After an errant drone strike in Yemen, a trail of secret meetings and U.S. cash

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent

In late November of last year, at a coffee shop across from the White House, a soft-spoken Yemeni civil servant, filled with righteous indignation, held an unusual meeting with two of President Barack Obama's national security aides — and quickly put them on the spot.

Faisal bin Ali Jaber, 56, had come to talk about a painful subject: a CIA drone strike that had unleashed a barrage of Hellfire missiles on his rural village in southeastern Yemen, incinerating bodies and scattering severed legs, arms and a head by a nearby mosque.

Among those killed in the Aug. 29, 2012, strike — which provoked anti-U.S. protests in the village — were three suspected militants. But also dead were two of Jaber's innocent relatives: his nephew, 26, a local police officer; and his brother-in-law, 43, an imam who had publicly denounced the violence of al-Qaida just days before the strike.

Who would be held accountable for these deaths, Jaber, an official with Yemen's environmental protection agency, wanted to know. And who would compensate the families for their loss?

Obama's aides — Stephen Pomper, the National Security Council's senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights, and a more junior colleague — listened politely during the hourlong meeting, saying little, promising only to consider what he had to say, according to Jaber's account.

A procession of protesters following a U.S. drone strike in the rural village of Khashamir, Yemen, in 2012. The banner in red reads: No to killing of innocents. (Reprieve)

But this past summer Jaber got a startling offer, one that may provide a revealing look into how the CIA conducts damage control for lethal mistakes in its covert targeted-killing program.

At 10 a.m. on July 8, Jaber told Yahoo News in an exclusive interview, he and a family member were invited to the headquarters of Yemen's National Security Bureau, an agency that works closely with the CIA.

A legal adviser met them there and said that "there was money awaiting us." He then picked up a blue plastic bag "like something you would get in a tobacco shop," Jaber said during the interview, conducted via Skype.

Inside the bag was $100,000 in U.S. cash, "freshly minted" $100 bills wrapped in rubber bands, Jaber said. "The money was almost brand-new. The serial numbers were sequential."

Jaber at first balked, uneasy about taking so much money with no documentation. But his relative, the executor of the deceased family members' estate, returned the next day to retrieve it and this time was told "it came from the U.S. government," said the executor, who asked that he not be identified by name, in a telephone interview.

Six days later, $99,880 — $100,000 minus a small transfer fee — was wired from the Al-Omgy & Bros. Exchange Co. in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, to yet another member of Jaber's family in the region where the drone strike took place, according to a copy of the receipt from the money-exchange office obtained by Reprieve, a London-based international human rights group that is representing Jaber and that provided a copy to Yahoo News.

Those funds are now being used to support the families of the deceased, including the imam's wife and seven children, along with Jaber's nephew's wife and 2-year-old son, now living in Dubai. 

Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, a 43-year-old imam and brother-in-law of Faisal Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, left, and police officer Walid Abdullah Abd al-Mahmoud bin Ali Jaber, 26, the nephew of Jaber, both killed in a drone attack in Yemen in 2012. (Reprieve)

But Jaber is still not satisfied. "How can it be that money is given in this way, without any paperwork and in this secretive manner?" he said. "One thinks the U.S. believes it can silence the families of the victims with money" rather than "an apology [for the drone strike] and an explanation."

Jaber's detailed account offers some of the strongest evidence so far that the Obama administration has quietly paid compensation, at least in some instances, to the families of innocent civilians killed in U.S. drone strikes — a sensitive subject that U.S. officials consistently refuse to discuss publicly.

"We won't be able to comment one way or another on your query," said Dean Boyd, the agency's chief of public affairs, when asked about Jaber's account and whether the CIA had provided the cash. When asked what role national security staffer Pomper may have played in facilitating the payment, a White House spokesman also declined any comment.

But three other current and former U.S. intelligence officials, including a member of the House Intelligence Committee briefed in detail about the CIA drone program, said that Jaber's account is consistent with the way the agency handles such matters.

