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The Undie Bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Life Coached “Who Moved My Cheese” Weeks before Jihad

I’m still working on the serious parts of the reports from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s FBI interrogations that Scott Shane liberated. But I wanted to share this detail, because it’s pretty funny.

In his fourth interview with the FBI on January 31, 2010 (the third after he started cooperating), Abdulmutallab told about how he tried to serve as a life coach for someone — perhaps a friend or a family member — back in Nigeria. He relied, according to the interrogation report, on principles he learned not from reading the Quran, but from the pop business book, Who Moved My Cheese.

That was in May 2009. Just two months later (two paragraphs in the interrogation report), Abdulmutallab decided to take set off to find Anwar al-Awlaki to undertake jihad.

In the last few days of July, 2009, UM [Abdulutallab] emailed the headmaster at SIAL [the school he would study at in Yemen]. He obtained the email address from SIAL’s website and sent the message using UM’s [redacted]

[snip]

This decision was entirely UM’s; no one encouraged him to go to Yemen to participate in jihad.

[snip]

For security reasons, UM told no one of his plan to travel to Yemen and participate in jihad.

Perhaps it’s not just funny and schmaltzy. It also demonstrates the degree to which Abdulmutallab was just looking for a path in life. Not long before he left to Yemen, he twice to propose to a woman, but (as he told the FBI, at least), his family wouldn’t permit him to marry yet.

Having been deprived that cheese, perhaps, he set off to martyr himself in the service of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Anwar al-Awlaki: Two Days from Finalized 302 to OLC Authorization for Execution

After a multiple year FOIA fight, Scott Shane has liberated the interrogation 302s from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Kudos to Shane and NYT.

As Shane recalls in his story on the reports, I have noted problems about the government’s public claims about Abdulmutallab’s interrogation (even aside from conflicts with his other confessions and the terms under which the interrogation took place). The reports in some ways confirm those concerns — as I’ll write in some follow-up posts. But, more important, they also answer the most fundamental ones.

Some of the reports absolutely support the government’s claim that from Abdulmutallab’s first interrogations in January 2010, he attributed the instructions to wait until he was over the US to detonate his underwear bomb to Anwar al-Awlaki, which was always a key basis for the government’s argument they could execute the cleric.

Near the end of [Abdulmutallab’s — he is referred to as UM throughout these reports] stay at the camp, Aulaqi gave UM final specific instructions: that the operation should be conducted on a U.S. airliner;

[snip]

Aulaqi told UM: “Wait until you are in the US, then bring the plane down.” [PDF 24]

As a number of people have observed, the reports also show that (aside from the isolation later alleged by Abdulmutallab’s lawyers and whatever leverage the FBI got his family to exert), the FBI and the High Value Interrogation Group got a great deal of cooperation from Abdulmutallab without physical coercion, with Abdulmutallab providing intelligence on AQAP into the summer.

In this post, though, I want to note how the reports coincide with two other events from that period of 2010.

As many of you know, there’s a big, still somewhat unsolved problem with FBI interrogations. At the time, FBI didn’t record interrogations (and they still create big loopholes around a recently imposed rule that custodial interviews must be recorded). Rather, the FBI agent would take notes and subsequently write up those notes into a “302,” which is what the FBI calls their reports on interviews.

In Abdulmutallab’s case, there was an interesting lag between the time his interrogators conducted the interrogation and when they wrote it up. For example, his January 29, 2010 interrogation (and all the ones from the subsequent intense period of interrogation), were not dictated until February 5, 2010.

And those dictations did not start to get transcribed into finished 302s until starting on February 17, 19 days after the interrogation.

Let me be clear: there is nothing suspect about the delay. The timing cues in the interrogation makes it clear these initial interrogations were full-day interrogations. Add in the preparation time interrogators would have to do overnight, and it makes sense that they wouldn’t dictate out their notes until the end of the week (though that is yet another reason FBI Agents should always make recordings of interrogations). Moreover, the one week delay is not so long that an agent would forget substantial parts of the interrogation. Plus, a federal defender was present and could have challenged any problems with this report.

So we should assume the report is a fair indication of the conduct of the interrogation.

I’m more interested in the timing of other events in early 2010.

