I’m going to take a break from noting how Lawfare ignores the public record on NSA spying — both of past failures to inform Congress, and of Intelligence Community lies about having done so — to note how Lawfare ignores the public record on drone killing.
On Sunday, Lawfare posted a long review of Jeremy Scahill’s book Dirty Wars. While it is not entirely negative, it stakes a claim on what the public record shows to argue that Scahill glossed over what a dangerous man Anwar al-Awlaki was. Yet the review itself ignores key details in the public record.
First, full disclosure. I’m friends with Scahill, and he acknowledged me in the book. But given that I’m not quoted, I suspect he acknowledged me because I’ve followed certain aspects of the narrative he covered — especially the evidence in the Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab case and the shoddy OLC case to support Awlaki’s killing — in more detail than most other reporters.
It’s for that reason that I find the review to be so problematic.
After spending two paragraphs praising the on-the-ground reporting Scahill did, Lawfare reviewer Nick Basciano complains,
Scahill simply skips over facts that don’t promote his narrative of Awlaki. One such example comes in Awlaki’s relationship with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “Christmas Day Bomber” who attempted to detonate almost three ounces of PETN aboard Northwest flight 253 on its descent to Detroit. A publically-available and widely-cited sentencing memorandum for Abdulmutallab describes how Awlaki housed Abdulmutallab in Yemen and took him to AQAP’s primary bomb-maker, Ibrahim Al Asiri. There, they “discussed a plan for martyrdom mission” and Awlaki himself gave the bombing plot “final approval and instructed Defendant Abdulmutallab on it.” Awlaki’s “last instructions,” the memorandum continues, “were to wait until the airplane was over the United States and then to take the plane down.” Without dealing with this evidence from the Abdulmutallab trial, Scahill admits that Awlaki was only “in touch” with Abdulmutallab, insisting that “no conclusive evidence [was] presented, at least not publicly, that Awlaki had played an operational role in any attacks.” Why such a relevant piece of evidence isn’t included in Scahill’s retelling of the Abdulmuttallab plot is unclear, but it isn’t the only instance of turning a blind eye to evidence linking Awlaki’s directly to terrorism.
The trial, of course, took place several weeks after the final event of Scahill’s narrative, the killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki [Correction: The trial took place on October 11 and 12, 2009, before Abdulrahman's death. But as I note, the narrative presented there differs in key ways from the one Basciano adopts]. The sentencing took place several months later. That doesn’t mean Scahill couldn’t have included the evidence from “the trial.” But it was not part of the narrative arc Scahill told in the book.
Moreover, Basciano’s description ignores the reporting Scahill did do on Awlaki’s role in Abdulmutallab’s attempted attack, reporting based on talking to people who knew of Abdulmutallab’s movements in Yemen.
A local trial leader from Shabwah, Mullah Zabara, later told me he had seen the young Nigerian at the farm of Fahd al-Quso, the alleged USS Cole bombing conspirator. “He was watering trees,” Zabara told me. “When I saw [Abdulmutallab], I asked Fahd, ‘Who is he?’” Quso told Zabara the young man was from a different part of Yemen, which Zabara knew was a lie. “When I saw him on TV, then Fahd told me the truth.”
Awlaki’s role in the “underwear plot” was unclear. Awlaki later claimed that Abdulmutallab was one of his “students.” Tribal sources in Shabwah told me that al Qaeda operatives reached out to Awlaki to give religious counseling to Abdulmutallab, but that Awlaki was not involved in the plot. While praising the plot, Awlaki said he had not been involved with its conception of planning. (318)
After having complimented Scahill’s efforts to speak to people on the ground, Basciano did not mention that he had done so, too, in regards to the Abdulmutallab attack.
Moreover, if Scahill had used the material released in relation to the trial, the evidence would be much muddier than Basciano lays out. Continue reading