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

Published March 14, 2012 12:06PM (EDT)

President Obama and Abdulelah Haider Shaye   (AP)
President Obama and Abdulelah Haider Shaye (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.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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