Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Obama’s Inclusiveness and the general will
In my post here, I praised the inauguration speech but set it in the context of the genocides against indigenous people which are ingredient to any praise of the American founding. See founding myths here and here. We must grasp, mourn and cease to honor these things in order to heal and make a new start.
So James Fallows suggestion, in his otherwise good column – second below - that Obama’s speech continues from the founding slave-owners is too simple, and needs qualification (it needs qualification by Obama himself, since he once praised in a February 5th, 2008 speech at the University of Denver, Andrew Jackson, a barbarous murderer of native americans and slaves - it was the only false note in the speech which brought tears to the eyes to the eyes of some thirty thousand of us listening, including me and my then twelve year old son).
Yes, this trope rhetorically defeats racist baiting about "the welfare state," but no, it has its own baggage, is worse in what it takes than being trapped in the metaphor Obama was striving to reconfigure.
As John Nichols suggests – first column below - Obama’s speech broke new ground, particularly about inclusiveness: “from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall.” That is what Rousseau calls a general will, a will to equality, which is basic to any decent democracy. See here. Those were popular movements and demonstrations against the powerful, not Presidential actions, that Obama celebrated (Jon Stewart had Pat Buchanan frothing over Stone Wall in an amusing series of clips from the dyspeptic Fox last night here). Given that Obama is head of an Empire which is murdering innocent people in countries the US has not declared war against with drones and the Joint Special Operations Command - see here - this speech was unusual.
It was the best second inaugural since Lincoln's. Most are dead on the page.
In any case, that an American President has decent aspirations, does some noticeably decent things, is, in the context of decaying American capitalism and militarism and "normal" Presidential performance, something striking.
I have long argued that the Occupy movement brought Obama back to himself (he was lost in fantasies of austerity). Obama defended social security and care for the disabled, maintained a safety net for the young and the old. But he will be kept to these things only if Occupy or some similar movement engages in mass militant nonviolent civil disbodience.
Since the attacks on unionism are fierce, some 50 million live in poverty and the new debt-slavery for students is as implacable as before, there is a strong basis for renewal.
But the America Barack spoke of will only be realized by mass nonviolent resistance. Tavis Smiley’s insistence that King died as leader of a poor people’s movement needs to be joined from below.
It is mistake simply to look to a President – some “good” patriarch or matriarch - for good things. The Russian serfs once believed in the fantasy of a “good tsar,” slaves who rebelled before the Revolution in Virginia hoped for a “good [English] king” as I trace in Black Patriots and Loyalists.
But it is also wrong not to notice that Obama will not bomb Iran, will not simply bow to the Israel lobby, does not demean women or gays and lesbians, does not want to steal money from the poor and funnel it to the top .001%, at least understands climate change and hopes to do things about it (the military, the central part of what is now American/multinational “industry,” has gone, by executive order, somewhat “green,” and the like.
It is also wrong not to notice that the demands of long despised and persecuted movements from below are now those of the American President, as TaNehisi Coates underlines (third column below).
It is a mistake not to notice the often very heartening and precise meaning of his words.(h/t Ilene Cohen).
Despite Obama's odious use of drones – see the new documentary by Jeremy Scahill and Richard Rowley, Dirty Wars here on the murders of civilians by Admiral William McRaven (head of the Joint Special Operations Command) and John Brennan, current nominee for head of the CIA - and failure to initiate any legal proceeding about war criminals (to restore the rule of law which Obama mentioned in some real way), this last election still represented two possible directions, each consistent with a capitalist and militarist oligarchy but one inclusive and capable of some decency, the other an imperial police state accompanied by austerity and diverting social security and medical care from the poor to benefit the .0001%.
There is a gap here perhaps resembling that between FDR and Hoover, an epochal turn within capitalism (roughly the choice between limited though somewhat expanding democracy and a police state).
Democracy defeated the latter in the recent election. See here, here, here and here.
This was a rich and powerful speech about what government may do in these circumstances to further inclusiveness and a common good. It is worth taking in. Listen here.
Barack Obama Charts an Arc of History That Bends Toward Justice
The Nation Blog: January 21, 2013 - 3:40 PM ET
Barack Obama, the president who publicly swore his second oath of office on the Bibles of Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., used his inaugural address to chart an arc of history from the liberation movements of the sixteenth president’s time through the civil rights movements of a century later to the day on which hundreds of thousands of Americans packed the National Mall to cheer for the promise of an emboldened presidency.
Obama charted that arc in a remarkable soliloquy that spoke of a fundamental America duty to provide “hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice”:
"Not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes; tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice. We the people declare today that the most evident of truth that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth."
The recalling of the honored ground where Americans refused anymore to accept the diminishment of women, of people of color, of lesbians and gays were meaningful. They recognized Dr. King’s recollection at the close of the Selma to Montgomery march that abolitionist Theodore Parker had promised: “Even though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice.”
