By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 9:58 PM
The portrait of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh that emerges from a series of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables is that of a skillful operator - sometimes erratic, often exasperating and always looking for a handout - who knows that he has considerable leverage over his American interlocutors.
The cables, released to news organizations by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, show the Obama administration's rising alarm about the growth of Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP. Spanning from early 2009 to February this year, the classified documents recount the efforts of a series of high-level administration visitors to flatter Saleh while trying to enlist greater cooperation in antiterrorist efforts and pin him down on specific initiatives.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of the U.S. Central Command, congratulated Saleh in January "on successful operations against AQAP," the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa reported. Petraeus told Saleh that he had requested a doubling of U.S. security assistance for Yemen and that President Obama had approved increased U.S. intelligence support.
Saleh congratulated Petraeus for U.S. cruise missile attacks on two AQAP targets in December 2009 - U.S. operations that both governments had publicly denied - and agreed with the general's proposal to use fixed-wing aircraft in the future.
But he turned down Petraeus's request to station U.S. intelligence personnel and equipment in combat areas, saying that the fallout from possible U.S. casualties on the ground would be too great.
Saleh then raised "a topic that he would manage to insert into almost every item of discussion during the hour and half-long meeting," the cable said, asking for 12 armed helicopters. He helpfully suggested that cumbersome U.S. bureaucracy could be circumvented if "the U.S. could convince Saudi Arabia and the [United Arab Emirates] to supply" six of them.
His country also needed more maritime support against smuggling of drugs and arms, Saleh said. "Why not have Italy, Germany, Holland, Japan, Saudi, and the UAE each provide two patrol boats?" he proposed.
Three weeks later, Saleh told Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, that he was satisfied with U.S. assistance to date. But, he said, he "would like to be more satisfied in the future," a Feb. 3 cable reported.
The Americans, Saleh said in a description of U.S. policy through many administrations, were "hot-blooded and hasty when you need us," but "cold-blooded and British when we need you." He asked for a "moderate blood temperature," and a more measured approach.
Benjamin was particularly interested in improving security screening and procedures at Yemeni airports after the unsuccessful attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day. The plot was allegedly launched by a Nigerian student trained in Yemen.
The published cables end before the most recent plot emanating from Yemen - the failed attempt to ship bombs aboard cargo planes in October. But problems in Yemeni airport security had been detected long before that episode or the Christmas attempt.
An August 2009 cable described a visit to Yemen by a U.S. security delegation that revealed "several lapses in airport security practices . . . regarding passenger screening, cargo security, and secure identification display area badge and access procedures."
One of the most telling cables was a report of a visit to Saleh in September 2009 by John O. Brennan, Obama's top terrorism adviser. Saleh expressed dissatisfaction with U.S. aid levels and charged that the United States had produced "only words, but no solutions." He repeatedly requested more funds and equipment for use against AQAP, "while at the same time placing responsibility for any future AQAP attacks on the shoulders" of the United States "now that it enjoys unfettered access to Yemeni airspace, coastal waters and land."
"Highlighting the potential for a future AQAP attack on the U.S. Embassy or other western targets," U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche reported, "Saleh said 'I have given you an open door on terrorism, so I am not responsible' '' for any Yemen-based attacks.
"Saleh was in vintage form during the two hours" with Brennan, Seche wrote, "at times disdainful and dismissive and at others, conciliatory and congenial." While he stated "petulantly" that he was no longer interested in an anticipated invitation to the White House, "Saleh's mood changed noticeably for the better when the invitation was extended" by Brennan, the cable said.
The documents also revealed a frustrating series of exchanges on the subject of the nearly 100 Yemeni prisoners who make up the bulk of detainees remaining in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
In a March 2009 meeting with Brennan, Saleh rejected a proposal to send the Yemenis to a rehabilitation center in neighboring Saudi Arabia, saying that they should be returned to Yemen. He asked for $11 million to build his own rehabilitation center, which he said could be constructed in a matter of months, and said that any attempt to settle the prisoners elsewhere would be protested by Yemeni opposition parties.
Brennan, reflecting ongoing U.S. concern that Saleh's government would be unable to resist domestic pressure to release the detainees, "told Saleh that a leader of his depth of experience could surely figure out a way to deal with the opposition's concerns."
Two months later, Saleh met with Stephen Kappes, then the deputy CIA director. After noting that "Yemen is beset by forces that it will be hard pressed to repel without substantial external support," according to the May 31, 2009 cable, Saleh seemed to have forgotten his rejection of the Saudi program and told Kappes he "intended to permit Yemenis to enter the Saudi rehab program upon their release."
The Yemenis remain in Guantanamo.
A final cable in the series, dated Feb. 17 this year, provided new information on stepped-up Yemeni-U.S. efforts to investigate American citizens living in Yemen for possible terrorist connections. The cable, a formal request for additional consular personnel from Washington, noted "a dramatic increase in arrests of Americans in Yemen since the Christmas Day bombing." In the seven weeks preceding the cable, seven American citizens "were arrested for national security concerns and violations of immigration laws, compared to only six in the entire four months prior."
Most of the cases, it said, involved overstayed Yemeni visas. Many of those arrested were also on U.S. no-fly lists, complicating U.S. consular efforts to send home even those apparently eligible for release.