Saudi Drone Base Blackout

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Yesterday it was widely reported that the United States has been operating "secret" drone base in Saudi Arabia since 2011. Not only that, but some American news organisations had known about the base for more than a year and chose not to disclose its existence because of a blackout agreement made with the government.

Here's a snippet from the Washington Post's report:

The Washington Post had refrained from disclosing the location at the request of the administration, which cited concern that exposing the facility would undermine operations against an al-Qaeda affiliate regarded as the network’s most potent threat to the United States, as well as potentially damage counterterrorism collaboration with Saudi Arabia.

The Post learned Tuesday night that another news organization was planning to reveal the location of the base, effectively ending an informal arrangement among several news organizations that had been aware of the location for more than a year.

But the logic here doesn't stack up. Why? Because on 26 July 2011 a story was published by the London Times titled "Secret drone bases mark latest shift in US attacks on al-Qaeda." This report revealed the existance of a CIA drone base in Saudi Arabia, and even went as far as to speculatively pinpoint its exact location:

The CIA has set up a network of secret drone bases in Arab states in a major escalation of its campaign against al-Qaeda militants in Yemen.

Sources in the Gulf say the agency is now massed along Yemen’s borders, launching daily missions with unmanned Predator aircraft from bases in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Djibouti and the United Arab Emirates. [...]

“Oman, Saudi and the UAE are being used as bases for drones. The operation against al-Qaeda has been stepped up in Yemen and in Somalia,” said a Gulf defence source. [...]

A senior Gulf intelligence source believes the most likely base in Saudi Arabia is at Khamis Mushayt in the southwest. The site has been used by Saudi forces for airstrikes against Houthi rebels in northern Yemen. A possible alternative is Sharurah in the kingdom’s Empty Quarter, close to the Yemeni border but considered less secure.

What this means is that the information the United States government was pressuring American reporters to keep secret was already in the public domain — it had already been "outed," as it were, and it hadn't damaged counter-terrorism operations or the relationship with Saudi Arabia. Anyone with an Internet connection — and yes, that includes members of al-Qaeda — could find out that the CIA had a "secret" drone base in Saudi Arabia simply by doing a quick Google search. (Even though the Times story is behind a paywall, the first few paragraphs, which include the Saudi detail, can still be viewed for free.)

Defending the decision not to publish this information after some criticism, Washington Post reporter Greg Miller posted a tweet today saying: "For the record, WaPo has reported CIA drone base on Arabian peninsula since 2011, w/out disclosing it was in Saudi." I asked him why not disclose the specific country when it had already been published elsewhere, and he responded: "Short answer: US govt concerned more about US press than British, and saying on Arabian peninsula puts readers pretty close."

I think this shows poor judgement. It seems flawed to make a distinction between the British and American press here, especially in the age of the Internet. All news stories published online are distributed instantly to an international audience. By disclosing the existence of an "Arabian peninsula" base while suppressing the exact country in question — even though it is already in the public domain — not only are you serving no substantive purpose but you are doing your readers a disservice.

In national security journalism, difficult decisions often have to be made under incredible pressures. Sometimes, there can be a legitimate need to keep a certain military operation undisclosed if, for example, lives are at stake. But in this case I think the American press got it wrong. Unfortunately, it comes off looking like another example of deference to power that will ultimately taint the reputations of the newspapers involved.

1 comment:

  1. If you look close in google earth you can see the checkered pattern of roofs over the drones' parking lot beside the new runway at KM