Jeremy Scahill was the only person who worked on the documentary “Dirty Wars” who could bear to watch the Academy Awards nomination ceremony. The rest of the film’s cast and crew were too nervous. In fact, director Rick Rowley, made sure he was on the subway, so he couldn’t be reached.
“And so the dude who plays ‘Thor.’ I don’t remember his name. The actor. I think he is Australian. He is announcing it and the president of the Academy is there and so I have no idea how any of it works. And then they say our name and the first thing I said was: Hhhhooooooolllllllly Shiiiiiiiiiiiit.”
The rarefied world of Hollywood celebrity, of pre-Oscar parties and dinners alongside director Steve McQueen (“he’s a militant, very sharp guy”) and nominees Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett are, for the next week at least, also the world of Scahill, a former writer for The Nation. In addition to his recent movie and book of the same name, which details the U.S. government’s largely secret paramilitary lethal drone program, he’s also the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Needless to say, he’s probably the least likely guy to be hobnobbing with the stars.
Yet, a few weeks ago, he flew out to Los Angeles with his little brother in tow for one of the many pre-Oscar events.
“I walk through the red carpet and Cate Blanchett is there and DiCaprio is right behind her, and there are like a million people taking pictures of them,” he says, making a rapid clicking paparazzo noise with his tongue. “And I walk by and it’s like one guy with a Polaroid from The Socialist Worker.”
In interviews with Scahill, the entertainment press has referred to his movie as “Dirty Horse,” or occasionally “Dirty Whores,” and interviewers have a tendency to look with distaste when he describes the details of the film—footage of mutilated children, their limbs apparently torn apart by bombs from apparently American drones.
“It’s very weird. At Sundance, there would be this woman wrapped up head-to-toe in a huge fur outfit, with just her eyes peeking out and eight inch heels and her first question is ‘Sooooo…Sundance!?’” Scahill says, holding out a reporters imaginary microphone. “And it’s like, ‘Ok so, we made a film about extra judicial killings and drones and you are [wearing] some kind of thing that used to be an animal asking me a question.”’
The whole venture will have a lower wall between owner and journalist than traditional media.
The film centers around Scahill as he travels to Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia to uncover the full extent of the nation’s largely secret drone warfare program, interspersed with shots of him in his home borough of Brooklyn, working to piece together the various puzzles of the program. It has been well-reviewed and well-received, a surprise, he says, since it is merciless on President Obama’s national security program.
“I wasn’t sure how that would play with people in Hollywood, because it is a very heavy Democratic base of people. You make it about Bush, and everybody would be cheering. You make it about Obama and it forces people to look in the mirror in an uncomfortable way.”
These are interesting times for Scahill. Besides the Oscar nomination, he recently founded The Intercept, a new online national security outfit, with former Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras and backed by Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar.
In Scahill’s telling, he and Greenwald actually upsold Omidyar on the idea. Scahill was visiting Greenwald at his home in Rio to talk about collaborating on some stories involving the NSA’s role in the drone program. It was in August, just when Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was being detained in Heathrow Airport for nine hours, presumably for his association with Greenwald.
Amidst the chaos, Greenwald got an email from Omidyar. The tech mogul had thought about buying The Washington Post, but decided instead that he would start his own venture, and wondered if Greenwald wanted to be an occasional contributor.
“Glenn’s house is like Planet of the Apes,” recalls Scahill. “There are ten dogs running around, monkeys, Glenn has the Snowden docs, David has just been detained and then Glenn gets an email from like, the hundredth richest guy in the world. And he reads it and he is like, ‘Oh, I know this guy. He re-tweets me a lot and he seems like a smart guy.”’
Scahill, Greenwald, and Poitras had talked about setting up some kind of site where they could publish work that was not appropriate for the venues where they most currently were seen. Instead, that night they pitched Omidyar on starting their own news organization.
The new site will actually be a series of sites with tent-pole journalists filing long, investigative stories on their areas of interest. Younger reporters will fill in the gaps. Matt Taibbi, for example, recently recruited from Rolling Stone, will not end up at The Intercept, but at an offshoot with a largely separate staff.
The whole venture will have a lower wall between owner and journalist than traditional media. Omidyar, he says, wanted to do the project because he was interested in Fourth Amendment issues, and they are hiring teams of lawyers, not just to keep the staff from getting sued, but to actively push courts on the First Amendment, to “force confrontation with the state on these issues.”
“[Omidyar] strikes me as always sort of political, but I think that the NSA story and the expanding wars put politics for him into a much more prominent place in his existence. This is not a side project that he is doing. Pierre writes more on our internal messaging than anyone else. And he is not micromanaging. This guy has a vision. And his vision is to confront what he sees as an assault on the privacy of Americans.”
Meanwhile, Scahill says The Intercept wants to do no less than re-write the relationship between journalists and the people they cover. If, for example, they were asked to hold a story because the White House or the Pentagon deemed that publication would harm national security, Scahill said, “Never.”
“We had a long discussion about this internally; about what our position would be if the White House asked us to not publish something. We came to the conclusion that we would always give them a chance to weigh in on a story, but we are not going to make an agreement not to publish based on what they say. They always, and everyone who works on this NSA stuff knows this, but they always say that if you publish it, it will damage national security. It has become a meaningless statement. It is like people who say ‘literally’ all the time. Everything becomes about ‘national security.’ I think we are going to have the most adversarial relationship with those entities of any media outlet with a profile. We are not going to make a deal—especially a secret deal—to decide to hold a story. We are just not going to do that.”
If people in power do not quite know what to make of this, all the better.
“I think that the White House, whether it is under Republican or Democrat, they pretty much now who they are dealing with. There are outlets like The Daily Beast, or The Huffington Post that have risen up in the past decade, but they are very quickly just becoming part of the broader mainstream media, and with people that have spent their careers working for magazines or newspapers or what have you, and the White House believes they all speak the language on these things. With us, because we want to be adversarial, they won’t know what bat phone to call. They know who to call at The Times, they know who to call at The Post. With us, who are they going to call? Pierre? Glenn?”
He laughed at the notion of the White House calling Greenwald and imploring him to hold off on publication.
And with that, Scahill got ready to fly out to LA for Sunday’s Oscar ceremony.
“Looking forward to the Oscar swag bag. Although I tell you, everything in there is going straight to EBay.”