If Only DOJ Hadn’t Burned AP’s Sources …

The State Department announced a broad but vague warning today.

The Department of State alerts U.S. citizens to the continued potential for terrorist attacks, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, and possibly occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula.  Current information suggests that al-Qa’ida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond, and that they may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now and the end of August.  This Travel Alert expires on August 31, 2013.

Terrorists may elect to use a variety of means and weapons and target both official and private interests. U.S. citizens are reminded of the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure.  Terrorists have targeted and attacked subway and rail systems, as well as aviation and maritime services.  U.S. citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling.

We continue to work closely with other nations on the threat from international terrorism, including from al-Qa’ida.  Information is routinely shared between the U.S. and our key partners in order to disrupt terrorist plotting, identify and take action against potential operatives, and strengthen our defenses against potential threats.

There’s a part of me that thinks this might be credible and serious.

After all, between Iraq, Pakistan, and Libya, up to 1,750 men have just escaped prison, and extremists claim responsibility for the first two prison breaks. That’s a lot of men running around who might make mischief (though you’d think it would take a bit of time to organize after the breaks).

That said, there are aspects of this that remind me of the politicized alert surrounding the April 2012 thwarting of our own plot in Yemen (which was rolled out in May 2012, well after any threat had subsided). There’s John Pistole’s ostentatious boosting of AQAP bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri as “our greatest threat.”

The use of a new explosive has been previously reported, but Pistole continued with less familiar details about Underwear 2 that reflect the growing sophistication of Asiri’s sinister craftsmanship. He said the device included redundancy, by mean of two different syringes to mix liquid explosive compounds–”a double initiation system,” apparently a response to a failure of Abdulmutallab’s initiation process. In essence, Pistole said, “they made two devices.”

Finally, Pistole said, the new bomb was encased in simple household caulk in an effort to trap vapors that might alert any bomb-sniffing machines or dogs that did happen to be capable of identifying the explosive.

“So you really have a twisted genius in Yemen,” Ross observed. “That is our greatest threat,” Pistole replied. “All the intel folks here [at the forum] know that is a clear and present danger.”

Similar sensationalized reporting preceded and followed the exposure of the UndieBomb 2.0 plot last year.

There’s the increased drone activity in Yemen. Who knows! Maybe, like last year, the plot has already been rolled up and we’re just waiting to confirm one of the several recent drone strikes have taken out our target?

And there’s the apparent disparate treatment of the threat, with the US issuing a broad alert across the Middle East but with the Brits focusing thus far only on their Yemeni Embassy.

The State Department just happened to announce its support for Yemen in conjunction with President Hadi’s visit this morning, of which security aid remains the largest part, not long before this alert went out. Last year the thwarted plot was designed to coincide with the approval of signature strikes in Yemen.

Last year, the many people the US deployed to prevent a threat that had already been rolled up may have been one of the sources that revealed the threat had already been rolled up. If this is kabuki, then perhaps the same thing would happen again: some guy sent to protect flights in the Middle East might complain that it’s just show. Perhaps someone like the AP could report that the threat has been thwarted and we can go back to worrying about climate change as the most urgent threat to “the homeland.”

Except for one thing. Since last year, DOJ went positively nuclear on the AP, which exposed the kabuki last year. Without warning, DOJ obtained records of 20 AP phone lines, identifying the sources of up to 100 journalists, for at least a 2 week period. We’ve heard not one peep about DOJ prosecuting anyone in the UndieBomb 2.0 leak (especially not CIA Director John Brennan, who made the leak far worse). But DOJ did make sure sources are going to be far warier about speaking with the guys who undermined the White House kabuki last year.

So as you wonder about the seriousness of a plot that feels like a lot of the vague warnings the Bush White House used to release, remember how useful it was back when reporters were allowed to do their jobs.

Latif’s Unexplained Death: Yemeni Government Facilitates US Stall

Jason Leopold has an important story on Adnan Farhan abd al Latif’s unexplained death. He provides more detail of Latif’s struggles with his 1994 head injury the government claimed wasn’t the reason for his 2001 trip to Pakistan. He describes how Latif’s family–including his 14 year old son Ezzi Deen–responded to the news Latif had died at Gitmo.

But most importantly, Leopold adds more details to those reported by ProPublica on Latif’s death and subsequent limbo.

