Book Review: 'Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield' by Jeremy Scahill
Review by Susan Grigsby
The Authorization for Use of Military Force, commonly known as AUMF, was passed by both the House and the Senate on September 14, 2001, with a single dissenting vote cast by Representative Barbara Lee of California. It reads in part:
That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
This is the law that allowed President Bush and then President Obama to pursue a perpetual war against an ill-defined enemy anywhere in the world. It is the law that President Obama spoke of last Thursday, saying:
So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.
Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield is a hard book to read. Not because it isn't well written; it is. In Jeremy Scahill's objective reporter's prose, it is cleanly written and well-researched, and it even includes a glossary for the acronyms in which all military speech is done.
No, it is hard to read because it tells a tale that most of us don't want to know. As a liberal Democrat, I found the difficulty to be in two parts, corresponding with the two parts of the book. And when you include the story of Anwar Awlaki and his son, it is three parts and all three were hard to bear.
In the first part, Scahill traces our past history of assassinations and our moves to restrict their use by our government and the Bush era roll back of those restrictions. In 1975, the Church Committee investigated the White House abuses which included domestic spying as well as political assassinations.
The CIA had orchestrated the overthrow of populist governments in Latin America and the Middle East, backed death squads throughout Central America, facilitated the killing of rebel leader Patrice Lumumba in the Congo and propped up military juntas and dictatorships. The spate of assassinations had become so out of control that a Republican president, Gerald Ford, felt the need to issue Executive Order 11905 in 1976, explicitly banning the United States from carrying out “political assassinations.”
- Scahill, Jeremy (2013-04-23). Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield (Kindle Locations 396-400). Nation Books. Kindle Edition.
BTW, this was also the era of the War Powers Act that Nixon threatened to veto. The WPA required the President to notify Congress, in the absence of a formal declaration of war, of where the President was sending troops, for how long and with what objective within 48 hours of the onset of hostilities. It has been a highly contentious Act, with almost all Presidents suggesting its unconstitutionally, but it has been kind of followed. Until the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) made it superfluous.
The first half of this book traces how the restrictive Executive Orders of Presidents Ford and then Carter have been watered down and loosely interpreted by succeeding Presidents, including Bill Clinton, who felt a carve out was needed for bin Laden and other terrorists who threatened Americans at home or abroad. Although when Bill Clinton did it, he included strict oversight and approval mechanisms.
The biggest changes came with the neocons of the G. W. Bush Administration; Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. In meticulous detail Jeremy Scahill exposes exactly how these two men joined forces to create a secret army within the conventional military forces and to sideline the CIA, which was required by a 1980 law to report its covert activities to the Intelligence Committees of the House and the Senate.
It was easy to work up a righteous anger at the way these men thumbed their noses at the laws and regulations that controlled our national covert actions. And that anger made this part of the book tough to read. There was also the disgust and the sadness at the realization of just how secretive our evil deeds had been kept and at the fact that they were being done in our name.
Thanks to Scahill, we are there on September 17, 2001, when Bush signs a Presidential finding that declares all covert actions to, in effect, be preauthorized and legal, in advance of their conception and execution. And when he declares our enemies combatants not covered by the Geneva Convention.
Cheney began using the CIA for paramilitary operations immediately after 9/11 and was able to do quite a bit of harsh interrogating and quite a few renditions before the Congress started demanding an accounting. Rumsfeld meanwhile, decided to create his own mini-CIA within the DOD. Over the following months and years, together they created the new, improved JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) which eventually included elements of Army Special Forces, CIA paramilitary units, Navy Seals, and private contractors, that, due to its military designation was not required to share details of its covert operations with Congress.
JSOC, led by Stanley McChrystal and Bill McRaven was pretty much given a free hand to go and take out al Queda terrorists - kind of a Tom Clancy wet dream. They were free to operate anywhere in the world, without needing to notify local military commands in Iraq or Afghanistan, the CIA or State Department Embassy officials outside of Iraq or Afghanistan.
While it may have been necessary to fight this unconventional enemy with unconventional methods, the way the targets were picked out and destroyed leaves quite a bit to be desired.
