The purported events surrounding the Obama administration's targeted assassination of American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki took an interesting turn on Friday, when a former State Department official revealed a WikiLeaks cable reporting on a meeting between former Yemeni President Ali Abdulla Saleh and ISAF General David Petraeus proves that Yemen was secretly cooperating with U.S. drone strikes -- including an ultimately unsuccessful strike that targeted al-Awlakiin December 2009 -- well before the U.S. Department of Justice had authorized al-Awlaki's killing.
The WikiLeaks cable came up during a panel discussion between former State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley, former Guantanamo Bay Chief Prosecutor Colonel Morris Davis, and the American Civil Liberties Union's Jameel Jaffer that was aired on Al Jazeera English. The panel discussed the events leading to and the legal justification for al-Awlaki's controversial killing last September in the wake of Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to deliver the legal justiifcation for the targeted killing during a speech at Northwestern University earlier this week.
While it is now widely known that Yemen's president secretly granted the U.S. permission to carry out strikes aimed at terrorists, and even assisted U.S. officials in locating al-Awlaki, the Obama administration still considers the drone strikes to be covert. The documents related to the strikes released by WikiLeaks was never declassified, so U.S. officials are still not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The leaked cable in question reports on a Jan. 2, 2010 meeting between Saleh and Petraeus.
AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] leader Nassr al-Wahishi and extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki may still be alive, Saleh said, but the December strikes had already caused al-Qaeda operatives to turn themselves in to authorities and residents in affected areas to deny refuge to al-Qaeda, reads the cable. President Obama has approved providing U.S. intelligence in support of ROYG [Republic of Yemen Government] ground operations against AQAP targets, General Petraeus informed Saleh.
For months, the Obama administration has refused to confirm or deny the existence of a Justice Department memo that supposedly approved the targeted killing of al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, without a trial. An October New York Times investigation revealed the secret document was written sometime in June 2010. Individuals with knowledge of the document told the media outlet the legal analysis outlined in the memo concluded al-Awlaki could legally be killed if it was not feasible to capture him alive since he was making direct terrorist threats against the U.S. as an Al Qaeda operative.
Samir Khan, another American citizen who produced a magazine for APAQ, was also killed in the strike that killed al-Awlaki, although he was reportedly not on the targeting list.
Crowley's citation of the WikiLeaks cable is particularly interesting since he has routinely criticized the organization's leaks of State Department cables. However, he was also a fierce critic of the U.S. government's treatment of Pfc. Bradley Manning -- the Army soldier who stands accused of leaking the hundreds of thousands of pages of classified military reports and diplomatic cables -- ultimately leading to his resignation from the State Department last March.
A full video of the panel discussion, which offers what could be one of the most nuanced public discussions of the legality surrounding al-Awlaki's death, can be viewed here.