Sparing Saudi Arabia’s blushes: How the US media colluded with government

By Khadija Patel 14 February 2013

Last week, reports emerged of a ‘secret’ US military base in Saudi Arabia from which the Obama administration has launched drone strikes into Yemen, most notably killing Anwar Al-Awlaki, the American cleric suspected of being affiliated with Al-Qaeda. And yet the base was not secret at all. American publications were actually censored by the US government. By KHADIJA PATEL.

Last week, US president Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the CIA, John Brennan, brought his administration’s secret use of unmanned drones to attack suspected terrorist targets to the forefront of discussions on how best the fight war on terror.

Brennan, a strong supporter of drone attacks, spoke for the first time about a secret drone base in Saudi Arabia. As CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, Brennan was instrumental in negotiating with Riyadh for the establishment of a drone base that would assist in hunting down suspected terrorists in neighbouring Yemen.

The first drone strike launched from the base is believed to have been the one that killed the American cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki in September 2011.

But if Brennan’s role in negotiating the establishment of the base in Saudi Arabia came as little surprise, the role the US media played in keeping the existence of the base a secret was certainly not anticipated. It turned out that “several news organisations” in the US were aware of the existence of the Saudi drone base for over a year but were bound by an agreement with the US government to keep the existence of the base out of the news.

The Washington Post said it 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.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times said the CIA used the base to hunt “high-value targets” in Yemen, such as the leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – a group the Obama administration believes poses a direct threat to the United States. The Times did not reveal the exact location of the airbase, but said its construction was ordered in December 2009, after a US-launched cruise missile strike in Yemen ended in disaster, with dozens of civilians killed.

Soon enough, a satellite image of a remote airstrip deep in the desert of Saudi Arabia emerged. “I believe it’s the facility that the US uses to fly drones into Yemen,” one officer told Wired’s Danger Room. “It’s out in eastern Saudi Arabia, near Yemen, and where the bad guys are supposed to hang out. It has those clamshell hangars, which we’ve seen before associated with US drones.”

Despite the fevered media hunt for the base last week, Iona Craig, the Yemen correspondent of The Times (UK), has said she reported on the existence of a Saudi drone base some 18 months ago already.

She said,  “I reported this story for The Times (London), with details of the location way back in July 2011.” She points out that despite the US media agreeing to the Obama administration’s embargo on the Saudi drone base, the location of the base was already in the public domain.

“It therefore appears this was more about saving face for the Saudis rather than anything else.”

The embargo on the US media, then, was not about US national security at all.

The Saudis themselves have been rather subdued in response to these reports. American forces officially withdrew from Saudi Arabia years ago, partly because the presence of foreign troops in the Muslim holy land rankled with many. And Al-Qaeda exploited dissatisfaction with the presence of US troops in the Kingdom to turn people against the Saudi royal family. It’s unclear if the US admission of the existence of the drone base will once more seed anger against the Al-Sauds.

But then, just last month, another report from Craig in The Times showed that the Saudis themselves were attacking suspected terror targets in Yemen.

Leonie Northedge, a Research Associate at the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Programme, says, “Journalists, analysts and human rights monitors are questioning the lack of transparency with which America’s shadow war in Yemen is being conducted.”

The existence of the drone base in Saudi Arabia is, however, not the only part of the CIA’s drone programme that is cloaked in secrecy. 

As Northedge points out, “The Obama Administration does not reveal the criteria it uses to draw up its ‘kill lists’, and refuses to confirm or deny the majority of the attacks it conducts.”

In a letter to the New York Times on Wednesday, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu also deplored the lack of judicial scrutiny in Obama’s drone programme. Tutu takes particular issue with the suggestion that emerged from Brennan’s confirmation hearing that a judicial review of Obama’s decisions to approve the targeted killing of suspected terrorists may be limited to the killings of American citizens.

“I used to say of Apartheid that it dehumanised its perpetrators as much as, if not more than, its victims. Your response as a society to Osama bin Laden and his followers threatens to undermine your moral standards and your humanity,” Tutu wrote. DM

Read more:

  • Analysis: Obama’s drones in Daily Maverick
  • The Washington Post, New York Times and a Bunch of Other News Organizations Helped Keep a CIA Drone Base Secret in Gawker
  • Is This the Secret U.S. Drone Base in Saudi Arabia? In Wired

Photo: Lt. Col. Geoffrey Barnes, Detachment 1 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Attack Squadron commander, performs a pre-flight inspection of an MQ-1B Predator unmanned drone aircraft in this file image from September 3, 2008. REUTERS/Christopher Griffin/Handout/Files


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