YH: Today marks the twelfth anniversary of 9/11. Much of your investigative work deals with the often not talked about American response to this attack. How do you think Obama’s drone program has made the U.S. less safe since 9/11?
JS: First off, it’s not just the drone program. I mean I think our own foreign policy is degrading what’s called our own national security. What I’ve seen on the ground in multiple countries around the world is the U.S. engaged in an assassination program, the rationale for which is that they want to hunt down terrorists and take them down without conducting attacks against the United States. And that happens. Certainly, major terrorist figures have been killed. Osama bin Laden no longer joins us on Earth. But, a tremendous number of innocent people are being killed, and I think that we’ve reached a point where we are creating more new enemies than we are killing actual terrorists in these operations. And if that’s true, which I strongly suspect it is, then the administration is sort of whistling past the graveyard with its counterterrorism policy. If your own policy is creating the very force you’re claiming to be trying to defeat, then you have to think of a different policy.
What I will say, on the flip side, is that here we are talking on the Anniversary of September Eleventh: look at everything that happened post-9/11 out of fear. The Patriot Act was passed, these wide authorities for the president to wage multiple wars around the world with very little effective oversight. But what’s happened in the past few months is that in May, you had President Obama give this major speech where for the first time, he owned the fact that he had ordered the killing of an American citizen who had not been charged with a crime—Anwar al-Awlaki—and owned the drone program in general. And I think that was in large part a response to growing public opposition to drone strikes and that policy. Then you have the Edward Snowden leaks at the NSA, which have completely shaken Washington at its core, and have created an unlikely alliance of Libertarians and Progressives. And then you have massive public opposition to the Administration’s posturing about a war in Syria. I think finally, we’re having the debate in this country that we should have had a long time ago. But I’m glad that we’re finally having it.
YH: Do you think that we’re finally starting to ask some of the tough questions about the decade of reactionary foreign policy in response to 9/11?
JS: No. I don’t know if I would go that far. I think that we’re at the beginning stages of starting to ask questions. I really think that the ball started rolling with Bradley Manning and the Wikileaks cables. But what Edward Snowden did created this space for people to be engaged in a national discussion about the relationship between security and civil liberties. So much of what happened in this country after 9/11 that I find disturbing is the erosion of liberties in the name of security. And to have members of the U.S. Senate holding whole hearings about this question is a remarkable turn of events. I think that if we can keep the momentum going, it’s going to be better for the democratic process of this country.
YH: It finally seems like the conversation has moved on to the place—12 years after the 9/11—where politicians are actually starting to have those conversations.
JS: I think that every nation has a right to defend itself. If the United States is facing an imminent threat, from a terrorist organization, or from a nation-state, it has lawful rights to confront and address that threat. But so much of what’s been done in the name of keeping the country safe has nothing to do with an imminent threat. We do targeted killings of people whose identities we don’t actually know—we just suspect that they’re bad people based on where they live and who they talk to. We’ve gotten so far away from any sort of respect for international laws and norms where I think the message that’s been sent under Obama’s administration is that it doesn’t matter much who’s President of the United States. The U.S. is always going to assert that it has the right to conduct covert military operations anywhere and any time, even if the whole world is against it. That’s not a good position to be in the world. It ultimately makes Americans sort of despised.
YH: You mentioned unpopular foreign policy decisions. Given this most recent rhetoric of a hostile conflict with Syria, where John Kerry’s gaffe essentially turned into a possible solution to this crisis, I am wondering what you think about the most recent developments with policy towards Syria?
