Cross-posted from the Arabist.The Washington Post, among “several” other unnamed news outlets, has reportedly known of a US airstrip in Saudi Arabia that, aside from the apparent distinction of being the first new US base opened on Saudi soil since the 2003 troop withdrawals, was the airstrip that participated in the 2011 raid(s) that killed Anwar al-Awlaki.
According to the Post, it and those outlets have sat on the information for a year at the administration’s request for fear it would jeopardize the base’s security and the secrecy of US combat operations in Yemen, which are also supported by the Saudi Air Force. It is also notable that the US has set up this while still retaining its heaviest aerial assets (which are reserved for contingencies against the Islamic Republic of Iran) in the region in Qatar, so this is solely an anti-AQAP program that’s been set up.
One of the outlets — not the Post — was going to break the self-observed gag order on the basing details, so the details have begun to emerge, which for presumptive CIA Director John Brennan is hardly pleasant news since his Senate confirmation hearings have begun and there is much talk of him throwing a wet towel on the campaign. However, as Matt Appuzo points out, this is not the first we’ve heard of this base. “In addition to Seychelles and Ethiopia, the senior U.S. military official said the United States got permission to fly armed drones from Djibouti, and confirmed the construction of a new airstrip in Saudi Arabia” was what Fox News reported in 2011, citing a Washington Post report on the expansion of drone efforts worldwide, though the remarks quoted above came from Fox’s own source.
Considering how contentious US basing in the Kingdom was when it began in the 1990s (and, we thought, largely came to an end in the 2000s except for the two military training/modernization programs run for the Saudi military and National Guard), one really has to marvel at how this White House earned the accolade of “transparency” in its first term with actions such as these. It’s worth noting that while detailed explanations — but not material evidence or witnesses — have been offered for targeting him as an active AQAP member, there have been no such specifics with regards to the death of his 16-year old son, Abdulrahman, who was killed in an operation against another target few days later — though unlike his father, he had not been deliberately targeted (the operation was targeting an Egyptian national). Bad parenting has even been offered as an explanation — well, justification — by one official for the son’s death once it became clear he was a minor and therefore not subject to the “signature strikes” that treat all adult males in the targeted areas as militant until proven innocent. (NB: Brennan convinced Obama to maintain this policy and have the CIA “tighten its targeting standards,” according to the Daily Beast.)
But if we are talking in terms of leaks, then yes, this has been a very “Sunshine Week” for the Administration. Since I’m on the subject of drones — though as Gregory D. Johnson points out drones are not the only weapons the US deploys in the Yemeni and Pakistani highlands — there have been some important new stories out about the US’s national counterterrorism strategy here in the Middle East:
1. The black sites legacy of the Bush Administration detailed in a new OSI report, though as OSI itself notes, “it appears that the Obama administration did not end extraordinary rendition,” though it has been much-scaled back. Both Eli Lake and Jeremy Scahill have been to Somalia in the past two years to report on these alleged CIA black sites and the local prisons that feed into them. However, it is clear that the administration has shied away from the sites in favor of drone operations.
2. Not a leak, but Micah Zenko’s discussion of outgoing SecDef Leon Panetta’s recent remarks on drones is still illuminating into the debate that goes on at these levels.
3. A leaked white paper released by NBC’s Michael Isikoff — perhaps from a White House source not happy with John Brennan (finally) moving (back) to the CIA in Obama’s second term? — that providers more detail on the speeches given by Brennan and others about the criteria for putting people, including US citizens, in the sights. Again, this isn’t the official policy document, but as a white paper signed off on by lawyers within the Administration, it is as good as we are going to get bar the Times or the Post releasing audiotape of a “Terror Tuesday” briefing. Glenn Greenwald details the implications in greater detail here.