NEW YORK –- On July 26, 2011, The Times, a British newspaper, reported that the CIA had established a secret drone base in Saudi Arabia, a controversial move given that the country is home to Islam’s holiest sites.
That same day, The Washington Post reported how drone attacks have crippled al Qaeda, with the story appearing on the next morning's front page. The Post reported that the CIA “expected to work closely with Saudi Arabia” and -- in the next paragraph -- was building a "desert airstrip so that it can begin flying armed drones over Yemen.” The Post didn't mention the location of the “desert airstrip," noting that it was withheld at the Obama administration’s request.
It would be 18 months before the Post revealed the Saudi location, doing so Tuesday night after learning that The New York Times -– which also withheld the information for an unspecified amount of time –- was publishing that detail just before John Brennan, the administration's "drone architect," faced questions on the program during his CIA director confirmation hearing. That same night, The Associated Press reported on the Saudi drone base, acknowledging that the agency had known about it since June 2011, but also agreed to withhold details at the administration's request.
Among the weightier decisions for editors is whether or not to publish information that may jeopardize national security, which in this case meant risking the use of a base instrumental to striking members of al Qaeda in Yemen. But while it’s understandable for news organizations to listen to such administration concerns, the location of the Saudi base wasn't completely a secret, having been revealed in the U.K. press and later in the U.S. media, too.
Fox News briefly reported it on the network's website in September 2011 under the headline “Obama Administration Building New Drone Bases in Horn of Africa, Saudi.” While the word “Saudi” still appears in the altered article's URL, Fox News changed the article to only reference bases in the "Horn of Africa” and “Arabian Peninsula.” The Fox News article linked a Washington Post article from the previous day that mentioned bases in the “Horn of Africa” and “Arabian Peninsula.”
A Fox News spokeswoman did not immediately respond to questions about the 2011 report.
Following the Fox News report, the administration continued to request that news organizations not publish the Saudi location, according to a national security reporter familiar with the discussions. The CIA did not respond to a request for comment.
A few days later, the Boston Herald, without attribution, mentioned the existence of a secret drone base in Saudi Arabia, showing just how easily the information could filter out to U.S. outlets.
But several top U.S. news organizations still held back, suggesting more deference than their European counterparts to government officials on whom they rely for access to information on a regular basis. The London Times didn't have that issue.
“We don’t make a habit of calling the CIA because 99.9 percent of the time they say 'we can’t comment on it,'” Times foreign editor Richard Beeston told The Huffington Post. “It’s a reasonably futile exercise.”
Beeston said the Times published the information because, “if drones are being used to attack targets in Yemen and we can flesh it out, and the Saudis are implicit in it, it’s pretty important.” Beeston said he was “surprised The New York Times and the Post agreed to not report it, given the American press’ record in Vietnam.”
The Obama administration never asked the Times to alter its report, showing more concern over whether U.S. news organizations, such as The New York Times, splashed it across A1.
New York Times managing editor Dean Baquet suggested that was part of the administration's rationale for the request even after the location had been disclosed.
“I think the argument was that the story would get more attention and have more credence once it was in The [New York] Times or The Post,” Baquet told The Huffington Post in an email. “As you can tell from the current reaction, that is true.”
Baquet said that Brennan’s nomination wasn’t the only circumstance “in which we would publish the information,” but that it “was a compelling enough news development to reopen the discussion.”
“I think the government's argument is that losing the drone base would jeopardize national security,” he said. “We didn't think there was a compelling news reason to blow off that argument. When a compelling news reason developed, we published.”
When asked about the AP’s decision to hold the story, a spokesperson told The Huffington Post, “we make editorial judgments based on many factors and we’re satisfied with our decisions involving this story.”
This isn’t the first time those outlets have held back at the CIA’s request.
The Huffington Post reported in November how The New York Times, Washington Post and AP did not disclose that two of the former Navy SEALs killed in the Benghazi attack were working for the CIA, a detail withheld at the agency’s request. That information, as one national security reporter told The Huffington Post, was an “open secret” at the time. The AP included the detail in a September report, before removing it in later versions and did not reveal it again until November.
Similarly, in 2011, The New York Times, Washington Post and AP withheld the news that Raymond Davis, an American arrested for shooting two men in Pakistan, was working for the CIA. But then The Guardian, a British newspaper, reported Davis' link to the CIA. Ian Katz, deputy editor of The Guardian, said at the time that the paper declined the U.S. government’s request because the Pakistani media already widely reported his connection to U.S. intelligence.
But there's a key difference between the 2011 and 2013 situations. Two years ago, the Obama administration immediately dropped its request after a British newspaper already broke the news, whereas this time, officials continued asking U.S. news outlets to withhold the information for 18 months until one finally pulled the trigger.