Newspapers defend sitting on, publishing U.S. drone stories

For more than year, two of the nation’s top news organizations withheld major stories revealing secret details about American drone bases in the Middle East, complying with a request from the Obama administration to withhold the reports. This week, however, the race was on between The New York Times and The Washington Post to spill all the details.

The events prove that old-fashioned scoops are still irresistible and that competition can trump political loyalty.

The catalyst for the about-face came Monday night, when MSNBC unveiled a leaked Justice Department memo revealing administration protocols about drones, including implications about attacks on U.S. citizens if they posed a threat. MSNBC’s move sent both newspapers scrambling to showcase their own information.

The New York Times ran an online and follow-up stories detailing CIA drone strikes against al Qaeda militants in Yemen, including the strike that killed the U.S.-born operative Anwar al-Awlaki.

“The media and national-security worlds, internationally, are abuzz over an important story on the front page of Wednesday’s New York Times that describes a drone strike in Yemen last August. The article reveals a great deal about the secret drone program, the architect of which is John O. Brennan, who has been nominated to head the Central Intelligence Agency,” The New York Times noted in an accompanying op-ed article.

“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,” the explanation concluded.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, quickly provided its own revelations about a secret drone base in Saudi Arabia and offered its own explanation for why it first withheld and now was publishing the news.

The Washington Post 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,” the paper said in a stand-alone explanation.

“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,” The Post explanation said.

Critics noted the disparity between the media’s relations with the Obama administration on security matters compared with their treatment of the George W. Bush administration.

“No doubt, the press corps’ admiration for Obama and wish to see him succeed made those newspapers more willing to agree to the Obama administration’s request. After all, The Post undermined George W. Bush’s anti-terror efforts by revealing the detention facilities in Poland and the New York Times undermined the war on terror by divulging the phone call intercepts,” observed Brent Baker, vice president of research for the Media Research Center, which long has tracked what it sees as liberal bias among press organizations.

But it’s still “refreshing to see those outlets put national security and protecting an ally ahead of a scoop, even if they are hypocrites who wouldn’t have done the same when Bush was in the Oval Office,” Mr. Baker added.

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