President Who Had Yemeni Journalist Jailed Criticizes Impunity for Mistreatment of Journalists

Obama on Phone

November 2, 2014 was the first annual International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists.

To mark the date, the President just issued this statement.

History shows that a free press remains a critical foundation for prosperous, open, and secure societies, allowing citizens to access information and hold their governments accountable. Indeed, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reiterates the fundamental principle that every person has the right “to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Each and every day, brave journalists make extraordinary risks to bring us stories we otherwise would not hear – exposing corruption, asking tough questions, or bearing witness to the dignity of innocent men, women and children suffering the horrors of war. In this service to humanity, hundreds of journalists have been killed in the past decade alone, while countless more have been harassed, threatened, imprisoned, and tortured. In the overwhelming majority of these cases, the perpetrators of these crimes against journalists go unpunished.

All governments must protect the ability of journalists to write and speak freely. On this first-ever International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, the United States commends the priceless contributions by journalists to the freedom and security of us all, shining light into the darkness and giving voice to the voiceless. We honor the sacrifices so many journalists have made in their quest for the truth, and demand accountability for those who have committed crimes against journalists.

It’s a wonderful sentiment, but I wonder if President Obama has thought this through.

After all, as Jeremy Scahill reported several years ago, President Obama personally intervened to ensure that Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye would remain in prison after having been tortured and subjected to a trumped up trial.

On February 2, 2011, President Obama called Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The two discussed counterterrorism cooperation and the battle against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. At the end of the call, according to a White House read-out, Obama “expressed concern” over the release of a man named Abdulelah Haider Shaye, whom Obama said “had been sentenced to five years in prison for his association with AQAP.” It turned out that Shaye had not yet been released at the time of the call, but Saleh did have a pardon for him prepared and was ready to sign it. It would not have been unusual for the White House to express concern about Yemen’s allowing AQAP suspects to go free. Suspicious prison breaks of Islamist militants in Yemen had been a regular occurrence over the past decade, and Saleh has been known to exploit the threat of terrorism to leverage counterterrorism dollars from the United States. But this case was different. Abdulelah Haider Shaye is not an Islamist militant or an Al Qaeda operative. He is a journalist.

In addition to interviewing Anwar al-Awlaki just as the US started targeting the radical cleric, Shaye also provided important coverage exposing the US role in an attack on the village of al Majala that massacred women and children.

On December 17, the Yemeni government announced that it had conducted a series of strikes against an Al Qaeda training camp in the village of al Majala in Yemen’s southern Abyan province, killing a number of Al Qaeda militants. As the story spread across the world, Shaye traveled to al Majala. What he discovered were the remnants of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs, neither of which are in the Yemeni military’s arsenal. He photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label “Made in the USA,” and distributed the photos to international media outlets. He revealed that among the victims of the strike were women, children and the elderly. To be exact, fourteen women and twenty-one children were killed.

Shaye was kept in prison for an additional two and a half years after Obama’s intervention.

There are a number of other examples of US crimes against journalists that have been treated with impunity. In particular, the detention of Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj at Gitmo for over six years, reportedly in an effort to recruit him to inform on his employer, comes to mind.

But with Shaye, President Obama personally intervened to ensure a journalist would remain imprisoned in a brutal prison system.

Does President Obama decry the impunity he has enjoyed for imprisoning Shaye for his journalism?

Cross-posted from ExposeFacts.

Well, at Least DOJ Promised Not to Mine Journalists’ Metadata Going Forward

When I read this passage from DOJ’s new News Media Policy, it caused me as much concern as relief.

The Department’s policies will be revised to provide formal safeguards regarding the proper use and handling of communications records of members of the news media. Among other things, the revisions will provide that with respect to information obtained pursuant to the Department’s news media policy: (i) access to records will be limited to Department personnel who are working on the investigation and have a need to know the information; (ii) the records will be used solely in connection with the investigation and related judicial proceedings; (iii) the records will not be shared with any other organization or individual inside or outside of the government, except as part of the investigation or as required in the course of judicial proceedings; and(iv) at the conclusion of all proceedings related to or arising from the investigation, other than information disclosed in the course of judicial proceedings or as required by law, only one copy of records will be maintained in a secure, segregated repository that is not searchable.

