Hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Yemen on Wednesday as part of the unwavering protests for the resignation of U.S.-backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh. We speak to independent journalist Jeremy Scahill, who argues the U.S. secret war has unintentionally played a significant role in weakening Saleh’s regime, and Joshua Foust, who recently left his post as Yemen analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency. We also get their reaction to the latest news CIA operatives are on the ground in Libya as part of a covert Western force to aid the U.S.-led bombing campaign. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We begin today’s show in Yemen, where hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets Wednesday demanding the immediate resignation of the U.S.-backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled the country for 33 years. Protesters have rejected Saleh’s proposal that he remain president until elections are held, but that he transfer power to a caretaker government. One of Yemen’s most prominent opposition figures, Hamid al-Ahmar, has called on Saleh to step down and leave the country.
HAMID AL-AHMAR: The international community, the United States and the Europeans should stand firmly with the Yemeni nation and with their wish to have change, especially after these crimes of the current regime. And I think serious speeches, serious talks from their side would help.
AMY GOODMAN: While the anti-Saleh protests continue, the death toll from Monday’s explosion in an ammunition plant in southern Yemen has risen to 150. Yemeni authorities said the blast occurred after suspected al-Qaeda fighters raided the plant, but the BBC reports many local residents believe the Yemeni government planned the explosion to win further support from the United States.
JUAN GONZALEZ: The close relationship between the Saleh regime and the United States is the focus of a major new investigation by journalist Jeremy Scahill in The Nation magazine. Jeremy’s article is titled "The Dangerous US Game in Yemen." The article explores how the Saleh regime gave the United States permission to wage a secret war in Yemen, including bombings of camps run by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as unilateral, lethal operations on Yemeni soil.
Scahill argues the U.S. secret war has unintentionally played a significant role in weakening Saleh’s regime.
On Sunday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed concern about the potential fall of Saleh.
DEFENSE SECRETARY ROBERT GATES: I think it is a real concern, because the most active and, at this point, perhaps the most aggressive branch of al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, operates out of Yemen. And we have had a lot of counterterrorism cooperation from President Saleh and Yemeni security services.
AMY GOODMAN: Joining us now is investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill. He is the national security correspondent at The Nation, author of the bestselling book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Also with us in Washington, D.C., Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project. He recently left the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he was a Yemen analyst.
Before we talk about Yemen, I wanted to turn to this latest news out of Libya, that government officials have acknowledged CIA operatives are on the ground in Libya as part of a covert Western force to aid the U.S.-led bombing campaign. According to the New York Times, teams of CIA agents are gathering intelligence for air strikes and making contact with rebels fighting to overthrow Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. So the CIA has been in Libya apparently for weeks with British MI6 intelligence officers and special forces.
Let’s go to Washington, D.C., to get your perspective on this latest news, Joshua Foust. You were with the Defense Intelligence Agency until very recently.
JOSHUA FOUST: Right. This actually isn’t too much of a surprise. I think the moment that President Obama ordered air strikes into Libya, it was a pretty safe assumption that they would then be inserting operators on the ground. These are the guys who do target selection. They tend to liase with any kind of local forces that they have — in this case, the Libyan rebels. So, I mean, it’s weird that they’re confirming it. It’s actually kind of a surprise that they’re leaking that information, but it’s not a surprise that it’s happening.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But, Joshua Foust, when the President reiterates the term that the United States will have "no boots on the ground" in places like Libya, isn’t he — that speaking more to the American public? Because, obviously, the countries involved when these CIA teams go in, they generally know pretty quickly or soon — at least the population does — that Americans are there in such a country.