When Latif died, people–including me–suggested he might have finally found a way to kill himself. But as Leopold points out, with every suicide at Gitmo, DOD has released details on the obvious signs of that suicide. And a Gitmo spokesperson has repeatedly confirmed there was no immediately apparent evidence of suicide.

But in a statement to the Associated Press two days after Guantanamo officials announced the death of a prisoner without naming him, Durand said, “There is no apparent cause, natural or self-inflicted.”

Durand explained to Truthout at the time he made that statement he was responding to a reporter’s query: “Would you call it an apparent suicide or natural causes?”

Now, however, “It would be inappropriate to speculate on the cause of death at this time.”

There was nothing to “immediately suggest ‘apparent suicide,'” Durand said, and the death is being investigated by “multiple entities.”

A Yemeni official reflecting information presumably passed from John Brennan to Yemeni President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi when they met on September 28 confirms the government appears to have ruled out suicide.

The Yemeni government official told Truthout that US officials appear to have ruled out suicide as the manner of his death.

Leopold quotes Cyril Wecht suggesting convulsions (possibly associated with his brain injury) or drugs may have had a role in Latif’s death.

Meanwhile, no one can perform independent analysis on Latif’s body, because the government has stashed it at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The US and Yemeni governments continue the same story shared with ProPublica: the Yemenis won’t accept the body until they get a report on why he died, the US hasn’t provided that, so the body decays in US custody.

[Latif’s brother] Muhammed said the family was told by Yemen’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that his brother’s remains would be sent home within two weeks after his death. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, according to Muhammed, obtained that information from the Yemen Embassy in Washington, DC.

But according to a Yemeni official, the Yemen government refused to accept Adnan’s body until they receive a full accounting of the cause of his death.

[snip]The Yemeni government official’s comments about Adnan were obtained during an interview late last month when President Hadi visited the United States. His statements about Adnan were made in the context of discussions Hadi had with top US officials in the White House about the remaining Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo and Afghanistan.

Tick tock.

Tick tock.

Latif died 40 days ago. Just 19 days remain before the election. Between them, the US and Yemeni governments have forestalled the time when the US has to admit a man–the sole evidence against whom was a flawed intelligence report written while Pakistanis were trying to convince us to pay a bounty for Latif–died of unnatural causes in their custody. Possibly, they will have to admit complications of the same head injury they claimed, in court, was not all that serious, killed him.

And it appears John Brennan may be buying Hadi’s complicity on this front with promises he may not be able to keep. Leopold’s Yemeni source makes clear that the US and Yemeni government have tied discussions of the release of the other Yemenis in Gitmo and Bagram to the fate of Latif’s body.

“President Hadi was in Washington, DC, and met with President Obama’s cabinet ministers,” the official said. “The remaining Yemeni detainees was one of the talking points. President Hadi has made Guantanamo and Bagram [prison in Afghanistan] a high priority for Yemen. We are emphasizing talks and opening up a dialogue to ensure the timely release and transfer and rehabilitation of those remaining detainees to Yemeni custody and we are working closely with the US government. These discussions took place with high-level officials in the Obama administration.” [brackets original]

I can imagine a quid pro quo that goes this way: Hadi agrees to refuse to accept the body, helping to forestall announcements of how Latif died, until after the election. And then the US will enter discussions to do what they should have done 2 years ago: release the Yemenis who don’t pose a threat to the US.

But all that’s premised on getting Congressional support to release roughly 60 Yemenis, after the Administration already neutralized the one point of leverage–detainee wins in habeas proceedings–that has worked to override Congressional intransigence in the past.

To some degree, I can’t blame Hadi for doing the bidding of the superpower that put him in power, on whose continued military support he relies. I can’t blame Hadi for trading Latif’s decaying corpse for the fate of 60 other Yemenis unjustly held at Gitmo.

But if that’s the trade-off, I do question Hadi’s judgment for believing Obama will do in a second term what he had easier ways of doing–habeas proceedings–in the first.

John Brennan Vows to Combat the “Bad Guys” Attacking Our Critical Infrastructure

John Brennan just gave a speech, purportedly about our policy in Yemen. But it ended up being largely about infrastructure, That’s partly because his speech focused on how, rather than spending 75% of our Yemen funds on bombs, we’re now spending just 50% (having bumped up the total to include an equal amount development assistance). So a good part of his talk focused on whether or not Yemen would be able to do the critical work of rebuilding its infrastructure sufficient to combat AQAP which, in some areas, has done a better job of building infrastructure.