It is nice for the subset of journalists treated as members of news media whose calls get treated under these new policies and not — as still seems possible — under the apparently more permissive guidelines in the FBI’s Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide that when their call and other business records are collected, some of that information will ultimately be segregated in a non-searchable collection. Though why not destroy it entirely, given that the information used for the investigation and court proceedings will not be segregated?

Moreover, this passage represents a revision of previous existing policy.

Which means data from members of the news media may not have been segregated in the past.

When you consider that one of the abuses that led to these new policies included the collection of 20 phone lines worth of data from the AP — far, far more than would be warranted by the investigation at hand — it raises the possibility that DOJ used to do more with the data it had grabbed from journalists than just try to find isolated sources.

Like the two to three hop analysis they conduct on the Section 215 dragnet data.

It’s with that in mind that I’ve been reading the reports that Kiwi troops were wandering around Kabul with records of McClatchy freelancer Jon Stephenson’s phone metadata.

The Sunday Star-Times has learned that New Zealand Defence Force personnel had copies of intercepted phone “metadata” for Stephenson, the type of intelligence publicised by US intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden. The intelligence reports showed who Stephenson had phoned and then who those people had phoned, creating what the sources called a “tree” of the journalist’s associates.

New Zealand SAS troops in Kabul had access to the reports and were using them in active investigations into Stephenson.

The sources believed the phone monitoring was being done to try to identify Stephenson’s journalistic contacts and sources. They drew a picture of a metadata tree the Defence Force had obtained, which included Stephenson and named contacts in the Afghan government and military.

The sources who described the monitoring of Stephenson’s phone calls in Afghanistan said that the NZSIS has an officer based in Kabul who was known to be involved in the Stephenson investigations.

Last year, when this happened, Stephenson was on the Green-on-Blue beat, He published a story that a massacre in Pashtun lands had been retaliation for the killing of Taliban. He reported on another NATO massacre of civilians. He reported that a minister accused of torture and other abuses would be named Hamid Karzai’s intelligence chief. Earlier last year he had reported on the negotiations over prisoner transfers from the US to Afghan custody.

Now, the original report made a both a credibility and factual error when it said Stephenson’s metadata had been “intercepted.” That has provided the Kiwi military with a talking point on which to hang a non-denial denial — a point Jonathan Landay notes in his coverage of the claims.

Maj. Gen. Tim Keating, the acting chief of New Zealand’s military, said in a statement that no military personnel had undertaken “unlawful interception of private communications.”

“I have asked the officers responsible for our operations in Afghanistan whether they have conducted monitoring of Mr Stephenson . . . and they have assured me that they have not.”

The statement, however, did not address whether metadata, which includes the location from where a call is made, the number and location of the person who is being called and the duration of the call, was collected for Stephenson’s phones. Such data are generally considered business records of a cell phone provider and are obtained without intercepting or real-time monitoring of calls. In the United States, for example, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has ordered Verizon to deliver such records of all its customers to the National Security Agency on a daily basis.

While under contract to McClatchy, Stephenson used McClatchy cell phones and was in frequent contact with McClatchy editors and other reporters and correspondents. [my emphasis]

Indeed, higher ranking New Zealand politicians are trying to insinuate that Stephenson’s call records would only be collected if he was communicating with terrorists — even while admitting the government did have a document treating investigative journalists like terrorists.

Prime Minister John Key said it’s theoretically possible that reporters could get caught in surveillance nets when the U.S. spies on enemy combatants.


Also Monday, New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman acknowledged the existence of an embarrassing confidential order that lists investigative journalists alongside spies and terrorists as potential threats to New Zealand’s military. That document was leaked to Hager, who provided a copy to The Associated Press. Coleman said the order will be modified to remove references to journalists.

Finally, New Zealand officials seem to be getting close to blaming this on the US.

“The collection of metadata on behalf of the NZDF by the U.S. would not be a legitimate practice, when practiced on a New Zealand citizen,” Coleman said. “It wouldn’t be something I would support as the minister, and I’d be very concerned if that had actually been the case.”

Thus far, the coverage of the Stephenson tracking has focused on the Kiwi role in all of it. But as Landay notes, Stephenson would have been using McClatchy-provided cell phones at the time, suggesting the US got the records themselves, not by intercepting anything, but simply by asking the carrier, as they did with the AP.

Ultimately, no one is issuing a direct denial that some entity tied to ISAF — whether that be American or New Zealand forces — collected the phone records of a journalist reporting for a US-based outlet to try to identify his non-friendly sources.

