can’t be faulted if his documentary about some of the more alarming misuses of American power has been somewhat superseded in the public mind by events since his movie was conceived and completed. Scahill’s reporting and warnings are still crucially valid, but they may seem part of a bigger picture after Edward Snowden’s recent disclosure of the immense government electronic surveillance program capturing communications of foreigners and American alike. That was a game and consciousness changer, although probably not as much as it should have been. There’s just too much competition for the public’s attention to the American government’s secret military and intelligence overreaching. But in Dirty Wars Scahill reports on a more direct, and certainly more violent program with a dubious legal and moral basis.
Scahill is a veteran foreign correspondent and sometime contributor to The Nation magazine. (Several years ago his report on the violent cowboy-style tactics in Iraq of government security contractor Blackwater appeared there.)
As the movie shows, Cahill happened upon his story in 2009 while in Afghanistan when he encountered the grieving surviving members of a rural family that had been brutally attacked late at night in their home by a contingent of US forces, with the resultant deaths of both adults and children. It became increasingly obvious that the raid—in search of insurgents—was a terrible mistake. And, as it transpired, far from the only one.
Pursuing interviews with Afghans and US officials, searching what records he could locate, and eventually talking to anonymous informed sources, Scahill was able to identify a top-secret special force of perhaps 2000 men, JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), formed in 1980 after the Islamic takeover of Iran. It was apparently in the business of taking out suspected terrorists or those assumed to be their enablers. He found it operated with so-called “kill lists,” and, on-camera, a disguised former member told him that its purview had been extended to an incredible 75 countries, apparently regarded by the White House as harboring terrorists.
Scahill also talks with Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden, who can’t answer some of his questions because he’s sworn to secrecy. He does say that Americans would be surprised to learn how President Obama has interpreted the law regarding his powers.
In Yemen Scahill talks with the saddened and outraged father of the late Anwar Al Awlaki, a US citizen and radical anti-American Iman who was assassinated in a drone strike in that country. A week after that, his 16-year-old son was likewise dispatched in circumstances the US refuses to discuss. In a disturbing irony, in the triumphalist wake of the JSOC assassination of Osama Bin laden, US officials became a little more candid in admitting the command’s existence, if not its deadly operations.
Scahill is an intrepid and skilled journalist, and his deep concern about all this can’t be doubted, but this movie, directed by Richard Rowley and co-written by Scahill, sometimes seems overwhelmed by the magnitude of its subject. It’s a little too diffuse and inconsistently focused. But its most important information and message are clear enough.
Watch the trailer for Dirty Wars
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