The Times Was Right to Report — at Last — on a Secret Drone Base
President Bush wants to keep the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia despite reported grumbling from the Saudis that they would like the United States to leave. The Washington Post reported on January 18, 2002 that senior Saudi rulers believe the United States has “overstayed its welcome” and its forces have become a political liability. Security Policeman Airman 1st Class Chris Culross is shown standing guard at the Flightline Entry Control Point at Prince Sultan Air Base, Al Kharj, Saudi Arabia, on Sept. 4, 1996. REUTERS
The media and national-security worlds, internationally, are abuzz over an important story on the front page of Wednesday’s New York Times that describes a drone strike in Yemen last August. The article reveals a great deal about the secret drone program, the architect of which is John O. Brennan, who has been nominated to head the Central Intelligence Agency.
One of its revelations is the location of a drone base in Saudi Arabia. The Times and other news organizations, including The Washington Post, had withheld the location of that base at the request of the C.I.A., but The Times decided to reveal it now because, according to the managing editor Dean Baquet, it was at the heart of this particular article and because examining Mr. Brennan’s role demanded it.
“It was central to the story because the architect of the base and drone program is nominated to head the C.I.A.,” Mr. Baquet told me on Wednesday. In past stories, he said, the location of the base “was a footnote.”
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,” he 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. More recently, though, one of the reporters working on the story told the government that The Times would reveal the location and said officials should contact Mr. Baquet if they wanted to discuss it further.
“They didn’t call this time,” Mr. Baquet said. He said it is The Times’s practice to “give a heads up.”
But, he emphasized: “We don’t ask for permission. We tell them what we’re going to do.”
Some readers of The Times expressed dismay at the revelation. One reader, Brian Leary, wrote to me on Wednesday:
I am outraged that The Times is apparently disclosing a military secret like the location of the drone base.
I actually support the premise of the story, and it is something that needs to be told. But the location itself was superfluous to the story line, and is potentially a threat to our national security. I’m very disappointed The Times chose to be so cavalier about such an important thing, with no tangible benefit to the actual story itself. What interest was served by this disclosure?
I respect Mr. Leary’s point of view, which I know some other readers also share. But I feel quite differently. Given the government’s undue secrecy about the drone program, which it has never officially acknowledged the existence of, and that program’s great significance to America’s foreign policy, its national security, and its influence on the tumultuous Middle East, The Times ought to be reporting as much and as aggressively as possible on it.
The Times reacted quickly to NBC’s obtaining of a “white paper” that describes the legal rationale for the claim that President Obama has the power to order the killing of American citizens who are thought to be part of Al Qaeda. Scott Shane and Charlie Savage, Washington reporters for The Times, wrote a strong analytical story, rightly crediting NBC, and editors and reporters moved quickly to complete and publish the front-page story, with its Yemen dateline. That story, Mr. Baquet said, has been in the works for several weeks.
I’ll be writing more about this, including how The Times is trying in court to obtain an important, classified memo on the killing of an American, Anwar al-Awlaki, in a drone strike. His teenage son, also an American citizen, was also killed by a drone. The lack of due process and government accountability in those deaths are worthy of the attention The Times is giving it – and more – in articles from Washington, in reporters on the ground in the region of the strikes, and in court.
If it was ever appropriate to withhold the information, that time was over. The drone program needs as much sunlight as possible. This is another crucial step in the right direction.
By MARGARET SULLIVAN
November 06, 2013 “NY Times’
© 2013 The New York Times Company