By Jeremy Scahill. Nation Books, 642 pp, hardcover
The Hollywood blockbuster Zero Dark Thirty dramatizes a daring attack deep inside Pakistani territory. An elite U.S. special-missions unit flies in under the cover of darkness and executes Osama bin Laden.
The film portrays those events as extraordinary, but aside from the notoriety of the target, May 1, 2011, was a routine night for the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a secret force closely guarded even within the U.S. security and intelligence apparatus.
Reflect on remarks made by then JSOC commander William McRaven: “This is a relatively straightforward raid,” he said during the planning stages of the assault. “We do these ten, twelve, fourteen times a night.”
Those are just the kill-capture missions carried out by JSOC’s boots on the ground. They are one tool of many deployed in America’s clandestine military operations abroad.
Seventy civilians were killed by an AC-130 gunship in Somalia in January 2007. As many as 45 innocent Pakistanis died on June 23, 2009, when two U.S. drones fired Hellfire missiles on a funeral in South Waziristan. In December 2009, a U.S. airstrike in Yemen missed its intended target—an American citizen sentenced to death without trial—but killed 30 other people. Such numbers litter the pages of Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, a groundbreaking exposé that reveals how far the pretext of a “war on terror” has led America beyond both international law and the limits of the U.S. Constitution.
Exposing an army hidden within an army, Scahill describes how JSOC, as well as the CIA and other covert organizations, operate in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and he provides evidence of special-ops activity in many other countries around the world.
Included in this sweeping narrative is a history of official U.S. government policies on assassination, beginning with its explicit banning in 1976 by President Gerald Ford, through its reauthorization under Bill Clinton, and its shift to the forefront of special ops under George W. Bush. There are few places where the hubris and audacity of former vice president Dick Cheney and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld are laid bare in clearer light.
But the primary focus of Dirty Wars is Obama, his enthusiastic embrace of the Bush administration’s darkest powers, and how the Obama administration has intensified JSOC operations to extremes that “would have been unthinkable to the Bush administration,” as one former soldier put it.
At the edges of the U.S. government’s push into extralegal grey areas is the story of Anwar al-Awlaki, the life and death of whom runs through Dirty Wars parallel to the policies and practices that eventually saw him killed. Awlaki was the Obama administration’s first case for the assassination of a U.S. citizen without trial. At least three other Americans have since shared his fate.
“Today, decisions on who should live or die in the name of protecting America’s national security are made in secret, laws are interpreted by the president and his advisors behind closed doors and no target is off limits,” Scahill writes in a conclusion that follows more than 500 pages of thoroughly researched work supporting those claims. “Obama is authorizing murder on a weekly basis.”
Dirty Wars is a frightening account of executive authorities unchecked, and a superpower waging a global war hidden from the public.