Seymour Hersh’s 10,000-word bin Laden story — told five years ago in 640 words by Larry Johnson

When Seymour Hersh releases each of his blockbuster reports, what supposedly makes his claims authoritative is, more than anything else, the mere fact that they come from Seymour Hersh.

The reader is meant to trust the word of retired intelligence officials, consultants, and other unnamed experts, because Hersh trusts them. And we are meant to trust Hersh because of his stature as a veteran investigative journalist.

We are being invited to join a circle of confidence. Which is to say, we are being hooked by a confidence trick. Hersh is the confidant of (mostly) anonymous sources of inside information of inestimable quality, and we then become confidants of Hersh when he lets us in on the secrets.

To say this is not to imply that everything Hersh reports should be doubted, but simply to note that his egotistical investment in his own work — the fact that Hersh’s stories invariably end up being in part stories about Hersh — inevitably clouds the picture.

As a result, ensuing debate about the credibility of Hersh’s reports tends to devolve into polarized contests of allegiance. Each side sees the other as having been duped — either duped by a conspiracy theorist (Hersh) or duped by government officials and the mainstream media.

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A week after Osama bin Laden was killed, Larry Johnson wrote a blog post that reads like an outline draft of Hersh’s latest report. Johnson is a retired senior intelligence official who claims to be knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. Maybe he was the “major U.S. source” on whom Hersh relied.

On May 9, 2011, Johnson wrote:

I’ve learned some things from friends who are still active that dramatically alter the picture the White House is desperately trying to paint. Here is what really happened. The U.S. Government learned of Bin Laden’s whereabouts last August when a person walked into a U.S. Embassy and claimed that Pakistan’s intelligence service (ISI) had Bin Laden under control in Abottabad, Pakistan. Naturally the CIA personnel who received this information were skeptical. That’s why the CIA set up a safehouse in Abottabad in September 2010 as reported yesterday in the Washington Post.

The claim that we found Bin Laden because of a courier and the use of enhanced interrogation is simply a cover story. It appears to be an effective cover story because it has many Bush supporters pressing the case that enhanced interrogation worked. The Obama operatives in the White House are quite content to let the Bushies share in this part of the “credit.” Why? It keeps most folks from looking at the claims that don’t add up.

Anyway, the intel collection at the safe house escalated and the CIA began pressing Pakistan’s ISI to come clean on Osama.

As Pakistan’s Dawn notes in an editorial, the Pakistani version of events — the Abbottabad Commission report — has yet to be officially released.

Buried after initial promises that it would be made public, one version of the report has already seen the light of day via a leaked copy to Al Jazeera. That version alone contains a deep, systematic, even fundamental critique of the manner in which the ISI operates.

Surely, it is morally and legally indefensible of the state to hide from the public the only systematic inquiry into the events surrounding perhaps the most humiliating incident in decades here. National security will not be undermined by the publication of a report; national security was undermined by the presence of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil.

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Pakistanis knew where bin Laden was, say U.S. sources

NBC News reports: Two intelligence sources tell NBC News that the year before the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, a “walk in” asset from Pakistani intelligence told the CIA where the most wanted man in the world was hiding – and these two sources plus a third say that the Pakistani government knew where bin Laden was hiding all along.

The U.S. government has always characterized the heroic raid by Seal Team Six that killed bin Laden as a unilateral U.S. operation, and has maintained that the CIA found him by tracking couriers to his walled complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The new revelations do not necessarily cast doubt on the overall narrative that the White House began circulating within hours of the May 2011 operation. The official story about how bin Laden was found was constructed in a way that protected the identity and existence of the asset, who also knew who inside the Pakistani government was aware of the Pakistani intelligence agency’s operation to hide bin Laden, according to a special operations officer with prior knowledge of the bin Laden mission. The official story focused on a long hunt for bin Laden’s presumed courier, Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.

While NBC News has long been pursuing leads about a “walk in” and about what Pakistani intelligence knew, both assertions were made public in a London Review of Books article by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. Hersh’s story, published over the weekend, raises numerous questions about the White House account of the SEAL operation. It has been strongly disputed both on and off the record by the Obama administration and current and former national security officials. [Continue reading…]

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Blogger accuses Seymour Hersh of ‘plagiarism’ for bin Laden raid story

Politico: In the day following the publication of Seymour Hersh’s scandalous alternative account of the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the prize-winning investigative journalist has been pilloried as a fabulist, a fool, and even a fibber.

But one national security expert has a new insult to throw into the mix: plagiarist.

