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Tomgram: Jeremy Scahill, The Fantasy of a Clean War

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This article originally appeared at To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: There will be no Thursday post.  I'm taking off today for Santa Fe where I'll be interviewing Jeremy Scahill on stage at a sold-out Lannan Foundation event.  I've already written about his remarkable new bestseller, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, and termed him (in a bow to Chalmers Johnson) our first "blowback reporter." I should only add that he has also made a film of Dirty Wars, now out on DVD, far more personal in focus, and a must-watch (even if, like me, you've already read the book).  Glenn Greenwald calls it "one of the most important political films of the last 20 years" and John le Carre' describes it as "gripping, compelling, and totally convincing" -- and I would be hard-pressed to think up two better recommenders. Tom]

The foreign leaders are dropping like flies -- to American surveillance. I'm talking about serial revelations that the National Security Agency has been spying on Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, two Mexican presidents, Felipe Calderón (whose office the NSA called "a lucrative source") and his successor Enrique Peña Nieto, at least while still a candidate, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It's now evidently part of the weekly news cycle to discover that the NSA has hacked into the emails or listened into the phone conversations of yet another allied leader.  Reportedly, that agency has been listening in on the phone calls of at least 35 world leaders.  Within 48 hours last week, President Obama was obliged to call an irritated President François Hollande, after Le Monde reported that the NSA was massively collecting French phone calls and emails, including those of politicians and business people, and received a call from an outraged Merkel, whose cell phone conversations were reportedly monitored by the NSA.  Of course, when you build a global surveillance state and your activities, thanks to a massive leak of documents, become common knowledge, you have to expect global anger to rise and spread.  With 196 countries on the planet, there are a lot of calls assumedly still to come in, even as the president and top Washington officials hem and haw about the necessity of maintaining the security of Americans while respecting the privacy of citizens and allies, refuse to directly apologize, claim that an "exhaustive" review of surveillance practices is underway, and hope that this, too, shall pass.

In the meantime, on a second front, the news is again bad for Washington, as upset and dismay once largely restricted to the tribal backlands of the planet seem to be spreading.  I'm talking here about the global assassination campaigns being conducted from the White House, based in part on a "kill list" of terrorist suspects and using the president's private air force, the growing drone fleets of the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command.  In the last week, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have come out with reports on the U.S. drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen debunking White House claims that few civilians are dying in those strikes and raising serious questions about their legality.  In two of the six drone strikes it investigated in Yemen, Human Rights Watch reported the killing of "civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war; the others may have targeted people who were not legitimate military objectives or caused disproportionate civilian deaths."  In a surprising development, Amnesty brought a powerful, historically resonant term to bear, claiming that some of the cases of civilian drone deaths it investigated in Pakistan might constitute "war crimes" for which those responsible should stand trial.  ("Amnesty International has serious concerns that this attack violated the prohibition of the arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute war crimes or extrajudicial executions.")

And just arriving, reports from the U.N. special rapporteur on drones, Ben Emmerson, and its special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Christof Heyns.  It's already clear that these will not please the White House, where the usual denials and self-justifications -- however lame they may increasingly sound outside the United States -- still rule the day.  ("U.S. counterterrorism operations are precise, they are lawful, and they are effective.")  After a recent visit to Pakistan, Emmerson said, "The consequence of drone strikes has been to radicalize an entirely new generation."  A former high-level U.S. State Department official in Yemen claims that each U.S. drone strike in that country creates "40 to 60 new enemies of America."  Emmerson and Heyns are now demanding far greater "transparency" from a secretive Washington on the subject of its drone killings.

Call both the blanketing surveillance and the drone revelations symptoms of a larger disease.  In the years before 9/11, the U.S. focused its global attentions on what it then called "rogue states."  Devoted since that date to perpetual war across significant parts of the planet and to a surveillance apparatus geared to leave no one anywhere in privacy, the U.S. now resembles a rogue superpower to an increasingly resistant and restless world.  No single reporter has done more than Jeremy Scahill to bring us back news of how, in the post-9/11 years, Washington took its wars into the darkness, how it helped create a landscape of blowback abroad, and just how such roguery works when it comes to a superpower -- from missile strikes in Yemen to a secret CIA prison in Somalia to kick-down-the-door killings of innocents by Special Operations types in Afghanistan.  His bestselling book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, is a revelation, a secret history of twenty-first-century war, American-style.

Today, as the drone story continues to unfold, as ever more countries once considered the sorts of allies that would never say no to a request from Washington, balk at, resist, or ignore Obama administration desires, it's an honor to have the epilogue to Dirty Wars posted exclusively at TomDispatch for the first time, thanks to the kindness of Scahill's publisher, Nation Books.  Consider it the gripping backstory for what, in time, could become the equivalent of a global uprising against the last superpower of planet Earth. Tom

Perpetual War
How Does the Global War on Terror Ever End?
By Jeremy Scahill

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[This epilogue to Scahill's bestselling book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, is posted with the kind permission of its publisher, Nation Books.]

On January 21, 2013, Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term as president of the United States. Just as he had promised when he began his first campaign for president six years earlier, he pledged again to turn the page on history and take U.S. foreign policy in a different direction. "A decade of war is now ending," Obama declared. "We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war."

Much of the media focus that day was on the new hairstyle of First Lady Michelle Obama, who appeared on the dais sporting freshly trimmed bangs, and on the celebrities in attendance, including hip-hop mogul Jay-Z and his wife, Beyonce', who performed the national anthem. But the day Obama was sworn in, a U.S. drone strike hit Yemen. It was the third such attack in that country in as many days. Despite the rhetoric from the president on the Capitol steps, there was abundant evidence that he would continue to preside over a country that is in a state of perpetual war.

In the year leading up to the inauguration, more people had been killed in U.S. drone strikes across the globe than were imprisoned at Guanta'namo. As Obama was sworn in for his second term, his counterterrorism team was finishing up the task of systematizing the kill list, including developing rules for when U.S. citizens could be targeted. Admiral William McRaven had been promoted to the commander of the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and his Special Ops forces were operating in more than 100 countries across the globe.

After General David Petraeus's career was brought to a halt as a result of an extramarital affair, President Obama tapped John Brennan to replace him as director of the CIA, thus ensuring that the Agency would be headed by a seminal figure in the expansion and running of the kill program. After four years as Obama's senior counterterrorism adviser, Brennan had become known in some circles as the "assassination czar" for his role in U.S. drone strikes and other targeted killing operations.

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When Obama had tried to put Brennan at the helm of the Agency at the beginning of his first term, the nomination was scuttled by controversy over Brennan's role in the Bush-era detainee program. By the time President Obama began his second term in office, Brennan had created a "playbook" for crossing names off the kill list. "Targeted killing is now so routine that the Obama administration has spent much of the past year codifying and streamlining the processes that sustain it," noted the Washington Post.

Brennan played a key role in the evolution of targeted killing by "seeking to codify the administration's approach to generating capture/kill lists, part of a broader effort to guide future administrations through the counterterrorism processes that Obama has embraced," the paper added. "The system functions like a funnel, starting with input from half a dozen agencies and narrowing through layers of review until proposed revisions are laid on Brennan's desk, and subsequently presented to the president."

Obama's counterterrorism team had developed what was referred to as the "Disposition Matrix," a database full of information on suspected terrorists and militants that would provide options for killing or capturing targets. Senior administration officials predicted that the targeted killing program would persist for "at least another decade." During his first term in office, the Washington Post concluded, "Obama has institutionalized the highly classified practice of targeted killing, transforming ad-hoc elements into a counterterrorism infrastructure capable of sustaining a seemingly permanent war."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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