Consider the public comments Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair made on February 3, at a House Intelligence hearing. Responding to a Dana Priest article from the prior week, Blair assured Congress they get specific permission before they drone kill an American citizen (there are a bunch of still unreleased memos that suggest they were actually still working on this policy).

“We take direct actions against terrorists in the intelligence community,” he said. “If we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that.”

He also said there are criteria that must be met to authorize the killing of a U.S. citizen that include “whether that American is involved in a group that is trying to attack us, whether that American is a threat to other Americans. Those are the factors involved.”

Obliquely asked about Awlaki, Blair responded that they would only kill an American “for taking action that threatens Americans or has resulted in it” — a standard that falls short of what OLC would eventually adopt, but one it appears they believed they had already surpassed with Awlaki.

“So there is a framework and a policy for what’s hypothetically a radical born cleric … who’s living outside of the United States, there’s a clear path as to when this person may be engaging in free speech overseas and when he may have moved into recruitment or when he may have moved into actual coordinating and carrying out or coordinating attacks against the United States?”

Mr. Blair responded that he would rather not discuss the details of this criteria in open session, but he assured: “We don’t target people for free speech. We target them for taking action that threatens Americans or has resulted in it.”

That comment was made after Abdulmutallab had implicated Awlaki in giving him final orders, but before it had been dictated, much less transcribed.

Then there’s the first of two OLC memos written to authorize Awlaki’s execution. That was finalized on February 19, 2010, just two days after the first 302 implicating Awlaki in final instructions for the attack was finished.

That is, only two days elapsed from the time that the one document we know of memorializing Abdulmutallab’s confession for David Barron to authorize Awlaki’s execution.

That’s also not that surprising. After all, the government deemed (and had, before this time) Awlaki to be an urgent threat, and they shouldn’t be faulted for wanting to prepare to respond to any opportunity to neutralize it, as quickly as possible. Moreover, unlike the subsequent OLC memo, this one doesn’t appear to analyze the intelligence on Awlaki closely — it just deems him a “senior leader of Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula” and moves on to analysis about whether killing him constitutes assassination.

But the timing of all this at least suggests that there were more communications about these issues than have been identified in ACLU’s FOIAs on the subject. They at least suggest (and this would not be surprising in the least, either) that there were less formal communications about Abdulmutallab’s interrogation provided to Washington DC well before this 302 was finalized.

Again — that’s not surprising. I imagine a secure cable went out to Washington after the interrogation on the 29th — if not during Abdulmutallab’s afternoon prayer break — saying that Abdulmutallab had implicated Awlaki in providing the final instructions making sure that the US would be targeted.

But it is an interesting data point on how deliberative the process behind authorizing Awlaki’s execution was.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Mike Rogers Wanted to Drone Kill an American Citizen for Training with al Qaeda?

There has been some good commentary on NYT’s story on Administration debates over killing Mohanad Mahmoud al-Farekh, the American citizen who was captured and charged in federal court on April 2, after the Administration considered but then decided against drone-killing him. Both David Cole and Brett Max Kaufman ask raise some important points and questions. Of particular note, they ask what the fuck Mike Rogers was doing pushing DOD and CIA to kill a US citizen.

Yet neither of those pieces gets to something I’m puzzling over. Al-Farekh was charged in EDNY (Loretta Lynch’s district), but he was only charged with conspiracy to commit material support for terrorism, a charge that carries a 15 year maximum sentence. Basically, he is accused of conspiring with Ferid Imam who in turn trained Najibullah Zazi and his co-conspirators for their planned 2009 attack on the NY Subway system.

In approximately 2007, Farekh, an individual named Ferid Imam and a third co-conspirator departed Canada for Pakistan with the intention of fighting against American forces.  They did not inform their families of their plan before departing, but called a friend in Canada upon arrival to let him know that he should not expect to hear from them again because they intended to become martyrs.  According to public testimony in previous criminal trials in the Eastern District of New York, in approximately September 2008, Ferid Imam provided weapons and other military-type training at an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan to three individuals – Najibullah Zazi, Zarein Ahmedzay and Adis Medunjanin – who intended to return to the United States to conduct a suicide attack on the New York City subway system.  Zazi and Ahmedzay pleaded guilty pursuant to cooperation agreements and have yet to be sentenced; Medunjanin was convicted after trial and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Ferid Imam has also been indicted for his role in the plot.