So what other journalists have US allies likened to terrorists because they actually reported using both friendly and unfriendly sources?

Yemeni Government Intensifies Harassment of Journalist Who Presented Counter-Evidence to US Case against Awlaki

Ever since I wrote this post, I’ve been thinking about the fate of Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye. As Jeremy Scahill reported last year, President Obama personally intervened in February 2011 to make sure that Shaye would remain in prison, for terrorism charges presented at a kangaroo court, for at least five years.

In the course of pointing out the holes in the NYT piece on Anwar al-Awlaki, I revisited the discrepancy between what, according to DOJ, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab confessed to immediately after he was arrested on December 25, 2009 and what, according to DOJ, he said in interrogations conducted a month and more later. I’m now convinced, at a minimum, that the discrepancies are much more problematic than I thought when I first reported the discrepancy, and I also think (though I’m still working on this) that the original confession may be more reliable given other known facts. If that’s true, it significantly undermines the government’s case against Awlaki, as Abdulmutallab is the key known witness attesting to Awlaki’s operational role which — at least publicly — is the key criteria that must be met before Awlaki’s killing was legal (though at precisely the moment Abdulmutallab started cooperating, Dennis Blair described the standard to be something different).

Which brings me to this article, which reports on an interview Shaye conducted with Awlaki some time after the UndieBomb attack, presumably at least several days before it was published and therefore before Abdulmutallab started cooperating. The story originally took Awlaki’s acknowledgment he had “communications” with Abdulmutallab to support its claim that Awlaki “met” with the UndieBomber.

Anwar al-Awlaki, the fugitive American-born cleric accused of terrorist ties, acknowledged for the first time that he met with the Nigerian suspect in the Dec. 25 airliner bomb plot, though he denied any role in the attack, according to a Yemeni journalist who said he met with him.

Mr. Awlaki said he had met and spoken with the Nigerian suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in Yemen last fall, according to the journalist, Abdulelah Hider Sha’ea, who played a digital recording of the cleric’s comments for this reporter.


“Umar Farouk is one of my students; I had communications with him,” Mr. Awlaki can be heard saying on the recording. “And I support what he did, as America supports Israel’s killing of Palestinians, and its killing of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.”


Mr. Awlaki, 38, said on the recording that he had no part in the planning or execution of the bomb plot. He did not say whether he had advance knowledge of it. “I did not tell him to do this operation, but I support it,” Mr. Awlaki said on the tape, adding that he was proud of Mr. Abdulmutallab. [my emphasis]

Nine days later it added this correction, and took the word “met” out of the second though not lead paragraph of the article.

An article last Monday about possible connections between Anwar al-Awlaki, a fugitive American-born cleric accused of terrorist ties, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian suspect in the Christmas Day plot against an American passenger jet, paraphrased incorrectly from comments by a Yemeni journalist about the relationship between the two men. The journalist, Abdulelah Hider Sha’ea, said that Mr. Awlaki told him he had “communications” with Mr. Abdulmutallab last fall, not that the two men had met in person. [my emphasis]

To be sure, the correction (which presumably came from Shaye and not Awlaki) doesn’t rule out Awlaki meeting with Abdulmutallab; it just clarifies that’s not what Awlaki said (or even, to take the most cynical view, that Shaye shifted the emphasis after reports of Abdulmutallab’s cooperation were made public).

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Jailed Journalist More Credible than FBI Interview

There are two paragraphs of the William Webster report on Nidal Hasan’s contacts with Anwar al-Awlaki I find particularly interesting. [This appears on page 62; remember that Webster uses both redactions and substitutions–I’ve used different brackets to distinguish the two]

<Redacted> [In mid]-2011, an FBI <redacted> report documented an interview with an FBI subject <redacted> in which <redacted> [the subject] claimed to have met Aulaqi after the Fort Hood shootings. According to <redacted> [the subject], Aulaqi told him that Hasan “had contacted him via the Internet and had asked what he could do to help Muslims” and that Aulaqi had “advised Hasan that since he was an American soldier, he should kill other American soldiers.” According to <redacted> [the subject], Aulaqi said he had given Hasan “permission to carry out his attacks on Fort Hood.”

Although Hasan did contact Aulaqi via the Internet, we found no evidence, direct or indirect, that Aulaqi made these purported statements to Hasan (see Chapter 7). The evidence shows instead that Aulaqi did not even respond to Hasan’s first message and its question about whether the acts of Muslim soldiers who had killed other soldiers could be reconciled with the Quran. The Washington Post reported on November 16, 2009, that in an interview with a Yemeni journalist, Aulaqi “said that he neither ordered nor pressured Maj. Nidal M. Hasan to harm Americans….”