For years the teams would pick up suspected terrorists, in Iraq or Afghanistan, and hold them at Camp NAMA (Nasty-Ass Military Area, really, that was the name) at Baghdad International Airport, in a Battlefield Interrogation Facility, totally off the grid, for up to 90 days. During those ninety days, while the detainees had no access to lawyers or even the Red Cross, they would be harshly interrogated until they produced names of other terrorists. Those terrorists would then be targeted. On so on.
The GWOT (Global War on Terror) continued to expand from Iraq and Afghanistan to Pakistan, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and beyond. Early in 2004, Rumsfeld signed a secret order “known as the Al Qaeda Network Execute Order, or AQN ExOrd, it allowed for JSOC operations ‘anywhere in the world’ where al Qaeda operatives were known or suspected to be operating or receiving sanctuary.”
Throughout the book, Jeremy Scahill interweaves the story of Anwar Awlaki who became such a thorn in the side of two consecutive Presidential Administrations. He was born in America to Yemeni parents and after college began preaching as an imam in mosques in Colorado, San Diego and northern Virginia. Considered a moderate Muslim cleric he was much in demand at cable news stations after 9/11. Scahill presents a convincing case that he was radicalized by the actions of the US Government. Regardless, he becomes radicalized and eventually winds up at the top of the High Value Target list.
Reading about how our nation adopted standards that were cringe worthy was hard. But even harder was reading about how President Obama embraced them.
Within weeks of assuming office in early 2009, Obama would send a clear message that he intended to keep intact many of the most aggressive counterterrorism policies of the Bush era. Among these were targeted killings, warrantless wiretapping, the use of secret prisons, a crackdown on habeas corpus rights for prisoners, indefinite detention, CIA rendition flights, drone bombings, the deployment of mercenaries in US wars and reliance on the “State Secrets Privilege.” In some cases, Obama would expand Bush-era programs he had once blasted as hallmarks of an unaccountable executive branch.
Obama paid lip service on the campaign trail to holding Bush-era torturers accountable, but he later backed off such rhetoric, saying after his election that “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” He said his job as president “is to make sure that, for example, at the C.I.A., you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don’t want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders.”
Early on in Obama’s time in office, Dick Cheney charged that Obama was moving “to take down a lot of those policies we put in place that kept the nation safe for nearly eight years from a follow-on terrorist attack like 9/ 11.” Cheney was wrong. If anything, Obama would guarantee that many of those policies would become entrenched, bipartisan institutions in US national security policy for many years to come. Whether these policies have kept Americans safe— or have made them less safe— is another question.
- Scahill, Jeremy (2013-04-23). Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield (Kindle Locations 5473-5476). Nation Books. Kindle Edition.
During Obama's Presidency we have seen targeted killing codified into the counterterrorism infrastructure, according to Scahill. The Justice Department, after finding that is was legal to target and kill an American citizen if he posed an imminent threat, redefined the word "imminent" so that it included a threat that would not take place in the immediate future. Because, according to the white paper, waiting until the preparations for an attack were completed would not allow enough time to defend against it.
I think Jeremy Scahill's book is essential reading right now for anyone who wants to know what is really meant when ending the war, while maintaining our "effort to dismantle terrorist organizations," is discussed.
There is no doubt that this "systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations" poses difficult questions. And I found that reading the section of the book covering the Obama Administration, I managed to discover reasons and excuses for his actions that I never would have tolerated if his name were Bush. I think.
If we accept drones as little different from cruise missiles and really, the major difference is distance and guidance, then by themselves they are not objectionable, but merely another weapon of war. And most weapons of war are nasty, necessary evils that go along with the hell that is war.
But when the battlefield for that war is an entire planet, and when its duration is unlimited, then it seems to follow that the use of weapons has to be more carefully judged. Drones themselves are amoral. It is the use to which they are put that can be problematic.
Properly used, they can save the lives of our military service members by not putting them at risk on a battlefield. And today, of all days, that is important to remember.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.