Of course as I noted while he spoke, a number of the infrastructure challenges Brennan confidently assured we could help rebuild–things like access to water–are challenges we are increasingly failing in our own country.

And then, because the DC attention span had had enough of Yemen, moderator Margaret Warner asked Brennan what the Administration will do now that their cybersecurity bills have been defeated. To justify his talk of using Executive Orders to address some of the infrastructure problems, Brennan talked about the “bad guys” who posed a cyberthreat to our critical infrastructure.

Nowhere did Brennan acknowledge the much more immediate threat to our critical infrastructure: in the corporations and politics that let it decline. PG&E and Enbridge, failing to invest the money to fix known defects in their pipelines. Fracking companies, depleting and degrading our water supply. Verizon, eliminating choice for Internet access for rural customers. Republicans who want to gut our Postal Service and passenger rail. And heck, even Fat Al Gore and climate change, which is not only depleting our water supply but stalling key water transport routes.

Brennan promises to help rebuild Yemen’s infrastructure. But not only can’t he implement his plan against the bogeyman “bad buys” threatening our infrastructure, he seems completely unaware that those “bad guys” aren’t anywhere near the biggest threat to our infrastructure.

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud the Administration’s decision to dedicate money to Yemen’s infrastructure, even if I think a 50/50 split, aid to bombs, is still woefully inadequate. But until we begin to see what “bad guys” pose the biggest threat to our own infrastructure, I’m skeptical our efforts in Yemen will be any more successful than they were in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Our “Cooperation” with Yemen

Since we killed Anwar al-Awlaki and especially since Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi has taken over as President of Yemen, anonymous counterterrorism officials have repeatedly boasted how good our counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen is.

But this interview between the editor of the Yemen Post, Hakim Almasmari, and TBIJ challenges that claim. First there’s the matter of prison escapes, a problem that has plagued Yemen since 9/11. 88 suspected AQAP members have escaped during Hadi’s rule.

Q: Do you anticipate any new stories to come out of these areas in the south now that al Qaeda has left?

HA: Because I believe that al-Qaeda wasn’t defeated and they evacuated, I do believe al-Qaeda will have many gains over the next couple of weeks. We will see gains from al-Qaeda over the next couple of weeks in return for their evacuation. Yesterday alone five senior members escaped a prison, a highly secured prison in Yemen. Two days ago, two suspected al-Qaeda militants escaped Aden prison. So it is going to get very dirty. Al-Qaeda needed to evacuate to give the government a good image, but in return they will be given their leaders or members released from prison. This will make al-Qaeda weaker today but stronger tomorrow.

Q: You think there was something underhand in these prison escapes?

HA: Yes, this is not just a random prison escape. Eighty-eight suspected al Qaeda militants have escaped prison over the last four months alone. It’s a strategy – President Hadi needs to be powerful, he needs the image of being a leader. And sometimes that could mean cooperating or coming to agreement with al Qaeda to evacuate, but in return have some of their members released and further dialogue continues under the table between the government and al Qaeda.

And the report that we’re not coordinating drone strikes with anyone in the Yemeni Defense Ministry suggests, at the least, we don’t trust them for operational security.

Q: How credible do you think reports are that Yemen Air Force jets are launching airstrikes rather than American drones?

HA: There is no way whatsoever that the Yemen Air Force is conducting all the air strikes. The Yemeni air force is weak and it is conducting some of the air strikes but they result in very little casualties. Eyewitnesses have confirmed that the missiles launched were US-made and US involvement was confirmed in many air strikes, especially in areas where the government has very little to no ground support.

It is worrying that the US drones strategy is increasing in Yemen and even more worrying that it is happening without any coordination with the Defense Ministry. We have talked to numerous Defense Ministry officials on this and they told us that only very very few ministry officials in Yemen know even details of the US drone strikes, which means that it happens in a very un-institutional manner. And the US is helping Yemen become more of a dictatorship rather than an institutional nation. By allowing the drone strikes and no one knowing about it, this way people cannot stand against it or approve it.

But then there’s the suggestion of a different kind of “cooperation:” the funding we give to Yemeni news outlets that make them hesitant to cover drone strikes in much detail.

Q: You often file more specific reports of drone strikes compared with your peers. For example reporting five strikes in a day when others report ‘many’. How are you able to be so specific?