R.J. Hillhouse, a national security blogger and former college professor, wrote on her blog, “The Spy Who Billed Me” that she had accused the Obama administration of fabricating accounts of its raid that killed Osama bin Laden back in August 2011. Hersh’s story, published in the London Review of Books on Sunday, is “either plagiarism or unoriginal,” wrote Hillhouse.

The blog post Hillhouse is referring to dates back to August 7, 2011, only a few months after Osama bin Laden’s death. In it Hillhouse wrote, like Hersh, that the informant who led the CIA to bin Laden was a walk-in seeking financial compensation, that Pakistani officials were keeping bin Laden under house arrest with Saudi financial support, and that Pakistani officials had cooperated with the clandestine U.S. operation that killed him. [Continue reading…]

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Four years after bin Laden’s death, man who helped track him is in prison

McClatchy reports: Four years after U.S. forces shot dead Osama bin Laden at a house half a mile from Pakistan’s top military academy, the Pakistani doctor who allegedly ran a fake vaccination program for the CIA to find the al Qaida chief – but didn’t find him – is serving a long prison term on questionable charges of aiding an insurgent Pakistani militant group, his attorney said.

Suspected CIA operative Shakil Afridi has paid a heavy price for the huge embarrassment caused to Pakistan’s powerful military and its security services by the discovery of bin Laden: In addition to his 23-year term, his family lives in hiding and the lead attorney of his defense team was shot dead in March in the northern city of Peshawar.

His situation is in stark contrast to that of the two Pakistani militant groups that helped resettle bin Laden in Pakistan in 2002. Harakat-ul-Mujahideen and Jaish-i-Mohammed provided bin Laden with dedicated security teams as he moved around the north of the country before settling in the town of Abbottabad in 2005, retired militants familiar with the operation told McClatchy.

Since Pakistan’s return to democracy in 2008, the two groups have re-emerged as Islamic charities, and their leaders have joined religious parties in political campaigns widely considered to be backed by the Pakistani military’s security services.

“When the sheikh (bin Laden) moved, armed 12-man teams would travel ahead and behind his vehicle. He’d travel with two to four men with good local knowledge of the area they were moving in; they’d be unarmed and disguised,” said a ranking former Harakat operative. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity, citing the dangers of reprisal by former colleagues and arrest by the Pakistani authorities.

The security escorts were part of a Pakistan-wide arrangement provided by the groups to al Qaida and Afghan Taliban VIPs who were fleeing the American forces that invaded Afghanistan after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., the former militants said. [Continue reading…]

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Blurry covert lines limit chances of drone program changes

Huffington Post: After last week’s tragic news that an errant CIA drone strike had mistakenly taken out an American and an Italian hostage in Pakistan, critics of the spies’ program — who have long argued the targeted killings should strictly fall in the military’s wheelhouse — are rallying to finally take the drone trigger out of the agency’s hands.

But that effort to transition the program may not be as simple as critics think. After all, drone operations are a lot easier to run when you don’t have to follow all the rules.

The crux of the debate over who should control the drone program has watered down to that one core argument for years. The drone program itself splits off into two arms: the CIA runs a covert program governed by U.S. Title 50, and the military runs a program that can either be overt or clandestine under the military’s Title 10. And simply by virtue of the differences between overt and covert action, the White House has run into hefty roadblocks in its supposed crusade to end the CIA’s covert side of the program.

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Predator drone strikes: A cure worse than the disease

Bruce Fein writes: Something is rotten in President Barack Obama’s classified, programmatic use of predator drones to target suspected international terrorists for death anywhere on the planet.

The targeting intelligence is suspect.

The program is secret, lawless, and unaccountable to Congress, the Supreme Court, and the American people.

The killings pivot on a principle that will haunt the United States in the future as predator drone capability spreads to China, Russia or otherwise.

And the program is compounding rather than diminishing the international terrorist threat against the United States by creating more revenge-motivated terrorists than are being killing; and, by serving as a calling card for international terrorist recruitment. That explains why high level military and intelligence officials in the Obama administration concede that 14 years after 9/11 the United States is more imperiled by international terrorism than ever before.

Depend upon it. If the predator drone program were suspended for six months on a trial basis, international terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia aimed at the United States would contract. The foundation would be laid for terminating the entire program and making the United States safer. [Continue reading…]

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Why the New York Times named names in CIA drone story

Michael Calderone reports: The New York Times reported across the top of Sunday’s front page that Congress is doing little to oversee the CIA’s targeted killing program. In the process, the paper identified three high-ranking CIA officials with key roles in secret drone operations.

The CIA asked the Times to withhold the names in its report, a request that executive editor Dean Baquet told The Huffington Post on Monday that he took seriously, but decided not to honor.