JOSHUA FOUST: Right. There’s an element of that. I think usually when presidents refer to "boots on the ground," they’re talking about a large-scale military involvement. When you’re limiting the people that you’ve inserted into the country to very small teams of intelligence operators, that usually doesn’t qualify for actually calling it "boots on the ground," because there are those kinds of people in a lot more countries than we’re willing to acknowledge.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, your perspective on what’s happening in Libya now? And then talk about this "dangerous game" you say the U.S. is playing in Yemen.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, you know, I think it’s much ado about nothing regarding the CIA teams being there. I mean, the United States has CIA operatives around the world, and of course they had them in Libya before this no-fly zone attack began, and they’re going to have them well after it. What I think, though, is happening here is that the United States is flailing to try to figure out a position on the Libyan rebels. If you read Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker_, his recent anderson">dispatch where he’s with the rebels, he said that there are maybe a thousand of them and that they are not a fighting force, that they do not have the equipment, they do not have the skill or the training to overthrow the Gaddafi regime on their own. So, President Obama stuck his neck out and said that Gaddafi has to go; he said regime change. Now he’s tried to back off of that. But the reality is that these rebels are not going to be able to take down Gaddafi’s government without substantial support from the United States or potentially France or another government.
But there’s really no such thing as NATO without the United States. And so, this idea that the mission is being passed off to NATO under Canadian command is really kind of a farce, and I think a lot of people that are within the military community and the intelligence community are really suspicious of what they see as kind of a mission creep here, where the United States could end up being embroiled in a civil war in Libya for many years to come. If Gaddafi emerges from this still in power, what does that say about Obama’s — President Obama’s credibility, having gone so far as to say that he has to fall? I think there’s a lot of reactionary policy making going on here that in the end could prove dangerous for Libyans and for the United States.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But Jeremy, one place where the President is not calling for regime change obviously is in Yemen.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And yet, arguably, there’s a much more massive popular uprising there against the current government. Your assessment of how the U.S. policy so far has actually helped to destabilize Saleh further?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. First of all, the protests or the insurrection against Saleh have been overwhelmingly nonviolent, and the Saleh regime, a day before the United States began bombing Libya, had gunned down more than 50 nonviolent protesters in the capital Sana’a, some of them shot by snipers to the head. And Secretary Gates, when asked about the bloodshed in Yemen, said that he didn’t think it was appropriate to comment on the internal affairs of Yemen. I mean, the United States has been doing a lot of commenting on the internal affairs of countries around the world since these uprisings began.
But the fact is that Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen, is a very crafty, wily guy who survived the Cold War by playing the United States and the Soviet Union off of each other, and he also has dealt with al-Qaeda over the years and has used them to go after his domestic opponents. He’s taken the threat of al-Qaeda and used it to get as much money as he could out of the United States, as much training as he could for his elite forces, and he’s repeatedly used U.S. weapons and training to go after his opponents. In the north, it’s the Houthi Shiite rebels; in the south, it’s southern secessionists. And so, he’s been a real double-dealer.
The way that the United States has destabilized the country, or Saleh’s regime, has been by conducting these — what are called kinetic military operations, essentially lethal operations, where they’ve bombed suspected al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula targets and have killed a tremendous number of civilians, including some very important tribal figures and members of Saleh’s own government. So I think it’s led — it’s increased the perception domestically that Saleh is a puppet for the United States. But one of the people that I interviewed for my piece, a former Special Forces colonel named Pat Lang, who actually was the DIA’s representative in Yemen for years, was a hunting buddy of President Saleh — he used to talk about how they would hunt gazelles and baboons — he told me that the tribes are going to decide what happens in Yemen, not AQAP and not the United States. So, I think that the U.S. is playing a dangerous game.
And Joshua Foust could speak more to sort of the counterterrorism strategy going forward. But it does seem like the United States counterterrorism program in Yemen is very much up in the air. And I think everyone from the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, to Secretary Gates is trying to figure out what the heck they’re going to do, because this has been identified in congressional testimony from the intelligence community as having the single greatest threat to the American homeland when it comes to terrorism, this group AQAP.
AMY GOODMAN: Joshua Foust, can you elaborate on this? You were in the Defense Intelligence Agency.
JOSHUA FOUST: Yeah, I don’t think anyone could really dispute the fact that AQAP does represent, by far, the most substantial threat to the homeland. In the last several years, they’re the only group that’s been able to launch credible attacks. Even though they’ve been foiled, they’re the only ones who have been able to successfully launch these. So I think there is a legitimate concern that needs to be balanced against other pressures that are happening in the Middle East.
