We don’t often see Pulitzer-winning cavaliers of press freedom infiltrate the depths of Bushwick, but last night the infamous trio behind The Intercept — Jeremy Scahill, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald — were at Mayday space to promote the paperback edition of Scahill’s New York Times bestseller, Dirty Wars.
At 680 pages, the book serves as a hefty expose on the Obama administration’s use of aerial drones and other covert tactics in matters of foreign policy. But the event didn’t serve to laud the dangerous and oftentimes deadly feats performed by Scahill to report the tome. Instead it was used to praise the achievements of whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, whose actions Greenwald said were heroic and performed under “an extraordinarily undemocratic and oppressive regime of secrecy.”
This veil of government secrecy, uncovered by NSA contractor Edward Snowden and subsequently reported on by Greenwald and Poitras in the summer of 2013, became one of the most significant journalistic scoops of all time, and continues to provide The Intercept with a large degree of its journalistic material.
The fallout from the Snowden leaks also provided much of the material discussed last night at Mayday, which saw each member of the trio explain not his or her role in reporting or spreading messages of government transparency, but the selflessness and bravery of whistleblowers who risk imprisonment by doing so.
President Obama’s policy in the Middle East was also a topic of discussion — and was boldly denounced by Greenwald. “It isn’t just that the United States government is engaged in this posture of endless war and pillaging and all sorts of other acts of aggression. I mean, it is really an extraordinary fact that when President Obama’s new bombing campaign in Syria began that that was the seventh — seventh — predominantly Muslim country bombed in just the last five years by the 2009 Nobel Peace Laureate. I mean, that is an amazing statistic.”
Later, Scahill also nodded to the peace prize: “Under a popular Democratic president who won the Nobel Peace Prize and portrayed himself — and his campaign people portrayed it — as a transformative presidency, the only thing that has been transformed on these issues is that Dick Cheney has somehow been transformed into Barack Obama when it comes to national security issues.”
Laura Poitras, a documentarian by trade, let the audience sneak the first ever preview of her new film CITIZENFOUR, which chronicles the actual experience of reporting the Snowden leaks in various places like Hong Kong, London and Rio de Janeiro. The film, which starts screening at the IFC Film Center on October 24, should educate even the most seasoned crusader of government accountability. “I thought I knew the Edward Snowden story,” Scahill said. “This film blew me away by how little I actually knew.”
The night ended with an impassioned half-hour speech from Scahill, who spoke about everything from crusading civil rights lawyers to the contradictory legacy of president Obama’s foreign policy to reporting the Snowden leaks at Glenn Greenwald’s Brazilian forest-estate surrounded by 14 dogs.
Scahill said of Greenwald’s house in Rio de Janeiro, “You go there and it’s like canine Planet of the Apes.”
He spoke on the peculiar circumstances in which some of the Snowden materials were uncovered and reported. “We’re working there with the most sensitive fucking top-secret documents on Glenn’s porch — with dogs running everywhere, fighting for Glenn’s attention, biting my calf and everything — and Glenn is sitting there in Bermuda shorts, typing away, chatting with Edward Snowden. And I’m just like, this is such a bizarre life right now.”
The crowd seemed to appreciate Scahill’s humorous aside, as so much of the discussion’s subject matter, and the subject of Dirty Wars in general, is cloaked in the dark veneer of war, terrorism and government surveillance.
Scahill also received a loud round of applause when he turned the discussion back to Obama and the current situation concerning ISIS, saying that “the context they don’t give you about ISIS, about Khorasan Group, is that the United States has helped to create the very threat it claims to be fighting right now,” a view he recently espoused more fully on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman.
In closing, Scahill implored the audience that things like the dire state of foreign affairs and government crackdowns on journalists shouldn’t be a cause to revel in defeat, but more of an impetus to remain politically engaged and informed.
In rallying the audience, he again turned to the whistleblowers. “Whistleblowers are going to be one of the primary centers of the freedom fight in this country. We as a community of people who care, who are about social justice, have to have a serious dialogue about how we support those people who take these risks.”
Watch the entire talk, starting at the 35:00 mark, below.