In effect, the conclusion of the Webster report is that this claim from an FBI interview proved to be uncorroborated by the known evidence. The suggestion is it may be a false claim–perhaps made by someone overselling his knowledge, perhaps to negotiate an informant deal or distract the FBI.

But in the following paragraph, as if to corroborate what the data say–which is that no such communication happened–Webster treats the claims Awlaki made to a journalist in a November 2009 interview as credible.

While Webster doesn’t say it, the journalist in question is Abdulelah Haider Shaye, the Yemeni journalist who remains in jail based in part on Obama’s direct request to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In his first interview with a journalist since the Fort Hood rampage, Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi said that he neither ordered nor pressured Maj. Nidal M. Hasan to harm Americans, but that he considered himself a confidant of the Army psychiatrist who was given a glimpse via e-mail into Hasan’s growing discomfort with the U.S. military.


Aulaqi declined to be interviewed by an American journalist with The Washington Post. But he provided an account of his relationship with Hasan — which consisted of a correspondence of a dozen or so e-mails — to Abdulelah Hider Shaea, a Yemeni journalist and terrorism expert with close ties to Aulaqi whom The Post contacted to conduct the interview. The Post reimbursed Shaea’s travel expenses but did not pay him.

On Sunday, Shaea offered details of his interview with Aulaqi, an influential preacher whose sermons and writings supporting jihad have attracted a wide following among radical Islamists. Shaea allowed a Post reporter to view a video recording of a man who closely resembles pictures of Aulaqi sitting in front of his laptop computer reading the e-mails, and to hear an audiotape in which a man, who like Aulaqi speaks English with an American accent, discusses his e-mail correspondence with Hasan.

Now, as I’ll post later, it looks like the representations of the emails that both Shaye and government sources provided underplayed the degree to which Awlaki comes off as a disinterested egotist rather than terror inspiration (though both seem to be a response to the way Pete Hoekstra framed the emails; notably, Crazy Pete has, AFAIK, remained utterly silent about the Webster report which shows his demagoguery to be overblown).

But I find it notable that the Webster report treats Awlaki’s comments–as mediated by Shaye and the WaPo–to be more credible than the FBI interview.

The Jeremy Scahill Yemen Executive Order

For the record, I don’t think the Obama Administration would be so brazen as to freeze Jeremy Scahill’s assets because he reported critically on Obama’s Yemen policy. But the Executive Order they’re rolling out today is reportedly written so broadly so as to make something like that possible.

The unusual order, which administration officials said also targets U.S. citizens who engage in activity deemed to threaten Yemen’s security or political stability, is the first issued for Yemen that does not directly relate to counterterrorism.

Unlike similar measures authorizing terrorist designations and sanctions, the new order does not include a list of names or organizations already determined to be in violation. Instead, one official said, it is designed as a “deterrent” to “make clear to those who are even thinking of spoiling the transition” to think again.


The order provides criteria to take action against people who the Treasury secretary, in consultation with the secretary of state, determines have “engaged in acts that directly or indirectly threaten the peace, security or stability of Yemen, such as acts that obstruct the implementation of the Nov. 23, 2011, agreement between the Government of Yemen and those in opposition to it, which provides for a peaceful transition of power . . . or that obstruct the political process in Yemen.”

It covers those who “have materially assisted, sponsored or provided financial, material or technological support” for the acts described or any person whose property has already been blocked, as well as those who have acted on behalf of such people.

The explanation this anonymous official seems to have given Karen DeYoung is that the order is a way to make sure Ali Abdullah Saleh’s family butts out of affairs in Yemen (which would work, given that he presumably does have significant assets in the US). Using Saleh’s wealth as a way to try to keep him out of Yemeni politics is a nice idea (though the agreement itself could have done more to enforce this).

But Saleh’s not a US citizen. So why explicitly include US citizens in the order?

Moreover, since the language borrows material support language from terrorist sanctions, and since terrorist material support extends to First Amendment protected activities (as Tarek Mehanna knows well), and since Obama has already made sure a journalist remains jailed in Yemen, then what protection is there for people who say that using signature strikes in Yemen is boneheaded, or suggesting that investing all our energies in Saleh’s Vice President doesn’t really constitute a meaningful solution in Yemen?

