From drone strikes to the massacre at al-Majalah, secret U.S. military actions inside Yemen are exposed in "Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield," the new documentary film by Jeremy Scahill and Rick Rowley opening today. Scahill’s book by the same name was published in April. We continue our conversation on Yemen with Scahill and two key Yemenis profiled in the film: Nasser al-Awlaki, who lost his son, cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, and 16-year-old grandson to U.S. drone strikes; and Saleh bin Fareed, the Yemeni sheikh and tribal leader who was one of the first people to arrive at the site of the U.S. attack of al-Majalah that killed 45 civilians in 2009.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: In this Democracy Now! exclusive, we bring you Nasser al-Awlaki, the father of Anwar al-Awlaki, grandfather of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. Both of these men, Anwar al-Awlaki and his son, were killed in U.S. strikes over the last two years, now admitted, after something like 600 days, by the U.S. government that they were responsible for their deaths. Sheikh Saleh bin Fareed also joins us, a Yemeni tribal leader and uncle of Anwar al-Awlaki. Jeremy Scahill is in the studio with us, the investigative reporter who has written the book Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield and is the central figure in the film by the same name that’s being released today around the country, in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, and then beyond, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield.
Jeremy, you’ve spent a good deal of time in Yemen with the al-Awlaki family investigating the various attacks.
JEREMY SCAHILL: First of all, I just want to make clear here that Abdulrahman Awlaki, this 16-year-old who was killed in a drone strike, was not with his father at the time that he was killed. He was killed two weeks later while sitting in an outdoor restaurant with his teenage cousins and other youth from their tribe. He had run away from home to try to find his father, and his father was killed before he could find him. In fact, his father was killed nowhere near where he was. He went—Abdulrahman went to the place in Shabwa where there had been repeated drone strikes aimed at killing his father. His father gets killed, and Abdulrahman is stuck in this village, because at the time the Arab Spring uprisings were happening and there were protests against Ali Abdullah Saleh, the U.S.-backed dictator of Yemen, and he was unable to return to his home, where he was living with Nasser Awlaki and his wife Saleha, because there was fighting in the south of the country. So he’s waiting and staying with his relatives, and then he’s killed in this drone strike. And when he was killed, anonymous U.S. officials claim that he was a 21-year-old, that he was somehow with al-Qaeda figures or that he may have actually been a militant himself. And all of this was being litigated anonymously, and then the family produced his birth certificate showing that he had just turned 16, that he was born in August of 1995 in Denver, Colorado.
I have spent the past year or more trying to get to the bottom of why this young man was killed. I’ve spent time with his family, with his friends, with people who knew him well. There is not a shred of evidence to indicate that this boy had anything to do with terrorism whatsoever. He was being raised by his grandparents and had dreams of going to university in the United States. For me, the answer to why he was killed says a lot about who we are as a society. And the Obama administration has refused to come forward and say why this 16-year-old American citizen was killed. Eric Holder, the attorney general, used the phrase, "He was not specifically targeted." What does that mean? It’s some kind of Orwellian term that was probably focus-grouped in the CIA. You know, it sounds like this hyper-legalistic term. Was he killed in a signature strike, these drone strikes that are aimed at people whose identities we don’t know and against whom we may have no evidence that they participated in criminal or terrorist activity? You know, this is sort of like Precrime, like Minority Report, where we are—we are targeting people even though we don’t know their exact identities. A senior—a former senior official in the White House told me that John Brennan, the current director of the CIA, believed that Abdulrahman Awlaki may have been intentionally targeted, perhaps based on bad intelligence. But this administration, I think, has an obligation to the American people to explain this.
On the case of Anwar Awlaki, just to respond to a couple of things that Nasser and Sheikh Saleh bin Fareed said, I think that many Americans would watch sermons of Anwar Awlaki and find them deeply offensive. You know, Anwar Awlaki, toward the end of his life, was openly calling for armed jihad against the United States, was calling on Muslims within the military to attack other soldiers, similar to the Nidal Hasan in the Fort Hood massacre. But what I think is important for people to understand is, this man was never indicted, was never charged with a crime. I’m willing to concede that he may have been involved with plots against the United States. But if President Obama is sincere in saying that he would have preferred to prosecute him, why didn’t someone call Saleh bin Fareed, who is one of the most influential tribal leaders in the south, a British-educated man, an international businessman, who would have had a serious stake in this, and say to him, "Here’s the evidence against Anwar Awlaki. We want him handed over." It gives lie to the claim by President Obama that they would have preferred to capture him or put him on trial, the fact that these tribal leaders were not even approached or presented with any evidence. So, you know, this isn’t about so much who Anwar Awlaki was; this is about who we are as a society. When you have the constitutional law professor, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Democratic president asserting, now openly, that the United States has the right to assassinate its own citizens off of a declared battlefield without even presenting evidence that they’re involved with a crime, then I think we have a serious problem in this country that needs to be confronted.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, I want to go to a clip of your new film that’s opening today, Dirty Wars, when you interviewed Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
JEREMY SCAHILL: When there is a lethal operation and a high-value person is killed—the president, of course, acknowledged that we killed—
UNIDENTIFIED: He can’t—
JEREMY SCAHILL: Huh?
UNIDENTIFIED: He can’t confirm that there have been any lethal operations outside of a war zone.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Has there been any legal review of the potential for lethal operations against American citizens?
SEN. RON WYDEN: Is that classified?
It’s important for the American people to know when the president can kill an American citizen and when they can’t. And yet it is almost as if there are two laws in America. And the American people would be extraordinarily surprised if they could see the difference between what they believe a law says and how it has actually been interpreted in secret.