"I don't find anything which he is describing as surprising or inherently at odds with what I know," said Rep. Adam Schiff, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, who also met with Jaber when the Yemeni came to Washington last year. "I have no reason to doubt what he's saying."

"This is like a scene out of 'Homeland,'" said a Yemeni official, when asked about Jaber's account, referring to the popular Showtime TV show about a CIA officer who, in a recent episode, approves an agency drone strike that ends up killing civilians attending a wedding party.

Villagers surround a car hit by a drone strike in the village of Khashamir in 2012. (Reprieve)

The official said he was unable to "confirm or deny" the transfer of U.S. cash to Jaber's family. But he acknowledged that the Yemeni government this summer — completely separately — paid its own compensation, 11 million Yemeni rials (the equivalent of about $55,000), to the families of the police officer, Walid Abdullah Abd al-Mahmoud bin Ali Jaber, and the imam, Salim Ahmed bin Ali Jaber.

An official directive, signed by Yemen's President Abd Rabbo Masour Hadi, authorized the payment. It states that the two men were "mistakenly killed in an airstrike" and the funds were being paid "in recognition of their family circumstances and their difficult social situation," according to a copy of the document obtained by Yahoo News.

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The Defense Department — which also conducts drone strikes — has long paid "solatia," or condolence payments, to civilian victims of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the CIA's willingness to make such payments seemed to be acknowledged, if glancingly, for the first time only last year by agency director John Brennan during his confirmation hearing. In a written response to questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee, Brennan said that "in those rare instances" in which civilians are killed or injured from lethal strikes, "the U.S. government" will undertake "after-action reviews" and "where possible" work with local governments "to provide condolence payments to families of those killed."

But despite Obama's pledge last year to bring greater transparency to the drone program, almost nothing is publicly known about such payments. The administration has offered no public accounting of how many civilians it believes have been killed by U.S. drone strikes, how many "condolence" payments have been made or who has received them.

"It's been very disappointing," said Rosa Brooks, who served as a Defense Department counselor during Obama's first term. This year Brooks, along with retired Army Gen. John Abizaid, co-chaired a private task force sponsored by the Stimson Center, a foreign policy think tank, that met with White House counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco and other administration officials and urged the release of far more information about drone strikes and civilian casualties.

But "we've seen virtually nothing," said Brooks. "Every time we pushed [the White House] for more [transparency] we got these vague answers: 'Oh, yeah, we're working on this.' But nothing has happened."

A piece of the wreckage from the Hellfire missle, left, and blood from the aftermath of a U.S. drone strike in a rural village in Yemen in 2012. (Reprieve)

There are reasons for the resistance, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official who was directly involved in the drone program. While the CIA will at times make the kind of cash payments described by Jaber, the official said, the agency has an interest in keeping them secret "so you don't incentivize people to make false claims."

Ironically, in the case of the drone strike that hit the village of Khashamir and killed Jaber's family members, community leaders were at first deeply divided about taking the money.

The day Jaber and the executor were first offered the cash, they consulted with a committee of village elders. One group, Jaber said, argued against accepting the bag "because this should be public compensation," not "secret compensation where they are trying to push this all under the carpet." But another group, he said, argued, "'If we don't take it, we will lose it — and the families that have lost breadwinners are in a terrible state.' ... And the families said, 'We really need this money.'"

In the end, the decision reached by the village elders was to take the money.

So the next morning the executor returned for a second meeting at the National Security Bureau. While there, he told Yahoo News in an interview, he was told by the bureau's legal adviser that were it not for Jaber's trip to Washington the bag of cash "wouldn't have happened," noting that there has been no compensation for the majority of drone strikes.

The lawyer then asked the executor to sign two documents acknowledging receipt of the money for the deaths of the police officer and the imam "during an American airstrike," copies of the documents show.

But then, at the lawyer's insistence, the executor added the words "and this compensation comes only from the National Security Bureau" — an effort, as the executor saw it, to remove the fingerprints of the U.S. government.