And to make things worse, the anonymous official tries to tell DeYoung that this sanction is not the first of its kind. It was used twice before: in 2006 in Cote d’Ivoire and in 2009 in Somalia. That is, precisely this kind of sanction has been used twice–and has twice failed to do anything to bring about meaningful stability.

But the single most troubling aspect of this EO is that is guaranteed to be selectively enforced. After all, the Saudis aren’t exactly great friends of “political processes” anywhere, particularly in their backyard, and surely they’re waiting to bomb more Houthis. Yet what are the chances that any Administration would freeze the very significant assets of Saudi citizens in the US–even those operating outside official channels?

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Peter Bergen’s Bumper Sticker

Yesterday, just two days after the unofficial start of the General Election, Joe Biden officially rolled out the slogan he had already warned would be his refrain for the entire campaign season:

If you’re looking for a bumper sticker to sum up how President Obama has handled what we inherited, it’s pretty simple: Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.

Also yesterday, Time Magazine rolled out a Peter Bergen article, The Last Days of Osama Bin Laden (which is still behind the paywall), accompanied not just by a bunch of other piggy-backed articles, but the letter above, Leon Panetta’s record of National Security Advisor Tom Donilon’s call telling him the operation against OBL was a go.

I guess we’re supposed to assume the timing of the two events is entirely coincidental.

The other event that transpired yesterday–Judge James Boasberg’s order ruling the CIA had properly withheld 52 photos taken during the raid on OBL’s compound under FOIA exemption 1 (properly classified information)–probably was just a coincidence.

But it does remind us that the photos–that is, records of the same covert operation as Leon Panetta’s note recorded–were immediately stamped “Top Secret,” considered derivatively classified, and subsequently formally classified and withheld from FOIA.

And yet, here Panetta’s note is, somehow having evaded the classification stamps. That, in spite of the fact that it records the normally religiously guarded Presidential communications, not to mention details of how CIA and JSOC work together on covert ops, the time it was officially okayed, that McRaven was informed first even though CIA was ostensibly in charge of the op. All of it stuff that, had the op blown up in Obama’s face, would be as carefully guarded as those pictures of OBL’s funeral.

In my mind, this whole festival of information asymmetry targeted at voters is capped off by the byline involved: Peter Bergen.

When I read about the imprisonment of journalists like Abdulelah Haider Shaye, or the wiretapping of Lawrence Wright and Christiane Amanpour, I think back to Bergen, who in the days after 9/11 was an important, reliable source who knew more about al Qaeda than many of the people taxpayers were paying to keep us safe. I’ve always thought, as our government targets journalists covering Islamic extremists, we’re handcuffing the next Peter Bergen, that journalist who is right now collecting the information our intelligence community is neglecting.That Peter Bergen is likely to be imprisoned, like Shaye, for talking directly to a terrorist.

And what has Bergen become, along the way? The outlet for officially leaked information–one more tool in the President’s toolbox of information asymmetry.

I don’t blame the Obama Administration for running on Joe Biden’s pithy slogan. But I do blame it for corrupting information in this way, both the system of classification that should be free from politics, and the space it accorded journalists to do their job when the government wasn’t.

Update: See this for details of how Brian Williams will film Obama and friends re-enacting last year’s Sit Room drama as they killed OBL.

Update: One of the things Judicial Watch complained about in their OBL suit is that the photos were probably classified only after the government received their FOIA on May 2 (to DOD) and May 4 (to CIA). CIA Information Review Officer Elizabeth Anne Culver explained that the CIA always considered the photos classified.

Contrary to Plaintiff’s suggestion, after their creation these extraordinarily sensitive images were always considered to be classified by the CIA and were consistently maintained in a manner appropriate for their classification level.

So wouldn’t Panetta’s note be considered derivatively classified, just like the photos? If so, why doesn’t have declassification markings now?

The US Still Doesn’t Want to Admit to the 44 Dead Yemenis

In a timely report, the Bureau of Independent Journalism yesterday released a report on the increased number of US drone strikes in Yemen in the last year, since Arab Spring uprisings challenged Ali Abdullah Saleh’s power and insurgents made significant gains in the south.

Covert US strikes against alleged militants in Yemen have risen steeply during the Arab spring, and are currently at the same level as the CIA’s controversial drone campaign in Pakistan, a new study by the Bureau reveals.

