Jeremy Scahill’s ‘Dirty’ Work

Jeremy Scahill’s new book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, is sort of like approaching a dark cavity in an old tree. How many of us would instinctively cry out, “I don’t want to look – there will be creepy crawly things in there and I’m better off not knowing!”


Life is filled with shadowy, foreboding places, but the majority of Americans are conditioned to the look the other way, so much so that they defend their ignorance with great vigor, especially when it comes to national security and war. This kind of blind trust in the government has been confused with patriotism — especially after 9/11 — which has allowed all manner of creepy crawly things to multiply and wreak havoc while most of our heads are simply turned elsewhere.

Luckily, reporter Scahill has cared to look, and poke at and examine, all with smaller resources and prestige than his peers in the corporate media, but then again, most corporate media reporters are flat-out restrained from peeking into the dark hollow of the Global War on Terror, much less interested in writing about it. Beginning with Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army in 2008, Scahill has used his perch at The Nation Institute to shine a light inside the hole, and show us that whatever abomination lurks inside is, in reality, much worse than we had even imagined.

Read at your own risk, but Dirty Wars does all that and more. After years of researching, Scahill is nothing but thorough in his examination of the war within the war – whether it be the covert assassination squads rampaging across countries most Americans couldn’t find on a map, the “the black site” torture chambers in Afghanistan and Iraq, or today’s signature drone strikes that wipe out insurgents and children alike without warrant or jury. All have been condoned and expedited by an executive branch authority that has metastasized in unilateral power since the Twin Towers fell in 2001. But willful ignorance helped it along: those in power had an interest in keeping it secret (or were kept out of the loop entirely), while the powerless kept quiet, mostly because they were afraid to look.

“This book tells the story of the expansion of covert US wars, the abuse of executive privilege and state secrets, the embrace of unaccountable elite military units that answer only to the White House,” Scahill begins. Five hundred and twenty pages later, he concludes simply with a question all Americans must “painfully” ask, “how does a war like this end?”

* * *

The recent events in Boston offer the simplest, but not the most encouraging answer: “not easily.” After nearly 12 years of continuous war in which the full extent of American activities are now being revealed by serious independent journalists like Scahill, only the true partisans, kool-aid drinkers and of course, those with a stake in maintaining the fiction, would deny the vicious cycle from which there appears no ready respite.

From Elmirza Khozhugov, ex-brother-in-law of Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, in an e-mail about Tamerlan’s most recent behavior to The New York Times last week: “He was looking for connections between the wars in the Middle East and oppression of Muslim population around the globe.”

Perhaps it’s premature to assume the motives of Tsarneav, who died in a firefight with police, and his younger brother, who was captured and is in custody on a litany of federal criminal charges. But members of congress and the rightwing punditry already feel informed enough to have declared the brothers “radicalized,” and are calling their alleged crimes a “new element” in the ongoing struggle against those (Islamist extremists) who hate us for our freedom and “way of life.”

Iraqi with Guard: cerdit AFP/Getty
Iraqi with Guard: cerdit AFP/Getty

Let us stand back a moment, and without making excuses for anyone who blows up innocent people congregating on crowded street corners in broad daylight, take a closer look at two of the most explosive themes in Dirty Wars: 1.) The White House gave explicit permission to the military to spy, assassinate and torture with official cover — wherever it wanted in the world, whenever it wanted, and 2.) The military established an elaborate system of hidden torture chambers in which untold numbers of mostly innocent Muslims suffered during the height of these hyper-aggressive counter-terror operations.

Fuse that with 10 years of extra-judicial drone strikes. Would it be so hard to imagine where these “new elements” of terror — the freshly minted martyrs and the al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Yemen, Pakistan, North Africa and beyond – were coming from?

“I think we’re living in a world where we are not going to be immune to the payback for some of the things that we’ve done. And unless—unless we, as a society, completely re-imagine what an actual national security policy would look like, one that recognizes the dignity of other people around the world or the rights of people to practice their religion or determine their form of government, unless we’re willing to re-imagine how we approach the world, we’re doomed to have a repeat of a 9/11-type attack or something that’s smaller-scale but constant,” Scahill noted in a recent interview with Democracy Now!

