Why Is It Hard to Believe President Obama Would Want a Journalist in Prison?

Jeremy Scahill's piece at the Nation website ("Why Is President Obama Keeping a Journalist in Prison in Yemen?,"3/13/12) about imprisoned Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye is riveting and deeply reported. But to Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum, the story doesn't quite add up...because Barack Obama seems like a decent guy.

As Scahill reports, Shaye has "risked his life to travel to areas controlled by Al-Qaeda and to interview its leaders." He argues that this reporting has not exactly won him friends in the U.S. or Yemeni governments:

His collision course with the U.S. government appears to have been set in December 2009. On December 17, the Yemeni government announced that it had conducted a series of strikes against an Al-Qaeda training camp in the village of al Majala in Yemen's southern Abyan province, killing a number of Al-Qaeda militants. As the story spread across the world, Shaye traveled to al Majala. What he discovered were the remnants of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs, neither of which are in the Yemeni military's arsenal. He photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label "Made in the USA," and distributed the photos to international media outlets. He revealed that among the victims of the strike were women, children and the elderly. To be exact, 14 women and 21 children were killed.

Shaye was subsequently arrested and likely tortured by Yemeni authorities, who charged and convicted him on terrorism charges. The case has drawn international attention, with media and human rights groups denouncing the trial. Pressure inside Yemen seemed to be working, and a pardon was ready for then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh to sign.

Enter Barack Obama, who "expressed concern" over Shaye's release. The pardon was shelved; as Scahill reports:

Yemeni journalists, human rights activists and lawyers have said he remains in jail at the request of the White House.

Salon's Glenn Greenwald weighed in (3/14/12), reminding readers that the initial media accounts of the attacks in Majala were wildly misleading--the strikes were carried out by Yemen, those killed were "militants," and so on. As Greenwald puts it, the world knows the truth about this attack--which was a U.S. strike using cruise missiles and cluster bombs--because of Shaye's reporting.

Seems pretty straightforward. But not to everyone. Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum wrote a response headlined, "Is Barack Obama a Murderous Sociopath?" The crux of Drum's argument is that Shaye's reporting isn't all that important. "I wonder what's really going on," writes Drum. "Because here's the thing: the attack on al Majala was no secret."

Drum points out that "within a few hours of the strike it was common knowledge that U.S. cruise missiles had done most of the damage and that there were local reports of many civilian casualties." He adds that

everything that Shaye reported in 2010 had long since been common knowledge. Obama has suffered, as near as I can tell, literally zero embarrassment from this episode. The al Majala attack got a small bit of media attention when it happened and has been completely forgotten since.

This is almost entirely unconvincing--not to mention offensive. As Greenwald pointed out, the initial reporting on the attack was terrible (and as we argued here, the later reporting, while certainly an improvement, was not all that spectacular either). The idea that it was "common knowledge" that the U.S. had attacked Yemen with cluster bombs and killed that many civilians is difficult to substantiate--Drum cites an ABC report that only refers to "opposition" claims about civilian casualties.

Drum is correct, though, when he says that the incident got little media attention and "has been completely forgotten." I'm not sure how something can "common knowledge," little reported and mostly forgotten, but there you have it.

Drum's argument rests on the idea that this was a minor incident, because that is how he must explain away Obama's role:

So what kind of person would pressure the Yemeni president to keep an innocent journalist in prison over a slight so tiny as to be nearly nonexistent? Almost literally, this would be the act of a sociopath.

He adds:

But which do I find more likely? That Shaye is indeed affiliated with Al-Qaeda based on evidence that hasn't been made public? Or that Barack Obama is a sociopath who pressures foreign leaders to keep innocent journalists in prison based on the fact that they very slightly annoy him? Call me what you will, but I have to go with Door A.

So those are your choices, as Drum sees it: Obama is a sociopath or Shaye is a terrorist.

But there's a third option: Perhaps Obama is not a sociopath, but the president of a government that believes that journalists who report the views of its military enemies, and uncover facts about its wars it would prefer to keep secret, are a threat to its military objectives and should themselves be treated as enemies. Sami al-Hajj was a camera operator for Al Jazeera; he spent more than six years in Guantanamo as a result, based--as a WikiLeaks release would later document--on the fact that as a journalist he had contact with Al-Qaeda as a news subject he was covering.

A believer in White House benevolence might say: "A cameraman? That can't be true! He didn't do important work!" But that wouldn't change the fact that it happened.

Or that U.S. forces attacked a hotel in Baghdad where journalists were staying in 2003. Or that the United States attacked Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV in 2003, and Al Jazeera in 2001 (all of those incidents, and more, are recounted here). Or that TV studios in Serbia were bombed by the U.S. in 1999.

You can believe that Obama is much different than his predecessors, or you can believe that his actions are fundamentally similar.

ABC correspondent Jake Tapper pressed the White House recently (2/22/12) on the administration's use of the Espionage Act to go after reporters. As Tapper put it: "There just seems to be disconnect here. You want aggressive journalism abroad; you just don't want it in the United States." It was a good question. But the answer might be, if the Shaye case is any guide, that the United States government doesn't much care for aggressive journalism abroad either.

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