When the New York Times revealed the location of the U.S.’s top-secret drone base in Saudi Arabia today, after months of keeping the information quiet, the other most important news outlets in the country sheepishly admitted they’d known about it, too. Along with the Washington Post, which said it had “an informal arrangement” with the government for more than a year, the Associated Press added last night that it “first reported the construction of the base in June 2011 but withheld the exact location at the request of senior administration officials.” Asked why the Times acted now, the paper’s managing editor Dean Baquet told public editor Margaret Sullivan it was simple: John Brennan’s big day.
“It was central to the story because the architect of the base and drone program is nominated to head the C.I.A.,” Baquet explained. Brennan’s confirmation hearings start tomorrow, and the Times decided it was important to discuss his pivotal role in U.S. operations in Yemen, where dozens of suspected terrorists have been targeted by drones, beforehand.
Previously, the government worried that the Saudis “might shut it down because the citizenry would be very upset,” so when the location “was a footnote,” the Times complied, Baquet said. “We have to balance that concern with reporting the news.” (Fox News, too, appears to have published the Saudi Arabian base location briefly in 2011 before switching to the more general “Arabian Peninsula.”)
When the location was a footnote? As decided by whom: the White House? And I have to laugh at Baquet’s comment about “[balancing] that concern with reporting the news.” Forgive me for assuming that reporting on secretive government wartime activity conducted without the knowledge of its taxpaying citizens might be considered, without resorting to qualification or euphemism, damn newsworthy. Forgive me further for daring to presume that government “concern” is a stalling tactic as old as the media and the state themselves, and that the Times, which published the Pentagon Papers and the Wikileaks cables, must know a little something about that. Even the Times‘ normally decent public editor Margaret Sullivan scored an assist on the coverup this time:
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…
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.
No, a crucial step in the right direction would have been to publish that remarkable story back when the Times actually found out about it. Amazing that the newspaper had no problem helping to push us into war in Iraq with shoddy, factually incorrect reporting, but it now claims the mantle of journalistic responsibility in defense of delaying the reporting of relevant facts about our ever-expanding drone wars. Here’s the Washington Post‘s equally appalling take:
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.
In China, of course, this would be called government censorship. But here in the United States, it’s just old-fashioned journalistic integrity. Glad we have that cleared up.