‘Dirty Wars’ makers go behind Obama’s counterterrorism

Those who tuned in to President Obama’s speech last month on counterterrorism and national security heard some pretty remarkable things: The commander in chief defending his decision to sanction the killing of a fellow citizen without due process, even while acknowledging that it’s unconstitutional. A critique of the expansion of presidential powers that allowed him to do so. A warning that carrying out such assassinations on U.S. soil would be, well, a bad idea.

It’s enough to make even a devoted student of current affairs pause to reflect: Just how did we get here?

The timely new documentary “Dirty Wars” offers some critical back story. Opening in L.A. and New York June 7, the film follows reporter Jeremy Scahill, national security correspondent for the left-leaning magazine the Nation, as he investigates the expansion of covert U.S. counterterrorism missions in places like Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia under the aegis of the Joint Special Operations Command.

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Scahill’s quest started in 2010, before the secret and powerful JSOC became widely known after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He and director Richard Rowley, a longtime friend, sought to throw light into the shadows where night raids and drone strikes kill suspected terrorists yet also mistakenly wipe out noncombatants and sow new seeds of anti-Americanism. Thousands of such raids and strikes have been launched in the last several years, with little public accounting of their efficacy — or even a list of the dead.


Though the film tackles complex matters of national security policy, its approach is decidedly personal. In a series of gripping and sobering scenes, Scahill and Rowley bring us face to face with the family of an Afghan police commander whose home in the city of Gardez was erroneously attacked with lethal force by Americans; with Nasser al-Awlaki, an academic and former Fulbright scholar whose American-born son, a radical imam, and 16-year-old grandson were killed in U.S. drone strikes in Yemen; with Somali warlords who have become Washington’s proxies in the murky fight against Al Qaeda in Africa.

Scahill goes a step beyond that, foregoing the standard role of detached journalist guide. Instead, he narrates “Dirty Wars” in first person, revealing himself as a character wrung out by his own journey in a moral no man’s land. Acknowledging what many war correspondents feel but rarely include in their dispatches, he shares an inner monologue of doubts and dilemmas, both as a reporter and simply as an American.

“When I first visited Gardez, I had no idea where the story would lead,” he says in a voice-over. “I didn’t know just how much the world had changed, or how much the journey would change me.”

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A hybrid approach

The release of “Dirty Wars,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and won Rowley the prize for cinematography, follows the April publication of Scahill’s book of the same name. (It’s his second, after his 2007 bestseller “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.”) The 642-page book can be read as a deeper, more formal companion piece to the documentary, which came about almost on a whim.

“I hadn’t thought about doing a film at all. I knew I wanted to do a book.... It was going to be called ‘American Ninjas,’ and it was just going to be about the guys in JSOC and their history,” Scahill, 38, said over coffee in Los Angeles last month, a day after drawing a full house for a reading at the Last Bookstore downtown. “I had gotten a grant to support my reporting, and Rick had no money at the time. I said, ‘Listen, I’ll pay for your plane ticket to Afghanistan, we’ll bunk in the same room and travel.’ From the moment we got there and started filming, I knew we were going to end up doing something together.”

Though the two had extensive experience abroad — Rowley has worked for Al Jazeera, BBC, CBC, CNN International and made several other documentaries — arranging access to remote locales was often difficult and frustrating, requiring meticulous planning, even kidnap and ransom insurance. “There’s a lot of negotiating, because for Afghans, if you come there and something happens to you, an American, when you’re in their home — someone comes and kidnaps you or you end up getting shot — their fear is America will come and wipe them out,” said Scahill.

At least once, Rowley and Scahill narrowly avoided being abducted. “After one meeting … our Afghan colleague told us, ‘They were sitting there discussing the positives and negatives of taking you guys.’ I said, ‘Well, thanks a lot for speaking up!’ And he was like … ‘If I had spoken up I think they probably would have taken us,’” Scahill recalled.

“I’m glad I didn’t know at the time,” he added. “If I had, I would have needed a Depends diaper.”

