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The Drone War on Journalists


Yesterday I wrote about how the Obama Administration has insisted that its deal with Yemen’s dictatorship concerning the use of drones there is a secret, and how it has been wielding that specious claim to justify withholding publication of a controversial Justice Department memo that outlines the president’s supposed authority to order the assassination of an American citizen abroad. Now Jeremy Scahill has published an important study of what the Obama Administration is prepared to do to journalists who expose its hit operations in Yemen:

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

Unlike most journalists covering Al Qaeda, Shaye risked his life to travel to areas controlled by Al Qaeda and to interview its leaders. He also conducted several interviews with the radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki. Shaye did the last known interview with Awlaki just before it was revealed that Awlaki, a US citizen, was on a CIA/JSOC hit list. “We were only exposed to Western media and Arab media funded by the West, which depicts only one image of Al Qaeda,” recalls his best friend Kamal Sharaf, a well-known dissident Yemeni political cartoonist. “But Abdulelah brought a different viewpoint.”

Indeed, a reporter covering hostilities is subject to special risks. Much of what a journalist does—photographing or videotaping battles, identifying and interviewing key actors in a conflict—can easily be confused with espionage or hostile military conduct. These risks are heightened in an unconventional-war setting in which forces do not wear uniforms and often hide their weapons. But this distinction is vital: a journalist does not actually participate in the conflict; he seeks information so that his readers will have a better understanding of what’s going on. Indeed, a really good journalist is particularly committed to ferreting out and exposing precisely those facts someone most wants to keep secret. Lord Northcliffe, the great British press baron, put it well when he said, “News is what somebody, somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”

The United States historically has made a careful practice of offering journalists the protection to which they are entitled under what international humanitarian law calls the principle of distinction. But this practice fell to the wayside during the years in which Donald Rumsfeld held sway over the Pentagon. The U.S. military’s seizure and mistreatment of my clients, Pulitzer Prize–winning AP photographer Bilal Hussain and CBS cameraman Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, as well as numerous others during the Iraq conflict demonstrated a new, cruel, and unprofessional attitude toward journalists who offered battlefield coverage the Pentagon didn’t like.

Shaye had been systematically documenting the U.S. presence in Yemen and the fact that U.S. officials, starting with the ambassador in Sanaa, were lying about the targeted-killing operations. No doubt his activities presented a legitimate security threat to Americans operating on the ground in Yemen, and no doubt his work meant heartburn for the CIA, then struggling to keep the cover on a program which was essentially too large in scope ever to be plausibly covert. However, the essence of his work was legitimate, indeed highly important journalism. This case points to more shameless misconduct by an intelligence community committed to using the heavy hand of the state in order to battle truth. And it points to a White House seemingly unable to understand how it is being spun.

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