But the evidence laid out in the complaint is rather thin, basically amounting to the second-hand reports that al-Farekh, like Zazi and his friends, traveled to Pakistan for terrorist training.

Were we really going to kill this dude with a drone because he got terrorist training in Pakistan? That’s it?

Now, it’s quite possible the government is just charging him with the crimes the evidence for which they can introduce in a trial — though note that the government got a FISC warrant to collect on him (though it’s possible this is drone-based collection, and so sensitive enough they wouldn’t want to use it at trial).

Drones spotted him several times in the early months of 2013, and spy agencies used a warrant issued by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor his communications.

It’s equally possible that al-Farekh will be indicted on further charges, a more central role in plotting attacks out of the tribal lands of Pakistan. Similarly, it’s possible that al-Farekh’s High Value Interrogation Group interrogation — reported as well in this WaPo story — provided valuable intelligence on other militants that will have nothing to do with his own trial.

Still, both the earlier WaPo story (written in part by Adam Goldman, who wrote the book on the Zazi case) and the NYT story hint that the claims made about al-Farekh’s activities in 2013 have proven to be overblown. The WaPo doesn’t provide much detail.

Officials said there were questions about how prominent a role Farekh played in al-Qaeda.

The NYT provides more.

But the Justice Department, particularly Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., was skeptical of the intelligence dossier on Mr. Farekh, questioning whether he posed an imminent threat to the United States and whether he was as significant a player in Al Qaeda as the Pentagon and the C.I.A. described.

[snip]

Once in Pakistan, Mr. Farekh appears to have worked his way up the ranks of Al Qaeda, his ascent aided by marrying the daughter of a top Qaeda leader.

American officials said he became one of the terrorist network’s planners for operations outside Pakistan, a position that included work on the production and distribution of roadside bombs used against American troops in Afghanistan.

Some published reports have said that Mr. Farekh held the third-highest position in Al Qaeda, but Americans officials said the reports were exaggerated.

His level in the Qaeda hierarchy remains a matter of some dispute. Several American officials said that the criminal complaint against him underplayed his significance inside the terrorist group, but that the complaint — based on the testimony of several cooperating witnesses — was based only on what federal prosecutors believed they could prove during a trial.

This, then — along with the explicit connection with the Awlaki case, based as it was, at least at first, on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s interrogation and all the reasons to doubt it — seems the big takeaway. We almost killed this dude, but now all we can prove is that he trained in Pakistan.

Ironically, Philip Mudd argues for the NYT that we can’t capture these people because we’d have to rely on our intelligence partners.

But many counterterrorism specialists say capturing terrorism suspects often hinges on unreliable allies. “It’s a gamble to rely on a partner service to pick up the target,” said Philip Mudd, a former senior F.B.I. and C.I.A. official.

Of course, these are often the same people we rely on for targeting intelligence, including against both Awlaki and al-Farekh. What does it say that we’d believe targeting information from allies, but not trust them to help us arrest the guys they apparently implicate?

Whatever that says, the story thus far (it could change) is that al-Farekh was almost killed on inadequate evidence because CIA and DOD were champing at the bit. That ought to be the big takeaway.

 

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Pre-Empting the Abdulmutallab “Confession” with a Drone Killing Decision

Make sure to read the update below: It’s possible McMahon’s estimate is off and this whole review process has gotten hopeless screwed up. 

Update: yes, this memo is actually the February 19, 2010 memo, not an earlier one. The referenced pages refer to the discussion from the February 19 memo. I’m marking out this post, because it appears to be incorrect.

If I’m understanding this heavily redacted memo from Colleen McMahon correctly, the government was reviewing whether it was legal to kill Anwar al-Awlaki before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab implicated him in his High Value Interrogation Group obtained “confession.”

That’s because, in her discussion of what she, at times, calls “the first Barron memo,” she says this:

Bies Exhibits B, which is responsive to both FOIA requests, is a memorandum prepared by OLC six months prior to its preparation of the OLC-DoD memorandum and the Draft White Paper. It pertains specifically to the proposed al-Aulaqi operation that was the subject of the Draft White Paper and the OLC-DoD Memorandum. Written by David J. Barron, it is entitled “Lethal Operation Against Shaykh Anwar Aulaqi.” I will refer to it hereafter as the Bies Exhibit B or as “The First Barron Memorandum.”