JS: You know, I don’t really talk to John Kerry, or know what goes on inside of his head. I think he was an epic disaster when they sent him to try to sell this war. He contradicted himself multiple times in front of the Senate. He told the Senate different things than he told the House. He made assertions that were not consistent with the President’s own policies. And yet, as you point out, what has been presented as a slip of the tongue or talking off the cuff becomes the solution. My sense, and I don’t have any inside sources on this, is that Obama and Putin have been discussing something of this nature for some time—predating John Kerry’s appearances. I think it’s possible that all of this was orchestrated behind the scenes between the U.S. and Russia. Russia is extremely crafty behind the scenes when it comes to diplomacy, regardless of how they’re represented in the mainstream media, and my sense is that [they're] getting something serious for doing this for the U.S.—and that’s just speculation, but I don’t think the U.S. would be allowing their war plans to be derailed in this way if there wasn’t something going on behind the scenes. I mean, Obama clearly really wanted this war. So I think that something happened behind the scenes with the Russians—maybe we’ll see through leaks—and I think it probably happened well before John Kerry went to Congress.
YH: Part of Obama’s justification for this war was that it would be a humanitarian mission. Given our recent history with humanitarian missions, do you think that intervention might have exaggerated or solved the situation. What can we learn about intervention from these experiences?
JS: I cut my teeth as a reporter when Bill Clinton was in office, and I remember what it was like. I was in Yugoslavia during the war under Clinton, and in Iraq, and I sort of recall the Richard Holbrook school of foreign policy—the “Cruise Missile Liberals” is what I call them. And Samantha Power, our new ambassador to the U.N. is the queen of the Cruise Missile Liberal crowd, and she sees a potential U.S. intervention in, like, every country around the world. She and Susan Rice are very hawkish “liberals.”
Syria is a civil war. And, I don’t think that the United States should be intervening in civil wars. I’m horrified by what’s happening in Syria, and I think that there has to be some confrontation of the Assad regime—not necessarily military. I think diplomacy could at least solve the issue of who has official control of Syria. But what credibility do we have? What nations border Syria? Iraq borders Syria. What kind of condition did we leave Iraq in? I remember the Iraq of the ’90s. There were not suicide bombings, there weren’t women having acid thrown on them. It wasn’t some kind of paradise—Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator thug—but at least if you kept your mouth shut you could live. The Iraq of today is suicide bombings everywhere and sectarian conflict: utter murder and mayhem. We did that to Iraq. We said we’re the only power in the world who has the ability to stand up to the Assad regime in Syria—what credibility do we have? I wish we had the credibility to stand up to him, but if you look in the region, what has this administration done with regards to Israel? Palestine? The President’s policy in Afghanistan was a disaster. Iraq has been left in utter flames. And the U.S. is already involved in a proxy war in Syria with Iran and Hezbollah—Qatar is equally involved. So I just don’t think that we have the authority to do it.
Part of the reason that the United Nations was set up was so that the international community would have a joint unified response to these kinds of humanitarian disasters. And the U.S. has—almost from the very beginning—spent endless amounts of time trying to undermine and undercut the authority of the United Nations, and views it as a debate club when it doesn’t do the bidding of the U.S., and then praises it when it is bullied into siding with what the U.S. and Israel want done.
The broader point I’m making is not that there shouldn’t be a response, or that civilians who are being mass slaughtered shouldn’t be defended. I think we need to accept the idea that there is international law, and that we respect it or stop pretending like we do. Because using it as it’s convenient is, to me, the heart of the problem of how the U.S. conducts its international affairs. I hope the United Nations acts on Syria. I also hope that it doesn’t result in a military solution. I do believe that there will be a diplomatic way out of this.
To answer your question directly, I think that there is a very strong likelihood that if the U.S. does intervene in Syria, it will make [Syria] worse. And that alone should be a reason to be against it. All the other stuff I said is valid too, because we don’t have much credibility in the region or the international community because of our bullying of other nations.
YH: Your book, Dirty Wars, is an analysis of what you said—the U.S. bullying other nations, more specifically, the policies that we’ve taken abroad to enforce our will on the Middle East. What was it like to report for this book?
