Media Reports Reveal CIA's Drone Base In Saudi Arabia

The details of a secret U.S. drone base in Saudi Arabia, used to launch targeted killings and surveillance missions into Yemen, were revealed Wednesday in several American media outlets. Audie Cornish speaks with Karen DeYoung, national security correspondent for The Washington Post, who authored one of the articles on the program

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. When it comes to the American battle against terrorists, drone strikes are the weapon of choice. They're also deeply cloaked in secrecy. But this week, as President Obama's nominee to head the CIA, John Brennan, prepares for his confirmation hearings, we've been finding out more about the drone program.

In today's New York Times and Washington Post, we learn the location of the CIA drone base. It is in Saudi Arabia and it's from there that some of the most controversial drone strikes were launched. Karen DeYoung is the Post's national security correspondent. She joins us now. And Karen, to start, what more can you tell us about this base?

KAREN DEYOUNG: This is the base that was built in 2010 by the Obama administration as part of its escalation of activities - counter-terrorism activities - in Yemen against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. It was specifically for the CIA to launch drones both for surveillance and for targeted killing strikes against AQAP.

CORNISH: And what are the implications for this information being public?

DEYOUNG: Well, I think, you know, we and others had published that this was a base in the Arabian Peninsula. I think anybody who followed this issue very closely knew that it was in Saudi Arabia but the administration was very opposed to having that published, I think, because of sensitivities in Saudi Arabia itself.

Because of their internal politics and because of what they see as their position in the Islamic world, they didn't want it published that they were allowing the CIA to actually occupy real estate inside Saudi Arabia. They agreed to this base because the Americans said it was a covert operation. By definition it is secret. The Americans agreed to keep it secret, and clearly they haven't been able to do that.

CORNISH: Karen, the Post and the Times and other news organizations, you've all had this information for a long time and did not report it. So why put it out there now?

DEYOUNG: Well, we and others did report that there was a base that had been built in the Arabian Peninsula, but we didn't say Saudi Arabia. That was at the request of the administration, which had argued that it was a national security concern. The New York Times decided that this was an important fact for a story that they were doing leading up to John Brennan's confirmation on Thursday, and once it was out there, it was kind of out there for everyone.

CORNISH: So Karen, moving on to what we can expect tomorrow when John Brennan is put on the hot seat in his Senate confirmation hearings - of course, Brennan was once the CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia - what more do we know about his role in the drone program?

DEYOUNG: I think he's been the crucial factor in making a strategy out of the various tactics that the administration found when it came into office - counter-terrorism tactics, drones are one, intelligence, cooperation between the CIA and the military Special Operation forces, different ways of dealing with countries in the field. So it was really Brennan who put this all together and made a strategy out of it for the future that the administration hopes it can use when we're not going to have big armies on the ground, as we did in Afghanistan.

CORNISH: So for all the debate and controversy about drones in particular, do you get the sense that the U.S. drone program is likely to expand?

DEYOUNG: Oh, most definitely, most definitely. I think that we saw in the past several weeks, plans to build a base in Niger, which is one of the countries next to Mali. Again, I think it's important to note that a lot of these drones are used for surveillance. They have the ability to hover for many, many hours overhead in a way that manned aircraft do not. And so they are able, in an intelligence sense, to give a very clear picture of what's going on on the ground.

But any place you're using them for surveillance, you also have the option of using them for lethal targeting. And so I think that the plan is that this becomes a crucial weapon in the U.S. counter-terrorism arsenal indefinitely.

CORNISH: Karen DeYoung is national security correspondent for The Washington Post. Karen, thank you.

DEYOUNG: You're welcome.

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