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Now With Alex
updated 6/19/2013 6:18:57 AM ET 2013-06-19T10:18:57

Obama will "go down in history as the president who legitimized and systematized a process by which the United States asserts the right to conduct assassination operations around the world," says Jeremy Scahill.

Jeremy Scahill, National Security correspondent for The Nation magazine, joined Tuesday’s NOW With Alex Wagner panel to discuss his upcoming documentary, “Dirty Wars,” which focuses on the hidden world of U.S. covert military operations in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.

The film explores the rising use of Special Forces during the Obama administration, which operate under the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

JSOC, established in 1980, has been transformed under the last two presidents from a rarely used hostage rescue team to the country’s most elite fighting force. It now conducts covert operations in over 75 countries and numbers approximately 25,000.

Under President Obama, “JSOC became the counterterrorism policy–not just the implementers of it, but the policy itself,” Scahill said. “These are guys that are used to operating in the shadows with very little or minimal effective congressional oversight and they also have a streamlined pipe right to the commander-in-chief.”

Scahill said the president started to embrace JSOC following the use of SEAL Team Six in the 2009 rescue of the Maersk Alabama after it was hijacked by Somali pirates.

“I’m told by my sources that after that happened, Obama really embraced JSOC and was sort of in awe of their capacity and really started to give them broad authorization to conduct what is called kinetic operations in  a variety of countries, particularly in Yemen.”

The same group was later famously used to assassinate al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The film explores the darker side of Special Forces operations, including a night raid in Gardez, Afghanistan, which resulted in the deaths of five innocent Afghan civilians.

Alex Wagner asked Scahill what he thought President Obama’s legacy would be when it came to balancing national security and civil liberties.

“I think the net result of the Obama presidency on the counterterrorism front is that he’s going to go down in history as the president who legitimized and systematized a process by which the United States asserts the right to conduct assassination operations around the world,” Scahill said.

“Dirty Wars” opens in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles June 7 and is available on iTunes June 14.

Video: Shedding light on the shadows of war

  1. Closed captioning of: Shedding light on the shadows of war

    >>> in the new film "dirty wars" jeremy scahill chronicles his search for the real story behind america 's ever-expanding war on terror . that story, which plays out in drone strikes and night raids by elite special forces on distant battlefields, takes scahill from iraq and afghanistan to dwremen and somalia. much of the film focuses on the increasing use of the joint special operations command , or jsoc. the most covert unit in the u.s. military . it operates in the shadows of war and remained virtually unknown to the american public until the raid on osama bin laden 's compound. which was carried out by a jsoc unit known as s.e.a.l. team 6.

    >> nato claimed that the women killed in guard ez were the victim of honor killings . bound and gagged by their own families. you saw the u.s. forces take the bullets out of the body? i believed the family. but that wasn't enough. for me, or anyone else. who were these men that stormed into daoud's home? and why would they go to such horrifying lengths to cover up their actions?

    >> the elite force created in 1980 as an elite hostage rescue team has grown under the bush and obama administrations, jsoc members now number close to 25,000, operating in over 75 countries with an annual budget of o'er approximately $8 billion. the release of the film comes weeks after president obama defended his administration's counterterrorism strategy in a speech last month.

    >> america 's actions are legal. we are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many americans as they could, if we did not stop them first. so this is a just war. a war waged proportionally in last resort and in self-defense.

    >> the documentary also focuses on the u.s. decision to put anwar al alaki on a kill list. a water shed event in america 's seemingly endless war . joining me now, jeremy scahill .

    >> great to be with you.

    >> let's talk about jsoc. this force, i will read an excerpt from the " washington post " series, " top secret america " which touches on this top secret community. dana priest writes, the two presidents have asked jsoc to mount intelligence-gathering missions and lethal raids mostly in iraq and afghanistan, but also in countries with which the united states was not at war, including yemen , pakistan, the it has its own intelligence division, drones, reconnaissance planes, even dedicated satellites, in combat, they wear no name or rank i'd fires.

    >> when president obama first came into office, he campaigned on a pledge to end the war in iraq and to try to roll back the way that bush and cheney had prosecuted the war on terror . early in his administration he was briefed on the capacity that jsoc had. what ended up happening is that jsoc became the counterterrorism policy, not just the implementers of it, but policy itself. these are guys used to operating in shadows with little or minimal effective congressional oversight and they have a streamlined pipe to the commander-in-chief. president obama is in charge of all u.s. military forces . but often in his administration speaking directly to the commenders of jsoc on the ground. when an american flagged vessel was taken early on in obama 's administration in somalia, the mersk alabama, the first time an american vessel had been hijacked in 100 years. obama was directly in touch with the people on the the ship that was going to take out the pirates and s.e.a.l. team 6 was deployed in kenya at the time and went out into the ocean and shot the three somali pirates and rescued the american commander. i'm told by my sources after that happened. obama embraced jsoc and was in awe of their capacity and started to give them broad authorizations to conduct what are called kinetic operations in a variety of countries, particularly in yemen . really intensified, what was large anonexistent u.s. war in gem yemen , giving in a '09 and continuing to this day.