Baquet said the officials are not undercover agents carrying out clandestine operations in the field, but rather figures with significant roles in “one of the major issues in modern American warfare.” The CIA is now playing a “quasi-military role” through the drone program, a departure from its traditional functions that deserves scrutiny. In order to debate the program, he said, the public needs to know who is making key decisions. In addition, as the Times wrote in its article, the CIA officials’ “roles are known to foreign governments and many others.”

“It would have been weird to not name the guys who run it,” Baquet said. “They’re not undercover. They’re not unknown. They’re sort of widely known.”

A CIA spokesman declined to comment to The Huffington Post.

Baquet’s decision shows the news organization’s increasing willingness to push back against government requests to withhold information, unless officials provide specific reasons why doing so may damage national security. [Continue reading…]

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How candidate of hope and change became president of kill lists, drone strikes, and immunity for torturers

Gregory D. Johnsen writes: Shortly before 9 a.m. on March 11, 2014, Dianne Feinstein, the 80-year-old chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, walked into the Senate chamber with a thick stack of papers and a glass of water. The Senate had just finished a rare all-night session a few minutes earlier, and only a handful of staffers were left in the room. Feinstein had given thousands of speeches over her career, but none quite like this.

“Let me say up front that I come to the Senate floor reluctantly,” she said, as she poked at the corners of her notes. The last two months had been an exhausting mix of meetings and legal wrangling, all in an attempt to avoid this exact moment. But none of it had worked. And now Feinstein was ready to go public and tell the country what she knew: The CIA had broken the law and violated the Constitution. It had spied on the Senate.

“This is a defining moment for the oversight of our intelligence community,” Feinstein said nearly 40 minutes later, as she drew to a close. This will show whether the Senate “can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation’s intelligence activities, or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee.”

Two hours later and a few miles away at a Council on Foreign Relations event near downtown Washington, the CIA responded. “As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into Senate computers,” CIA Director John Brennan told Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, shaking his head and rolling his eyes to demonstrate the ridiculousness of the charges, “nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn’t do that.”

Brennan was 58, but that morning he looked much older. He’d hobbled into the room on a cane following yet another hip fracture, and after some brief remarks he eased himself into a chair with obvious discomfort. Two years earlier in a commencement address at Fordham University, his alma mater, Brennan had rattled off a litany of injuries and ailments: In addition to his hip problems, he’d also had major knee, back, and shoulder surgeries as well as “a bout of cancer.” Years of desk work had resulted in extra weight and the sort of bureaucrat’s body that caused his suits to slope down and out toward his belt. “I referred the matter myself to the CIA inspector general to make sure that he was able to look honestly and objectively at what the CIA did there,” Brennan said. “And, you know, when the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.”

Mitchell, who had already asked him two questions about the allegations, pressed again. “If it is proved that the CIA did do this, would you feel that you had to step down?”

Brennan chuckled and stuttered as he tried to form an answer. Two weeks earlier, he had told a dinner at the University of Oklahoma that “intelligence work had gotten in my blood.” The CIA wasn’t just what he did; it was his “identity.” He had worked too hard to become director to give up without a fight. “If I did something wrong,” Brennan eventually told Mitchell, “I will go to the president, and I will explain to him exactly what I did, and what the findings were. And he is the one who can ask me to stay or to go.”

But Obama was never going to ask for his resignation. Not then, and not months later when the CIA inspector general’s report came back, showing that the agency had done what Feinstein claimed. Brennan was Obama’s man. His conscience on national security, and the CIA director he’d wanted from the very beginning. Not even a chorus of pleas from Democratic senators, members of Obama’s own party, made any difference. John Brennan would stay, the untouchable head of America’s most powerful intelligence agency. [Continue reading…]

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Obama secretly allowed looser rules for drone strikes in Pakistan

The Wall Street Journal reports: President Barack Obama tightened rules for the U.S. drone program in 2013, but he secretly approved a waiver giving the Central Intelligence Agency more flexibility in Pakistan than anywhere else to strike suspected militants, according to current and former U.S. officials.

The rules were designed to reduce the risk of civilian casualties. Mr. Obama also required that proposed targets pose an imminent threat to the U.S.—but the waiver exempted the CIA from this standard in Pakistan.

Last week, the U.S. officials disclosed that two Western hostages, U.S. and Italian aid workers Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, were killed on Jan. 15 by a U.S. drone strike aimed at al Qaeda militants in Pakistan. If the exemption had not been in place for Pakistan, the CIA might have been required to gather more intelligence before that strike.