JS: I wasn’t sure I was going to even write a book, or make a film. I was so sick of Blackwater, my previous book. I had lived and breathed Blackwater for years and I was so sick of those guys and the companies and being asked about Blackwater. And I just wanted that out of my life. So I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. And Obama had just come into office, and I could tell when he was on the campaign trail that he was a pretty hawkish guy. He portrayed himself one way in his speeches, but if you looked at who was around him and you actually read his policies, it was pretty clear that he was going to continue a lot of the Bush-Cheney counterterrorism stuff.
YH: You know McChrystal is still here at Yale, right?
JS: Maybe I’ll have lunch with him—If you want to print that, you can. I’m ready to sit down with General McChrystal, in one of his off-the-record classes or something. I know quite a bit about Mr. Stanley McChrystal.
YH: So Obama…
JS: Obama had campaigned a certain way because he had to look tougher than McCain in some ways, on this idea that he would surge in Afghanistan, take the fight to Osama bin Laden, and go into Pakistan without Pakistan’s permission if he knew where bin Laden was, and McCain had attacked him for that.
My friend Rick Rowley—who directed the film Dirty Wars—and I had worked together for years. He’s a combat cameraman who has made many films. And we had this idea to do a series of pieces about Obama’s war in Afghanistan.
YH: Wait. So how does that work? The two of you were together and were like, “Let’s go to Afghanistan?” What do you do? Do you fly to Turkey first? Someplace closer?
JS: On that trip, we flew to New York to Dubai, and had, like, a ten-hour layover. And then we got on like a smaller plane in Dubai to fly to Afghanistan [in]to Kabul. On the plane it was just us and these big steroid mercenary guys. Huge guys. They served us these terrible little TV dinner-type food things. And this ginormous man—from New Zealand, I think—asked for as many of these things on the plane as they could give him. And he’s just sitting there on the plane stuffing his face with them.
YH: He had to get his protein in!
JS: Exactly. So we landed in Kabul and we both had beards—Rick had a particularly big beard, and he’s bald—and an Afghan friend came to pick us up, and we’re driving out of the airport, and just going. And they see Rick and they stop us because they think Rick is some Taliban guy. As soon as we get to the country, we’re these two white dudes and we get stopped because they think Rick is some kind of Islamic militant.
Both of us are experienced in war zones and stuff. Rick had spent a lot more time in Afghanistan than I had, and we already knew the people we were working with and trusted them. We already had a pretty good understanding of what you do and don’t do, in terms of security.
But Somalia was a whole other story. I spent three or four months preparing for that trip in Somalia. You don’t just show up to Mogadishu and think that you’re going to step four or five feet away from the airport without thinking you’re going to get kidnapped or captured by someone. It is an unbelievably dangerous place to go. And we had arrangements for security. In Afghanistan, we rolled with no security ever. We’d be in beat-up Toyota Corollas. We dressed local. Beards. And we tried to have as small a footprint as possible. You don’t want to draw any attention, because you can get sniped or shot or something. You just want to blend in. In Somalia, you need to project overwhelming force to stay safe—I’m talking journalists or aid workers or anyone. If you don’t have a major security detail rolling around with you you’re going to get overwhelmed and you’re going to get kidnapped, and it happens all the time. And I didn’t know this when we first started.
Our original plan was that we were going to work with a Somali journalist, who said he had three bodyguards, and he said that that was going to be enough, and that we were going to stay in this hotel. And to make a long story short, I talked to this old South African mercenary who spent a lot of time in Somalia, and who had been kidnapped himself, and I asked him to give me advice, So I told him our plan, and he said that if you do that, you’re going to be kidnapped 15 minutes after you step out of the car. He said that there’s only one person I know of who can keep you safe in Mogadishu, and it was this guy, Bashir Osman, who became a good friend of mine. We stayed at his house. We had an armored vehicle, a technical—which is a [truck] with a machine gun welded on the back of it—12 bodyguards, a decoy car, motorcycle riders who would ride out ahead and scout locations. We would leave at 5:30 a.m. from his house and be back every day by 3:00 p.m. because that’s when people start chewing khat, and then the militia guys start firing guns and killing each other. You have to be very smart. You almost have to think like a spy. You need to figure out, how do I get done what I need to get done without getting killed or without getting any of my people killed. And so we spent months and months preparing for ten days in Mogadishu. And a week after we left, a cameraman from Korea was shot and killed doing something that Rick had been doing the entire time we were in Mogadishu, which was filming on the back of a truck with militia guys. You realize later—holy shit. Everybody could have gotten killed.