With his mentioning of the Stonewall protests, where the gay rights movement took form, Obama went further than any president in the country’s history to complete a circle of inclusion. But Obama, often and appropriately criticized for his caution, did not end on that high note. He went further still.
The president linked the historical reference, the rhetorical flourish, with contemporary struggles over specific issues.
"It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began, for our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.
Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.
Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.
Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.
Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.
That is our generation’s task, to make these works, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American."
Amid the poetry, there was a muscular agenda: pay equity, voting rights, immigration reform, gun control. In other sections of the speech, there were specific reference to addressing climate change—an issue too long neglected by leaders of both parties—and to renewing a frayed commitment to education. And in others, still, not just to ending wars but to a renewed faith that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war. This is a long way from “swords into ploughshares.” But it was also a long way from “the Bush doctrine." Perhaps long enough to be an Obama doctrine defined by "the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully—not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”
And there was more, much more. There was the vital recognition that poverty is form of oppression—not a moral failing. “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal not just in the eyes of God but also in our own,” said Obama. A beautiful statement, yes. Significantly, in a time of debate about the future of governing commitment to those whose dreams have been so long deferred, Obama completed the arc from FDR and LBJ to today, not just mentioning but defending Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
"We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.
But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.
For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative.
They strengthen us.
They do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great."
That last line referenced the “makers versus takers” language of Congressional Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who as his party’s presidential nominee suggested that the 2012 election was in many senses a battle between an imagined majority and a dismissed 47 percent.
As it happened, Ryan and Mitt Romney won just 47 percent of the vote on November 6. Barack Obama and Joe Biden won 51 percent, and with it a mandate that Obama seems willing finally to embrace. The Barack Obama who began his first term as a remarkably popular figure who seemed almost overwhelmed by the challenges left over from the failed president of George W. Bush begins his second term as a confident leader who knows well that he made mistakes of strategy and position in his first term and who is determine this time to chart a different course.
Will Obama disappoint in this second term? Yes. Will he need to be poked and prodded, chastised and challenged by Americans who demand that the progressive language of his inaugural address be—in Obama’s words—“made real”? Absolutely. More so now than ever.
But with this inaugural address President Obama has offered an indication that he heard the American people on November 6. They were not re-electing him merely because they liked him as a man. They were re-electing him to dispense with the fantasy—entertained not just by Republicans but by too many Democrats—that “freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few.” And to complete the journey from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall and to the place of economic justice where every citizen has that basic measure of security and dignity that can and must be America’s promise.
The Two Most Powerful Allusions in Obama's Speech Today
By James Fallows
On reading it through after hearing it, this is another carefully crafted speech. More so, I would say, than Obama's first inaugural address. But these two parts got my attention the instant I heard them:
1) Lash and sword. This inaugural address, like nearly all previous ones, began with an emphasis on the importance of democratic transfer-of-power. For instance, the first words of JFK's address in 1961 were, "We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom." But Obama introduced the familiar theme with this twist:
"Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of [our founding] words with the realities of our time. [Note: this preceding sentence is the one-sentence summary of the speech as a whole.] For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they've never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.
And for more than two hundred years, we have.
Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together."
I like the precise logical concision of contrasting "self-evident" with "self-executing" truths. But "blood drawn by the lash" is an impressive and confident touch. It was of course an allusion to a closing passage in what is generally considered history's only great second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln's in 1865:
"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedly pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
Half-slave, half-free was an allusion to another of Lincoln's most famous addresses, his "House Divided" speech from his campaign for the Senate in 1858. (And Lincoln's phrase "house divided" was his own allusion to the Book of Mark.)
2) Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall. I thought the allusion in this passage was eloquent on many levels:
"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths -- that all of us are created equal -- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth."
The rhetorical and argumentative purpose of the speech as a whole was to connect what Obama considers the right next steps for America -- doing more things "together," making sure that everyone has an equal chance, tying each generation's interests to its predecessors' and its successors' -- with the precepts and ideals of the founders, rather than having them be seen as excesses of the modern welfare state.
As in the one-sentence summary at the start of the speech, Obama wants to claim not just Lincoln but also Jefferson, Madison, Adams, George Washington, and the rest as guiding spirits for his kind of progressivism. In this passage he works toward that end by numbering among "our forebears" -- those honored ancestors who fought to perfect our concepts of liberty and of union -- the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martin Luther King and other veterans of Selma including still-living Rep. John Lewis, and the protestors 44 years ago at the Stonewall.
I call the passage above an allusion rather than a dog-whistle because a dog-whistle is meant not to be recognized or understood by anyone other than its intended audience. Obama certainly knew that parts of his audience would respond more immediately and passionately to the names Seneca Falls, Selma, and [especially] Stonewall than other parts, but his meaning is accessible to anyone. As is his reference, while speaking barely a mile from the Lincoln Memorial, to what "a King" said on "this great Mall."
I have no illusion, delusion, allusion, or even dog-whistle conceptions that this speech will change the partisan power-balance affecting passage of anything Obama mentioned, from climate legislation to reforming immigration law. But as politics it was a departure for him, and as rhetorical craftsmanship once again it deserves careful study.
