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Dirty Wars journalist Jeremy Scahill takes aim at U.S. secrecy

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As the national security correspondent for The Nation, Jeremy Scahill has posed some challenging questions about how the United States should conduct itself during wartime. His 2007 book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, recounts how the company became a major player in the war in Iraq while removing layers of public accountability.

Scahill's latest book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, examines how targeted assassinations, particularly drone strikes, may have become counterproductive. It follows the history of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the intelligence and military network behind part of the drone program. He pays particular attention to residents of a compound in Afghanistan, and to Yemen, where the radical U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and Awlaki's 16-year-old son were targeted for assassination.

Scahill is the subject of Richard Rowley's new documentary, Dirty Wars, which opens Friday at Tivoli Cinemas. The film follows Scahill as he covers these stories, and it shows us that the work is grim and troubling. (The film won the Cinematography Award: U.S. Documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival.) The Pitch spoke with him this month by phone.

The Pitch: What makes a drone strike more ominous than sending a SEAL team into a place?

Scahill: To me, the issue is not the [drone] technology as much as it is the principle upon which these strikes are being authorized — that the U.S. is asserting, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, that it has the right to conduct what are assassination operations in any country it pleases around the world.

I think that part of the drone issue is that they're spooky. You've got guys sitting in trailers in the Southwest United States that are essentially bombing Pakistan or Yemen. And then they get into their cars at the end of the day. As they get off of their base, they pass a sign that says: "Buckle up. This is the most dangerous part of your day." Meaning they have a greater likelihood of being killed in a traffic accident than they do in the war that they're helping to fight.

I also think that the domestic concerns about drones, combined with how we've seen them used internationally, and the fact that the Tea Party folks like [U.S. Sen.] Rand Paul and others have raised a ruckus about it and the idea that drones could be used on U.S. soil, have all tapped into people's greatest fears about a national security state.

I have tried to caution people that if you focus too much about one weapon, you're doing so at the expense of missing all the other trees in the forest. I think that all of that taps into people's greatest fears of robotic warfare and of dudes in trailers somewhere piloting drones.

Unlike some of the pundits who dismiss your findings, you've actually been to Afghanistan and Iraq to see for yourself what has happened.

I'll tell you something sort of funny. When Bush and Cheney were in power, and I was covering Blackwater and the war in Iraq, talking about human-rights abuses and torture and mass killings, I would get a lot of e-mails praising me from liberals. "Oh, thank you for exposing this." "We need to hold these guys accountable." "This can't happen." "This is America." "This is against our values." And then Obama becomes president, and then my inbox flips around. I have liberals telling me how much they despise me and how I'm undermining the president. "What do you want? For Mitt Romney to be president?" And all I'm doing is the same sort of basic reporting.

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