U.S. Reportedly Intensifies Covert Effort In Yemen
NORRIS: And there are reports of changes in the U.S. effort to root out militants in Yemen. The U.S. has intensified its covert actions there. That's according to a report today in The New York Times which says, the military is capitalizing on a period of great political uncertainty in Yemen.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh left the country after he was wounded in an attack. His government is struggling to hold onto power. And according to The Times, the U.S. has been using armed drones and fighter jets to keep militants from stepping into the power vacuum.
That story was covered by Mark Mazzetti. He covers national security for The New York Times and he joins us here in the studio. How do you characterize the U.S. involvement in this conflict? Is it similar to the effort to target al-Qaida in Pakistan or more of an effort to bolster a government that happens to be friendly to the United States?
Mr. MARK MAZZETTI (The New York Times): It's a little bit of both. The last couple of years have seen an increase in U.S. assistance to Yemen. Yemen has been identified by the Obama Administration as perhaps the next greatest threat to the United States, maybe even more now than Pakistan is.
So they've tried to spend a lot of money bolstering Yemeni security forces, but at the same time, they've been doing their own clandestine activities in Yemen. It's been intelligence gathering and then, at times, there's been this flurry of airstrikes, either from jets, from Tomahawk cruise missiles, from armed drones. And as we've seen in the last several weeks, this has been renewed after more of a - almost a year of a hiatus in the strikes.
NORRIS: Now, you say this is a clandestine effort, however, many people know about this. You've written about this many times in The New York Times. How long has the U.S. been conducting these airstrikes?
Mr. MAZZETTI: The first strike was, we believe, in December of 2009. And it went - there was several in the ensuing months until last May when a deputy governor of Yemen was killed in the desert accidentally a U.S. strike while he was brokering a meeting with militants. That led to fury inside of Yemen among the politicians. There was an investigation by Yemen's parliament. And what we saw after that was a halt to the strikes.
And I think part of the problem was that the U.S. acknowledged that the intelligence wasn't particularly good in Yemen and so they needed to ramp up intelligence gathering so something like this didn't happen again. It's my understanding that the intelligence is getting better, at the same time, it's tricky because they're now in the middle of a civil war.
And the concern is, is that if they're getting intelligence from one faction of the civil war, it's to sort of call in airstrikes on the rivals. And so the U.S. is getting in the midst of it and that's a real danger.
NORRIS: A question about the timing of escalation in the airstrikes. Did this happen after President Saleh left the country?
Mr. MAZZETTI: It actually happened before and after. So the first one of the strikes - more recent strikes happened in early May, which was actually just days after Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan. That was a drone strike targeting Anwar al-Awlaki, one of the leaders of the affiliate in - al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen. The most recent one happened on Friday and that was after President Saleh left the country to Saudi Arabia.
And it's interesting, there's a little bit of a double-edged sword here. On one hand, the United States is concerned that the Yemeni government is so concerned with its own survival it's not going after militants. At the same time, Saleh did put a lot of restrictions on what the U.S. could do inside the country and with him gone, I think there's a feeling that there's a little bit more freedom of movement.
NORRIS: Has there been a backlash against these U.S. airstrikes, much as we've seen in Pakistan?
Mr. MAZZETTI: There have been occasional protests after these strikes. Civilians have been killed. They've not been mass protests. There's not been a tremendous amount of pressure on Saleh because of that - of this. As we've seen, there's been a lot of pressure on Saleh for other things.
So we will see what happens now that Saleh is gone - the government is still in place, but it's fragile - whether these strikes might actually put pressure on the government that remains.
NORRIS: Mark Mazzetti, thank you very much.
Mr. MAZZETTI: Thank you.
NORRIS: Mark Mazzetti is a reporter for The New York Times.
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