JEREMY SCAHILL: You’re not permitted to disclose that difference publicly.
SEN. RON WYDEN: That’s correct.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, being questioned by Jeremy Scahill in his new film Dirty Wars. Jeremy?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, the state of oversight today for the kill program is that senators, like Ron Wyden, go into a secure classified intelligence facility. They’re provided with only some memos that the White House has determined it’s willing to share with members of Congress from the Intelligence Committee. And they are not allowed to bring writing utensils in. They can’t bring paper in. They can’t bring anything with a battery into these rooms. And they read the administration’s justification for conducting these strikes. And then they’re not allowed to tell anyone what they’ve seen when they’re in that room.
So, you know, for me, the stakes here are very high, because we have an assertion now, openly and publicly, by the president of the United States that he believes that we have the right to conduct these operations in any country where there is a potential threat against U.S. persons. And, you know, I believe that President Obama should be required to present evidence that American citizens are involved with criminal or terrorist activity before sentencing them to death. And let’s remember, the vast majority of the victims are not U.S. citizens; they’re Yemenis and Pakistanis and Somalis and others around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Nasser al-Awlaki, you are suing the U.S. government right now for the deaths of your son and your grandson. What are you asking for?
NASSER AL-AWLAKI: Well, you know, the first time we sued the United States government was in August 2010, when we tried with the help of CCR and ACLU. We had a case against the government, and we wanted them to stop the targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki. Unfortunately, the judge did not really rule on this, because, I mean, he said that I was not qualified to, you know, make the suit against the government, for technical reasons, whatsoever. Then we tried again after the killing of Anwar and Abdulrahman. And, thankfully, ACLU and CCR, they helped me again to put the case against United States officials.
And what I am looking for is really justice from the U.S. system of justice. What I am looking for is for accountability. You see, you know, the American government is making this news by piecemeal. You know, before, they said this is secret government documents. Now they are releasing, and they are talking about the killing of Anwar and his son and the others. Well, what we are looking for—and there will be a court hearing on July. What we are asking for is just that we know exactly why Abdulrahman was killed.
AMY GOODMAN: I want—
NASSER AL-AWLAKI: Was it intentionally or not? I believe it was—it was intentionally. Regarding Anwar, we want to know why they went and killed him before they have a chance to capture him or to convince him to come for a trial. And so, you know, this is what I am looking from the American system of justice.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, before we end, I wanted to turn to another attack, and that’s the case of Majalah.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, the first time that President Obama authorized any strikes against Yemen was December 17th, 2009. Yemen had been bombed by the United States once before that under President Bush in November of 2002. And President Obama was expanding the authorities for the Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA to strike in countries beyond Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world. And in this first missile attack, the U.S. used cruise missiles and cluster bombs on this small Bedouin village in the—in Majalah, in Abyan province. And they said that they were targeting an al-Qaeda leader in an al-Qaeda training camp. And it turned out that the bombing killed 46 people—14 women and 21 children. And the Yemeni government actually took responsibility for the strikes and said that its own air force had conducted it and that it was a successful attack against an al-Qaeda base. And the United States began conspiring with the Yemeni regime to bomb Yemen and then have the Yemenis take responsibility for it. And General David Petraeus, the CENTCOM commander, was revealed in the WikiLeaks cables to have hatched this plot with the Yemeni dictator, Ali Abddullah Saleh. But this was one of the most gruesome attacks that’s been conducted over the past three years in Yemen, shredding human beings, children and women, in this strike that they said was aimed at an al-Qaeda camp.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Sheikh Saleh bin Fareed, you were among the first to get to the site after the attack. Can you describe what it is you saw?
SALEH BIN FAREED: But allow me first, for a minute, just to explain about Anwar. When I met President Ali Abdullah Saleh, I asked him, "Do you have anything against him?" He said, "No." I said to him, "Then why do you keep him? You kept him for almost quite two years." He said, "We kept him in jail because the Americans asked us to do that." "Do you have anything against him?" He said, "No." And then I said, "OK. Have the Americans given you any proof?" He said, "No. They failed. We wrote to them hundreds of times. We called them many times. And they could not give us even one line against Anwar." Then I said, "OK, if that is the case—
AMY GOODMAN: Sheikh Saleh bin Fareed, we only have one minute left in the broadcast.
SALEH BIN FAREED: —then why you will listen to them?"
OK, anyway, regarding al-Majalah massacre, in fact it was, I mean, a big shame and big blame on the Americans and on the American government and on our government in Yemen. I was one of the first people to arrive there. What I have seen, I have not seen in my life, and I don’t think I will ever see, even if it is like a third World War. Those people were living in a small valley only two kilometers from the tarmac road. We drove easily. We reached after five—10 minutes to the site, easily. And our minister of interior at that time, when they asked him, "Why you did not capture them?" he said, "They live in high mountains like Tora Bora. We could not reach them," which is big false. And when we reached there, there were hundreds and then thousands of people. We saw the flesh of the bodies of those people mixed with the meat of the cows and sheep and goats. Honestly, we could only find very, very few whom we could recognize. And we—it was mixed with hundreds of sheep and goats. And, I mean, they were all mixed together, I mean, with blood. And they got—they were bombed with about six or seven huge rockets from the—
AMY GOODMAN: Sheikh Saleh bin Fareed and Nasser al-Awlaki, I want to thank you both for being with us. We’re so sorry the broadcast has ended. We will continue the conversation after, post it at democracynow.org. Dirty Wars, which covers this, opens today in Washington, D.C., in Los Angeles and in New York at the IFC and Lincoln Plaza.