At least 26 US military and CIA strikes involving cruise missiles, aircraft, drones or naval bombardments have taken place in the volatile Gulf nation to date, killing hundreds of alleged militants linked to the regional al Qaeda franchise. But at least 54 civilians have died too, the study found.


The recent surge in attacks appears linked to the appointment of the new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. In his inauguration speech he called for ‘the continuation of war against al-Qaida as a religious and national duty.’

Along with an update on drone strike numbers in Yemen, TBIJ released the results of a report the Yemeni government commission did into the December 17, 2009 strike in which–the report concludes–44 civilians were killed. The report provides names and ages of those civilian victims; half are children. It also describes the lethal effect of cluster bombs included in the missiles.

This is the attack, of course, that journalist Abdelelah Haider Shaye reported on, one of the reasons, presumably the President Obama personally intervened to keep Shaye in prison. And the Yemeni government found even more civilians had died in the attack than Shaye first reported.

Among other things, the release of the report gave TBIJ to ask State–WikiLeaked cables from which clearly confirm the US role in this strike–for comment on the strike. And in spite of irrefutable evidence we were behind the attack, here’s what State said to TBIJ.

A State Department spokesperson, speaking on background terms, replied: ‘I don’t have any information for you with respect to the December 17, 2009 incident in question. I refer you to the Government of Yemen for additional information on its counterterrorism efforts.’

It’s bad enough that State pretends to know nothing of this strike. But at this point, deferring questions to Yemen really destroys our credibility.

Abdulelah Haider Shaye and Anwar al-Awlaki’s Emails

Al-Jazeera did another long piece on the imprisonment of Abdulelah Haider Shaye, whose story Jeremy Scahill first covered here. There are two details worth note. First, just after 15:40, AJE describes the White House’s non-denial denial of their involvement with Shaye’s continued imprisonment.

Well, we got in touch with the White House on this last week, and this is what we were told: “The President’s comments have absolutely nothing to do with Shaye’s reporting or his criticism of Yemen or the United States. A Yemeni court, not a US court, convicted him.”

It’s an odd comment because if, as alleged, Shaye’s imprisonment has something to do with being an AQAP propagandist, then it would have to do with his journalism. Furthermore, given the language the White House itself included in its readout of the February 2, 2011 conversation between President Obama and Ali Abdullah Saleh…

President Obama called President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen on February 2 to welcome the significant reform measures that President Saleh had announced earlier that day, and to stress that President Saleh now needs to follow-up his pledge with concrete actions.  President Obama asked that Yemeni security forces show restraint and refrain from violence against Yemeni demonstrators who are exercising their right to free association, assembly, and speech.  The President also told President Saleh that it is imperative that Yemen take forceful action against Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to protect innocent lives in Yemen as well as abroad.  Finally, President Obama expressed concern over the release of Abd-Ilah al-Shai, who had been sentenced to five years in prison for his association with AQAP.  President Saleh thanked the President for U.S. support and committed to continuing and strengthening relations with the United States. [my emphasis]

… It’s quite clear that regardless of whose courts convicted Shaye, Obama’s comments played a key role in his continued imprisonment.

The irony? In the same conversation Obama pressured Saleh to show restraint with Yemenis exercising their right to speech. So now the White House is issuing non-denial denials about a conversation in which they criticized Saleh for his violent repression by attributing responsibility to Yemen’s legal system?

Nevertheless, I find it significant that, rather than offer some explanation for Obama’s pressure to keep Shaye imprisoned, the White House is now dodging the issue.

Particularly given this detail Scahill reveals just after 20:00.

What I’m going to say right now about it is the extent of what I can say about any specific media organization. My understanding from sources within one of those media organizations [ABC, WaPo, and NYT] that you cited, and a major American media organization, was that they were approached by the US government earlier on, before Shaye was actually locked up and put in prison and sentenced by this court, that a major US media organization that had done work with him was approached and told that they should stop working with him, suggesting that his relationship to Al Qaeda was more than just journalist source relationship and that organization stopped working with Abdulelah Haider. To my knowledge, none of those organizations have take an editorial stance calling for his release or even or even condemning the sham nature of his trial.

That is, presumably around the time ABC and WaPo and NYT were all relying on Shaye to get reporting from Yemen, the government approached at least one of them and told them to stop, which they did.

