Why I Confronted Gerald Feierstein, a Key American Advocate for Saudi Arabia’s War on Yemen
At a public event in New York last week, Gerald Feierstein, director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Gulf Affairs and former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, denied claims that he lied on a congressional disclosure form about foreign government funding. He also called Abdulelah Haider Shaye, an independent Yemeni journalist whose reporting on the U.S. covert war in Yemen landed him in a jail cell at the request of the U.S. government during Feierstein’s tenure as ambassador, a “terrorist.”
The event where Feierstein appeared was organized by Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security, which recently hired former CIA director John Brennan as a “distinguished fellow for global security.” Feierstein used his time to condemn what he saw as the destabilizing influence of Iran in the Middle East, hyping the threat of Iranian support for the Houthis in Yemen, who have been the target of a brutal 32-month bombing campaign led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with significant support from the United States.
The war on Yemen has created the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe, causing 130 children to die everyday from extreme hunger and disease, forcing 20 million Yemeni civilians (almost three-fourths of the population) into need of immediate aid and unleashing the worst cholera outbreak in history.
The Middle East Institute that pays Feierstein’s salary is a Washington D.C.-based think tank that boasts substantial influence in foreign policy circles. As AlterNet’s Grayzone Project has reported, corporate media consistently give Feierstein and the MEI a platform to push for U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. He has routinely defended U.S. support for and arms sales to Saudi Arabia for its war on Yemen.
In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March, Feierstein argued that limiting U.S. military assistance to the Saudi/UAE-led coalition would be “counter-productive.” In June, he testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the U.S. “should continue to rebuild its defense relationship with Saudi Arabia.” “I believe that we should move forward,” he added, on the sale of precision-guided munitions, which the Obama administration blocked at the 11th hour because coalition airstrikes were killing so many civilians and which the Trump administration has since resumed with a narrow Senate vote.
Now Feierstein appears to have lied to Congress in a disclosure form regarding foreign government funding. He checked the “No” box in response to a question asking if he or MEI had “received any contract or payment originating with a foreign government related to the subject of the hearing” since 2013.
According to an email sent to Yousef al-Otaiba, UAE ambassador to the U.S., the United Arab Emirates has lavished the MEI with $20 million in donations, ostensibly to expand its offices. MEI’s annual report of contributions for 2016 shows contributions of $2 million from Saudi Arabia for Feierstein’s Gulf Studies program; another $1.5 million from the UAE for undisclosed purposes; nearly a half million from the Carnegie Corporation; more than $300,000 from oil companies Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, and Aramco; and tens of thousands from the weapons manufacturers Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, corporations that have a great deal of profit to gain through the war in Yemen. Annual reports as early as 2012 and 2013 reveal similar donations.
Confronting Feierstein about lying to Congress
During the Q&A portion of the event last week, I asked Feierstein about his failure to disclose the millions of dollars MEI receives from the very Gulf countries whose wars he defends in congressional testimony. “The most important thing is that the Congress doesn't think that I misrepresented the facts, and that’s actually the most important point,” he said.
I confronted @j_feierstein of UAE-funded @MiddleEastInst about lying on congressional disclosure forms regarding fo… https://t.co/hvle7RPrnY— Gunar Olsen (@Gunar Olsen) 1511230297.0
The claim that Congress doesn’t think Feierstein lied is difficult to verify, as there have been no public statements about his disclosure form.
This week, AlterNet spoke to Scott Zuke, MEI’s communications director, by phone. He declined to comment for this story.
Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in government ethics and national security, told AlterNet that the question on the disclosure form is “not aimed at detecting whether the witness is free of conflicts of interest. It does not inquire whether the witness or his organization has received funding from someone who has an interest in the subject of the hearing.” By contrast, it asks a very narrow question, i.e., if the payment itself is “related” to the subject of the hearing. “What Congress should want to know is whether there’s any source of payment—not just from any foreign government or the U.S. government, but from anybody—who has interest in this hearing,” Clark said.
But while Gulf payments to MEI weren’t explicitly earmarked to be “related to the subject” of Feierstein’s testimonies to Congress, Saudi and Emirati influence over MEI is clear: They give the think tank millions of dollars per year, and in return its staff members defend their wars to Congress and in the media.
Challenging the branding of a journalist as a 'terrorist'
After the event concluded, I confronted Feierstein about his involvement as U.S. ambassador to Yemen in the proxy detention of Abdulelah Haider Shaye, an independent Yemeni journalist. Feierstein told me Shaye was incarcerated “because he was a terrorist."
I also confronted him about why journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye was jailed in Yemen at US request during his tenu… https://t.co/SBUiL0dte5— Gunar Olsen (@Gunar Olsen) 1511230437.0
Although this is not the first time Feierstein has discussed Shaye and terrorism together, it is the first time he has explicitly called Shaye a terrorist. In 2012, Feierstein told veteran Yemen-based foreign correspondent Iona Craig,
"Haidar Shaye is in jail because he was facilitating al-Qaeda and its planning for attacks on Americans and therefore we have a very direct interest in his case and his imprisonment. But this isn’t anything to do with journalism, it is to do with the fact that he was assisting AQAP and if they [Yemeni journalists] are not doing that they don’t have anything to worry about from us."
But Shaye is not a terrorist, and his incarceration was indeed directly related to his journalism. In a country dominated by Western- and Gulf-funded media, Shaye’s independent journalism offered a nuanced perspective on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the covert U.S. war in Yemen.
Shaye reported on civilian deaths caused by U.S. airstrikes, including President Obama’s first in Yemen, a cluster-bomb-laden Tomahawk cruise missile that killed 14 women and 21 children in Yemen’s al-Majala village on Dec. 17, 2009. While the Yemeni government claimed its forces carried out the strike, Shaye’s reporting revealed that it was, in fact, an American operation. Journalist Jeremy Scahill writes,
"[Shaye] photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label “Made in the USA,” and distributed the photos to international media outlets and human rights organizations. He reported that the majority of the victims were women, children and the elderly. After conducting his own investigation, Shaye determined that it was a US strike, and he was all over the media telling anyone would listen. The young journalist was becoming a thorn in America’s side."
Diplomatic cables later released by WikiLeaks confirmed Shaye’s account. “We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh assured then-CENTCOM commander David Petraeus a few weeks after the attack.
Shaye’s interviews with al Qaeda members—including several critical one-on-ones with U.S. citizen and al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki for the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Al Jazeera at the very moment when the CIA and JSOC were adding the radical cleric to their assassination lists—made him the "leading chronicler of the rise of [AQAP].”
Shaye often gained exclusive access to al Qaeda figures through his relationship, by marriage, to radical cleric Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, founder of Sana’a’s Iman University and a U.S. Treasury Department-designated terrorist. While the US government saw this as evidence of nefarious intentions, Shaye’s advocates argued that he was merely doing the journalistic work of developing sources.
In August 2010, eight months after the al-Majala bombing, Shaye was arrested by Yemeni intelligence agents, placed in solitary confinement for 34 days without access to a lawyer, and charged with being the “media man” for al Qaeda. “I believe he was arrested upon a request from the US,” Shaye’s lawyer later told Scahill. A few months later Shaye was convicted of terrorism-related charges in a kangaroo court and sentenced to five years in prison.
In response to intense pressure from tribal leaders and international human rights groups, President Saleh issued a pardon for Shaye’s release. But then President Obama intervened, calling Saleh directly and urging him to keep Shaye locked up. Despite another public request from Feierstein, Shaye was finally released two and a half years later by Yemen’s new president, the Saudi-backed Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, eliciting “concern and disappointment” in a statement by the U.S. government.