What is a secret drone base that's not actually a secret? The Washington Post and the New York Times revealed today that they were among a number of news organizations that participated in a blackout regarding the location of a "secret" CIA drone base in Saudia Arabia at the behest of the Obama Administration. But it turns out that base had already been reported months earlier—including by Fox News. In the case of the Saudi drone base, the Times and the Post weren't protecting a state secret: They were helping the CIA bury an inconvenient story.
Reading the Times and Post stories on the Saudia Arabia drone base used by the CIA to assassinate American cleric Anwar al-awlaki in Yemen, one is left with the impression that its existence had become known for the first time today. In fact, the Times of London reported 18 months ago that the CIA was "launching daily missions with unmanned Predator aircraft from bases in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Djibouti and the United Arab Emirates." And a September 2011 story from FoxNews.com reported similar news: A "senior U.S. military official" "confirmed the construction of a new airstrip in Saudi Arabia," which the U.S. was using to expand to its drone program. (It seems that all mention of Saudi Arabi was scrubbed from the FoxNews.com story sometime after publication and replaced with the less-specific "Arabian Peninsula," though the original still viewable on the mobile version.)
The fact that the drone base was already reported renders the rationale behind the months-long blackout a farce. According to New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, New York Times managing editor Dean Baquet was swayed by the CIA's argument for witholding the story. Sullivan writes:
The government's rationale for asking that the location be withheld was this: Revealing it might jeopardize the existence of the base and harm counterterrorism efforts. "The Saudis might shut it down because the citizenry would be very upset," Baquet said.
Mr. Baquet added, "We have to balance that concern with reporting the news." The need to tell this particular story accurately trumped the government's concerns.
Mr. Baquet said he had a conversation with a C.I.A. official about a month ago and, at that time, agreed to continue withholding the location, as it had done for many months.
By Sullivan's account, the Times' revelation of the base's location today was almost an act of bravery, exposing a secret in the face of CIA pressure after much careful back-and-forth.
The AP offered a more dire rationale for withholding their story, saying in a statement that "U.S. officials contended that revealing the location would make the base a target of extremists, endangering people directly, and would badly endanger counterterror efforts."
But this wasn't about the security of Americans. Any terrorist who was serious about attacking American targets in Saudi Arabia could have used Google to learn of the new drone base months ago. The fact that the Times made no mention of a security concern in their rationale makes the security argument seem suspect. In cooperating with the blackout, news organizations weren't protecting a state secret: They were making the CIA's life easier by suppressing a story that was already out there. One which may have embarrassed their Saudi hosts, whose citizens might rightly be concerned that their soil was the launching pad for attacks in Yemen like the one reported by the Times today:
In one recent case, on Jan. 23, a drone strike in a village east of Sana killed a 21-year-old university student named Saleem Hussein Jamal and his cousin, a 33-year-old teacher named Ali Ali Nasser Jamal, who happened to have been traveling with him. According to relatives and neighbors of the two men, they were driving home from a nearby town called Jahana when five strangers offered to pay them for a ride. The drone-fired missile hit the vehicle, a twin-cab Toyota Hilux, just outside the village of Masnaa at about 9 p.m. The strangers were later identified in Yemeni news reports as members of Al Qaeda, though apparently not high-ranking ones.
After the strike, villagers were left to identify their two dead relatives from identity cards, scraps of clothing and the license plate of Mr. Jamal's Toyota; the seven bodies were shredded beyond recognition, as cellphone photos taken at the scene attest. "We found eyes, but there were no faces left," said Abdullah Faqih, a student who knew both of the dead cousins.