* * *

“Iraq,” Scahill wrote in Dirty Wars, “would serve as a laboratory for creating a new kill/capture machine, centered on JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), run by (Gen. Stanley) McChrystal and accountable to no one but a small group of White House and Pentagon insiders.”

With sources cultivated over years, Scahill is able to piece together a timeline in which McChrystal, a career special forces officer with extraordinary “stomach and stamina for the fight,” as well as one of the Pentagon’s “fellow travelers in the great crusade against Islam,” is paired with a messianic White House that with a roll of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s ball point pen, was able facilitate not only JSOC’s new lead in all counter-terror operations, but its ability to operate “and hit targets” outside the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

What happens, as richly told in the book, is what could only be described in biblical terms: something like the four horsemen of the apocalypse, searching, seeking and vanquishing for the ultimate cleansing of the world.

JSOC was built up in Iraq and Afghanistan to conduct surveillance, interrogations and killing, parallel to (and often sidelining) the CIA and the conventional military, but without the congressional oversight that bound those other institutions. Soon, thanks to the Bush White House, JSOC was independently establishing “liaison offices” across the Middle East for the manhunt, no permission necessary.

“In many ways it was the definitive vision of the type of wars Rumsfeld and Cheney had longed for: no accountability, maximum secrecy and total flexibility,” wrote Scahill. Rumsfeld had declared “the entire world is ‘the battlespace,’” and President George W. Bush gushed, “JSOC is awesome.” As if ripped from the failed Vietnam playbook, Bush pressed his commanders “on how many people they killed on any given day,” Scahill wrote. “The conventional generals would often balk at the question, but the answer from the JSOC crew was unequivocal.” At one point, Mike Flynn, McChrystal’s intelligence chief for Task Force 121, the joint command running the counter-terror war, was asked the question. He replied, “thousands” of Iraqis, “I don’t even know how many.”

Over the years, Task Force 121 (and its many incarnations) has gotten little press. When McChrystal was appointed head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2009, Esquire magazine raised a number of questions about his responsibility for the torture and abuse allegations raised against Task Force 121 in Iraq, otherwise known as Camp NAMA (Nasty-ass Military Area). But not surprisingly, the mainstream media ignored it. Lucky for us, Scahill kept like a dog with a bone on this story, and is able to offer it up in Dirty Wars, in stomach-turning detail.

A prisoner in Iraq, held at gunpoint by US soldiers. Credit: AP
A prisoner in Iraq, held at gunpoint by US soldiers. Credit: AP

“The world knew about Guantanamo, and would soon know the name Abu Ghraib… but almost no one ever talked about Camp NAMA,” he wrote. Using “torture techniques, built up on the demands from Rumsfeld, Cheney and their posses for more results in interrogations,” the motto, “as advertised in posters throughout the camp, was “no blood no foul,” or as one Department of Defense official told Scahill, “if you don’t make them bleed, they can’t prosecute you for it.” But that apparently left for a lot of gray area in between.

People taken to the camp were not given the rights of prisoners of war, they were “off the grid.” The Red Cross was denied access. According to a scathing report by Human Rights Watch, which was aided by whistleblower interrogators at the time, prisoners were subjected to “beatings, exposure to extreme cold, threats of death, humiliation, and various forms of psychological abuse or torture.” Outside military officials who tried to investigate the activities of the prison were rebuffed, as well as congressional inquiries.

Inside, there were CIA, DIA (defense intelligence agency), all operating under JSOC’s command, which seemed to “have some sort of an express elevator” straight to Secretary Rumsfeld’s office in Washington.

At Camp NAMA there was a “Soft Room” for cooperative and high-ranking detainees, and Blue and Red Rooms for medium–intensity interrogations. “The Black Room was preserved from its days as a torture chamber under Saddam, and, for good measure, the task force kept the meat hooks that hung from the ceiling during the Iraqi dictator’s reign of terror in place for their use … it was here that JSOC would perform its harshest interrogations.”

