The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New York Times broke ‘informal arrangement’ on drones

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According to a reporter on the national security beat, the New York Times participated in an “informal arrangement” to keep secret a Saudi Arabian base for U.S. interests—and then suddenly withdrew from that arrangement. A story posted on the paper’s Web site last night—titled “Drone Strikes’ Dangers to Get Rare Moment in Public Eye“—summarizes the leak of a white paper on the Obama administration’s targeted killing program and tees up the Senate confirmation hearing of White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan to be the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

In providing background on Brennan, the Times cites his extensive experience in the Middle East:

Mr. Brennan, a former C.I.A. station chief in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, has taken a particular interest in Yemen, sounding early alarms within the administration about the threat developing there, working closely with neighboring Saudi Arabia to gain approval for a secret C.I.A. drone base there that is used for American strikes, and making the impoverished desert nation a test case for American counterterrorism strategy.

That detail about Saudi Arabia, according to today’s Washington Post, was the subject of an “informal arrangement” among prominent news organizations: Bowing to requests from the administration, they agreed not to publish this particular fact.

The government’s argument for nondisclosure isn’t hard to divine. In the words of the national security beat reporter, the administration pleaded that the base in Saudi Arabia “was critical to pursuing an al-Qaeda organization in Yemen considered the most dangerous of the network’s affiliates.” Outing the base, it was argued, might well compromise that capability and crimp U.S. ties with Saudi Arabia.

The New York Times story on Brennan and the targeted killing campaign makes clear why the paper chose this moment to go ahead with the Saudi Arabia disclosure. The piece points out that the United States launched a disastrous drone attack in Yemen in December 2009. “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,” notes the account by Robert F. Worth, Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane.

After that, the piece reports, the U.S. government began building a drone base in Saudi Arabia to launch attacks at Yemen. Clearly the New York Times was digging to a level of granularity with its coverage that required specifying the country in which the drone base was located.

News organizations had been able to tiptoe around that matter for some time, mainly by referring to a drone base in the region, without specifying Saudi Arabia. An Associated Press story from June 2011, for instance, carries this lede:

The United States is building a secret CIA air base in the Persian Gulf region to target terrorists in Yemen, preparing for the possibility that an anti-American faction may take over Yemen and ban U.S. forces from hunting a lethal al-Qaida faction there, The Associated Press has learned.

Last night, the AP revealed that the level of generality in that news flash was negotiated with the U.S. government: “The Associated Press first reported the construction of the base in June 2011 but withheld the exact location at the request of senior administration officials.”

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan is reporting that the Times participated in the “informal arrangement” as well but backed out to tell its story: “It was central to the story because the architect of the base and drone program is nominated to head the C.I.A.,” Managing Editor Dean Baquet told Sullivan.

Totally. Sullivan argues that the drone program is already clouded by secrecy and that news organizations shouldn’t be helping to keep things that way. There are other good reasons to stiff the government’s request for intelligence complicity, too: A base is a base—out in the open air; keeping it a secret is plausible for only so long. And the construction of a base for launching deadly drone attacks from such sacred territory is simply news in and of itself. The New York Times acted responsibly in withdrawing from this informal and unhelpful arrangement.