Why the New York Times Outed a Secret U.S. Drone Base Now

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Photo: Chip Somodevilla

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.")

Sullivan concluded in her post today, "If it was ever appropriate to withhold the information, that time was over. The drone program needs as much sunlight as possible." Washington Post press critic Erik Wemple agreed: "the drone program is already clouded by secrecy and that news organizations shouldn’t be helping to keep things that way," he wrote, adding, "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."

With Brennan's confirmation hearings approaching, drone talk is at at an all-time high, catalyzed by a leaked Obama administration memo on when and why it's okay to kill American citizens. The Times wasn't the only organization that knew, it just pulled the trigger first. The same power and responsibility that allows the paper access to top government sources and secrets lets it push back — sometimes, eventually — against the administration's wishes when it deems the public interest tipping point reached.

"We don't ask for permission," added Baquet. "We tell them what we’re going to do." As for the CIA, he said, "They didn't call this time."