Obama's Second Inaugural
By TA-NEHISI COATES
JAN 21 2013, 1:50 PM ET
You should read my colleague Jim Fallows's initial thoughts on Obama's speech over here. For my part, I thought the speech was today sort of great. I thought it was direct, pointed, and clear about which American political tradition Obama actually hails from:
"Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.
Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers.
Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.
Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life's worst hazards and misfortune."
There's more throughout the speech -- I especially appreciated the riff on Seneca Falls, and I don't know that we've had a more full-throated defense of gay rights in an inaugural then the one the president offered.
I was tweeting some with Chris Hayes after the speech about the importance of rhetoric. Without relinquishing the importance of putting pressure on the president (drones!) I think that it's important to acknowledge the significance of speeches like this.
There was a time when merely stating the ideas Obama put forth would have gotten you killed. And we still live in a time where people gladly tell you that the Civil War was not whether we'd be "half-slave and half-free" but about whether we'd be "half-agrarian or half-industrial." Or some such. I don't think most Americans really understand the significance of say Seneca Falls or Stonewall. And I don't know that any president has actually lauded either of these publicly.
As surely as it has always mattered to homophobes, white supremacists, and chauvinists what was and wasn't said in the public, it should matter to those of who seek to repel them. What ideas do and don't get exposed in the public square has to matter to any activist, because movements begin by exposing people to ideas. "I Have a Dream" is not simply important because of whatever civil-rights legislation followed, but because it put on the big American public stage a notion that was long held as anathema -- integration. The idea extends beyond legislation.
Obama's speech is different. To some extent it exposes people to new ideas. But to a greater extent, perhaps, it shows how movements which only a few years ago were thought to be on the run have, in at least one major party, carried the day. This is not a small thing.
Dirty Wars: Jeremy Scahill and Rick Rowley’s New Film Exposes Hidden Truths of Covert U.S. Warfare
For video of the interview, see here.
Premiering this week at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, the new documentary "Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield" follows investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill to Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen as he chases down the hidden truths behind America’s expanding covert wars. We’re joined by Scahill and the film’s director, Rick Rowley, an independent journalist with Big Noise Films. "We’re looking right now at a reality that President Obama has essentially extended the very policies that many of his supporters once opposed under President Bush," says Scahill, author of the bestseller "Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army" and a forthcoming book named after his film. "One of the things that humbles both of us is that when you arrive in a village in Afghanistan and knock on someone’s door, you’re the first American they’ve seen since the Americans that kicked that door in and killed half their family," Rowley says. "We promised them that we would do everything we could to make their stories be heard in the U.S. ... Finally we’re able to keep those promises." [includes rush transcript]
Jeremy Scahill, producer and writer of the documentary film Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, which just premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival. He is national security correspondent for The Nation, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.
Richard Rowley, director of the documentary film Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, which just premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival. He is an independent journalist with Big Noise Films.
AMY GOODMAN: We have flown from Washington, D.C., from the inauguration, to Park City, Utah, to cover the Sundance Film Festival. It’s the 10th anniversary of the documentary track. And we’re going to start off by getting response to President Obama’s inaugural address. On Monday, President Obama declared a decade of war is now ending and that lasting peace does not require perpetual war. But he never mentioned the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan by name.
There was also no mention about the secret drone war that’s vastly expanded under President Obama. On the same day he gave his inaugural address, a U.S. drone strike killed three people in Yemen east of the capital, Sana’a. Also Monday, President Obama officially nominated John Brennan to be director of the CIA, succeeding retired Army General David Petraeus, who resigned. Nicknamed the "assassination czar" by some, Brennan was the first Obama administration official to publicly confirm drone attacks overseas and to defend their legality. Four years ago, John Brennan was a rumored pick for the CIA job when Obama was first elected but was forced to withdraw from consideration amidst protests over his role at the CIA under the Bush administration. Obama also officially nominated Chuck Hagel to head defense and John Kerry to become secretary of state on Monday.
Well, joining us here in Park City, Utah, is Jeremy Scahill, national security correspondent for The Nation magazine. He is featured in and co-wrote the new documentary Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. Jeremy’s latest book, with the same title, is due out in April.
We’re also joined by Dirty Wars director Richard Rowley, independent journalist with Big Noise Films. The film premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. documentary competition section. And when we flew into Salt Lake City last night, we went directly to the Salt Lake City Library, where there was a packed, sold-out crowd to see the—a showing of Dirty Wars. We want to congratulate you, Jeremy and Rick, on this absolutely remarkable film.
RICK ROWLEY: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: And I think it’s very appropriate to begin our four days of broadcasting here at Park City, on this day after the inauguration of President Obama, to begin with Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield.