Rick was very nearly shot when we were in Mogadishu.. We were filming a gun battle between al-Shabaab—the Islamic militia—and U.S.- backed warlord forces, and Rick was filming with these warlords on a rooftop, and I was behind these sandbags with this general, and I could see tracer fire hitting the balcony as Rick moved along. [The shots hit] just behind him. Someone was trying to shoot him. They probably didn’t have a sniper rifle; they were just blowing off one round of an AK-47. Even though the AK is automatic, you can pluck it with a finger and just shoot one bullet. And Somalis do that and use it like a sniper rifle. So somebody was clearly trying to hit Rick. I didn’t know what to do in that moment. Do you scream? Do you stay silent? And I realized that had Rick popped his head up a little bit, he would have had his head blown off. And for what? What was the point in Somalia? Yeah, we got some incredible stories, but at the end of the day—that’s what every journalist does when you’re doing this. You take risks and you think, “I’ve calculated it enough. I’ve mitigated the risk enough so its acceptable to do it.” But those are the lies we always tell ourselves.
YH: Your journalism takes on the voice of the voiceless victims of the U.S. foreign policy, the ones who people in the United States don’t hear from. Do you ever consider that since you’re telling their story, you’ll be safe? Or is there always a distrust because you’re American?
JS: Well now, people Google you before they meet you—including leaders of the Taliban. They know all about you. We discovered that there was a pirated Urdu copy of my book that had been published in Pakistan. This is actually a funny story. We were trying to set up a meeting with these two Taliban commanders and our Afghan colleague who was working with us, Rauf, he downloaded a copy of this Urdu translation of my book and printed it out and had it couriered over to these Taliban guys with a note saying, “This is who wants to interview you.” And they called him the next day and they said, “We will meet with this man. We know who he is.” So I’m very big among the Taliban, apparently.
A quote of mine was also once featured in Inspire magazine, the magazine of Al Queda in the Arabian Peninsula. I’m not proud of that. Other journalists were quoted too, and it is what is is, but they had a quote of me in it in a positive way. They liked something I said. So I figure that if I get kidnapped I can just say, “Can you seen issue 11 of Inspire magazine?”
I don’t think about it that way. I’m not a world-famous person. They’re not going to know who I am. And at the end of the day, even if I say, I agree with you, it’s sort of irrelevant. If you kidnap people, it’s not just because you’re against them. It’s because you’re trying to send a message against other people.
YH: It’s the inaugural year of the Windham—Campbell Prize, and it’s a nice chunk of change.
JS: I come from a working class family. Both of my parents are nurses. This is a lot of money.
YH: So what’s your next project? What are you going to do with the money?
JS: I’m definitely going to give part of it away. With a portion of it, I’ve thought about setting up some kind of a scholarship for a high school student, but I’m still working out the details on that. I’ve been talking to some people about how that would work.
In terms of the money for my own work, I can’t really talk about what it is right now, but I already have spent part of the money on a trip that I’m taking in the next few weeks which has to do with an investigative story that I’m working on with a colleague. If I didn’t have this prize, I would have had to just front it myself because I don’t have a home yet for this story, or beg for a grant or something. So I’ve already spent part of the money. I should probably put the check in the bank so I don’t max out my credit card.
This kind of reporting is expensive. I don’t know how much the Somali trip cost in the end, but it was tens of thousands of dollars to go there for ten days, because of all the security. The flights are expensive, accommodations, we had to get body armor, all of these supplies, sattelite phones, other things. So I’ve become a professional beggar, and this will mean that I don’t have to annoy the people who I know who have money and ask them for, like, the fiftieth time, to support a trip that I’m trying to take.