I find that particularly interesting given some reporting I reviewed yesterday while working on posts assessing whether the new NCTC data-sharing guidelines would have prevented the Nidal Hasan and Undiebomber attacks.

On November 16, 2009, 11 days after Nidal Hasan’s attack and about a week after Pete Hoekstra revealed the email exchanges, the WaPo published a story based on a Shaye interview with Anwar al-Awlaki which provides far more information about the emails Awlaki exchanged with Hasan before the attack.

Shaea allowed a Post reporter to view a video recording of a man who closely resembles pictures of Aulaqi sitting in front of his laptop computer reading the e-mails, and to hear an audiotape in which a man, who like Aulaqi speaks English with an American accent, discusses his e-mail correspondence with Hasan.

The quotes in this article are based on Shaea’s handwritten notes. Shaea said he was allowed to review the e-mails between Hasan and Aulaqi, but they were not provided to The Post.

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Are Presidents Who Cover Up Crimes Murderous Sociopaths?

Kevin Drum and Adam Serwer are having a MoJo fight over how to respond to the news that Obama intervened to keep journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye imprisoned. Drum started the debate by asking what I consider a straw man argument: Is President Obama a murderous sociopath? Serwer objected because,

it essentially turns a policy issue into a matter of trusting Barack Obama. Instead of questioning the approach to Shaye’s detention, we’re invited to consider whether this fine fellow, Barack Obama, is a murderer.

And Drum responded by arguing that there are some times the public is just not going to be informed.

The question, given the legitimate sensitivity of intelligence sources, is whether the U.S. government is required to be entirely transparent about every single action it takes. In this case, President Obama expressed “concern” about the release of Shaye, which caused the Yemeni president to withdraw a pardon that was in the works. Should Obama be required to explain in detail the reasons he did this?


The plain fact is that when it comes to terrorism and the intelligence community, there are some cases where the public just isn’t going to be informed.

Drum does say he hopes the press asks for more information on this front, but he seems fairly complacent about the possibility that in a democracy citizens are being asked to simply trust the President.

That stance seems to operate in isolation from some things we do know, however. Consider these facts:

Obama has covered up a number of crimes committed in the name of counterterrorism.

The kidnapping and torture of Khaled al-Masri. The warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. The kidnapping and torture of Binyam Mohamed–before the torture memos were written.

Those are just a few of the crimes that the Obama Administration has taken affirmative actions–either with state secrets invocations or pressure on our allies–to cover up. It has also pursued habeas appeals in cases where the government has no reliable evidence tying a detainee to al Qaeda, effectively imprisoning someone unnecessarily … because of political difficulties in  Yemen.

An Obama Administration official insinuated those who try to verify civilian casualties are al Qaeda sympathizers.

When journalists from the Bureau of Independent Journalism risked their lives to get a real sense of how many civilians had died in drone strikes in Pakistan, an Obama official speaking anonymously suggested that such journalism amounted to support for al Qaeda.

Let’s be under no illusions — there are a number of elements who would like nothing more than to malign these efforts and help Al Qaeda succeed.

This, in spite of the fact that TBIJ’s report actually debunked some claimed civilian casualties and disproved Pakistani opposition claims of much higher civilian casualties. This, also in spite of the fact that TBIJ reported a lower level of civilian casualties than the AP did in its own independent reporting released a short time later.

The Administration spent 3 weeks worrying about the impact of the December 17, 2009 strike in Abyan.

In Drum’s first piece, he dismisses the notion that the Administration might be upset with Shaye’s coverage based on ABC’s reporting of US involvement in the strike.

Now we get to the part where I wonder what’s really going on. Because here’s the thing: the attack on al Majala was no secret. It happened on December 17, and the very next day, on its nightly newscast, ABC News reported this:

On orders from President Barack Obama, the U.S. military launched cruise missiles early Thursday against two suspected al-Qaeda sites in Yemen, administration officials told ABC News in a report broadcast on ABC World News with Charles Gibson.

….Until tonight, American officials had hedged about any U.S. role in the strikes against Yemen and news reports from Yemen attributed the attacks to the Yemen Air Force.

….Along with the two U.S. cruise missile attacks, Yemen security forces carried out raids in three separate locations. As many as 120 people were killed in the three raids, according to reports from Yemen, and opposition leaders said many of the dead were innocent civilians.

