You can’t spell ‘secret’ without ‘A’ ‘P’

The United States has operated a secret drone base in Saudi Arabia for two years, it was revealed today.

That’s not necessarily the story. This line in the BBC account of the story is the story:

The US media had known of its existence, but had not reported it until now.

It’s not clear the extent to which this is true and which news organizations conspired to keep wars secret. The New York Times has focused attention on the “clandestine” drone war the United States is waging in the Middle East.

It only hinted that some reporters have known about the extent of the administration’s efforts to kill what it considers to be enemies, even if they are American:

American officials have never explained in public why the C.I.A. and the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command are carrying out parallel drone campaigns in Yemen. Privately, however, they describe an arrangement that has evolved since the frantic, ad hoc early days of America’s war there.

The first strike in Yemen ordered by the Obama administration, in December 2009, was by all accounts a disaster. American cruise missiles carrying cluster munitions killed dozens of civilians, including many women and children. Another strike, six months later, killed a popular deputy governor, inciting angry demonstrations and an attack that shut down a critical oil pipeline.

In its coverage today, ABC News didn’t sound like a news organization that’s been withholding details it knew, although there were hints of agreements to keep it secret:

The CIA declined to comment, but a former national security official confirmed the base’s existence to ABC News. “It’s been an open secret that it was there,” the official said. England’s The Sunday Times included Saudi Arabia in a 2011 report about a series of secret drone bases in the region, citing a Gulf defense source.

But late this afternoon, a spokesman for the Associated Press revealed that the news agency knew, and kept it secret:

The Associated Press in 2011 agreed to withhold the location of a secret U.S.-run drone base located inside Saudi Arabia after 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. The AP did report at the time on secret drone operations operating from the region, targeting extremists in Yemen.

The AP on rare occasions withholds information when officials offer a compelling argument that the information could imperil national security or specific individuals. When the location of the base was made public Tuesday night, the AP felt national security concerns no longer applied and published the location.

Let’s take this last line again:

When the location of the base was made public Tuesday night, the AP felt national security concerns no longer applied and published the location.

The public knowing the existence of the bases no longer constituted a threat to national security? Think about that for a second. If the public knowing something doesn’t constitute a threat to national security, how can a news organizations keep a secret on the basis that the public knowing about it does?

Perhaps there’s unlikely to be any pushback against news organizations that buy into a government’s insistence that wars need to be secret in the interest of national security. Whether that becomes fodder for public debate depends on whether U.S. citizens bother to wonder what else the nation’s news media is keeping from them.

In Washington, this afternoon, there’s a media feeding frenzy to try to find out who kept what from whom and why? One news organization that’s off the hook? FoxNews.

  • Albatross

    Yep, thank you for covering this. Drives me crazy. During the run-up to Obama’s re-election I kept wondering why NOBODY was picking up the drone war story that folks such as Glenn Greenwald were struggling to get picked up. My suspicions are confirmed that the MSM didn’t want the story out there where it might hurt Obama’s re-election chances (and FYI, I’m a Progressive, but I also have principles).

    This is further proof that the whole single-party political system in this country (which is named “The Two Party System” only ironically) colludes to mislead the electorate. Basically the political class and the aristocracy (who own the media) are working to keep the peasantry from knowing what’s being done with their tax money and in their name.

  • BJ

    // MSM didn’t want the story out

    See this is the problem I have. Drones killing dozens of civilians, including many women and children, has not been a secret. The secret: location of where the (a) drone base was.

    Also ‘secret’ is when is killing of Americans without a trial Okay.

  • Bob Collins

    // women and children, has not been a secret.

    I would argue there’s been drone creep. In Afghanistan, Iraq? Sure, we had wars there. Pakistan? OK, that’s where Osama was.

    Yemen? That’s a fairly clandestine operation.

    and, as the article acknowledges, the hits aren’t even for high-level “threats” anymore. Since we don’t know the policy — until a little this week — we can’t have a conversation on under what circumstances we’re going to engage in assassination.

    And when do those become “political assassinations” prohibited by U.S. law?

    We can’t have that discussion. To do so, apparently, is a threat to national security.

  • Mark

    I think the AP was saying that once the base’s location had been published, abstaining from covering the base’s existence on the basis of security became moot.

    While the location of the base may not have been known (for some reason I thought the drones were actually in Yemen), I think the bombings have been relatively well covered in print at least.

    There was a wiki leak cable quoting the Yemeni President as being supportive of the drone campaign, but wanting to keep it clandestine so his government could claim that it carried out the attack.

    I do agree that we should be ashamed of ourselves for our inability to make drone strikes a central issue.