According to Scahill the JSOC interrogators were being trained in reverse SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) techniques — meaning, they were schooled in using all the awful methods our soldiers train to endure if captured by the enemy. “Inside the Black room, the full-spectrum of SERE tactics were unleashed on detainees, along with a slew of medieval freestyle techniques…the interrogators there often incorporated extremely loud music, strobe lights, beatings, environmental and temperature manipulation, sleep deprivation, twenty-four hour interrogation sessions, water and stress positions, and personal, often sexual humiliation. The forced nudity of prisoners was not uncommon. Almost any act was permissible against the detainees as long as it complied with the “No Blood, No Foul” motto. But eventually, even blood was okay.”

One former prisoner, the son of Saddam Hussein’s bodyguard, recalled being punched in the spine until he fainted and kicked in the stomach until he vomited. Others described “heinous acts committed against them” including sodomy with foreign objects, “forcing water up their rectums and using extreme dietary manipulation.” Members of the task force “would beat prisoners with rifle butts and spit in their face.” In one case, recalled by a lieutenant in the Air Force who had come to JSOC as an interrogator in early September 2003, a detainee was brought to a bus stop, under the assumption he was being released. It was a mind game — “moments later they snatched him again and returned him to NAMA.” He was hooded, his clothes ripped off and he was shackled, where he was forced to stand for 12 hours, said witness Steven Kleinman. “The guards were not to respond to any requests for help.”

The examples wear on brutally for pages in Dirty Wars, so much that one finds themselves asking, “is this my country?” and, where was John McCain, the go-to moral compass against torture, having endured his own imprisonment in Vietnam 40 years earlier? Our indignant sanctimony over the torture of our own POWs rings a bit tinny and false now as we turn a blind eye to what happened in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan.

And what happened, really? Military intelligence officers later admitted to the Red Cross that somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of “the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake.” In a classified military report in 2003, authors warned that, “the task force’s abuse of detainees combined with the mass arrests of Iraqis gave the impression that the United States and its allies were acting like ‘gratuitous enemies’ of the Iraqi people.”

But wrongdoing was handled in-house and culpability minimal. Attempts to get further at the truth were stymied. Whistleblowers were blackballed. The abuses continued, and in different ways, including plans in 2004 by General David Petraeus and retired U.S Col James Steele to “Salvadorize Iraq” by building Shiite special operation forces that eventually turned into death squads and interrogation facilities that transformed into torture chambers (recently revealed in a Guardian expose and documentary).

Jeremy Scahill
Jeremy Scahill

As a result, Al Qaeda, led by Abu Masab al Zarqawi, bloomed and flourished in Iraq and contributed to the ensuing civil war. “Although General Petraeus would be credited years later with ‘winning’ the Iraq War through a troop ‘surge,’ he had also, along with Zarqawi, helped to destroy Iraq and create a sectarian bloodbath that would live on well past the U.S occupation,” charges Scahill.

Dirty Wars doesn’t dwell on Iraq – Scahill takes full advantage of his field reporting in Somalia to turn over the rocks there, as well as the real story behind the drone deaths of American Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son in 2011 (including interviews with family), and the hunt for al Qaeda in Pakistan.

Today, the Global War on Terror has been institutionalized by the Obama White House, “using drone, cruise missile and Special Ops raids,” in “a mission to kill its way to victory,” Scahill writes. “Future U.S presidents – Republican or Democratic – will inherit a streamlined process for assassinating enemies of America, perceived or real. They will inherit an executive branch with sweeping powers, rationalized under the banner of national security.”

Scahill surmises that, “no one can scientifically predict the future consequences” of the aforementioned activities. “But, from my experience in several undeclared war zones across the globe, it seems clear that the United States is helping to breed a new generation of enemies in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and throughout the Muslim world.”

Last week’s timing on the release of Dirty Wars – along with its accompanying award-winning documentary of the same name – serves as a opportune counterbalance to the prevailing narrative, that what happened in Boston was some unprovoked attack in the “struggle” against terror, which ignores America’s own role in that struggle all along.

There is no excusing the pain and fear the suspects in the case inflicted on Boston that day, but to deny reality is to simply perpetuate the cycle. Thanks to Scahill’s willingness to reach into dark places, we have one more tool with which to try and reverse it.

Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.