It’s an incredible thing. When you do this type of work, the most annoying thing is that I spend months of my year raising money so I can do the work that I want to do. And those are weeks that I lose that I can’t do work. And so for somebody to plop down a year’s plus worth of working expenses is unbelievable. It’s like the dream of everyone who does this kind of work.
YH: That seems to be the goal of this new prize.
JS: It is. I had never heard of Donald Windham or Sandy Campbell before, and I’ve gotten a major bio from their friends and other people. And they were ridiculously interesting, and I really relate to Donald Windham, because I don’t have a college degree. He didnt have a college degree; he didn’t come from money. He came to New York to be a writer, and it was almost like a Forrest Gump-type thing. He was around all of these amazing people—Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote—and became good friends with them. And at the end of the day, he put in the language for the prize that he wanted special consideration given to people who had no academic affiliation. I think there was something subversive he was doing. He puts it in at Yale—one of the most elite universities in the world—and puts in that he wants special consideration given to people with no academic affiliation. Hence, it results in a college dropout being invited to give lectures to a bunch of Yale students.
YH: So you started college in Wisconsin and dropped out, and then started working for Amy Goodman?
JS: I had been involved in this political struggle on campus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for the rights of homeless people. We won this battle, and I was so disillusioned with the university and the campus. And I was a terrible student, to be honest. And so I decided that I as going to take some time off and do something else. So I went out to Washington, D.C. and moved into this homeless shelter called the Community for Creative Nonviolence, which was the largest homeless sheler in the country at the time, and I started living and working there. And I would spend a lot of time taking old veterans to fill out forms, and do medical stuff. I would wait in waiting rooms. And at that time I had never heard of Democracy Now or Amy Goodman, and one day I heard Amy Goodman on the radio and my mind was just completely blown. I started stalking her, and offering to do anything—you know, if you have a dog, I’ll walk it. I’ll feed your cat. I’ll wash your windows. I just want to be a part of this. And eventually I think she had to figure out if she wanted to get a restraining order against me or to say, “Hey, come on in.” And eventually she let me come in and volunteer, and I was there ever since. I list Democracy Now as my university, because that’s what it was like. It’s surreal. I got to learn journalism from someone who I think is one of our finest journalists of our generation. I was like an apprentice. Amy taught me how to edit on those reel-to-reel tapes. You couldn’t replicate that. It’s not possible.
YH: That’s interesting because I feel like here, a lot of students think that they can just start reporting and be reporters. But I’m not sure it’s that easy.
JS: There are ethics you need to embrace as a reporter. There is a reason why journalism is the only profession specifically cited in the Constitution. In the First Amendment, the press has a protected status. Now why is that? It’s not that anyone who declares that they’re a journalist can say whatever they want. It says that we’re going to have a press that’s free but is also playing a role that strengthens a democracy.
I don’t think I can do brain surgery, I probably could have gone to school and figured it out. But the same is true of journalism, expect you don’t need to do it in a classroom. But it does have to be in the real world. Bouncing from internship to internship is not really going to make you a great journalist. What’s going to make you a great journalist is if it burns in your heart, if you have an unending thirst for knowledge and for other people’s stories, and ask more questions that you’ll get answers to people.
If we don’t train a generation of solid investigative reporters, it’s gonna die, and that would be awful. We have to preserve it. I feel like we’re guarding some kind of a grail because of the digital age. We need fact checking. We need peer review. We need on-the-ground reporting. You can just live off of Twitter and Instagram and Skype calls. A lot of reporters just phone it in.
YH: Literally phone it in.
JS: Yeah, literally phone it in. Nothing at all can replace old fashioned, boots-on-the-ground reporting. And I think that there’s going to be a temptation to move away from that because of how advanced our technology has become.