For All the Targeting “Transparency” We Still Don’t Know How al-Majala Was Targeted

I realized something as I read this Gregory Johnsen post. For all the so-called transparency on targeting we’ve gotten since the AP first revealed John Brennan was seizing control of the targeting process, we still don’t know what went wrong with the al-Majala targeting.

Johnsen captures a significant chronological point about signature strikes in Yemen: the

Both tell basically the same story: portraying Obama as a president who is deeply involved in the details of drone strikes in Yemen and yet, despite his best efforts to limit the strikes, continues to be pulled deeper and deeper into a war he had no intention of fighting.

After the “sloppy strike” in December 2009, Obama “overrulued military and intelligence commanders who were pushing to use signature strikes (in Yemen) as well.”

According to the NYT, he said the US was “not going to war with Yemen.”

After the success of the bin Laden raid in 2011, the US military along with the CIA once again began pushing for “signature strikes” in Yemen.  Again, Obama pushed back, wary of getting sucked into a mess in Yemen from which there was no foreseeable exit.

As the NYT describes it, shortly after the al-Majala disaster and “within two years” of the time–understood to be April of this year–that Obama ultimately approved signature strikes in Yemen, “military and intelligence commanders” asked to use signature strikes in Yemen too.

The very first strike under his watch in Yemen, on Dec. 17, 2009, offered a stark example of the difficulties of operating in what General Jones described as an “embryonic theater that we weren’t really familiar with.”

It killed not only its intended target, but also two neighboring families, and left behind a trail of cluster bombs that subsequently killed more innocents. It was hardly the kind of precise operation that Mr. Obama favored. Videos of children’s bodies and angry tribesmen holding up American missile parts flooded You Tube, fueling a ferocious backlash that Yemeni officials said bolstered Al Qaeda.

The sloppy strike shook Mr. Obama and Mr. Brennan, officials said, and once again they tried to impose some discipline.


Now, in the wake of the bad first strike in Yemen, Mr. Obama overruled military and intelligence commanders who were pushing to use signature strikes there as well.

“We are not going to war with Yemen,” he admonished in one meeting, according to participants.

His guidance was formalized in a memo by General Jones, who called it a “governor, if you will, on the throttle,” intended to remind everyone that “one should not assume that it’s just O.K. to do these things because we spot a bad guy somewhere in the world.”

Mr. Obama had drawn a line. But within two years, he stepped across it.

Daniel Klaidman doesn’t describe (at least in that excerpt) that memo. He describes Jeh Johnson watching the al-Majala strike in real time.

After approving his first targeted killings one evening, he watched the digital images of the strike in real time—“Kill TV,” the military calls the live battlefield feed. Johnson could see the shadowy images of militants running drills in a training camp in Yemen. Then suddenly there was a bright flash. The figures that had been moving across the screen were gone. Johnson returned to his Georgetown home around midnight that evening, drained and exhausted. Later there were reports from human-rights groups that dozens of women and children had been killed in the attacks, reports that a military source involved in the operation termed “persuasive.” Johnson would confide to others, “If I were Catholic, I’d have to go to confession.”

And then Klaidman describes John Brennan and Obama, in June 2011, pushing back against a “military advisor” discussing a campaign in Yemen.

But in May 2011, the military proposed killing 11 AQAP operatives at once, by far the largest request since it stepped up operations in Yemen. The Arab Spring’s turmoil had spread to the country, and al Qaeda was moving quickly to take advantage of the chaos. Gen. James Mattis, who heads U.S. Central Command, warned darkly of an emerging new terror hub in the Horn of Africa. Obama and a few of his senior advisers, however, were wary of getting dragged into an internal conflict—or fueling a backlash—by targeting people who were not focused on striking the United States. Obama and his aides reduced the target list to four people, all of whom were eliminated.

The pressure didn’t abate, however. Brennan came to believe that the commander in chief needed to make an unequivocal statement—to brush back the people calling for more and larger attacks. The chance came in mid-June, during a regularly scheduled “Terror Tuesday” briefing. At one point during the discussion, one of the president’s military advisers made a reference to the ongoing “campaign” in Yemen. Obama abruptly cut him off. There’s no “campaign” in Yemen, he said sharply: “We’re not in Yemen to get involved in some domestic conflict. We’re going to continue to stay focused on threats to the homeland—that’s where the real priority is.”

