WASHINGTON -- James Rosen got off easy. After searching his email and tracking his whereabouts, the Department of Justice has not jailed or prosecuted the Fox News journalist, which the Obama administration says reflects its deep respect for the role of a free press. On Thursday, a DOJ spokesperson said in a statement that "the Department does not anticipate bringing any additional charges. During the Attorney General's tenure, no reporter has ever been prosecuted."
The Obama administration gave no such leniency to Abdulelah Haider Shaye, a Yemeni journalist who had access to top officials in the militant Islamist group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and reported on evidence that the United States had conducted a missile strike in al Majala for which the Yemeni government had claimed credit.
After Shaye was initially imprisoned for alleged involvement with AQAP in 2010, supporters pressed for his release, and word leaked that the Yemeni president was going to issue a pardon. In early 2011, Obama personally intervened. "President Obama expressed concern over the release of Abd-Ilah al-Shai, who had been sentenced to five years in prison for his association with AQAP," reads a summary of the call posted on the White House website.
The reporter was not released. The U.S. administration has still presented no evidence to back up the notion that he is a terrorist or a supporter of terrorism. "We remain concerned about al-Shai's potential early release due to his association with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," Bernadette Meehan, a White House spokesperson, told HuffPost.
Shaye's case is likely to receive new scrutiny in the wake of the Rosen matter, the trial of Army Pvt. Bradley Manning for passing secret files to WikiLeaks, and the release of the documentary "Dirty Wars," which highlights Shaye's ongoing imprisonment. Written by investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, the film opens Friday, June 7.
Munir al Mawri, a Yemeni journalist who is a dual U.S. citizen, told HuffPost that he met with Shaye in his basement prison cell two weeks ago. "He was in bad condition. He did not even appreciate my coming. He seemed to be depressed," al Mawri said, adding that Shaye asked him, "Who allowed you to come to my cell? Why didn't you ask my permission?" The time in isolation, al Mawri said, was clearly wearing on Shaye. Al Mawri, who spoke to HuffPost by phone from New York, is soon returning to Yemen, where he is a member of the National Dialogue Conference working toward reconciliation following a 2011 uprising.
Al Mawri said that he does not share Shaye's more radical politics, but always found him a reliable journalist. "I feel sympathy with any fellow journalist who faces this kind of thing. He has the reputation that he's pro-radicals in his writing, but I believe this is his right. That's his opinion," al Mawri said. "I am a liberal, but I believe that others have the right to be conservative or be whatever they like ... What I like about his writing is the analytical part. Without him, we would never know that that many civilians got killed in al Majala. He proved that. He was right. And I don't care what was his own opinion or what he thinks of this. I care about the civilians. He was a reliable and credible journalist. He never gave us any lie or misleading information. He's more credible than the Yemeni government."
Indeed, the previous Yemeni government instituted a lifetime ban on al Mawri, which the U.S. ambassador to Yemen publicly opposed. "The Ambassador reiterated the support of the Government of the United States of America for press freedom in Yemen, and its view that responsible and independent media perform an essential function in a democratic society," the embassy said in 2009 in reference to al Mawri's case.
Shaye's trial in Yemen was widely considered a farce. Without the Obama administration presenting its own evidence, it's difficult to know what President Obama meant by Shaye's "association" with AQAP. Al Mawri said that Yemen's former president was furious at Shaye for exposing the civilian deaths at al Majala and fed the United States false information to implicate him as a terrorist. Now, Yemen's current president has reportedly promised to pardon Shaye, but the White House is still relying on what the past president told them.
"President [Abdrabbuh Mansour] Hadi won't release Shaye without the green light from the American administration," said al Mawri. "He's under strong pressure to release Shaye ... Without that [White House] statement, he would be free. They should help Hadi to release this guy, and we need to open a new era to fight terrorism. But for him [Hadi] to do that, he's not going to challenge America."
Meanwhile, the cases of Manning and Rosen suggest that the Obama administration sees little distinction between journalists' use of sources and support of America's enemies. Rosen was labeled a possible "co-conspirator" by the Justice Department for soliciting information from a government adviser; the source was indicted. Manning has been charged with "aiding the enemy" for releasing classified information to the public. If the administration takes such a view against one of its own soldiers, it's unlikely it would give the benefit of the doubt to a Yemeni reporter who regularly appeared on Al Jazeera with high-level AQAP officials -- the very people the administration was working to hunt down and kill, but had difficulty finding.
Shaye had regular access, for instance, to Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen and cleric whom Obama recently admitted he had ordered assassinated by drone strike. Shaye interviewed al-Awlaki about his communications with U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, the suspected Fort Hood shooter, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber. The administration said that it was justified in killing al-Awlaki without trial because he was operationally involved in those attacks. But in his interviews with Shaye, al-Awlaki denied being involved in an operational way, saying only that he was supportive.
Shaye is not an obscure journalist. He contributed reporting to The Washington Post and other major media outlets regularly, including with regard to al-Awlaki. He was often critical of al Qaeda, the U.S. government and the Yemeni government.
Despite the reports of a possible pardon, Shaye's family and supporters remain doubtful.
Watch Scahill discuss Shaye's case above.
Ryan Grim also contributes to Al Jazeera.