Where I think the contradiction comes into play in Yemen is that ultimately focusing exclusively on AQAP ends up undermining, overall, in my assessment, at least, the fight against AQAP, because part of the reason why al-Qaeda is able to set up shop in weak states is because their governments are weak and because they lack legitimacy. And when our actions in a country end up contributing to that delegitimization of the government, we actually end up strengthening overall the position of groups like al-Qaeda. So, in the long run, maybe even in the medium term, our exclusive and overly military focus on al-Qaeda is actually pretty self-defeating.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And in a country like Yemen, where obviously, if it’s true that the tribal leaders can determine whether Saleh stays, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that they’ll be able to determine a functioning, operating government afterwards, because obviously the country has had all kinds of forces trying to pull it apart for years. I mean, the secessionist movement in the south —
JOSHUA FOUST: Right.
JUAN GONZALEZ: — for example, there was a Marxist movement there for many years. Can you talk about the prospects, if Saleh does fall, for what Yemen will look like afterward?
JOSHUA FOUST: Yeah, I mean, there was actually a Marxist government in South Yemen when they were still separated as two different countries before 1990.
One of the biggest issues — and I think this is what causes American planners such concern — is that there is no credible alternative to Saleh. He has been successful enough — enough — I mean, I wouldn’t call him overall successful, but he’s been successful enough at ruling his country to prevent the emergence of any other kind of major leadership. The opposition is primarily organized around this bloc of different parties and organizations called the Joint Meeting Parties, or the JMP. And they’re kind of famous for squabbling among themselves and being unable to settle on any kind of stable leadership core that could then produce some kind of stable outcome if they are able to either win the next round of elections or able to actually force the ouster of Saleh.
When you mix in — I think the assessment that the Yemeni tribes will play a role in their government, I think that’s correct. But when you mix in the challenge that then tribal dynamics and bickering between different tribal groups, in with all of these other political groups who are also wrangling for power, I think it’s not unfair of the U.S. government to look at this and wonder, "Well, wait, what are we actually going to do if this guy falls?" I mean, in that kind of an uncertain situation, our counterterrorism programs actually would be threatened. So, their concern, I think, is primarily around protecting the counterterrorism initiatives that we have in place in Yemen and not necessarily what’s best for the Yemeni government or for the Yemeni people.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill?
JEREMY SCAHILL: You know, the United States has had — I mean, we don’t know the exact number, but a couple hundred Special Operations Forces people on the ground in Yemen, primarily in a training capacity. We also of course have CIA people there that are doing intelligence operations. And those could all be called into serious question if the Saleh government falls, in terms of the on-the-ground presence. So there is talk of moving those operations to Djibouti, where AFRICOM is headquartered, and it’s the main command for the U.S. in the attacks against Libya right now. But Djibouti, in the early stages of the Bush administration’s war against the world, was really the hub of action for covert ops in the Horn of Africa and also, to an extent, in Yemen. When the Bush administration sent a drone in to kill six individuals in Yemen in 2002, including a U.S. citizen from Buffalo, New York, Kamal Darwish, that was the first kinetic action or direct action, killing operation, targeted killing operation, outside of Afghanistan. So it could be that they shift over to Djibouti. And you’re seeing this area, North Africa, really becoming a hub for a kind of — for U.S. military policy in that region.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, there’s been a big debate about whether President Obama has turned to Congress. But in Yemen, it’s not even a matter of getting President Obama’s approval, let alone Congress. You write about General David Petraeus, when he was head of CENTCOM, approving a plan developed by the U.S. embassy, CIA and other intelligence agencies to expand U.S. military action in Yemen. And you talk about the seven-page secret order authorizing small teams of U.S. special ops forces to conduct clandestine operations off the stated battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. And you quote Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times, who was able to read the order, who said, "Unlike covert actions undertaken by the C.I.A., such clandestine activity does not require the president’s approval or regular reports to Congress."
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, this was a sort of cocktail whipped up by the Bush administration as part of the "world is a battlefield" vision of U.S. foreign policy, where you can strike anywhere. And the Obama administration has really sort of doubled down on it. And the idea here — and it doesn’t just apply to Yemen. The Petraeus execute order that was ultimately signed in September of 2009 allowed for U.S. special operations forces to conduct these kinds of kill-or-capture operations basically in any country that the president or the commander deemed it necessary. Yemen has just been a particularly busy area for these forces.