And though support for the drone program remains strong across the U.S. government, the killings have renewed a debate within the administration over whether the CIA should now be reined in or meet the tighter standards that apply to drone programs outside of Pakistan. [Continue reading…]

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Deep support in Washington for CIA’s drone missions

The New York Times reports: About once a month, staff members of the congressional intelligence committees drive across the Potomac River to C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., and watch videos of people being blown up.

As part of the macabre ritual the staff members look at the footage of drone strikes in Pakistan and other countries and a sampling of the intelligence buttressing each strike, but not the internal C.I.A. cables discussing the attacks and their aftermath. The screenings have provided a veneer of congressional oversight and have led lawmakers to claim that the targeted killing program is subject to rigorous review, to defend it vigorously in public and to authorize its sizable budget each year.

That unwavering support from Capitol Hill is but one reason the C.I.A.’s killing missions are embedded in American warfare and unlikely to change significantly despite President Obama’s announcement on Thursday that a drone strike accidentally killed two innocent hostages, an American and an Italian. The program is under fire like never before, but the White House continues to champion it, and C.I.A. officers who built the program more than a decade ago — some of whom also led the C.I.A. detention program that used torture in secret prisons — have ascended to the agency’s powerful senior ranks. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s drone war has the precision of guesswork

The New York Times reports: Barack Obama inherited two ugly, intractable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when he became president and set to work to end them. But a third, more covert war he made his own, escalating drone strikes in Pakistan and expanding them to Yemen and Somalia.

The drone’s vaunted capability for pinpoint killing appealed to a president intrigued by a new technology and determined to try to keep the United States out of new quagmires. Aides said Mr. Obama liked the idea of picking off dangerous terrorists a few at a time, without endangering American lives or risking the yearslong bloodshed of conventional war.

“Let’s kill the people who are trying to kill us,” he often told aides.

By most accounts, hundreds of dangerous militants have, indeed, been killed by drones, including some high-ranking Qaeda figures. But for six years, when the heavy cloak of secrecy has occasionally been breached, the results of some strikes have often turned out to be deeply troubling.

Every independent investigation of the strikes has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit. Gradually, it has become clear that when operators in Nevada fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world, they often do not know who they are killing, but are making an imperfect best guess. [Continue reading…]

Micah Zenko notes: Based upon the averages within the ranges provided by the New America Foundation, the Long War Journal, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been an estimated 522 U.S. targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia since 9/11, which have killed 3,852 people, 476 (or 12 percent) of whom were civilians.

However, whenever human rights groups produce credible reports about non-American civilians who are unintentionally killed, U.S. officials and spokespersons refuse to provide any information at all, and instead refer back to official policy statements — which themselves appear to contradict how the conduct of U.S. counterterrorism operations is supposed to be practiced. Moreover, even within traditional battlefields like Afghanistan or Iraq, the U.S. government refuses to provide information about harm caused to civilians. Last year in Afghanistan alone, the United Nations documented 104 civilian deaths “from aerial operations by international military forces.” There were no statements from the relevant military commanders or White House about any of these victims.

Earlier this month, during a question-and-answer session at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, CIA director John Brennan pledged:

“We, the U.S. government, the U.S. military, are very, very careful about taking action that’s going to have collateral civilian impact. A lot of these stories that you hear about — in terms of ‘Oh my god, there are hundreds of civilians killed,’ whatever — a lot of that is propaganda that is put out by those elements that are very much opposed to the U.S. coming in and helping.”

“Propaganda.” That’s how U.S. officials deride research that challenges their assertions.

Unfortunately, there have been hundreds of civilians killed by U.S. counterterrorism operations, despite the very real precautions that the CIA and military undertake to prevent them. This is why, as I have written often previously, the United States has an obligation to those American and non-American civilians killed by drones to commission a study into U.S. targeted killing policies similar to the extensive one conducted by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. Without a full and complete accounting of this lethal tactic that has come to define U.S. foreign policy throughout the world, we will always be forced to rely upon the selective pledges provided by U.S. officials. [Continue reading…]

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Waziristan: The world’s drone-strike capital

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American, Italian hostages killed in CIA drone strike in January

The Wall Street Journal reports: A U.S. drone strike in January targeting a suspected al Qaeda compound in Pakistan inadvertently killed an American and Italian being held hostage by the group, senior Obama administration officials said.

The killing of American development expert Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto is the first known instance in which the U.S. has accidentally killed a hostage in a drone strike.

The mishap represents a major blow to the Central Intelligence Agency and its covert drone program in Pakistan, which President Barack Obama embraced and expanded after coming to office in 2009.