The “OLC-DoD” memo is the July 16, 2010 memo. McMahon justifies the partial release of “the First Barron Memo” because the July 16, 2010 memo cites it specifically. Apparently, the reference “As we explained in our earlier memorandum, Barron Memorandum at 5-7” (page 94) refers to that memo, and further discussions on the Fourth and Fifth Amendment and EO 12333 rely on that memo.

But McMahon tells us this earlier memo — the first Barron memo considering the drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki — was “prepared by OLC six months prior” to the July 16, 2010 one.

That would date it around January 16, 2010. Before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab could have implicated Awlaki in his plot. We know that’s true because:

  • In the opening at Abdulmutallab’s trial, prosecutor Jonathan Tukel made it clear that Abdulmutallab’s Christmas Day confession attributed everything to “Abu Tarak.”
  • After that confession, Abdulmutallab stopped cooperating for almost a month.
  • According to the sentencing documents turned over, Abdulmutallab did not start “cooperating” until January 29, which accords with public claims as well.

That is, unless McMahon’s estimate is off by 2 weeks, there’s no way they could be relying on Abdulmutallab’s confession in their case against Awlaki. And yet that is the one thing the government points to to explain its changed view — from December 24, 2009 — that Awlaki was not operational.

The government appears to be aware of this problem. In trying to claim this document was still secret, they claimed “the date, title, and recipient of the analysis provided in the document relate to “entirely separate deliberative processes.” Indeed, it seems likely this was one of the memos the government was trying to bury after the Second Circuit ruled.

Because, when this memo gets released with a mid-January release date, it will be clear that the entire story they’ve been telling about Awlaki doesn’t hold up.

In any case, McMahon is having none of that claim.

The Government’s arguments are demonstrably untrue. There were no “separate deliberative processes” here; rather, the Government deliberated about  whether or not it could and should kill al-Aulaqi over the course of many months, during which time it asked OLC to render advice on a number of occasions.

The deliberation process is the same process. And it started before such time as the government had what it claims is first-hand evidence against Awlaki.

Update: There is one more possibility. That this memoreleased in August and dated February 19, 2010–is the memo in question. That would mean 1) That McMahon was off in her estimate by a month and 2) that she’s very confused about what she’s reviewing, given that her opinion dates to a month and a half after the memo was released. But the content and the title would match up. So it seems possible that’s the memo, at which point they had their first “confession” implicating Awlaki.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Why Was CIA Assessing Whether They Could Drone-Kill Anwar al-Awlaki?

For years, defenders of the drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki have always pointed to the second confession Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab made, implicating Awlaki in each and every part of his plot.

There were always problems with that. Several pieces of evidence indicate the drone attack on December 24, 2009 that missed Awalaki had specifically targeted him; at that point, the government did not consider Awlaki operational. Abdulmutallab made 3 confessions, and only the one made to the High Value Interrogation Group (HIG) after a month of isolation and in the context of a (I’ve heard second-hand, unbelievably generous) plea deal that was never finalized implicated Awlaki in planning his attack. Claims Awlaki helped Abdulmutallab make his martyrdom video don’t explain why AQAP’s best English language propagandist would make a video with a man schooled in English in Arabic. Subsequent evidence suggests actions attributed to Awlaki in that confession were probably taken by Fahd al-Quso and Nasir al-Wuhayshi.

In other words, there are a lot of holes in the confession always used to justify Awlaki’s drone killing. Abdulmutallab’s second confession should be treated the same as his first and third ones: a narrative crafted by someone who has a big incentive to shade the truth, and therefore of dubious reliability.

The release of yesterday’s ridiculously cursory OLC memo authorizing the drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki introduces one more reason to doubt the narrative that claims Abdulmutallab’s second confession provided justification for Awlaki’s killing.

CIA Assesses

 

The memo relies not on what FBI has told OLC. It relies on CIA’s assessment that Awlaki is “a senior leader of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula” based on “factual predicates as represented by the CIA and in the materials provided to use from the Intelligence Community.”Abdulmutallab’s second confession might be included in those materials provided from the IC. Even though the confession was obtained as part of a criminal investigation, the FBI is part of the IC, so broadly speaking that second confession would qualify, I guess.

