Obama’s personal role in a journalist’s imprisonment

Abdulelah Haider Shaye helped expose deadly US misbehavior in Yemen -- and now the president won't let him go free VIDEO

Topics:

Obama's personal role in a journalist's imprisonmentPresident Obama and Abdulelah Haider Shaye (Credit: AP)

(updated below – Update II)

Jeremy Scahill, The Nation‘s national security correspondent, is easily one of America’s best and most intrepid journalists. He spends his time in dangerous places in order to uncover what the U.S. Government is doing around the world. He often produces vital scoops that, during the Obama presidency, are — for reasons often recounted here — largely ignored by the American establishment media and both political parties. In July of last year, he returned from Mogadishu and documented the Obama administration’s maintenance and proxy operation of secret CIA-run prisons in Somalia of the type that caused so much controversy during the Bush administration and which Obama supporters like to claim the President ended, and last month he returned from tribal regions in Yemen and detailed how U.S. civilian-killing drone strikes (along with its support for Yemeni despots) are the single most important cause fueling Al Qaeda’s growth in that country. But his newest article – describing President Obama’s personal, direct role in ensuring the ongoing imprisonment of a Yemeni journalist  – may be his most important one yet; even for those inured to the abuses of the Obama administration, it’s nothing short of infuriating.

As we now know, on December 17, 2009, President Obama ordered an air attack — using Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs — on the village of al Majala in Yemen’s southern Abyan province; the strike ended the lives of 14 women and 21 children. At the time, the Yemeni government outright lied about the attack, falsely claiming that it was Yemen’s air force which was responsible.



The Pentagon helped bolster this misleading claim of responsibility by issuing a statement that “Yemen should be congratulated for actions against al-Qaeda.” Meanwhile, leading American media outlets, such as The New York Times, reported — falsely — that “Yemeni security forces carried out airstrikes and ground raids against suspected Qaeda hide-outs last week with what American officials described as ‘intelligence and firepower’ supplied by the United States.” Those U.S. media reports vaguely mentioned civilian deaths only in passing or not at all, opting instead for ledes such as: “Yemeni security forces carried out airstrikes and ground raids against suspected hide-outs of Al Qaeda on Thursday, killing at least 34 militants in the broadest attack on the terrorist group here in years, Yemeni officials said.” While it is certain that dozens of civilians were killed, Scahill notes that “whether anyone actually active in Al Qaeda was killed remains hotly contested.”

There is one reason that the world knows the truth about what really happened in al Majala that day: because the Yemeni journalist, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, traveled there and, as Scahill writes, “photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label ‘Made in the USA,’ and distributed the photos to international media outlets.” He also documented the remnants of the Tomahawks and cluster bombs, neither of which is in Yemen’s arsenal. And he provided detailed accounts proving that scores of civilians, including those 21 children, had been killed in the attacks. It was Shaye’s journalism that led Amnesty International to show the world the evidence that it was the U.S. which had perpetrated the attack using cluster bombs, and media outlets to reveal the horrifying extent of the civilian deaths. Shaye’s work was vindicated when WikiLeaks released a diplomatic cable — allegedly provided by Bradley Manning — in which Yemen’s then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh joked with David Petraeus about continuing to lie to the public: ”We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.”

Shaye has engaged in other vital journalism over the past couple of years in Yemen. He conducted several interviews with Anwar al-Awlaki, including one which is often cited as evidence that Awlaki believed the attack by Nidal Hasan on the Fort Hood military base to be justifiable, and that the cleric spoke with the attempted Christmas Day bomber. Shaye’s journalism has been cited by Western media outlets as a credible source about what was taking place in Yemen (such as when he reported that, contrary to U.S. and Yemeni claims, Anwar Awlaki was not among those killed in that 2009 air attack). And one of the nation’s leading Yemen experts, Princeton’s Gregory Johnsen, told Scahill that “it is difficult to overestimate the importance of his work” in understanding what is happening in Yemen.

Despite that important journalism — or, more accurately, because of it — Shaye is now in prison, thanks largely to President Obama himself. For the past two years, Shaye has been arrested, beaten, and held in solitary confinement by the security forces of Saleh, America’s obedient tyrant. In January, 2011, he was convicted in a Yemeni court of terrorism-related charges — alleging that he was not a reporter covering Al Qaeda but a mouthpiece for it — in a proceeding widely condemned by human rights groups around the world. “There are strong indications that the charges against [Shaye] are trumped up and that he has been jailed solely for daring to speak out about US collaboration in a cluster munitions attack which took place in Yemen,” Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, told Scahill. The Yemen expert, Johnsen, added: “There is no publicly available evidence to suggest that Abdulelah was anything other than a journalist attempting to do his job.”

Shaye’s real crime is that he reported facts that the U.S. government and its Yemeni client regime wanted suppressed. But while the imprisonment of this journalist was ignored in the U.S, it became a significant controversy in Yemen. Numerous Yemeni tribal leaders, sheiks and activist groups agitated for his release, and in response, President Saleh, as the Yemeni press reported, had a pardon drawn up for him and was ready to sign it. That came to a halt when President Obama intervened. According to the White House’s own summary of Obama’s February 3, 2011, call with Saleh, “President Obama expressed concern over the release of Abd-Ilah al-Shai.” The administration has repeatedly refused to present any evidence that Shaye is anything other than a reporter, and this is what State Department spokesperson Beth Gosselin told Scahill in response to his story:

“We are standing by [President Obama’s] comments from last February. We remain concerned about Shaye’s potential release due to his association with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. We stand by the president’s comments.” When asked whether the US government should present evidence to support its claims about Shaye’s association with AQAP, Gosselin said, “That is all we have to say about this case.”