HA: Generally Yemen media tries to avoid covering drone strikes, for one main reason. Those who avoid it are doing so because they do not want to cut the links between them and any US funds or support for certain media outlets or certain publications.

So between requesting Yemen keep a critical journalist imprisoned (about the only one who, it seems, doesn’t end up escaping Yemeni prisons) and leading other journalists to hesitate before covering drones, the US has done a fair amount to limit coverage.

But that doesn’t seem to result in a Yemeni government we trust to wage the war against AQAP.

When Did the “Signature Strikes” Start in Yemen?

Last week, I argued that the focus on the drone vetting process–the “Kill List”–is a shiny object, distracting us from signature strikes targeted at patterns, not people, in Yemen. Today, I’m going to push that further and suggest the focus on drones is also a shiny object distracting from the degree to which we’ve gone to war against Yemeni insurgents, using a variety of tactics including but not limited to drones.

I’ve long accepted, based on the public reporting, that Obama approved signature strikes in Yemen–and John Brennan took over the targeting process–just a day or two after the Saudis delivered up UndieBomb 2.0 around April 20. That’s based largely on the fact that when Greg Miller first reported on the issue on April 18, he spoke prospectively. When the WSJ reported that Obama had approved signature strikes, it said the decision had been made “this month” (meaning some time in April), and it pointed to an April 22 drone strike that seemed likely to be a signature strike.

The frequency of U.S. strikes in Yemen is expected to increase with the changes. On Sunday, a CIA-piloted drone hit a vehicle believed to be carrying AQAP militants. Intelligence analysts are working to identify those killed.


The White House’s decision this month stopped short of giving CIA and JSOC the Pakistan-style blanket powers that had been sought—opting instead for what one defense official termed “signature lite.”

Interestingly, that WSJ report pointed to “several direct threats to the US” that surely included the UndieBomb sting that had already reportedly been delivered up to the Administration.

U.S. counterterrorism officials said they are currently tracking several direct threats to the U.S. connected to AQAP. The officials wouldn’t provide further details because that information is classified.

So one way or another, Administration sources seemed to time this to the UndieBomb plot.

But I want to consider the likelihood that Obama embraced “signature strikes”–or rather, expanded drone targeting–earlier than that (though remember that the Administration reportedly knew the UndieBomb plot was coming up to a month before April 20, when it was reportedly delivered up).

Based on TBIJ’s reports of drone strikes in Yemen, it’s fairly clear what have been treated as drone strikes started getting out of control in March, after Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi took over as President in February, not just in April. There are the strikes in three days in early March, which TBIJ estimates killed upwards of 50 people.

The latest strike involved at least five U.S. drones and took place in the Jabal Khanfar region of Jaar, located in southern Abyan province, two senior Yemeni security officials said. At least six suspected al Qaeda militants were killed, Yemeni officials said.

A member of the military committee — Yemen’s highest security authority — confirmed that strike, and said the Yemeni government was given no advance warning of it.

“The United States did not inform us on the attacks. We only knew about this after the U.S. attacked,” the committee member told CNN.

The strike was the third such attack on suspected al Qaeda targets in less than three days, according to Yemeni officials.

The United States was also involved in two other major attacks on Friday and Saturday, which killed at least 58 suspected al Qaeda insurgents, two senior Yemeni defense ministry officials said.

The Friday airstrikes occurred in the Yemen province of al-Baitha in areas used as launching pads for militant attacks. The second attack took place in the towns of Jaar and Zinjibar in Abyan province.

One of the strikes–in Bayda–reportedly killed a significant number of civilians.

It’s not just the civilian casualties, the high numbers of dead, or the reported Yemeni ignorance of the strikes that suggest these might be signature strikes (or something even broader) rather than personality strikes. They also accompany other military action–including reported naval bombardment–that suggests they’re part of the coordinated assault on insurgents. While there have certainly been a number of lower level AQAP members named as those killed in the strikes, the focus seems to be on militarily significant targets, not individuals.

Also note, on some of these strikes, there has been confusion whether a drone or manned planes carried out the attack (partly based on the mistaken assumption–now largely put to rest–that only Yemen, rather than the US, would be using manned aircraft in Yemen).

Finally, note that all of these strikes came in the wake of AQAP claims to have killed a CIA officer earlier in March, though the US denied it. Provide AQAP targets to hit, they’ll hit those targets, and you’ve got a reason to retaliate 100 times.

With all that in mind, re-read this April 2 LAT article. Read more