    >> how did you get access to this?

    >> it was sort of trang series of convin strange series of coincidences. i had written a book and at events i would get approached by big guys with beards who came up and said, i don't like your politics at all. you liberal commie, whatever. but you're right about blackwater and i started to meet guys who were operators in jsoc. guys who were s.e.a.l.s or former s.e.a.l.s. delta force guys and instead of being a jerk and saying i'm against the war. i would say, you want to get a beer?

    >> that's always a good strategy.

    >> i started to get those units. i knew because i had been covering wars for over a decade, that's all i've done in my adult life. i knew about special operations forces , i didn't know the nuance of who jsoc was until i started investigating night raids and came upon a story where a team of commandos had raided a house where they thought ied manufacturing was going on. the americans had bad intelligence, they ended up killing three women, two of whom were pregnant and a senior afghan police commander who had spent his entire career fighting against the taliban and instead of sorting owning it we got fed bad intelligence, they dug the bullets out of the women's bodies and told their commanding officers that he had stumbled upon an honor killing . the world wouldn't have known about this but for admiral william mcraven , the commander at the time of jsoc showing up in this village, with sheep offering to sacrifice them and give money to the family and a photographer snapped some photos of mcraven on the scene. this wasn't known to the world yet. this was two years before osama bin laden was killed and i started investigating who was this man with a patch on his shoulder and crazy-looking watch that i've never seen before. started to ask people about it and learned that this wassed guy who was running the most secretive force within the u.s. military and from there, we sort of reverse-engineered an history and went back to figure out what they had been doing over the years that we hadn't been paying attention to.

    >> you hear the story about u.s. operatives taking bullets out of the bodies of dead, pregnant women and we think that's not us, that's not our country, that's not what we should be doing. at the same time the president gave his speech at the national defense university last month. i wonder what you make of it. i think the part of it that i applaud is a, he's trying to be transparent and the fact that it became clear to me that he is wrestling morally with these questions. and is that enough? i.

    >> i think the net result of the obama presidency on a counterterrorism front is he'll go down in history as the president who legitimized and systemized a process by which the united states asserts the right to conduct assassination operations around the world. he's trying as hard as he can to make it legitimate. i think that he largely has sold liberals on the idea that this is a cleaner, more effective way of waging war . but at the end of the day , i think that cheney and company are probably having a good chuckle over this somewhere. because it's going to keep the doors open for the kind of war that they like to wage during their administration.

    >> joan, what do you think of that, that he sold liberals --

    >> i've written about it. there is actual polling that shows when you poll liberals and say do you believe in targeted assassinations? do you believe in aspects of this foreign policy . and you don't say obama support it is or it's his policy. they say, no, we don't, no, that's horrible. and then when you, with a control, that's the control group . then you have another group of people who say they support obama and you describe the same policy. and say, that's been embraced by president obama and the people who didn't like it, before they knew that he did it, like it. and i find that, i mean we don't agree on everything. but i'm with jereny on a lot of this stuff. because i find this normalization of secrecy, and this expansion of the president's powers chilling and i find the fact that the people who normally would be expected to be peace activists or demanding more accountability and transparency are kind of like -- we like the guy.

    >> the difference between democratic and republican missiles.

    >> but you know, jeremy, i have to ask you, you were interviewed at the " l.a. times " this week. when you were in the field reporting on this stuff on one hand you are supposed to be an objective journalist. i can't imagine the emotion and the sense of, because of americans doing this to innocent civilians, children, pregnant women , there is got to be some sense that one needs to apologize or make amends. and you wrote, or you said, essentially you become an ambassador of your country. whether you agree with the policy or not. that's how you're viewed. i did start saying to people, i'm sorry for what happened. and some people have criticized for that saying it's not journalistic.

    >> i think that we are viewed that way. if i'm going to be the only american that these people who have their family wiped out in a missile attack or night raid, if i'm the only american they're ever going to meet, a feel a moral and ethical responsibility who says to them we're sorry this happened and i do it all the time. i am honest and i was trying to be transparent.

    >> i was surprised that mcraven was offering goats. but that's not policy, right?

    >> and they weren't hosting it as a press conference, they were going there to try to prevent a riot from happening. secretly. it was only because this photographer snapped a picture of him that we even knew he was there.

    >> if there's one thing that we can get from this, you know, for the sake of civil liberties and, is greater transparency. at least there's now the events that we took out al alaki as well as several americans .

    >> people who watch the film will come out with a very nuanced view of anwar al awlaki and his son.

    >> he was radicalized by u.s. policy and crossed a line in life.

    >> the film "dirty wars" is in theaters this friday and available on demand on june 14th . jeremy scahill , congratulations on

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