Now I raise all this to point out what these stories don’t address. While NYT claims that we got our unnamed target in al-Majala along with those Bedouin families, it doesn’t mention the purported imminent attack it targeted. Nor does it mention David Petraeus’ claim, to Ali Abdullah Saleh, that he was mistaken when he said women and kids were killed. That is, it doesn’t point to the bad intelligence that we clung to even after Saleh knew better. Al-Majala wasn’t a drone strike–it was a ship-launched strike–so we didn’t have drones to check (though we had satellite and the kill cam). Why did we persist in claiming that those killed in the al-Majala attack were legitimate targets.

Nor does the NYT situate it’s report of the clamor for signature strikes in the context of the May 2010 killing of Jabir Shabwani, a Saleh rival who was trying to forge a peace agreement. Later reporting suggested Saleh deliberately fed us bad information to eliminate Shabwani. If the first request to use signature strikes came “within two years” of the time Obama eventually approved signature strikes but not long after the al-Majala killing, it either happened around that same time, or Obama gave approval for signature strikes before April.

And it’s not like sources aren’t talking about it. Greg Miller, for example, quotes a former US official finally admitting Saleh was feeding us bad information.

“There were times when we were intentionally misled, presumably by Saleh, to get rid of people he wanted to get rid of,” said the former U.S. official involved in overseeing the campaign.

Now, it’s possible the timing is off, and Obama’s sole push-back on signature strikes in Yemen took place after May 2011–that is, after we started rethinking signature strikes in Pakistan.

But there’s something funky with the presentation of the targeting. It reportedly affected Obama, Brennan, and Johnson significantly. And yet none of this so-called transparency describes what that really meant.

That’s a really significant point given that–aside from the remorse over the civilian casualties in al-Majala–the problem appears to derive from deliberately bad intelligence, not significant squeamishness about signature strikes.

30 replies
  1. rkilowatt says:

    Outsourcing the Kill List.
    Oh, wait. That is trying to make sense out of non-sense.

  2. orionATL says:

    i thought it was the saudis pushing us. now it seems it was the u.s. military/paramilitary. who’s on first?

  3. Z says:

    With all the giggling and elbow nudging between the Obama administration and the Yemeni government (you did it … ha ha ha … no, you did it) in the al-Majala bombing – remember at first the U.S. stated that they had nothing to do with the attacks, which the Yemeni government also said and wikileaks … along with a Yemeni reporter that is currently in a Yemeni jail on the advice of the Obama administration … later showed to be utter bullshit – is it difficult to fathom that the Obama administration did the attacks on Saleh’s rivals on PURPOSE but doesn’t want it known that they are also using U.S. bombs to not only protect U.S. interests, as they claim, but also to help keep their favored tyrants in control of other countries’ citizens and basically ensure that another U.S. approved tyrant would secede Saleh? I think that’s what all the bullshit surrounding the al-Majala bombing is about. First the obama administration claimed that they didn’t do it – which they said immediately – and then after that fairy tale was dismissed and the the murder of innocent civilians comes to light a new tale emerges: that of the congenitally well-intentioned Obama being misled about the strike’s targets by Saleh.


  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    You’d think Curveball would have made US administrations look more closely at the pitches before swinging wildly for the fence. But why be cautious, prudent, restrained or rational when whatever goes wrong (and it will) happens only to little brown people “over there”.

    It ought to make ordinary citizens, if not politicians and judges, anxious, given that so many of our militarized operations “over there” inevitably migrate to domestic policing operations “over here”.

  5. joanneleon says:

    I am not very clear about where you are going with this post but I’ll read it again to see if things become clearer and even if it doesn’t, will hang around for subsequent posts because I’m confident we’ll be going somewhere.

    For instance, this paragraph:

    Nor does the NYT situate it’s report of the clamor for signature strikes in the context of the May 2010 killing of Jabir Shabwani, a Saleh rival who was trying to forge a peace agreement. Later reporting suggested Saleh deliberately fed us bad information to eliminate Shabwani. If the first request to use signature strikes came “within two years” of the time Obama eventually approved signature strikes but not long after the al-Majala killing, it either happened around that same time, or Obama gave approval for signature strikes before April.