But the assessment came not from FBI, which had the lead investigating the Undiebomb attack, but from the CIA. Which ought to give you pause, given that just months before this memo was written, the intelligence community’s partners had convinced the US that they hadn’t killed a Bedouin clan in the al-Majala strike. Indeed, the intelligence relating to Awlaki seemed to be consistently stinky until such time as the CIA set up its own drone base in Saudi Arabia in mid-2011.

Besides, what are we executing American citizens based on the CIA’s assessment for anyway?

At least according to David Barron, the case against Awlaki came not from FBI, but from CIA. That doesn’t mean CIA didn’t have evidence supporting its claims (and remember, CIA has a role in HIG, as does JSOC). But it does suggest Abdulmutallab’s second confession may not have the role the defenders of Awlaki’s execution like to cling to.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Fact-Checking 9/11 Anniversary Report on Info and Dragnets with 9/11 Report

In Salon, I point out something funny about the report released on Tuesday to mark the 10 year anniversary of the release of the 9/11 Commission report. The report says we must fight the “creeping tide of complacency.” But then it says the government has done almost everything the 9/11 Commission said it should do.

There is a “creeping tide of complacency,” the members of the 9/11 Commission warned in a report released on Tuesday, the 10-year anniversary of the release of their original report. That complacency extends not just to terrorism. “On issue after issue — the resurgence and transformation of al Qaeda, Syria, the cyber threat — public awareness lags behind official Washington’s.” To combat that “creeping tide of complacency,” the report argues, the government must explain “the evil that [is] stalking us.”

Meanwhile, the commissioners appear unconcerned about complacency with climate change or economic decline.

All that fear-mongering is odd, given the report’s general assessment of counterterrorism efforts made in the last decade. “The government’s record in counterterrorism is good,” the report judged, and “our capabilities are much improved.”

If the government has done a good job of implementing the 9/11 Commission recommendations but the terror threat is an order of magnitude worse now, as the report claims, then those recommendations were not sufficient to addressing the problem. Or perhaps the 13 top security officials whom the Commission interviewed did a slew of other things — like destabilizing Syria and Libya — that have undermined the apparatus of counterterrorism recommended by the original 9/11 Commission?

Which is a polite way of saying the 10-year report is unsatisfying on many fronts, opting for fear-mongering than another measured assessment about what we need to do to protect against terrorism.

Perhaps that’s because, rather than conduct the public hearings with middle-level experts, as it boasted it had done in the original report, it instead privately interviewed just the people who’ve been in charge for the last 10 years, all of whom have a stake in fear and budgets and several of whom now have a stake in profiting off fear-mongering?

Suffice it to say I’m unimpressed with the report.

Which brings me to this really odd detail about it.

The report takes a squishy approach to Edward Snowden’s leaks. It condemns his and Chelsea Manning’s leaks and suggests they may hinder information sharing. It also suggests Snowden’s leaks may be impeding recruiting for cybersecurity positions.

But it also acknowledges that Snowden’s leaks have been important to raising concerns about civil liberties — resulting in President Obama’s decision to impose limits on the Section 215 phone dragnet.

Since 2004, when we issued the report, the public has become markedly more engaged in the debate over the balance between civil liberties and national security. In the mid-2000s, news reports about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs caused only a slight public stir. That changed with last year’s leaks by Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor who stole 1.7 million pages of classified material. Documents taken by Snowden and given to the media revealed NSA data collection far more widespread than had been popularly understood. Some reports exaggerated the scale of the programs. While the government explained that the NSA’s programs were overseen by Congress and the courts, the scale of the data collection has alarmed the public.

[snip]

[I]n March, the President announced plans to replace the NSA telephone metadata program with a more limited program of specific court-approved searches of call records held by private carriers. This remains a matter of contention with some intelligence professionals, who expressed to us a fear that these restrictions might hinder U.S. counterterrorism efforts in urgent situations where speedy investigation is critical.

Having just raised the phone dragnet changes, the report goes on to argue “these programs” — which in context would include the phone dragnet — should be preserved.

We believe these programs are worth preserving, albeit with additional oversight. Every current or former senior official with whom we spoke told us that the terrorist and cyber threats to the United States are more dangerous today than they were a few years ago. And senior officials explained to us, in clear terms, what authorities they would need to address those threats. Their case is persuasive, and we encountered general agreement about what needs to be done.