Jeremy, talk about President Obama’s first four years and where we’re going now. You got a chance to hear his inaugural address; what you thought of it?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, you know, I think if we look back at the—at the first term of the Obama administration, what we saw was you had this very popular Democratic president that had—who had campaigned, in terms of his broader rhetoric during the presidential campaign against John McCain, on the notion that he was going to transform the way that the U.S. conducted its foreign policy around the world. And, you know, he then proceeded to double down on some of the greatest excesses of the Bush administration. If you look at the use of the state secrets privilege; if you look at the way the Obama administration has expanded the drone wars; has empowered special operations forces, including from JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, to operate in countries where the United States is not at war; if you look at the way in which the Obama administration has essentially boxed Congress out of any effective oversight role of the covert aspects of U.S. foreign policy, what we really have is a president who has normalized, for many, many liberals in the United States, the policies that they once opposed under the Bush administration. And, you know, this really has been a war presidency.
And, you know, yesterday, as the—as President Obama’s talking about how we don’t need a state of perpetual war, multiple U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, a country that we’re not at war with, where the U.S. has killed a tremendous number of civilians. Rick and I have spent a lot of time on the ground in Yemen. And, you know, to me, most disturbing about this is John Brennan, who really was the architect of this drone program and the expansion of the drone program—these guys are sitting around on Tuesdays at the White House in "Terror Tuesday" meetings, discussing who’s going to live and who’s going to die across the world. These guys have decided—
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, "Terror Tuesday" meetings?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, that’s what they’re referred to. You know, senior—when this first came out, senior White House officials said that they internally refer to them as "Terror Tuesdays," where they meet and they go over the list of potential targets. And they have them, you know, on baseball cards in some cases. And they’re identifying people that they want to take out and that are on the U.S. kill list. And we have an ever-expanding kill list. You know, after 9/11, there were seven people on the U.S. kill list, and then we had the deck of cards in Iraq and Saddam and his top people. I mean, now there are thousands; it’s unknown how many people are on this kill list. And U.S. citizens—three U.S. citizens were killed in operations ordered by the president in late 2011, including, you know, as we reported on Democracy Now! before, the 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.
And, you know, so the appointment of Brennan to CIA, to me, is the greatest symbol of how deeply invested in covert war and an expansion of wars around the world and the notion that was popularized under the neocons of "the world is a battlefield," that notion that the United States can strike in any country across the world, wherever it determines that terrorists or suspected militants may reside. The most disturbing part of this policy, to me—and I think also to people within the intelligence community who are looking at this—is that there are regions of Yemen or Pakistan where President Obama has authorized the U.S. to strike, even if they don’t know the identities of the people that they’re striking, the so-called "signature strike" policy. The idea that being a military-aged male in a certain region of a particular country around the world, that those people become legitimate targets based on their gender and their age and their geographic presence, that those are going to be legitimate targets is—
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, this was something that started under the Bush administration, and when President Obama first took office, he was briefed on this by the then-director—the outgoing director of the CIA, Michael Hayden. And he described to him this policy that they had developed called "signature strikes," where they were looking at patterns of life. If an individual had contact with certain other individuals, if they were traveling in a certain area at certain times, if they were gathering with a certain number of people, that there was a presumption that they must be up to no good, that they are suspected militants or suspected terrorists and that the U.S. could take preemptive action against those people—and by "preemptive action," I mean killing them with a missile—that there was authorization to do that. In some cases, the president has actually pre-cleared the CIA to authorize these strikes without being directly notified.
But President Obama, my understanding from sources, you know, within the intelligence and military world, has really sort of micromanaged this process. And, you know, Brennan has been—Brennan is basically the hit man of this administration, except he never has to go out and do the hitting himself. He orders, you know, planes and missile strikes and AC-130 strikes to, you know, hit in Somalia, in Yemen, in Pakistan. You know, we’re looking right now at a reality that President Obama has essentially extended the very policies that many of his supporters once opposed under President Bush. And I think it says something about the bankrupt nature of partisan politics in this country that the way we feel about life-or-death policies around the world is determined by who happens to be in office. I mean, that’s—that, to me, is a very sobering reality.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a first clip of your film, Jeremy and Rick. The story of Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki features prominently in Dirty Wars. His 16-year-old son became the third U.S. citizen to be killed in a drone strike in Yemen in October 2011. President Obama called the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki a, quote, "milestone."
JEREMY SCAHILL: Aden—Yemen’s ancient port city was nothing like Kabul. In Afghanistan, life was defined by the war. Everything revolved around it. But in Yemen, there was no war, at least not officially. The strikes seem to have come out of the blue, and most Yemenis were going about life as usual. It was difficult to know where to start. The Yemeni government claimed responsibility for the strikes, saying they had killed dozens of al-Qaeda operatives. But it was unclear who the targets really were or who was even responsible.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Jeremy Scahill in Yemen in the film that has just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival called Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. Jeremy?