    I think maybe you are exploring whether the target in al-Majala might have been a Saleh enemy.

    So we have Johnson claiming he was watching ongoing training in real time when the strike occurred. This makes no sense to me unless he was flat out lying or there is something I am missing entirely. I have a couple of reasons for being confused.

    First, they refer to “two families” who were killed in the strike. But it was more like two tribes. I wish they would not refer to them as “families” because Americans will be thinking about relatively small families similar to ours. I was watching Jeremy’s al Jazeera documentary this morning ( ) and in one of the interviews they said that five pregnant women were killed. That’s a lot of pregnant women for two families. They should really refer to it as a Bedouin community or two tribes.

    What I’m getting at is that if Jeh Johnson said he was watching this site in real time before and during the strike, and the KillTV provided enough detail to see what was happening in this supposed terrorist training camps, and he could see individuals, are we to believe that he didn’t notice at least 13 women and 23 children in the vicinity? The story says that some were sleeping, but it also says that they had noticed a “spotter plane” in the vicinity for weeks before that, so clearly they knew that this was a community of mostly women and children.

    (Numbers derived from the TBIJ post).
    41 killed in the attack (22 children, 12 women, 7 men?)
    3 killed by cluster bombs (?)
    3 survivors (1 woman, 1 child, 1 elderly man)

  6. emptywheel says:

    @joanneleon: I’m sort of speaking out loud at this point.

    I think 1) It highly likely our “intell” came from whoever was giving us intell about imminent attacks on US targets. Saleh said that the strike was done w/US and Saudi targeting, so I pick the Saudis. But if it was Saleh, is it possible he (who had said less than 6 months earlier that any attack on us from Yemen was our fault) that Saleh was giving us intell about “imminent attacks” while hiding intell about the most imminent, Abdulmutallab?

    Or is it possible the Saudis–who were hitting Houthi hospitals at precisely teh same time–gave us the bad intell for any number of reasons?

    But the other direction I’m going wiht here, is the types of tareting. I actually think this attack was done under Petraeus’ ExOrd, basically giving JSOC the kind of global hit squad authorization CIA got from the Gloves Come Off MON. But that ExOrd didn’t require POTUS authorization. In other words, al-Majala may precede the kind of vetting that the White House wants us to believe always existed (perhaps Jeh Johnson had final sign off at that point). There’s a big group of killings, tailling off somewhat, followed by a year pause after the Shawbwani killing. Which may be when they imposed this kind of review process.

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The Saudis, of course, absolute monarchs that they are, would have no reason to confuse active threats of serious or grave harm to the US with threats to their own convenience, dominance or internal security. None whatever. And we would have no reason, other than oil, to ignore obvious potential conflicts of interest and treat them just the same, as if we were parsing a poem by Kipling.

  8. Z says:

    If Obama was so damn remorseful, why the hell does he encourage the Yemeni government to keep a reporter that only reported the truth about the situation … which exposed the Obama administration lies … in jail ( The Yemeni government was ready to release the reporter but the congenitally well-intentioned Obama basically asked that they keep him in jail.

    Not exactly the actions of someone racked with remorse and empathy for the innocent victims and their families … more like the actions of a petty fucker that is just upset that he got caught lying.

    When someone is truly remorseful they take responsibility for their actions, they don’t take out their mistakes on other innocent people like this reporter that was only reporting the truth.


  9. orionATL says:


    that is a very good question.

    the situation seems akin to our sec of state’s statements on the importance of internet freedom and freedom of political speech.

  10. MadDog says:

    Tangentially on topic, via the Foreign Policy blog:

    The Obama Paradox

    “A conversation with David Sanger, author of a new book on Obama’s secret wars.

