President Barack Obama’s administration began to bomb Yemen and launched an attack on al-Majalah in Yemen on December 17, 2009. A deadly strike that included at least five US Navy Tomahawk cruise missiles with cluster munitions is believed to have killed the apparent target, a suspected Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula Muhammad al-Kazami, however, the attack did not only kill al-Kazami. It also killed forty-one civilians in a Bedouin camp, including nine women and twenty-one children.
In his book, Dirty Wars, journalist Jeremy Scahill wrote about Sheikh Saleh bin Fareed, one of the “most powerful men in southern Yemen. He was a “member of parliament, leader of a huge tribe and was building a massive private resort right on the Gulf of Aden.” He also witnessed the devastation caused by the attack on al-Majalah, which Yemen initially claimed responsibility for carrying out.
“When we went there, we could not believe our eyes. I mean, if somebody had a weak heart, I think he would collapse. You see goats and sheep all over, you see the heads of those who were killed here, and there. You see their bodies, you see children. I mean some of them, they were not hit immediately, but by the fire, they burned,” Fareed told Scahill.
He added, “You could not tell if this meat belongs to animals or to human beings.” The carnage was mostly women and children or sheep, goats and cows. “Why did they do this? Why in the hell are they doing this?”
Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson was involved in approving the targeting of Kazami. According to Scahill, Admiral William McRaven, the head of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), decided a “JSOC-led cruise missile attack on the camp,” where Kazemi was believed to be, would be the best way to kill him.
Johnson faced “heavy pressure exerted by the military to kill.” He was expected in a short period of time to weigh all of the options but was “rushed and unprepared.” He approved killing Kazami and watched as those hit by the cruise missiles were “vaporized.” JSOC had a feed of the attack that appeared on something referred to internally as “Kill TV.”
Daniel Klaidman, in his book, Kill or Capture, reported that Johnson had said of the bombing on al-Majalah, “If I were Catholic, I’d have to go to confession.”
Johnson has not publicly addressed his involvement in this atrocity in any speeches or appearances on television since he left his position at the Pentagon, but, on November 13, he will appear before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee for a hearing on his nomination to the position of Director of Homeland Security.
While Johnson should face questioning for his role in authorizing drone strikes, he is unlikely to be questioned extensively on his past role by any Democrats in the Senate.
Senator Harry Reid said of Obama’s nomination that he had chosen a man with “sterling credentials to head the department charged with protecting America from those who would do us harm. He lauded him for being a “consensus builder who is not afraid to tackle tough issues.”
Rep. Nancy Pelosi declared in a statement that the “nephew of one of our nation’s courageous Tuskegee Airmen” had carried on a tradition of “fighting prejudice on the frontlines. He was part of the effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and he also was a “critical member of the President’s counterterrorism team who helped build some of the most important national security policies and strategies during the President’s first term.”
What he is likely to be questioned on are his views on immigration laws and policies. He also may face a line of questioning about his donations to Democrats from GOP senators, even though previous DHS chiefs, Michael Chertoff and Tom Ridge, had donated to President George W. Bush. and Republican campaigns before being nominated.
Neither of these questions will help anyone understand Johnson’s views on national security and his past history.
In a speech given at Oxford University on November 30, 2012, Johnson suggested a “tipping point” was coming when “so many of the leaders and operatives of al Qaeda and its affiliates” will have been killed or captured and the group will no longer be able to “attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States.” It will have been “effectively destroyed.” He suggested at that moment America will no longer be in an “armed conflict” against Al Qaeda and its “associated forces.” It would now be up to law enforcement and intelligence resources to cooperate with the international community to tackle future counterterrorism threats.
What does Johnson think now? This seemed to be, in a small way, a rejection of America’s perpetual war footing, which has justified targeted assassinations of alleged terrorism suspects and indefinite detention of detainees. Whether Johnson embraces perpetual war will give a hint as to what he may allow to happen on his watch as Homeland Security chief.