JEREMY SCAHILL: So what we were seeing there was a scene where we’re first getting into what’s happening on the ground in Yemen, and we learn about these—this series of missile strikes, cruise missile strikes, that had happened in December of 2009, the first time that Yemen had been bombed by the United States in seven years. And in the process of looking at who the targets were, we understood that Anwar al-Awlaki, that there had been an attempt to kill him, and in fact that the—that it had been announced that Awlaki had been killed. And that’s how we discovered that Anwar Awlaki was in fact on the kill list. And, of course, Anwar Awlaki is a U.S. citizen.
The first bombing that happened, on December 17th, 2009, where President Obama directly authorized the strike, was on this village of al-Majalah in southern Yemen, and 46 people were killed, including two dozen women and children, in that strike. And so, what Rick and I did is we went down to the heart of where these strikes were happening, and we met with people on the ground, and we interviewed survivors of these—of these missile strikes. And we gathered evidence, and we actually filmed the cruise missile parts. And the U.S. had—did not claim responsibility for those strikes; in fact, the Yemeni government claimed responsibility for the strikes. And we know from the WikiLeaks cables that were released that General David Petraeus essentially conspired with senior Yemeni officials, including the former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to cover up the U.S. role in what would become a rapidly expanding U.S. bombing campaign inside of Yemen. And, you know, this administration has continued to pummel Yemen.
Today or—I think today, they claimed for probably the dozenth time in the past couple of years to have killed Said al-Shihri, one of the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And, you know, maybe he has been killed this time; maybe he hasn’t. But what we saw on the ground is that the United States and Yemen claim to be killing al-Qaeda leadership—and they’ve killed a handful of them in Yemen—but for the most part, it seems that the drone strikes are hitting in areas where they’re killing civilians. And what it’s doing is it’s turning people in Yemen that might not be disposed, have anything against the United States, into potential enemies that have a legitimate grudge against America. And that’s—we saw that repeatedly.
AMY GOODMAN: Rick Rowley, your filmmaking is truly remarkable, and you’ve shown that in your previous films, for example, Fourth World War. But in Dirty Wars, that you take this one camera, and you and Jeremy travel the world, as you’ve been covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for years, going to places that the entire U.S. press corps—I mean, with their armed guards—has rarely been, if ever at all, to track what has been secret until now. Talk about that journey through Yemen.
RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, I—the global war on terror is the most important story of our generation, you know, and it’s a story that’s been completely not covered. It remains invisible and hidden from most Americans. I mean, this is a war—this is the longest war in American history. It’s a war in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed. But it’s happening in the shadows. And so, Dirty Wars — in Dirty Wars, Jeremy and I are trying to make this invisible war that’s being fought in our name, but without our knowledge, visible to the American people. And in order to do that, we had to leave the safety of the Green Zone and go out to where—where the war takes place, talk to the civilians on the ground in places like Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen about how this war is affecting their lives.
So, in Yemen, as a result of the—all these drone strikes, as the backlash against these drone strikes in the south was huge, when we arrived in Yemen, an entire province in the south had been taken over by an al-Qaeda-affiliated organization because of the massive popular anger over the drone strikes and the government’s complicity in the strikes, which, you know, turned the south of Yemen into a terrifying place. I mean, these missile strikes, these night raids destabilize the countries that they happen in, and they turn them into places where it becomes very dangerous to move and to operate. So, in Yemen—I mean, in Afghanistan, as well, Jeremy and I had to travel—it was only possible for us to work as a crew of two, because we had to keep a low profile and try to travel under the radar. We couldn’t roll—I mean, rolling around with security would only make it more dangerous for us.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Rick had to actually—he had to train one of the—our Afghan colleagues in how to use a second camera, so that we could have someone filming me while Rick was filming, you know, the people that we were interviewing, because we wouldn’t have been safe to bring more people than that. So Rick actually was training people on the fly in multiple countries on how to do other things, because of some of the limitations, for security purposes, of having to travel very lightly.
RICK ROWLEY: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that humbles both of us is that, you know, when you arrive in a village in Afghanistan and knock on someone’s door, you’re the first American they’ve seen since the Americans that kicked that door in and killed half their family. And yet, time and time again, those families invited us in, welcomed us and shared their stories with us, based on—you know, we promised them that we would do everything we could to make their stories be heard in the U.S. And so, it’s actually really—it’s amazing to be here at Sundance, because finally we’re able to keep those promises.
AMY GOODMAN: Afghanistan, Gardez, Jeremy, talk about one of the central focuses of Dirty Wars.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, you know, we—when we began working on this film, it was a very different film. And, you know, I mean, Amy, we—both Rick and I have been on Democracy Now! I mean, I feel like I grew up at Democracy Now! On my Facebook page, I list Democracy Now! as my university, and really, really view it that way. And you know, because we were talking to you at the time, that we had started on a very different journey. And we had read about this raid that happened in Gardez, in Paktia province, because a very, very brave reporter named Jerome Starkey, who’s a correspondent for The Times of London, who now is in Africa covering the latest sort of expansion of the not-so-covert war in Mali—
AMY GOODMAN: And we’ll talk about that in a minute.