    Barack Obama is a paradox. This has never been as clear to me as while reading David Sanger’s Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power. The book is a timely, gripping read that offers insights into some of the most surprising, most closely guarded dimensions of the Obama presidency. Early excerpts from his book that have already appeared in the New York Times have sent competitors scrambling and governments from Washington to Tel Aviv to Tehran to Islamabad into closed-door sessions to determine how to deal with his uncomfortable revelations. When it comes to ongoing conflicts between America and her perceived enemies (and friends) around the world, Sanger is a one-man WikiLeaks and Confront and Conceal is a glimpse into a world until now shrouded in secrecy…


    …The following conversation with Sanger took place a couple of days before the June 5 publication date of Confront and Conceal. Interview by David Rothkopf…”

  11. MadDog says:


    “…But there’s something funky with the presentation of the targeting. It reportedly affected Obama, Brennan, and Johnson significantly. And yet none of this so-called transparency describes what that really meant.

    That’s a really significant point given that–aside from the remorse over the civilian casualties in al-Majala–the problem appears to derive from deliberately bad intelligence, not significant squeamishness about signature strikes.”

    It definitely ain’t squeamishness! More from the David Sanger interview:

    “…And now sovereignty is a bigger problem than ever. Think about drone strikes. The U.S. has justified the drone strikes in Pakistan on the basis that it had the permission of the Pakistani government to execute the strikes. In fact, when I did interviews about the legal basis for drone strikes, administration officials said to me: We’re only in countries that let us in or don’t have an operative government so you have to go in, like Somalia. Well, what’s happened? The democratically elected parliament of Pakistan, which we prefer to have running the country instead of the military, has voted overwhelmingly to ban all drone strikes by the United States inside their territory. And since the passage of that declaration, we have conducted more drone strikes inside their territory. So in order to continue the counterterrorism mission, we have completely undercut the authority of the democratically elected side of the Pakistani government, and we are simply working with the old military side…”

  12. orionATL says:


    the prez’s decision to umpire the strikes could possibly be explained by the saudis doing their influencing of the targeting thru the cia (or the “regular army”).

    similarly, the pakistanis could have been influencing american targeting, in a negative way.

    thus, prez might have wanted to keep these non-u.s. interests out of the targeting game.

    the time-line as always will tell, or at least suggest, the tale.

  13. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And a wee bit more:

    “…[David Rothkopf:] Arguably, Barack Obama has violated national sovereignty around the world more frequently than any of his predecessors since the Second World War. Some senior officials have suggested to me that he has more covert actions going on in different places around the world than any of his predecessors since the height of the Cold War…”

  14. MadDog says:

    Via the WaPo:

    U.S. strike said to target al-Qaeda’s No. 2

    “U.S. missiles killed more than a dozen people in northwestern Pakistan early Monday in a strike that apparently was aimed at al-Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, the charismatic and influential jihadist known as Abu Yahya al-Libi, U.S. and Pakistani officials said.

    The terrorist commander’s fate remained unclear late in the day, amid a swirl of rumors inside Pakistan that the longtime deputy to Osama bin Laden had been badly wounded or perhaps killed in the strike…”

  15. orionATL says:


    personally, i explain it as i have explained every obama fuddle – the guy does not have a sufficient base of experience from whch to make the judgements a president must make (and neither did commander bush).

    add to that, he appears bloodlessly amoral.

    i say that despite the declared “toll” on the prez of watching people’s heads pop off their bodies in “real time” due to a powerful concussion wave.

    war is hell, all the more so when your advisors have decided for you that war is all you got to run on to get re-elected.

  16. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And the NYT:

    Drone Strike in Pakistan’s Tribal Belt Targets Al Qaeda’s No. 2 Commander

    “The fate of one of the United States’ most dedicated enemies was the subject of mounting speculation on Monday after a drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal belt was said to have targeted Abu Yahya al-Libi, the Qaeda commander who escaped American custody in 2005 and became the group’s deputy leader after Osama bin Laden’s death last year.

    Tribal sources in Mir Ali, where the drone attack occurred, said Mr. Libi was either killed or seriously wounded in the strike, which Pakistani officials said killed at least 15 people. It was the third strike in three days in the tribal belt.

    In Washington, American officials familiar with the strikes confirmed that Mr. Libi, believed to be in his late 40s, was the target of the attack. But they said they did not know whether he had survived. Officials appeared to be wary because, as with some other top militants sheltering in the region, Mr. Libi has been falsely reported dead before — in December 2009 after a drone strike in South Waziristan. By Monday night in Pakistan, no concrete evidence had emerged to prove the latest accounts of his death were accurate…”

  17. orionATL says:


    another preacher down.

    take away for muslims: give up. americans don’t ‘llow no preaching but their preaching.