Senior leaders must now make this case to the public. The President must lead the government in an ongoing effort to explain to the American people—in specific terms, not generalities—why these programs are critical to the nation’s security. If the American people hear what we have heard in recent months, about the urgent threat and the ways in which data collection is used to counter it, we believe that they will be supportive. If these programs are as important as we believe they are, it is worth making the effort to build a more solid foundation in public opinion to ensure their preservation.

This discussion directly introduces a bizarre rewriting of the original 9/11 Report.

Given how often the government has falsely claimed that we need the phone dragnet because it closes a gap that let Khalid al-Midhar escape you’d think the 9/11 Commission might use this moment to reiterate the record, which shows that the government had the information it needed to discover the hijacker was in the US.

Nope.

It does, however, raise a very closely related issue: the FBI’s failure to discover Nawaf al Hazmi’s identity. Read more

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

AQAP Drone Strikes Obama’s Awlaki Drone Story

Shirhi Abdulmutallab KissTwo days before the Administration was due to release a memo laying out its rationale for drone-killing American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, AQAP released a video that challenges the narrative the Administration has used for doing so.

As Gregory Johnsen reports, the memo shows (see correction below) former Gitmo detainee Said al-Shihri embracing Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, then whispering in his ear.

In the video, Shihri says he was the head of external operations — the title the US always used to describe Anwar al-Awlaki.

The video says that it was Shihri — not Awlaki — who was “responsible for external operations against America.” For years, the Obama administration has argued the opposite, claiming that Awlaki was directing AQAP’s efforts against the U.S., including the failed underwear bomb on an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

On the day Awlaki was killed, Obama called him “the leader of external operations for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” and said he “directed” the 2009 attack. The video appears to refute both claims, giving credit to Shihri, the former Guantanamo Bay detainee.

Halfway through the video there is a clip of Shihri embracing Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber in the Christmas Day attack, and whispering in his ear as a narrator reads that the attack was conducted “under the direct supervision of (Shihri) and a number of his brothers in the section in charge of external operations.”

While there may be some disagreement about how best to translate Shihri’s role — “directed” or “supervised” — this video clearly says that Shirhi was in charge, directly to the contrary to the narrative DOJ released purportedly summarizing Abulmutallab’s confession (the one that conflicted in key ways with his two other confessions).

What Johnsen doesn’t say — but is clear from comparison — is that that embrace took place while Abdulmutallab was dressed to make his martyrdom video.

Compare this frame, which appears just after the embrace in the new video (at 21:54),

Abdulmutallab Video Shihri

With this one from Abdulmutallab’s martyrdom video (at 0:52).

Abdulmutallab Video Martyr

That’s important because arranging to make the martyrdom video is one of the tasks DOJ’s narrative says Awlaki did.

Awlaki told defendant that he would create a martyrdom video that would be used after the defendant’s attack. Awlaki arranged for a professional film crew to film the video. Awlaki assisted defendant in writing his martyrdom statement, and it was filmed over a period of two to three days. The full video was approximately five minutes in length.

Shihri’s presence at the making of Abdulmutallab’s martyrdom video doesn’t refute the claim that Awlaki had a role in making it (though none of the experts I have asked has ever given a remotely credible explanation why AQAP’s greatest English-language propagandist and someone formally schooled in English would make a martyrdom video in Arabic). But it does place him there, suggesting Awlaki was not the only one directing the production of the video, if he had a role at all.

This video definitely doesn’t prove that Awlaki didn’t have an operational role in the UndieBomb attack. But it shows that the narrative the government released — which Abdulmutallab’s lawyer said had been made in the context of a plea deal never finalized and which the government agreed not to rely on at the trial, where it could have been challenged — neglects not just the role of Fahd al-Quso, but also Said al-Shihri. It is, at the very least, incomplete in some important ways.

And yet that is the only public “proof” the government has ever released that justified their execution of Anwar al-Awlaki.

Update: Apparently al-Shihri isn’t the one portrayed in this video, Nasir al-Wuhayshi is. In which case this connection is not meaningful.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Please No Drone and/or Targeted Killing FISA Court!

