Jeremy Scahill’s new book, Dirty Wars, is a New York Times bestseller, and his new documentary of the same name is getting lots of media attention. His admirers, who tend to prefix phrases like “first-rate investigative reporter” to his name, would have us believe that Scahill is the most probing, hardworking, and courageous journalist of our time—a man above political labels, driven by the noble goal of encouraging America to live up to its founding ideals. If the American government under President Barack Obama, as under George W. Bush before him, is perpetrating “unaccountable violence” against the innocent, as the book’s dust jacket says, Scahill is the virtuous defender of all those “victims of night raids, secret prisons, cruise missile attacks and drone strikes.” If the government systematically lies to us about these dark activities, Scahill is the lonely truth-teller, determined to bring the facts to light. Seymour Hersh, blurbing Dirty Wars, stresses that the book isn’t “politically correct.” And it’s true that Scahill takes on Democrats and Republicans alike; he’s a man of principle, not party, you might say.
But let’s take a closer look at his principles. Brought up in Milwaukee by parents he describes as “social activists,” Scahill attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he became a student organizer. Eventually, he dropped out to take part in “the struggle for justice” in America. After living in homeless shelters for a while, he made high-profile radical friends. By 21, he’d become a disciple of anarchist priest Philip Berrigan and joined Jonah House, a Baltimore commune (or “faith-based resistance community”) to which Berrigan belonged. On Good Friday 1996, Scahill and other members of Jonah House marched on Washington in what they called an act of “prayerful public witness to global economic injustice.” American and United Nations sanctions “are torturing people of the world by starving them to death,” Scahill told a Washington Post reporter that day. “We refuse to share the wealth.”
Later that year, United Press International reported that Scahill was one of 11 activists arrested for refusing to leave a Chicago federal building, where they were protesting the incarceration of American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier for killing two FBI agents in the 1970s. The following January, Scahill was taken into custody outside the Supreme Court during a rally against the death penalty, according to the National Catholic Reporter. And in May 1998, Newsday reported that he was detained at Andrews Air Force Base after five “peace activists” were arrested for pouring blood on a B-52 and hammering at its fuselage to demonstrate their disapproval of nuclear weapons.
By this point, Scahill was describing himself as a journalist and covering stories with radical-left veteran Amy Goodman, longtime host of the radio program Democracy Now. But his journalism has been driven by the same ideological agenda that inspired his activism. A few career highlights: in 2000, Scahill wrote about Kosovo that “the terror there today is carried out not under the watch of Slobodan Milosevic, but that of the U.S. and its European allies.” Saddam Hussein, he maintained in the International Socialist Review in 2007, “was at his most brutal . . . when he was shaking Donald Rumsfeld’s hand.” In 2010, sparring with Ed Koch on MSNBC, he defended the Gaza flotilla; in May 2011, appearing on Democracy Now, he described the spectacle of people gathering outside the White House to cheer bin Laden’s death as “disgusting” and “idiotic.”
He’s been as quick to defend Fidel Castro as to revile whoever’s in the White House. “One could argue,” he once suggested, that the American “gulag in Guantanamo . . . represents the area in Cuba where the most heinous human rights abuses have been perpetrated in recent years.” Everything bad about Cuba, in his view, is America’s fault: “Cuban children die every day . . . because our government has outlawed selling or shipping of medicine to Cuba. . . . Cuban people starve every day because we refuse to allow trade with Cuba.” On the 48th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Scahill celebrated Castro’s victory.
If Scahill’s career has been one long war on America and capitalism, its first major battle was his crusade against Chevron. In September 1998, Democracy Now boasted that, thanks to Scahill’s investigations in Africa, it could “document . . . for the first time Chevron’s role in the killing of two Nigerian activists.” Democracy Now rode that case for a long time, propagandizing heavily for Nigerians suing the oil company based on Scahill’s reporting. American courts, however, have repeatedly rejected the supposed evidence in the case, finding Chevron innocent of any wrongdoing.
No matter: Scahill’s anti-Chevron campaign presaged an even more high-profile—and, for him, more fruitful—assault on another American corporation. This was his crusade against Blackwater, which led to the 2007 book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Indeed, it’s thanks to Scahill’s hammering away at the topic that millions now equate the company’s name with perfidy and exploitation, as I wrote recently in The Weekly Standard.
Yet a careful study of the book and of Scahill’s other work on Blackwater reveals an unsettling propensity to improve on facts. Throughout Blackwater, Scahill inflates statistics. For example, he counts nonmilitary employees of Blackwater and other private companies—cooks, drivers, and the like—as “private ‘military’ contractors” to make the numbers scarier. Appearing on Real Time with Bill Maher, he claimed that private contractors made up “more than half of the fighting force in Afghanistan,” though the proportion was never more than about one-third. Similarly, he told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show that Blackwater had hired “750-plus Chilean mercenaries,” when the total number of Blackwater employees who weren’t U.S. nationals was closer to 250.
Even Publishers Weekly, known for endorsing many a leftist polemic, smelled a rat when it reviewed Blackwater, arguing that the contractor and similar firms “thrive not because of a neoconservative conspiracy against democracy, as Scahill claims, but because they provide relatively low-cost alternatives in high-budget environments and flexibility at a time when war is increasingly protean.” But this complaint was a rare exception. Indeed, given Scahill’s increasing prominence, the continued lack of critical attention to his work and his politics—and the intimate connection between the two—is unsettling. It’s high time that more consideration be paid to Jeremy Scahill’s ideological motivations and dubious journalistic practices.