RAW DATA: Kiwi killed in drone strike — Patrick Gower interviews Jeremy Scahill

Jeremy Scahill in a scene from his 2013 documentary 'Dirty Wars'

RAW DATA: The Nation transcript: Patrick Gower interviews US author, film maker and journalist Jeremy Scahill

Patrick Gower: Jeremy Scahill your book and film ‘Dirty Wars’ raises questions about America’s war on terror and today I want to focus on the question of drone strikes because a New Zealander Daryl Jones was actually killed in Yemen late last year by a drone strike while he was working with al-Qaeda. Many New Zealanders won’t know much about the drone programme, you have looked into it, in fact you have called Obama the drone president, haven’t you?

Jeremy Scahill: Yes I mean he is sort of the drone overlord. Look we have a guy in power in the United States who won the Nobel Peace Prize, is a constitutional lawyer by training, and is presiding over what is effectively a global assassination campaign. And there is very little public outcry about this but for the revelations of Edward Snowden; implicating various governments including the New Zealand Government.

So tell us about the size of the drone programme. How many are killed? How many strikes there are?

Part of the problem is we don’t actually know how many people are killed. What I know from looking at classified top secret documents of the US Government is that when anyone is killed in a drone strike, whether it’s in Afghanistan or Yemen, the default is to call them EKIA ‘Enemies Killed In Action’. So the calculus at the White House on drone strikes always produces a number zero of civilians killed. And so what I’ve been trying to do is go to places like Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere and try to fact check what the US Government is saying. And I know that in many of the cases I have investigated, and other journalists, the US government is misleading people when they say suspected militants were killed. In many cases it’s civilians that are being killed in pursuit of one or two actual legitimate so-called ‘bad guys’.

Two to 500 civilians, is that right?

I think it may be more than that. I think it might be. I think the actual number could be over 1,000, just under President Obama’s time in office. You know he radically escalated the drone programme and is selling people the idea that it’s a clean war. That’s why I call the book and film ‘Dirty Wars’. Not to be a master of the obvious but because there is no such thing as a clean war. But Obama and his allies are trying to say ‘hey, we’re not risking our own soldiers’ lives, we’re just surgically killing the bad guys’. And it’s just not true.

And one of the most high profile killings is of course Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaeda motivator and recruiter. You have spoken to his family because his son was also killed by a drone, wasn’t he?

Right. I mean here is the core issue we should be debating in democratic societies. When one of our own citizens - Anwar al-Awlaki was an American citizen born in the state of New Mexico - when one of our citizens is believed to be supporting or involved in terrorism, what is our policy? Is it that we fast forward past our judicial processes? That we don’t even seek indictments and implement the death penalty? Or do we realise that terrorism is a crime and that if we claim to be more moral than our enemies then we need to allow our own people access to challenge their accusers. That’s not happening with the United States Government. It certainly didn’t happen in the case of the dual citizen of New Zealand and Australia that was killed late last year or the other Australian.

Well let’s talk about Daryl Jones being killed in Yemen last year. We know virtually nothing about it. All we know is that the Prime Minister here, John Key, says that it was justified. Is that good enough for New Zealanders to know that little amount of information?

What I have read of Prime Minister Key’s statement - what I have read indicates is that he doesn’t actually have any intelligence suggesting that this citizen of New Zealand was engaged in criminal activity. If the New Zealand Government had that intelligence, why wasn’t he indicted? Why wasn’t he charged under New Zealand law with a crime of supporting terrorism? Why is it that the New Zealand Government is essentially seeding its sovereignty to the United States in this case and saying it’s all right that the President of the United States authorised an operation that effectively executed one of our citizens. This to me is pretty scandalous when nations like New Zealand and Australia are essentially saying ‘hey it’s ok if another nation kills our citizens in an undeclared war zone’, that even members of the US Congress question the legality of.

Yeah sure, but he is in the middle of Yemen, he’s a kiwi who has gone all the way there, he’s working with senior al-Qaeda commanders?

But how do we know that? I have actually studied this case. Even if that’s true – and I don’t think he was working with senior al-Qaeda commanders – look the individual that the US claims was killed in that strike was not a major figure within al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He was a member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But the US will always say that someone is extremely significant. The leadership of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is very much alive and the United States has failed to kill them. So they are largely plucking off people that are mid level. The question isn’t whether these are bad guys. The question is whether they are operational and whether they pose and imminent threat to our societies. If the policy of New Zealand is ‘hey if our citizens are suspected of talking to terrorists we’ll let Barack Obama order their deaths’ then that should be debated within the government and democratic society of New Zealand.

