If it were up to filmmaker Rick Rowley, the U.S. government would conduct all business in an open field with bullhorns. It’s especially vital, Rowley says, when it comes to letting the American public know about the covert missions carried out under the veil of the U.S. military. In his new documentary Dirty Wars, Rowley and famed journalist Jeremy Scahill investigate the secret military action the U.S. has undergone in places like Yemen and Afghanistan and how this affects the country on a global scale.
Where do you see the fine line between telling a story like this as an objective documentary filmmaker and journalist and allowing your own emotions to seep into the finished product?
Ever journalist is also a human being and has their perspective and emotions. Our role as filmmakers was to make this issue visible and make the people on the other side of this media and military apparatus feel like human beings that American audiences could relate to. That was at the core of our journey as filmmakers. I wanted to go to the other side of the story that we’re never allowed to see. That was more important to me than to adjudicate the policies. We’re not politicians. We don’t have a 12-point plan on foreign policy. We’re journalists who believe that for too long – for more than a decade – all of the most important details of the longest war in U.S. history have been kept secret from the American people who have a right to know what’s going on. We need to have a public discussion about what this war is doing to the world around us and to us as a nation. Hiding our own personal emotions about families who we develop relationships with and we had seen gone through night raids and missile strikes is impossible because it was a gut-wrenching, deeply emotional journey for us. We wanted that emotion in there. We didn’t try to distance ourselves from it. We wanted to get closer to the people and not pull away from them.
How much of what the government does behind closed doors do you feel is important for the average American citizen to know? We’re right in the middle of this Edward Snowden debate. How transparent should government be in the 21st century?
The global war on terror is the most important story of our generation. This war has killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world and thousands of American servicemen. It has cost untold billions of dollars. Most of this is unfolding in the shadows. At home, the fundamental nature of the republic has been changed by the way this war has been fought – from the executive wing assuming the right to execute foreigners and American citizens without trial or any formal charges to the revelations about the NSA (National Security Agency) and spying on Americans without any concept of probable cause. It’s a complete violation of what my understanding is of the fourth Amendment. All of these decisions about how we are going to fight this war have been made in secret. Snowden was a very brave man. It’s essential that he came forward and revealed the full scope of what has been done in [America’s] name at home and around the world.
So, do you support 100 percent transparency even when internal leaks could put the U.S. at risk in some way?
Look at what Snowden did. He had the identities of every CIA operative and he didn’t leak those. He chose to careful calibrate what he was leaking. He didn’t do any damage to U.S. strategy or security around the world. He wanted to show to the American people what was being done to them without leaking any information that could be useful to people who could harm the U.S. We need to know that the U.S. is responsible for missile strikes in Yemen that killed dozens and dozens of civilians or the fact that the military was running all these secret night raids in Afghanistan. No, I wouldn’t have leaked the details of the [Osama] Bin Laden raid the moment before it happened, but I don’t think that’s what the issue is. There’s no doubt in the Yemanis’ minds where the missiles are coming from that are hitting their villages. The only people that don’t know these kinds of things are happening are Americans. There are dozens of wars being fought around the world off of any big battlefield. The American people have the right to know about those wars.
U.S. deaths overseas and death of terrorists seem to always be reported. People want those stats. But when it comes to reporting on the thousands of innocent people killed in these covert missions, it always feels like they’re viewed as collateral damage. Is that something that was important for you to explain in this film?
Absolutely! We know everything that happened about one night raid that happened – the raid that killed Bin Laden. We were drowned in details about that raid. We know how many Seals were part of that mission, what units they came from, what helicopters they used. We know they were carrying H&K carbines. We know the dog that was with them was a Belgian Malinois named Cairo. But what the American people don’t know or don’t realize is that on the same night there were probably on average 10-20 other night raids happening in Afghanistan. We’re told the story the administration wants us to hear. We’re getting a tiny sliver of what this war is about.
What did you think about President Obama’s speech when he mentioned Anwar al-Awlaki teenage son (Abdulrahman al-Awlaki) was killed and said he was “surprised and upset” that it happened. He referenced it, but it doesn’t seem like anyone wants to take accountability.
It was very interesting. That speech was truly remarkable. We’re a decade in to the War on Terror and this is the first time the Commander in Chief has gone before the American people and addressed some of the core issues the war raises – drone strikes and the like. I really think there is this change in American public opinion where for the first time since Sept. 11 we’re looking with clear sober eyes what this war is doing to us as a country. This is the first time he publically addressed the nation on Abdulrahman death even though he didn’t use his name. He used the words “he was not specifically targeted in the strike.” What does that even mean? He didn’t say, “Not targeted.” It’s kind of an Orwellian term that make me think that maybe he was killed in a signature strike, one of these strikes that is authorized by the CIA where they don’t even know the identities or names of the people they are killing.
What do you see happening with drone strikes in the future and in the drone industry in general? I mean, there are private companies who are producing these things now. It’s a new business.
Drones have become a metaphor for this war. It’s a metaphor for killing at a distance without consequences. Drones are just the technology. There are a lot of different weapons platforms that do these same kinds of missions. Even if there weren’t any drones, there would still be these strategic, moral, political problems. Cruise missiles do the same thing as drones. We shouldn’t be blinded by the technology. It’s a policy issue, not a technology issue. The technology is here to stay. Everyone is going to develop drones. It’s a very seductive thing for any executive branch in the world. Drones are definitely part of the military matrix from here on out.