The incident also underscores the limits of U.S. intelligence and the risk of unintended consequences in executing a targeted killing program which, according to human rights groups, endangers civilians. U.S. officials say the strikes are needed to combat al Qaeda. To mitigate the risks, officials say the CIA won’t launch missiles at a suspected target if they know civilians are present. [Continue reading…]

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The story of the first and only CIA contractor convicted of torture

The New York Times reports: Agonizing over torture as an antiterrorism tactic — how to define it and how to punish abusers, if at all — has been central to national security debates since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The issue has received renewed attention in recent months with the release of a Senate committee report describing techniques used by the Central Intelligence Agency against terrorism suspects, practices found by senators to have been high in brutality and low in effectiveness.

A few pivotal questions about war’s excesses come together in the decade-old case of one man, who now has the attention of Retro Report, a series of video documentaries that examine major news stories of the past and their impact today. This man, David A. Passaro, is a former Army Ranger who in 2003 went to work for the C.I.A. in Afghanistan as an independent contractor. His brief tour in that country turned out wretchedly. He ended up being sentenced to more than six years in federal prison for beating an Afghan prisoner who then died at an American military base near the border with Pakistan.

Despite evidence that abuses like those chronicled in the Senate report were far from isolated, Mr. Passaro’s situation was singular. A few dozen members of the military were court-martialed for misconduct like the well-documented humiliations inflicted at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But Mr. Passaro is believed to be the only C.I.A.-connected civilian ever prosecuted for going too far. So rare was his case that, to bring him to trial in this country for actions committed overseas, the Justice Department took the highly unusual step of invoking the Patriot Act, the post-9/11 statute intended principally to thwart would-be terrorists. [Continue reading…]

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How could crimes that don’t warrant a life sentence justify a death sentence?

Conor Friedersdorf writes: Some of the most powerful people in the U.S. government wanted to kill Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh. The military, the CIA, and an influential Republican member of Congress all argued that a drone should be sent to kill the American.

Now he is in custody.

And if convicted of all charges that he faces, he’ll get a maximum of 15 years in prison–the same sentence that a brother and sister in Missouri got for growing marijuana.

How can a person narrowly escape extrajudicial assassination, get extradited to the United States, appear inside our judicial system, and face just 15 years in prison? Powerful people were prepared to end his life, but the extent of what they’re willing to prove beyond a reasonable doubt wouldn’t even draw a life sentence. [Continue reading…]

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Pakistan could end up charging CIA officials with murder over drone strikes

Time: A landmark case may open the door for a possible multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit launched by relatives of the alleged 960 civilian victims of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan

A senior judge in Pakistan has ordered police to formally investigate former CIA agents for allegedly authorizing a 2009 drone strike.

If the case moves forward, it may subject the U.S. embassy in Islamabad to sensitive police investigations and even result in U.S. citizens for the first time being charged with murder for covert drone strikes in the South Asian nation.

Last Tuesday, the Islamabad High Court ordered police to open a criminal case against former CIA Islamabad Station Chief Jonathan Bank and ex-CIA legal counsel John A. Rizzo for murder, conspiracy, terrorism and waging war against Pakistan.

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CIA director attacks critics of Iran deal as ‘wholly disingenuous’

Politico reports: CIA Director John Brennan reportedly says the preliminary framework around the nuclear deal with Iran does what had once seemed impossible, calling some critics of the agreement “wholly disingenuous” and expressing surprise at the Iranians’ concessions.

“I must tell you the individuals who say this deal provides a pathway for Iran to a bomb are being wholly disingenuous, in my view, if they know the facts, understand what’s required for a program,” Brennan told an audience at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics on Tuesday night in his first comments since the outline was announced last week in Lausanne, Switzerland, according to Agence France-Presse.

Brennan said that while critics worry that lifting sanctions on Iran will “cause more trouble throughout the area,” the framework is “as solid as you can get” when it comes to blunting the Islamic Republic’s efforts to build nuclear weapons. [Continue reading…]

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Iran-backed rebels loot Yemen files about U.S. spy operations

The Los Angeles Times reports: ecret files held by Yemeni security forces that contain details of American intelligence operations in the country have been looted by Iran-backed militia leaders, exposing names of confidential informants and plans for U.S.-backed counter-terrorism strikes, U.S. officials say.

U.S. intelligence officials believe additional files were handed directly to Iranian advisors by Yemeni officials who have sided with the Houthi militias that seized control of Sana, the capital, in September, which led the U.S.-backed president to flee to Aden.

For American intelligence networks in Yemen, the damage has been severe. Until recently, U.S. forces deployed in Yemen had worked closely with President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi’s government to track and kill Al Qaeda operatives, and President Obama had hailed Yemen last fall as a model for counter-terrorism operations elsewhere. [Continue reading…]

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