If the logistics could be harrowing, so could the emotions and thoughts that such reporting stirs up.

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“You come across people and they’ve lost something incredible, like their family has been killed, or someone’s been maimed. They don’t understand why a raid happened. And no one from the military has said, ‘This is what happened, here’s compensation.’ So essentially you are an ambassador of your country, whether you agree with the policy or not, that’s how you are viewed,” Scahill said. “I did start saying to people, I’m sorry for what happened … and some people have criticized me for that, saying it’s not journalistic.”

“I often feel like I’m in a position where I’m the only American these people are ever going to meet, and I want them to know that we actually care about this,” he added. “Whether it’s true or not in the government I don’t know, but … where is the rule that journalists aren’t allowed to be human beings?”

Telling that dimension of the story wasn’t initially in the cards. After two years of work, Rowley and Scahill had assembled a rough, four-hour cut of the documentary. They invited their friend David Riker, a screenwriter on narrative films, to view the footage and offer advice.

Riker was impressed with the material but felt something was lacking. “Each story was devastating,” he said, “but at the same time, it was like watching a catalog of horrors; the meaning wasn’t evident.”

Immediately, Riker said, he thought of weaving Scahill’s personal tale into the other stories. “I knew it wouldn’t be a popular suggestion. They never put themselves into the story — it goes against the very essence of the work they do, which is to work as reporters and tell other people’s stories.”

Rowley, who had filmed a good deal of footage of Scahill but left much of it on the cutting room floor, was energized by the idea. “David helped us realize there were two parts to the story: the external story, the exposé of how the war is being fought, the covert war eclipsing the conventional war. And then the inside story, a reporter going through this and being changed by it … and the country being changed by it, who we are as a people.”

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Scahill was reluctant but eventually was persuaded that if viewers couldn’t relate to their guide, he would be failing as a storyteller. After agreeing, though, “I started referring to myself in the third person when we would talk about the film. Or I’d say ‘the character,’ because it was too embarrassing,” he said. “I would cringe.”

Riker spent hours upon hours just talking to Scahill, writing down phrases and anecdotes, asking him his reactions to certain encounters and moments. “As a reporter, you don’t learn everything at once; you struggle to make sense of things. Jeremy’s character is like a detective, who is being told different things by different players — some are telling the truth, some are lying. It doesn’t come to you all at the same time.”

Riker would then send Scahill suggestions for the narration using the reporter’s own words.

Documentarians, said Riker, “have this concrete knowledge, but the storytelling skills are not always as developed,” he said. “In the fiction world, it’s the reverse. I tried to bring those together, in a way that was completely true to the story.”

Political realities

Scahill has strong opinions on the politics and policy questions related to his work. While he may be cut from progressive cloth, he takes a withering view of both Republicans and Democrats over their lock-step support for what he sees as the fundamental fallacy of U.S. counterterrorism policy: the notion that America can kill its way to victory. He is particularly frustrated by Democrats who criticized Bush administration policies but support identical drone strikes carried out under Obama.

“A lot of liberals have bought into the idea that President Obama is waging a smarter war than his predecessors and that he actually has been a transformational figure on a foreign policy level,” said Scahill, who’s stayed in touch with a number of his subjects. “I think that’s selling a lot of people a bill of goods.”

As for the president’s speech last month, he’s skeptical that it heralds any major change. “Obama’s saying that he doesn’t want perpetual war, but in reality the infrastructure is still very much in place, and he’s still asserting that the U.S. has the right to conduct these operations anywhere it deems necessary around the world. I feel like in this debate I’m always the wet towel, but I take it very seriously.”

At least, Rowley says, the speech was a starting point. “The war on terror is over a decade old, and when we began working on this film three years ago, it was not being talked about; it was nowhere,” he said. “I was worried when we began this film that it would be ignored, that it would fall on deaf ears.

“Now I’m hopeful that we’re beginning to have this conversation. We need to decide as a country how we want to be waging this war. I hope our film will be part of it.”