  18. Valley Girl says:

    Forgive me EW and all for a comment that doesn’t quite fit anywhere. It has to do with me seeing a word or phrase out of the corner of my eye, and misreading.

    Thus, “kill list” became “kill lust”.

    I think the latter applies quite well to the former.

  19. MadDog says:

    @orionATL: Some news reports recently made the point about JP Morgan Chase bank that not only was it Too Big To Fail (TBTF), but it was Too Big To Manage (TBTM), and that Jamie Dimon was in way over his head.

    I think one could reasonably argue that no one is prepared to manage the US government. Or for that matter, the governments of many countries like China, Russia, etc.

    In the case of the US government, some would argue that Dwight D. Eisenhower was the last president who had the background to allow him to manage the US government, but I think that is too simplistic.

    Eisenhower might have had the skills to somewhat manage a large military organization, but even he was limited in what he was capable of doing and focusing on.

    As evidence of that, consider his warning about the Military/Industrial Complex. That sounds to me a lot like recognition that it was beyond even his skill set.

    I would go ever further back in history to President Lincoln and his relative inability to manage all of the US government back in the 1860s. He had a devil of a time just dealing with the considerations of the military and the Civil War.

    Truth be told, I suspect the inability of individual leaders to manage large numbers of people in governments goes way, way back in time. Thousands of years!

    And it doesn’t look like the future holds any better prospects.

  20. MadDog says:

    @orionATL: After OBL was killed, Ayman al-Zawahiri took over the Number 1 position in al Qaeda. Supposedly, Abu Yahya al-Libi then became Number 2 and Operations leader.

  21. spanishinquisition says:

    @orionATL: In reading the FP article as well as various other articles here and elsewhere, it seems like Obama views Cyber-Drones as a panacea because they’re a “small footprint” with minimal risk of immediate US casualties, but that is fundamental flaw of reasoning and it shows Obama being very short-sighted and narrow-minded. Cyberwar and drone strikes have huge impacts on international relations and diplomacy where it seems like Obama is so blinded that he can’t see he’s making things worse than Bush with international relations all because he can say he [thinks] he got a baddie without US casualties in the strike. Operations impacting sovereignty and risking our own weapons being turned against us with cyberwar is anything but small footprint with its impact on the world.

    Also with Obama being so short-sighted and narrow-minded, he’s doing all this leaking of highly classified material just to get re-elected. Separate from whether or not the various operations are good or not, this Me First Gotta Get Re-Elected way of thinking is setting us up for strained foreign relations and busted covert programs – Obama is even Self-Plaming highly classified programs as a means to get another 4 years in the WH, irrespective of what long-term damage his Plaming-For-The-Presidency does.

  22. MadDog says:

    @Jim White: It seems the Pakistani government gave a two-fer spanking to the the US Ambassador – via the News International:

    “Pakistan on Tuesday summoned US Charge d’Affairs Ambassador Richard Hoagland to the Foreign Affairs Ministry to convey the government’s concern regarding drone strikes in its territory.

    Hoagland was informed that the drone strikes were unlawful, against international law and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.

    The Charge d’Affairs was told that the Pakistani parliament had emphatically stated that they were unacceptable. Drone strikes represented a clear red-line for Pakistan.

    A second and separate demarche was lodged with Ambassador Hoagland on the seizure of unauthorized weapons that were in possession of US diplomats in Peshawar.

    He was informed that the carrying of unauthorized weapons by diplomats was un-acceptable and contrary to both Pakistani law and accepted norms of diplomatic conduct.”

    Though I’ve not found any news report about what those unauthorized weapons carried by US diplomats actually were, it is kind of hard to believe they were merely pistols. More likely automatic or semi-automatic weapons that don’t fit unobtrusively under one’s suitcoat.

  23. Jim White says:

    @MadDog: Heh. Maybe you should copy this onto the post I just put up. I hadn’t found this link and the protest on the weapons is interesting. I do have a list of weapons, and you are correct about more than just pistols.

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