JEREMY SCAHILL: And we’ll talk about that, yeah. So we had read about this night raid that took place, and it was a horrible massacre. And what happened in Gardez was that U.S. special operations forces had intelligence that there were—you know, a Taliban cell was in a—was having some sort of a meeting to prepare a suicide bomber. And they raid this house in the middle of the night, and they end up killing five people, including three women, two of whom were pregnant, and another person that they killed in the house, Mohammed Daoud, turned out to be a senior Afghan police commander who had been trained by the U.S., including by the mercenary—or the private security company MPRI, Military Professional Resources Incorporated. They weren’t even Pashtun, the dominant—the almost exclusive ethnicity of the Taliban. They spoke Dari. And they’re—and what was happening that night was not preparing a suicide bomber; they were celebrating the birth of a child. And they were dancing and had music, and they had women without head covers on.
And they—and so the soldiers raid this house, and they kill these people. And instead of realizing that they had made a horrible mistake and that the intelligence was wrong and it resulted in these people being killed, they actually covered up the killings. And we interview the survivors of this raid, including a man who watched, while he was zip-cuffed, soldiers, American soldiers, digging bullets out of his wife’s dead body. And they then tried to—
AMY GOODMAN: And they did that because?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, so just to finish this part of it, they kill the people, they dig the bullets our of the bodies, then they take into custody all of the men of the house, including a man who has just watched his sister and his wife and his niece killed, and they fly them to a different province, and they’re interrogating them, trying to get them to give up some information that would indicate that the Taliban had a connection to that family. I mean, it shows you how horrid the intelligence is. I mean, these people weren’t even Pashtun. You have a senior police commander. They’re dancing, playing loud music, and they have women without head cover in the house. And what happened is that NATO then issues a press release and made statements anonymously in the media where they said that the U.S. forces had stumbled upon the aftermath of a Taliban honor killing, and they implied that the family—that the women were killed by their own murderous families.
And so, in the course of the film, we investigate that night raid, and we learn that the individuals who did that raid were members of the Joint Special Operations Command. And we know that because the then-head of the Joint Special Operations Command, Vice Admiral William McRaven, showed up in this village with scores of Afghan soldiers and U.S. forces. And they—there’s a scene, and we show this in the film, where they offload a sheep, and they offer to sacrifice the sheep to say—you know, ask for forgiveness. It’s an Afghan cultural tradition, and it was meant to be a gesture of reconciliation. And they offload the sheep, and they’re offering to sacrifice it in the very place where the raid had taken place. And then Admiral McRaven goes into the home and says his men were responsible for killing the women and the police commander, and he asks for forgiveness from the head of the family, Haji Sharabuddin. Had a brave photographer named Jeremy Kelly not been there to snap the photographs that you see in our film of Admiral McRaven in Gardez, we may never have known who the actual killers were that day.
And both Jerome Starkey and I have filed Freedom of Information Act requests. We’ve tried to get information out of the U.S. military. My requests have been bounced all around the military. And the most current update I have is months old from them. They said that it’s in an unnamed agency awaiting review. We don’t know if anyone was disciplined for the action. We don’t know if anyone was ever held accountable for the action. All we know is that Admiral McRaven and a bunch of soldiers showed up with a sheep and said, "We did this, and we’re sorry."
AMY GOODMAN: And tried to destroy Jerome Starkey’s reputation, meanwhile, back in Kabul in a news conference.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean, Jerome Starkey—there’s a couple of journalists in our film who really emerge as the heroes of the story that we’re telling. Another one is currently in jail in Yemen right now, and we can maybe talk about him, named Abdulelah Haider Shaye—and we’ve talked about him on the show before—in jail because President Obama intervened, when he was about to be pardoned, to keep him in jail after he exposed the role, U.S. role, in certain missile strikes.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean he intervened, if you could just say for a moment?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, there was—the journalist who first exposed the missile strike I was talking about earlier in al-Majalah, Yemen, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, had taken photographs of the U.S. missile parts, and that’s how we first learned that it was in fact U.S. cruise missiles. And Yemen doesn’t have cruise missiles. And so, after he did his reporting and continued to report on the expanding U.S. air war in Yemen, he was snatched from his home by the U.S.-backed Yemeni counterterrorism units and then was put on trial for allegedly being an al-Qaeda facilitator or propagandist and was sentenced to five years in prison. There was huge protests as his trial was denounced as a sham by international human rights and media organizations. And he was about to be pardoned by the Yemeni president, because there was tremendous pressure in the country, and then President Obama called President Ali Abdullah Saleh and expressed his concern over the release of Abdulelah Haider Shaye.
AMY GOODMAN: The reporter.
