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Droning On and On: Jeremy Scahill on Obama's War 

Wednesday, May 25 2016

As a muckraking national security and foreign affairs journalist whose beat is whistleblowers, drone warfare, and other stuff the federal government would prefer he leave alone, Jeremy Scahill is disappointed he didn't get an extra pat-down before his flight to San Francisco.

"I somehow got a TSA pre-check," he says. "I never applied, and I'm like, 'What have I done wrong? I go from four S's to a pre-check? Am I a senior citizen already?' "

He most certainly is not; he's in his early 40s. (And the four S's, in case you've never scrutinized a boarding pass, denote who gets automatically pulled aside. Scahill jokingly calls it "super-special security screening.") In any case, his work for The Intercept — the unflinchingly adversarial blog he cofounded with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the journalists who first published Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA's massive domestic spying program — and prior exposés of subjects like the military contractor Blackwater had gotten Scahill placed on some watch list. He was in a low-level, miscellaneous-sounding category of suspicion — "they didn't know why I was traveling to so many countries" — until he challenged it, anyway.

The latest fruit of his occasional airport hijinks is The Assassination Complex, a collection of essays that goes long and deep into the drone wars, President Obama's failure to close Guantánamo, and the chilling practice of stripping people of their citizenship so that the U.S. military can then kill them. Largely but not exclusively written or co-written by Scahill, they're long on primary-source documents and light on editorializing: Scahill and the staff of The Intercept present the facts — many of which came to light through the actions of whistleblowers — and readers are left to draw their own conclusions about their government's actions.

The resulting book shows how constitutional law expert and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barack Obama became a willing partner in the consequence-heavy expansion of the national security state. Throughout The Assassination Complex, Scahill et al. show how the president frequently opted for kills over captures, at one point bragging to his aides that "[It] turns out I'm really good at killing people." Is this partly because the American military base and suspected-terrorist prison at Guantánamo Bay had become a suppurating wound on the body politic, and a reminder of Obama's failure to keep his 2008 campaign promise to close it?

"I think Obama would reject that," Scahill says, "but I think at a minimum, it became a necessary component of his strategy to fight terrorism and protect national security ... Killing people became a more convenient way of doing two things at once: saying we're taking the fight to the terrorists, and on the other hand, not having to deal with 'Where do we put the people that we capture?' "

He notes that prominent members of the military, such as now-retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, explicitly stated that the drone program is a "convenient way to circumvent holding people" — and immediately darkens over the far-worse prospect of a President Trump acting as commander-in-chief.

"People who are predicting that the military will somehow rise up against his orders to do this stuff are going to be very mistaken," Scahill says. "There's a very radical Christian supremacist movement within the U.S. military, and they're dying to get back to the age of 'Do whatever is necessary.' "

It turns out that among special operations forces and other elite soldiers, there are such things as challenge coins emblazoned with quotes from Scripture or "crusader-warriors wearing medieval armor" that are given out as tokens of merit. Scahill dubs their style "Megadeth meets Billy Graham." (President Obama doles out challenge coins of his own, although they bear the presidential seal and not, say, turban-clad skulls.)

Trump's likeliest opponent in the November election, Hillary Clinton, is little better in Scahill's eyes. Although he's quick to express his personal preference — "on the domestic level, I wouldn't want Trump appointing Supreme Court justices, if for no other reason than women's reproductive issues," he says — Scahill calls Clinton a hawkish "empire politician" who might be a more dangerous politician than Trump, with the caveat that "Trump could be swayed by the hardcore hawks to do the unthinkable and launch a war against Iran."

In short: It's grim stuff. And the book is full of yet more, like a look into the inner workings of Ramstein Air Base in Germany (the headquarters of the drone program), or the fact that the government has unnervingly elastic standards for what exactly constitutes a terrorist.

Possibly the most upsetting revelation is that the U.S. possesses not one drone program, but two. The CIA and the military's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) have effectively carved up the world so that the former's flying death-robots rain missiles on Afghanistan while the latter's patrol the skies above Yemen and Somalia. (It's not the only bureaucratic turf war, either: The FBI and National Counterterrorism Center maintain separate terrorist watch lists, and one reason that getting one's name off the list is so difficult is that all parties must agree to it.)

These overlapping mandates should make the public queasy because their existence implies that our democratically elected civilian government is subordinate to an unaccountable national security state that uses the politics of fear to keep elected officials in line. Which president, after all, wants to be the one to lose Los Angeles to a biological attack?

If you have mid-level functionaries from a proliferating set of intelligence agencies bombarding you daily with classified briefings that play out that exact scenario, you might start to listen.

"I think any president who thinks they are going to alter in any meaningful way the permanent bureaucracy is naïve," Scahill says.

The net result is a con-law expert elected to wind down our post-Sept. 11 war footing eventually all but agreeing with Dick Cheney on national-security issues — and the former vice president is someone whom Scahill calls "an evil fucker." ("I wouldn't be surprised if he lives in a lair. Like, an actual lair," he says.)

Faced with the de facto end of the republic — at least, for any democratic choices related to the U.S. military — is there any cause for optimism? Scahill turns to a possibly predictable place: Sen. Bernie Sanders' fight against corporate money in politics — although not without reservations.

"He supports the kill list, he's pro-drone, and he supported regime change in the '90s," Scahill says, "but no major candidate with the support that Bernie is getting has ever, ever attacked the campaign finance system in this country and the corporations that control it all."

"He's not going to win, but he could have," Scahill adds. "This is the guy who's breaking records on fundraising and bringing out new voters, and who is actually saying, 'This is how it is,' and it's true. And Hillary is running around with Henry Fucking Kissinger!"

It's not hard to imagine the independent socialist from Vermont winning the nomination and the election. Then again, it's not hard to imagine dual teams of counterintelligence officials filing into the Situation Room early in the Sanders administration to brief the new president about an imminent attack that only a drone strike in the next hour could hope to prevent.


About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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