But I’ve talked to members of Congress on the Intelligence Committee on both the Senate and the House side who feel that the military is operating in a gray zone with these sort of dark side forces, the JSOC boys and others, intentionally to keep it from effective congressional oversight, because CIA operations, by law, have to be briefed to the intelligence community. When the U.S. special operations forces start to do operations that traditionally would fall under the purview of the CIA, who gets briefed on them?
And so, you know, I think that they — there’s a very expansionist foreign policy on the part of the Obama administration when it comes to special operations forces. And we’ve just seen it in a more pronounced way in Yemen because it’s a place where we know these things have happened, because there have been Tomahawk cruise missile strikes, targeted killing operations. There’s also these kinds of operations happening in the Philippines, in Somalia and elsewhere. We just don’t hear about them as much, because there’s not as much media attention to them.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Joshua Foust — the sheer number of these crises that have broken out as this popular movement for democracy spreads throughout the region, from your perspective as a former analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, how does the — how do the — the government officials in charge now are able to deal with, for instance, a situation where Libya is now grabbing all the attention, but may not be actually as crucial to American interests or what happens in the Middle East as what’s going on in Syria or what’s going on in Yemen right now?
JOSHUA FOUST: Yeah, I mean, I really wouldn’t want Hillary Clinton’s job right now. One of the challenges that these uprisings, I think, present is that we still have 130,000 troops in Afghanistan, and there’s a substantial inflection point coming in July of this year about what those troops are going to do and how we’re going to be able to hand over responsibility for certain key areas of the country to Afghan security forces. That’s getting lost in the shuffle of both bombing Libya and then also trying to manage the fallout of Egypt and Tunisia’s revolutions, trying to figure out if and how we can respond to Syria, and then, as Jeremy’s been reporting, what exactly we’re going to do in Yemen if the Saleh government ends up failing. The fact that most of these crises are happening at once is probably making it extremely difficult to be able to split your time as a senior leader efficiently between trying to monitor and manage what’s happening in each one of these.
The challenge, too, in a lot of these U.S. allies undergoing these substantial changes in both government and potentially foreign policy outlook is that it’s representing a pretty massive upheaval in this otherwise stable order that we’d been relying on to get things done in the Middle East. I think it’s anyone’s guess about how that’s actually going to end up affecting our policies and our strategy in the region, but it’s definitely causing concern. And I think there’s a little bit of scrambling inside the administration.
AMY GOODMAN: Joshua Foust, you were formerly with the Defense Intelligence Agency, which is sort of like the CIA of the Pentagon. Do you think the targeted killings in Yemen have been effective or counterproductive?
JOSHUA FOUST: Probably both, I would say. I mean, they’re effective in terms of stressing the organization. So they create disruption, they make it harder for certain things to get done. To a limited extent, they can also increase paranoia, as people begin to question who their sources are and how outsiders are getting information. But at the same time, AQAP is still there. They’re still able to bomb things inside Yemen. And as recently as last October, they were still able to launch a terrorist attack against the United States. So, they’re not completely effective, but if they are rolled into part of a broader campaign to delegitimize, isolate and then marginalize the movement, they can actually be pretty effective.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Joshua Foust, fellow at the American Security Project, but until then former analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency who specialized in Yemen, and Jeremy Scahill, who is the national security correspondent for The Nation magazine and Democracy Now! correspondent, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. His latest piece that appears at TheNation.com is called "The Dangerous US Game in Yemen."
JEREMY SCAHILL: I also just wanted to say that for people who want to follow Yemen very closely, I would highly recommend checking out the blog of Professor Gregory Johnsen, who’s widely considered to be the leading U.S. expert on Yemen. It’s "Waq Al-Waq," but if you google Gregory Johnsen’s name, you’ll see. And he just has an incredible English-language update of the on-the-ground situation in Yemen.
AMY GOODMAN: And we will link to that at democracynow.org.