At the Aspen Security Forum in July, Johnson showed he was a believer in the US surveillance state. He commented on what former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden had revealed and said none of what had been disclosed was illegal because “all three branches in government” approve of it.
“There is no expectation of privacy in metadata itself,” he added. “The fact that 212-372-3093 makes a phone call to someone in the 202 area code is known to the telephone company and lots of people. There is no expectation in the fact of that call and the duration of that call itself. Clearly, there is an expectation of privacy in content, for which you need a warrant.”
He claimed the NSA surveillance program he was addressing—the bulk data collection program—was the “most regulated national security program” in America. (If true, that could be interpreted as more of a statement on poor oversight and lawless activities by government than how ethical and lawful the program happens to be.)
Also, at the Aspen Security Forum, Johnson indicated that he supports the prosecution of whistleblowers like Pvt. Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, but he does not support dramatic responses that involve major changes in national security agencies when security is breached and leaks happen. He essentially believes if someone wants to commit a criminal act they will commit a criminal act.
In a June speech to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, he declared that precision warfare technology like drones were a manifestation of a commitment to adhere to the laws of war. A minimal amount of transparency on the legal basis for targeted assassinations of terrorism suspects is out there in the public, however, Johnson claimed that a “more sustainable legal framework” for counterterrorism had been created.
Jess Bravin, author of The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay, wrote in his book, “When the Obama administration took office, Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson helped persuade the new president to retain the military commissions structure established under Bush.”
He “made it a point to police drafts of future campaign speeches to excise passages explicitly repudiating military commissions.” It was his belief that this was the “only way to try some of the really bad guys held at Gitmo” and take “them out of legal no-man’s-land” so the administration could close Guantanamo Bay prison.
Johnson has supported indefinite detention. At a Senate hearing in July of 2009, he said that even if Guantanamo Bay detainees were acquitted by civil or military courts they could still be imprisoned indefinitely “if the government determines that they pose a national security threat.”
“The question of what happens if there’s an acquittal is an interesting question — we talk about that often within the administration,” Johnson told the Senate. “If, for some reason, he’s not convicted for a lengthy prison sentence, then, as a matter of legal authority, I think it’s our view that we would have the ability to detain that person.”
He opposed a provision in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act that mandated military detention for terrorism suspects in the United States believed to have connections to al Qaeda or its “associated forces.” (That has not stopped the Obama administration from fighting a lawsuit against the constitutionality of the provision in the courts.)
In a country with a decent political class, Johnson would be confronted on all of the above tomorrow. He would also be asked about the PATRIOT Act and whether it should be repealed.
Johnson would be asked about the conduct of Border Patrol and its commitment to using “deadly force” against “rock-throwers.” He would be asked about suspicionless laptop searches and seizures. He would be asked about “No Fly” lists. He would be asked what role domestic surveillance drones, GPS tracking and facial recognition technology should be allowed to play and whether this technology would violate Americans’ privacy. He would be asked about fusion centers and whether they should all be shut down because they have not thwarted terrorism; instead, they have been found to be engaged in activities that violate Americans’ civil liberties.
Civil liberties groups, including the ACLU, have asked senators to ask Johnson about his role in the targeted assassination program. They have asked senators to confront him on his view on the legal authority and scope of the program. So, maybe one senator will ask him about his past involvement in authorizing drone killings.
Mostly what can be expected at the nomination hearing, however, is that senators will primarily celebrate the massive bureaucracy that is Homeland Security and its role as a cog in the ever-expanding machine of the national security state. GOP senators will go for gotcha moments and Democratic senators will try to defend Johnson against attempts to trap him on donations to Obama or his support for treating immigrants as if they’re humans. These Democratic senators will also share how pleased they are that Obama nominated Johnson.
Ultimately, Johnson will become the next Homeland Security chief and continue many of the policies that began under President George W. Bush and have been staunchly embraced by Obama.