Riyadh Station Chief Operated Drone War from and for His Old Stomping Grounds

While the existence of a Saudi drone base has been reported before, the WaPo confirms tonight that the drone strike that took out Anwar al-Awlaki was launched, in part, from the base that no one has before liked to report on.

The only strike intentionally targeting a U.S. citizen, a 2011 attack that killed al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki, was carried out in part by CIA drones flown from a secret base in Saudi Arabia.

The base was established two years ago to intensify the hunt against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the affiliate in Yemen is known. Brennan, who previously served as the CIA’s station chief in Saudi Arabia, played a key role in negotiations with Riyadh over locating an agency drone base inside the kingdom.

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 damaging counterterrorism collaboration with Saudi Arabia.

A CIA spokesperson informed The Post on 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.

Couple that with Daniel Klaidman’s confirmation of something else that was obvious: John Brennan authorized signature strikes for use in Yemen’s civil war based on the personal entreaties of his old buddies (Klaidman says it was the Yemenis, but the more obvious candidate is the Saudis).

The military wanted to conduct broad-based signature strikes in the country. But Obama was worried about getting embroiled in a domestic conflict—and he and Brennan said no.

[snip]

Then, in the spring of 2012, with Yemen falling into chaos and AQAP gaining more and more territory, Yemeni officials—with whom Brennan had close ties going back to his days as a CIA station chief in the region—beseeched Brennan to help. The Yemeni Army was collapsing under the brutal assault; soldiers were being crucified and beheaded by the jihadis. By April 2012, Brennan and Obama finally relented and permitted signature strikes in the country.

Those who defend this decision point out that it would have been a catastrophe for U.S. security if significant parts of the country had fallen to AQAP, which was intent on attacking the American homeland. Yet some inside the administration were critical. Says one senior administration official of Brennan’s history in Yemen: “He responded to the personal appeals because he has a long history with these guys.” In other words: Brennan’s lawyerly preference for rules and constraints may sometimes have taken a backseat to emotion.

How about this? Rather than holding a confirmation hearing for Brennan on Thursday, maybe we should just debate how much we will demand to rent out the entire CIA to the Saudis to do with as they wish?

None of this is surprising. Some dirty fucking hippie reported it in real time.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

11 replies
  1. phred says:

    I bet the WaPo actually thinks their admission that they’ve covered up the Saudi base angle makes them look all responsible and restrained, rather than like the disgraceful official propagandists they have chosen to be. What a pathetic excuse for a “news” organization.

    Thank goodness for DFHs ; )

  2. jerryy says:

    What is wrong with getting a good rental price? After all, thsoe taxpayers cannot afford too many more drones at the rate they are being used.

    This too should pass by any questioning since Judge Janice Rogers Brown’s ‘presumtion of regularity’ has given the administration carte blanche to do what it wants.

  3. Jessica says:

    This is a bit of an aside, but isn’t it the mother of all contradictions that the CIA has a secret drone base in SA to, ostensibly, target AQ members while the Saudis are actively supporting the same ilk in Syria? And, from what I’ve read by people far smarter than myself, that’s quite typical of the Saudis to do historically. Perhaps that last bit is an oversimplification but I know the Syria portion is on target. It’s mindboggling.

  4. Simplify says:

    Wasn’t Osama bin Laden’s original stated motivation for attacking the USA that we had armed forces stationed in Saudi Arabia?

    Didn’t we withdraw those forces?

    It’s all cool, though, if we put killer robots there instead. Way friendlier than humans.

  5. JTMinIA says:

    Maybe I’m not up to speed on the whole rules-of-war thing, but doesn’t a welcomed US base in Saudi Arabia make the Saudis a legitimate (as in: legal) target for AQAP? If so, then I can see why the Saudis might want this kept secret and, if the Saudis want it to be secret, then you can bet your Wikileakin’ Ecuadorean phone-bill that we will try to keep it secret.

  6. P J Evans says:

    How about we let the Saudis run it and take the heat?
    I’m tired of us being their handy tool for dealing with their neighbors at arm’s length and under the table.

  7. Jeff Jaye says:

    Saudi Aramco cannot be pleased. All decisions really flow from those private board rooms, a company with assets not too much less than the nominal GNP of the United States.

  8. GKJames says:

    Don’t hit-men usually get paid well? If we’re going to be the Saudis’ heavy in the knife-fight between tribes in Yemen, shouldn’t there be a tangible upside for us — beyond, that is, scalp-counting in Langley?

  9. klynn says:

    DFH’s rock. Especially the one’s with ties to the words “empty” and “wheel.”

    I must admit… SA…

    Strikes on US citizens…

    Um, pattern here?

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