This story was picked up fairly widely, including in this detailed report from Bill Roggio and in this post from Glenn himself. So while Shaye’s photos might have been the kind of smoking-gun proof you’d need in a courtroom, within a few hours of the strike it was common knowledge that U.S. cruise missiles had done most of the damage and that there were local reports of many civilian casualties.

Note that ABC used Shaye’s work in this period, so it’s possible that Shaye was one source for this story (though he reported fewer civilian casualties than ABC did).

But in any case, the fact that this story got reported doesn’t change the Administration’s concerns about reporting on this strike.

Consider the detailed assessment of media coverage of the civilian casualties–including the ABC report–in this December 21, 2009 cable circulated to the White House and Secretary of State.

¶2. (C) The ROYG made swift work of announcing the preemptive dawn strikes against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Sana’a and Abyan governorates on December 17. But ABC TV news reports of U.S. intelligence and logistical assistance to the ROYG were picked up on the same day by Yemen’s opposition media, and were quickly followed by charges of scores of civilian deaths due to the “joint” airstrikes in Abyan by ROYG and U.S. forces. Read more

What Is Government Covering Up with the Imprisonment of Yemeni Journalist?

Jeremy Scahill has a disturbing story of how President Obama intervened to make sure Yemen kept journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye imprisoned even after domestic pressure convinced then President Ali Abdullah Saleh to release him.  [Note, I’ve adjusted the order of Scahill’s report to make Obama’s intervention more clear]

After Shaye was convicted and sentenced, tribal leaders intensified their pressure on President Saleh to issue a pardon. “Some prominent Yemenis and tribal sheikhs visited the president to mediate in the issue and the president agreed to release and pardon him,” recalls Barman. “We were waiting for the release of the pardon—it was printed out and prepared in a file for the president to sign and announce the next day.” Word of the impending pardon leaked in the Yemeni press. “That same day,” Barman says, “the president [Saleh] received a phone call from Obama expressing US concerns over the release of Abdulelah Haider.”


On February 2, 2011, President Obama called Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The two discussed counterterrorism cooperation and the battle against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. At the end of the call, according to a White House read-out, Obama “expressed concern” over the release of a man named Abdulelah Haider Shaye, whom Obama said “had been sentenced to five years in prison for his association with AQAP.”


Saleh rescinded the pardon.

Shaye’s apparent crime?

Interviewing Anwar al-Awlaki–effectively the equivalent crime for which the US imprisoned Al Jazeera journalist Sami al-Hajj and wiretapped Lawrence Wright, independent contact with people associated with al Qaeda.

Although, as Scahill describes, Yemen trumped up a bunch of evidence to insinuate closer ties between Shaye and AQAP. Scahill also notes that one of the key claims made to justify the killing of Awlaki–his celebration of Nidal Hasasn’s attack on Fort Hood–came in part from Shaye’s reporting, which included a number of questions that challenged Awlaki and called him on his inconsistency.

Read the whole article–it’s infuriating.

I wanted to point out a few points of timing with respect to Shaye’s imprisonment, because I think the government may have specific reasons it wants Shaye to remain in prison.

Yemen’s intelligence agents first detained Shaye in July 2010. Then, he was arrested and detained on August 6, 2010. As Scahill notes, that was right as the US was ratcheting up its attempts to kill Awlaki (Awlaki was placed on the CIA kill list in April 2010, and the OLC memo authorizing his killing was completed in June 2010).

As it happens, that was also the period when State was just beginning to figure out which diplomatic cables might have been leaked to WikiLeaks. Mind you, State didn’t have a really good sense of what would be published until November of 2010, when the NYT happily told them.

But I do find it interesting that Obama’s call to Saleh came two months after WikiLeaks published this cable reporting a meeting between then CentCom Commander Petraeus and Saleh. As Scahill noted, the cable recorded Saleh boasting about lying about US airstrikes. But it also included this conversation about civilian casualties.

¶4. (S/NF) Saleh praised the December 17 and 24 strikes against AQAP but said that “mistakes were made” in the killing of civilians in Abyan. The General responded that the only civilians killed were the wife and two children of an AQAP operative at the site, prompting Saleh to plunge into a lengthy and confusing aside with Deputy Prime Minister Alimi and Minister of Defense Ali regarding the number of terrorists versus civilians killed in the strike. (Comment: Saleh’s conversation on the civilian casualties suggests he has not been well briefed by his advisors on the strike in Abyan, a site that the ROYG has been unable to access to determine with any certainty the level of collateral damage. End Comment.) Read more