Last year, after the drone white paper demonstrated how shoddy were the Obama Administration’s claims to be able to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, a group of Senators decided the best way to avoid difficult questions but appear to address the issue would be to have the FISA Court review drone and/or targeted killings before they happened. I did a series of posts laying out what a horrible idea that was. I showed:

  • The FISA Court has a history of  unquestioningly accepting evidence from dubious sources, including torture
  • Certain factual issues a drone and/or targeted killing court would need to judge — including the scope of the AUMF — are not well defined and should not be defined by the Executive in secret
  • The Administration claims the authority to conduct targeted killings for pre-crime, which a court has no way of assessing (and which should not be sanctioned in law)
  • Decisions by the FISC — such as interpreting “relevance” to authorize vast suspicionless collections of data and permitting back door searches of content collected off of programatic orders — prove that the court no longer fulfills its originally intended purpose

As a reminder, I argued the claims in that last bullet in February 2013.

The Fourth Amendment holds that judges must decide whether wiretaps are reasonable or not.

Yet after the FISA Amendments Act, that’s not what happens. Rather, judges are deprived of the ability to do more than review the government’s certifications about targeting and minimization. Once a judge has done so, however, the government can not only bulk collect telecommunications involving someone overseas, but it can later search on those telecommunications to get to the US person’s side of the conversation, apparently without court review on the back side.

Effectively, discretion over this massive system has collapsed back inside the Executive Branch.

And all that’s before the government’s use of the secret law that Mark Udall and Ron Wyden keep complaining about, which probably involves — in part — the bulk collection of geolocation information from cell phones. It’s also before the government has interpreted the word “relevance” to justify other massive collection programs (at a minimum, of things like hydrogen peroxide and acetone purchases) involving US persons.

In short, the FISA Court has become a venue not for judges to exercise individualized discretion about probable cause. Rather, it has become the venue in which the government uses the secrecy offered to develop expansive legal interpretations to support vast new spying programs it won’t even tell Americans about. Not only the promise of individualized judicial discretion has been eliminated, so has the very premise that American should know what laws they are subject to.

In June and August of last year, Snowden disclosures led the rest of the world to recognize that the FISC had authorized back door searches without judicial review of programmatic collection, had authorized the bulk collection of data from cell phones (though more limited collection of location data), and had interpreted the word “relevance” to mean “all.”

That is, my argument that the FISC was broken and therefore couldn’t be trusted with matters of life and death came to be accepted by just about everyone, up to and including Administration officials who agreed to make cosmetic (though not functional) changes to the FISC.

Along the way, we have also learned that the government is not complying with Congressional intent with respect to defendants’ rights, meaning the efficacy of the FISC in protecting constitutional rights has avoided the tests it should have had.

Yet the changes we have made — effectively inviting the FISC to call their existing clerks “advocates” to provide the patina of adversarial review — really are no more than cosmetic, and USA Freedumber has aspects that would weaken the FISC even further.

I thought all this had led people to see the folly in using the FISC to judge drone and/or targeted killings.

Nope.

Read more

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Judge Collyer’s Factually Erroneous Freelance Rubber Stamp for Killing American Citizens

As I noted on Friday, Judge Rosemary Collyer threw out the Bivens challenge to the drone killings of Anwar and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki and Samir Khan.

The decision was really odd: in an effort to preserve some hope that US citizens might have redress against being executed with no due process, she rejects the government’s claims that she has no authority to decide the propriety of the case. But then, by citing precedents rejecting Bivens suits, including one on torture in the DC Circuit and Padilla’s challenge in the Fourth, she creates special factors specifically tied to the fact that Awlaki was a horrible person, rather than that national security writ large gives the Executive unfettered power to execute at will, and then uses these special factors she invents on her own to reject the possibility an American could obtain any redress for unconstitutional executions. (See Steve Vladeck for an assessment of this ruling in the context of prior Bivens precedent.)

The whole thing lies atop something else: the government’s refusal to provide Collyer even as much information as they had provided John Bates in 2010 when Anwar al-Awlaki’s father had tried to pre-emptively sue before his son was drone-killed.

On December 26, Collyer ordered the government to provide classified information on how it decides to kill American citizens.