JEREMY SCAHILL: The reporter. And then the pardon was ripped up after that. And his lawyers say, clearly, that he’s in jail because of Obama’s intervention, that he would have been released. And lest you think this is some kind of a conspiracy theory, you can hop onto the White House website and see the readout of the phone call from that day. The White House put it openly. When I called the State Department to ask them about the case, they said, "We stand by President Obama’s position on—initial position on this," regarding this journalist. They don’t even refer to him as a journalist, "regarding this individual." He had worked with ABC News, The Washington Post — you know, very small, unknown media outlets. And I heard from a very—someone inside of a very prominent news organization in the U.S. told me that they had been called by the administration when they were working with Abdulelah Haider Shaye and told that "You should stop working with him, because he takes his paychecks and gives them to al-Qaeda." I mean, they tried to slander this journalist behind the scenes and in front.
But you asked about Jerome Starkey. When Jerome Starkey first exposed the cover-up of Gardez, NATO publicly attacked him by name and accused him of lying. And then, when more information started to come out about who did it, then they changed their story, but they never apologized to Jerome Starkey.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Rick Rowley, you have this remarkable footage. Aside from you both going to Gardez and interviewing survivors, talk about the video footage you retrieve there and the hands of the U.S. soldiers that you see.
RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, one of incredible things in Gardez, the family gave us cellphone videos that they had taken the night of the raid. And there was one clip in particular. It was early in the morning. It’s a shaky video. And we just thought it was just another sort of shaky video of the bodies. But then you can hear voices come over it, and they’re American-accented voices speaking about piecing together their version of the night’s killings, getting their story straight. And, I mean, you hear them trying to concoct a story about how this was something other than a massacre.
AMY GOODMAN: And you see their hands.
RICK ROWLEY: And you see their hands moving the corpses around and photographing the bullet holes. But we never get to see their faces. All we have are their voices. We spent a long time actually trying to analyze the audio to figure out, because a name is mentioned in one part of it, but it’s too thin and distorted on the cellphone to find out. I mean, these are the—these are the scraps and pieces that we have to use to reconstruct the story of these wars, because everything is systematically hidden from us. I mean, all we had to go on were these pictures that Jeremy Kelly took, this cellphone video, and that—
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Kelly is the photographer, videographer for Jerome Starkey.
RICK ROWLEY: For Jerome, yes, who is now the Kabul bureau chief—
JEREMY SCAHILL: Afghan correspondent.
RICK ROWLEY: Yeah. All we had were these tiny little scraps of clues that weren’t even supposed to exist, and pictures of a person who was unknown at the time. I mean, Admiral William McRaven, you know, no one knew who he was. I mean, that was the first sort of shock here—looked at him, see his rank, read his name. But he’s not—he wasn’t from the NATO command. He wasn’t from the Eastern Regional Command that owns that battle space. He was not even—I mean, why was this elite force operating, kicking in the doors on farmers? I mean, that is the sort of the—the mystery that begins the investigation.
AMY GOODMAN: And then you take this forward, Jeremy, back to the United States and show McRaven a photograph.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. And so, you know, after—after we learn that this figure, William McRaven, was the leader of this raid, it sort of—our film was sort of in the—this journey was sort of like pulling on the tail of an elephant that’s behind a hidden wall. And you’re pulling on it, and you’re pulling on it, and the cracks start to show this behemoth that’s behind a wall, and you realize that this is part of a much bigger story. And really, that kicked off a journey that took us to Yemen and Somalia and elsewhere.
And, you know, for us, I mean, the sort of—just this incredible looking-glass moment happened when Osama bin Laden was killed. And all of a sudden, everyone is talking about JSOC. It’s everywhere. I mean, we had spent so much time embedded in this story, where there was very little being written about it, except for a small circle of journalists. And all of a sudden, the people that—whose journey we’d been tracking had become national heroes. And Disney tried to trademark SEAL Team 6, and, you know, the Hollywood producers got in bed with the CIA to make their version of the—you know, the events, the sort of official history.
AMY GOODMAN: And you’re saying that’s the film...?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Oh, Zero Dark Thirty. I mean, it’s—and we can talk about that film later. But, I mean, the relationship between the CIA and Hollywood over this issue is one that I think needs to be very, very thoroughly debated. And I’m thankful that we are debating it. And, you know, one great thing that has happened as a result of Zero Dark Thirty is that people are actually talking about torture and what has happened in the past. But for us to see, you know, McRaven sitting in front of Congress and JSOC being talked about publicly was really an incredible experience, because we had seen this other side. Our film is about all these things that these same units did that almost never get talked about. What Americans know about JSOC is overwhelmingly limited to what happened in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. And, you know, Rick often points out sort of the irony of the way that that’s covered versus the role these forces play around the world.
RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, I mean, we’re flooded with details about one raid, the—on May 2nd, 2011. We know everything about it. We know how many SEALs were in the helicopters. We know what kind of helicopters they were. We know what kind of rifles they were carrying. We know that they had a dog with them that was a Belgian Malinois named Cairo. We know everything about this raid. But that same year, there were 30,000 other night raids in Afghanistan. So, we know everything about this, but those—those are all hidden from us.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to a pair of remarkable investigative journalists, whose investigations are now a film, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, that has just premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival in its 10th year. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: The great Somali Canadian, K’naan, singing "Somalia," his home country. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, and we’re with two great journalists: Rick Rowley and Jeremy Scahill. Jeremy, a longtime Democracy Now! correspondent and national security correspondent for The Nation. Rick Rowley, videographer, filmmaker, who has been in Iraq and Afghanistan for many years. They have now put together this film, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. And it has premiered here. In fact, K’naan was here celebrating the first night. And I want to talk about Somalia and Mali, but let’s start with a clip of this film in Somalia. Jeremy, can you introduce it?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, we—what we discovered in Somalia was that the U.S. had been for years outsourcing its kill list in Somalia to local warlords. And in our film, you meet two of those warlords: Mohamed Qanyare and Indha Adde. And Indha Adde at one time was protecting people who were on the U.S. kill list, and he was an ally of the al-Qaeda and al-Shabab figures within Somalia. And he has been flipped and is now working with the U.S. So, here we meet Indha Adde, this notorious warlord who’s working on the side of the U.S.
JEREMY SCAHILL: In an earlier life, Indha Adde had been America’s enemy, offering protection to people on the U.S. kill list. But the warlord had since changed sides. He was now on the U.S. payroll and assumed the title of general.
So he’s saying that the fiercest fighting that they’re doing right now is happening right here.
The men fired across the rooftops, but it didn’t make sense to me what we were doing here—or what the Americans were doing here in Somalia, arming this warlord-turned-general for what seemed like a senseless war.
UNIDENTIFIED: We’ve got to move.
JEREMY SCAHILL: So these were Shabab fighters you buried here.
GEN. INDHA ADDE: [translated] If recapture fighters alive, we give them medical care, unless they are foreigners. The foreigners, we execute.
JEREMY SCAHILL: If you capture a foreigner alive, you execute them on the battlefield?
GEN. INDHA ADDE: [translated] Yes. The others should feel no mercy.
AMY GOODMAN: The U.S.-backed Somali warlord Indha Adde. Journalist Jeremy Scahill there in Somalia, Rick Rowley filming. Jeremy, talk about Somalia and Mali, as we—the world learns about Mali now, with the French attacks on Mali and what’s happened in Algeria, and how that ties into the central theme of your film about JSOC.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, one thing that’s interesting, you know, we have some people from within the JSOC community whose identities we protect in the film, and we’re talking to them. And we actually, you know, two years ago, were considering going to Mali, because we were hearing from our sources that there were covert operations that were happening inside of Mali tracking these—the spread of these al-Qaeda affiliates. And, you know, this is something that we’re seeing throughout the Horn of Africa and in places throughout the Sahel and North Africa, where these groups are getting stronger and stronger. And so, you know, the U.S. is increasingly getting itself involved in these dirty wars in Africa. And, you know, we could have easily gone to Uganda or Somalia or Mali and reported on this, but there’s—you know, since AFRICOM was created as a full free-standing command, like Southern Command and Central Command, AFRICOM has been expanding these wars.
AMY GOODMAN: And McRaven, where he is now?
JEREMY SCAHILL: McRaven is the commander of the Special Operations Command. He is—William McRaven is the most powerful figure in the United States military. He is an incredibly brilliant man. He is very shrewd. He understands media. And he is in charge of the most elite force the U.S. has ever produced, and he has been given carte blanche to do what he believes is right around the world, empowered much more under President Obama than they were under President Bush. In fact, you see someone who has worked within JSOC saying that to us in our film. And out of Camp Lemonnier, which is in Djibouti, the U.S. has been expanding these covert wars in Africa. And most of what—most Americans, what they know about Somalia is Black Hawk Down. And I think in our film you’re going to see a very different reality, and you’re going to see the hellscape that has been built by a decade of covert war.
AMY GOODMAN: Is it too cynical to say—I mean, this is the fourth anniversary of President Obama promising to close Guantánamo. It hasn’t happened. There’s still scores of men there, 166 men. Something—more than 80 of them have been cleared, yet they’re still there. Is it too cynical to say that this "dirty war," as you call it, the targeted killings, are a way to end all of these prisons? Because you don’t detain prisoners, you simply kill them.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, that’s what people like Jack Goldsmith and other, you know, former Bush legal advisers and national security team—I mean, the irony of these guys, who have no moral standing to talk about these issues, are saying, "Well, Obama is just killing these people. At least we stuck them in some sort of a prison." I mean, it’s devastating that this is what these Bush people are saying about Obama. That’s what they’re alleging.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, devastating is your film, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. It has premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival, has just been picked up IFC, Sundance Selects, which means it will go out to scores of movie theaters around the country. This is just the beginning. And I congratulate you both, Jeremy Scahill, Rick Rowley, of Big Noise Films and The Nation magazine and Democracy Now! What an amazing film. This is our first day at the Sundance Film Festival. I thank all for all the work they’ve done.