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Should Newspapers Have Revealed Location of Secret U.S. Drone Base?

Ethics Expert says News Outlets Should Err on the Side of Publishing


Should Newspapers Have Revealed Location of Secret U.S. Drone Base?
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Here's the scenario: Top government officials ask news organizations to withhold information that, the officials maintain, could jeopardize national security if revealed.

Should the news outlets play along?

That's the dilemma being discussed in national security and media circles following reports that several news organizations, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, had agreed to an Obama administration request to not publish the location of a secret U.S. drone base in Saudi Arabia.

Those news outlets and several others kept the base's location secret for more than a year until this week, when the Times ran an article on the U.S. drone program that included the location of the base. The Post quickly followed suit, and in its article said the Times had broken what amounted to an informal embargo by a number of news outlets.

The Post said it had "refrained from disclosing the specific 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."

New York Times managing editor Dean Baquet, in an article by the paper's public editor, said the decision to finally publish the base's location was due in part to the fact that John O. Brennan, the architect of the drone program, had been nominated to head the CIA. Brennan testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Thursday as the first step in his confirmation process.

Complicating the issue is the fact that the Times of London had published the location of the base as early as 2011, according to Huffington Post.

So were the New York Times and Washington Post right to withhold the location of the base? And if so, are their reasons for revealing it now legitimate?

Stephen Ward, an ethics expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism school, thinks the reasoning behind the newspapers' actions is muddled at best.

News outlets, Ward said, should only agree to these kinds of requests if there is a "direct and imminent threat to national security" involved. Brennan's nomination to lead the CIA is irrelevant, he added.

"If it was so important not to name the location of the base to begin with, then it has nothing to do with Brennan," Ward said.

In general, Ward said, news outlets should err on the side of publishing rather than withholding information.

"National security is such an overused reason for not publishing information, and journalists need to challenge these things," he said. "You've got to come to a conclusion that there is indeed a very real threat to national security involved, and you need to closely examine the specific reasons the government is giving for not publishing something.

"It's not that national security never trumps publishing - it could - but what I'm missing in this case are the facts that make for a compelling reason not to publish. My view is that these papers should not have entered into this agreement to begin with," he added.

The release of secret or classified information is invariably a troubling issue for journalists. And it's one that seems to occur more frequently in the digital information age.

For example, in 2010 Wikileaks released more than 90,000 classified documents on the Afghan war, documents that were first made available to The New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel.

Ward, a former foreign correspondent who covered the Persian Gulf War and conflicts in Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Northern Ireland, said that when "reporting on military operations around the world you always have to weigh security considerations.

"But if you only do what the military wants you'll never publish anything. We should always lean toward publishing."

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