MINUTE ORDER requiring the United States, an interested party 19 , to lodge no later than January 24, 2014, classified declaration(s) with court security officers, in camera and ex parte, in order to provide to the Court information implicated by the allegations in this case and why its disclosure reasonably could be expected to harm national security…, include[ing] information needed to address whether or not, or under what circumstances, the United States may target a particular foreign terrorist organization and its senior leadership, the specific threat posed by… Anwar-al Aulaqi, and other matters that plaintiff[s have] put at issue, including any criteria governing the use of lethal force, updated to address the facts of this record.

Two weeks later, the government moved to reconsider, both on jurisdictional grounds and because, it said, Collyer didn’t need the information to dismiss the case.

Beyond the jurisdictional issue, the Court should vacate its Order because Defendants’ motion to dismiss, which raises the threshold defenses of the political question doctrine, special factors, and qualified immunity, remains pending. The information requested, besides being classified, is not germane to Defendants’ pending motion, which accepts Plaintiffs’ well-pled facts as true.

As part of their motion, however, the government admitted to supplementing the plaintiffs’ facts.

Defendants’ argument that decedents’ constitutional rights were not violated assumed the truth of Plaintiffs’ factual allegations, and supplemented those allegations only with judicially noticeable public information, the content of which Plaintiffs did not and do not dispute.

The plaintiffs even disputed that they didn’t dispute these claims, pointing out that they had introduced claims about:

  • AQAP’s status vis a vis al Qaeda
  • Whether the US is in an armed conflict with AQAP
  • The basis for Awlaki’s listing as a Special Designated Global Terrorist

Ultimately, even Collyer scolds the government for misstating the claims alleged in the complaint.

The United States argued that the factual information that the Court requested was not relevant to the Defendants’ special factors argument because special factors precluded Plaintiffs’ cause of action, given the context in which the claims, “as pled,” arose––that is, “the alleged firing of missiles by military and intelligence officers at enemies in a foreign country in the course of an armed conflict.” Mot. for Recons. & to Stay Order at ECF 10. The United States, however, mischaracterizes the Complaint. Read more

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Jeremy Scahill: Two Degrees of Separation from the Dirty Wars Dragnet

Congratulations to Jeremy Scahill and the entire team that worked on Dirty Wars for being nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar.

This post may appear to be shamelessly opportunistic — exploiting the attention Dirty Wars will get in the days ahead to make a political point before the President endorses the dragnet on Friday — but I’ve been intending to write it since November, when I wrote this post.

Jeremy Scahill (and the entire Dirty Wars team) is the kind of person whose contacts and sources are exposed to the government in its dragnet.

To write his book (and therefore research the movie, though not all of this shows up in the movie) Scahill spoke with Anwar al-Awlaki’s father (one degree of separation from a terrorist target), a number of people with shifting loyalties in Somalia (who may or may not be targeted), and Afghans we identified as hostile in Afghanistan. All of these people might be targets of our dragnet analysis (and remember — there is a far looser dragnet of metadata collected under EO 12333, with fewer protections). Which puts Scahill, probably via multiple channels, easily within 3 degrees of separation of targets that might get him exposed to further network analysis. (Again, if these contacts show up in 12333 collection Scahill would be immediately exposed to that kind of datamining; if it shows up in the Section 215 dragnet, it would happen if his calls got dumped into the Corporate Store.) If Scahill got swept up in the dragnet on a first or second hop, it means all his other sources, including those within government (like the person depicted in the trailer above) describing problems with the war they’ve been asked to fight, might be identified too.

Scahill might avoid some of this with diligent operational security — a concerted effort to prevent the government from tracking him along with terrorists (though remember two things: one purpose of the dragnet is to discover burner phones, and his computer got hacked while he was working on this book). But the government’s intent is to sweep up records of any conversations that get as close to those hostile to American efforts as Scahill does.

One of my favorite figures in Scahill’s book was the Heineken and Johnny Walker swilling Mullah Zabara, a Yemeni tribal leader from Shabwa who expressed the ambivalence Yemenis might feel towards the US.

Several souther leaders angrily told me stories of US and Yemeni attacks in their areas that killed civilians and livestock and destroyed or damaged scores of homes. If anything, the US air strikes and support for Saleh-family-run counterterrorism units had increased tribal sympathy for al Qaeda. “Why should we fight them? Why?” Read more

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.