So it is beyond dispute that the moving force behind the ongoing imprisonment of this Yemeni journalist is President Obama. And the fact that Shaye is in prison, rather than able to report, is of particular significance (and value to the U.S.) in light of the still escalating American attacks in that country. Over the past 3 days alone, American air assaults have killed 64 people in Yemen, while American media outlets — without anyone on the scene — dutifully report that those killed are “suspected Al Qaeda insurgents” and “militants.” I urge everyone to read Scahill’s entire article as I have only summarized here the facts necessary to make the following points:

(1) It is impossible to overstate how similar this case is to some of the worst abuses of the Bush presidency that involved the punitive imprisonment of journalists. Perhaps the most similar case was the arrest and two-year imprisonment by the U.S. military of Pulitzer-Prize-winning Iraqi journalist Bilal Hussein of the Associated Press, who committed the crime of reporting on Iraqi insurgents. Hussein was detained after right-wing blogs and activists in the U.S. repeatedly branded him as an anti-American Terrorist by virtue of his journalistic access to those insurgents: exactly the theory the Obama administration is invoking to brand Shaye a Terrorist and demand his imprisonment.

(2) One of the most shameful and under-discussed abuses of the War on Terror under Bush was the systematic imprisonment of Muslim journalists by the U.S. for the crime of reporting facts that reflected poorly on the U.S. Government. The most extreme case was the seven-year, due-process-free imprisonment of Al Jazeera camerman Sami al-Haj in Guantanamo — a travesty ignored by virtually all establishment media figures other than Nicholas Kristof – but there were dozens of others. The Obama administration’s key and direct participation in the imprisonment of Shaye demonstrates that — like torture, lawless detentions, and secret CIA prisons – these practices continue unabated, albeit through the use of proxy.

(3) When the Iranian government imprisoned the Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi for two months, her case became a huge cause célèbre among American journalists, who joined together to demand her release. The same thing happened when the North Korean government sentenced two American journalists to prison. Shouldn’t U.S. journalists be at least as attentive and angry when their own government – the one over which they’re supposed to exercise adversarial scrutiny — does the same thing? With rare exception, they were virtually silent during the spate of journalist imprisonments by the Bush administration. Will they be as silent in the wake of Scahill’s investigative report about the ongoing imprisonment of Shaye at the behest of President Obama? That’s a particularly pressing question for those outlets — such as the NYT, The Washington Post, and ABC News – which used his work as a journalist.

(4) It’s incredibly instructive to compare what we know (thanks to Shaye) actually happened in this Yemen strike to how The New York Times twice “reported” on it. I quoted above from these two NYT articles, but it’s just amazing to read them: over and over, the NYT assures its readers that this strike was carried out by Yemen (with U.S. assistance), that it killed scores of critical Al Qaeda leaders and other “militants,” that the strike likely killed “the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, and his deputy, Said Ali al-Shihri, who were believed to be at the meeting with Mr. Awlaki,” etc. How anyone, in light of this record of extreme inaccuracy, can trust the undocumented assertions of the U.S. Government or the American media over who is and is not a Terrorist or “militant” and who is killed by American drone strikes is simply mystifying.

(5) That much of what we know about this horrific airstrike comes from two imprisoned individuals (Abdulelah Haider Shaye and, allegedly, Bradley Manning), along with a group the U.S. government clearly wants to indict (WikiLeaks), is telling indeed. As the NSA whistleblower whom the Obama administration unsuccessfully attempted to prosecute for “espionage,” Thomas Drake, wrote this week, the unprecedented Obama war on whistleblowers is, at its core, about punishing those whose expose the deceitful and improper acts of the U.S. Government and deterring those who might do so in the future.

(6) BloggingheadsTV this week featured a discussion between two American liberals, Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute and Peter Frase of Jacobin, regarding, among other things, why American progressives are so willing, even eager, to overlook Obama’s abuses in these areas. Here is what Frase said about this in a 50-second clip:

Is there any doubt that that’s true? And it’s ironic indeed coming from the political faction that endlessly touts itself as standing for the marginalized, minorities, and others who lack power, while painting their partisan opponents as selfish, provincial and racist. Of course many of the same Democrats did pretend to care about such matters when doing so provided them opportunistic partisan gain, but many of them are now perfectly blunt about the fact that they care little about these injustices because (at least for now) they do not personally affect them. Thus, who cares if the historically great President is killing some Muslim-y American without due process, or demanding the imprisonment of some Yemeni journalist just because he reported facts that the leader wanted suppressed, or slaughtering a bunch of Yemeni women and children with cluster bombs? Since “civil liberties and a less bellicose foreign policy” have nothing to do with “the well-being of the American middle-class,” it’s simply unimportant.

We should all be grateful that Scahill (like Shaye) risks his personal safety to ensure that these facts are known rather than suppressed. And now it’s up to everyone else to ensure they receive the attention they deserve.

 

UPDATE: It should be noted that the Obama administration, as it made clear in late January, is “deeply concerned by the alarming increase in the Iranian regime’s efforts to extinguish all forms of free expression and limit its citizens’ access to information.” In particular, the U.S. decries the arrest and threatened exceution of two Iranian journalists, “both of whom were not accorded due process.”

 

UPDATE II: The aforementioned Yemen expert, Gregory Johnsen, today on Twitter wrote:

In other words, exactly those policies justified in the name of fighting Terrorism are the ones that most increase the risk of that threat.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>