Today the Washington Post (2/6/13) reported some news that it's known for years, but had decided not tell us until now: The CIA has a drone base in Saudi Arabia.
Their rationale for withholding this information was simple: The government didn't want them to. And from what the Post is telling us today, they weren't the only ones.
After explaining that Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by an attack "carried out in part by CIA drones flown from a secret base in Saudi Arabia," the paper explains:
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.
So why did the Post finally report this news today?
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.
So there was an "informal arrangement among several news organizations" not to report important news because the government felt that it could make things difficult for them.
It would appear that "another news organization" is the New York Times, which reported today:
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.
Not long afterward, the CIA began quietly building a drone base in Saudi Arabia to carry out strikes in Yemen. American officials said that the first time the CIA used the Saudi base was to kill Mr. Awlaki in September 2011.
The fact that the Post was keeping something secret was known in 2011, as FAIR noted (FAIR Blog, 7/27/11), quoting the paper:
The agency is building a desert airstrip so that it can begin flying armed drones over Yemen. The facility, which is scheduled to be completed in September, is designed to shield the CIA's aircraft, and their sophisticated surveillance equipment, from observers at busier regional military hubs such as Djibouti, where the JSOC drones are based.
The Washington Post is withholding the specific location of the CIA facility at the administration's request.
As FAIR also pointed out then, this was reminiscent of another decision by the Post to withhold news. In 2005, the paper delivered an explosive story about "black sites" where CIA was interrogating suspects–places where, in many cases, the agency could reasonably expect the prisoners to be tortured. The Post's valuable expose was undercut by its decision not to name the countries involved. As the paper explained:
The Washington Post is not publishing the names of the Eastern European countries involved in the covert program, at the request of senior U.S. officials. They argued that the disclosure might disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation.
This week, a new report from the Open Society Institute documented that more than 50 countries were involved in the CIA "extraordinary rendition" program. It's certainly possible that some countries might have stopped helping the U.S. government torture people if it had been made known that they were doing so.
Likewise, it's possible that Saudi Arabia will stop allowing the CIA to use its territory to conduct a secret drone war against a third country now that the secret is out. But the possibility that news might affect the world is not a reason to stop doing journalism. Indeed, it's the best reason to do journalism.
UPDATE: The Times' public editor Margaret Sullivan has weighed in on her blog (2/6/13), and what's most notable is the opinion of the paper's managing editor Dean Baquet, since it basically confirms the point we were making above:
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."
So the Times believes that it should refrain from reporting news that people in Saudi Arabia might object to–especially if it wound up complicating our government's plans to launch military attacks from their country.