Well let’s look at how our government might have been involved because we know from the Prime Minister that our intelligence agency – our spy agency, an agency known as the GCSB which works with the NSA – may have been involved here. You are working with the journalist (Glenn) Greenwald at the moment with those Snowden documents, what have you seen about what New Zealand might know?

I can’t disclose specifics on this but what I can tell you is that I have seen dozens of top secret documents that the New Zealand Government has been provided by the United States, because of the Five Eyes status of New Zealand, that indicate that New Zealand is extremely aware of the extent to which the United States is engaged in drone strikes around the world and is briefed fully on the infrastructure of that programme. And the fact is that New Zealand through signal intercepts is directly involved with what is effectively an American assassination programme. People can say ‘oh well we are just giving them intelligence on terrorists’. The fact is that the world – most countries of the world – view what the United States is doing as rogue actions.

What would New Zealand spies be doing in this case? What would New Zealand spies be doing if they had been involved tracking Daryl Jones in some way, either here or over there?

I mean in the case of New Zealand, Australia and also in Germany, a German citizen was killed in Pakistan, there are real questions to the extent to which the New Zealand Government, the Australian Government and potentially the German Government, have provided the Americans with specific intel that could have led to the tracking and killing of their own citizens. I’m not alleging that New Zealand did that. I’m saying that if you look at the top secret documents - that the New Zealand Government has been provided by the United States - it would be very difficult to believe that it, the New Zealand Government, if it had information about one of its citizens that the United States was tracking, that it wouldn’t share that information with the US Government.

What are you talking about here? Metadata say for instance on Daryl Jones or other al-Qaeda –

Not just metadata, it would be, first of all -

Would it be metadata though?

Oh yes it could be metadata. It would also be probably investigating his family and trying to intercept calls to see if anyone is in touch with him. It would be actually intercepting his phone calls or email communications perhaps in Yemen or any that are originating from or coming to New Zealand. That’s basically what the NSA is doing with its allies from New Zealand, Great Britain, Australia and Canada, is they are building a network where they want to suck up all of the data. And it’s not that they are listening to everyone’s phone calls, it’s that they are storing everyone’s phone calls. So if you have one of your citizens that pops up on the radar of the Americans, you can go back to your repository of information and data.

Everyone’s?

Well I don’t want to speak before we publish documents, but let’s just say the NSA is storing the vast majority of data that emanates from the United States and to the United States. The extent to which New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Britain are doing that, I don’t know. But I think it’s safe to assume that if you someday end up accused of terrorism that they could build a pretty extensive profile based on digging back through your digital communications.

I want to talk now about the organisation Reprieve which investigates drone killings, you know a lot about them as well. They are in Yemen right now of course investigating that wedding strike. Are they looking into the strike where kiwi Daryl Jones was killed?

My understanding in speaking to people from Reprieve is that they have initiated an investigation into this case. And because the kiwi who was killed in the operation is also a dual citizen of Australia, I think that they believe that will lead to a kind of serious questioning of the Australian Government. I’m not aware that they are investigating the New Zealand Government’s role in this. But I can confirm that Reprieve are investigating the killing of these two individuals. 

Ok I want to come back to the counterfactual now. You have got a kiwi who becomes radicalised, goes all the way to Yemen regardless of what level of al-Qaeda he is working with, he leaves himself open doesn’t he to being in a drone strike. Because al-Qaeda are terrorists, they target America, they target America’s partners like us.

Well first of all the legal justification that Barack Obama is using to justify bombing Yemen is something called the authorisation for the use of military force, the AUMF. This was passed after 9/11 and was meant to be a permission slip for the US government to pursue the people who were connected to the 9/11 attacks. Was this kiwi attached to the 9/11 attacks? Did he play some kind of a role? My understanding of the reading of the publically available intelligence is that he had gone to Yemen fairly recently, had met up with people from al-Qaeda and may or may not have been involved with people at a mid-level of al-Qaeda. If the United States can kill him based on that justification, what is the New Zealand Government’s response to that? It’s to say well he probably was a bad guy. If that’s the standard we are using now in our societies then I weep for democracy.

But isn’t it a lesser evil though. Isn’t a drone strike a lesser evil than an air strike or a war or anything like that?

Well is the United States a monarchy? Is John Key the king of New Zealand who can issue an edict that can’t be challenged by the people? The thing that separates democratic societies from undemocratic societies is the rule of law. And the rule of law is not tested in easy cases. It’s not tested in you. It’s tested when you have a citizen who actually is engaged in illicit activity, in criminal activity or potentially dangerous activity. Do we just allow Barack Obama to say ‘boom we’ll zap your citizen’?

Well alright Jeremy Scahill, that’s a good place to leave it.

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