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How the US Military Keeps Reporters in the Dark

Those inquiring about secret bases and other operations are met with everything from ignored questions to airport detentions

| Mon Jul. 8, 2013 2:09 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

There are hundreds, possibly thousands of US personnel—the military refuses to say how many—stationed in the ochre-tinted country of Qatar. Out in the searing heat of the desert, they fly fighter jets or fix them. They equip and arm troops headed to war. Some work in a high-tech command-and-control center overseeing US air operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere in the Greater Middle East. Yet I found myself sitting in a hotel room in Doha, Qatar's capital, about 30 miles east of al-Udeid Air Base, the main US installation in the country, unable to see, let alone talk, to any of them.

In mid-May, weeks before my arrival in Qatar, I sent a request to the public affairs office at the base to arrange a visit with the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, the unit that, according to the military, carries out a "criti­cal combat mission that spans nearly 6,000 miles from the Horn of Africa to Northern Afghanistan." Or at least I tried to. Day or night, weekday or weekend, the website refused to deliver my message. Finally, I dug up an alternate email address and sent in my request. Days passed with no word, without even an acknowledgement. I followed up yet again and finally received a reply—and then it began.

The initial response came on May 28th from the Media Operations Chief at Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs. She told me that I needed to contact the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing's Public Affairs liaison, Captain Angela Webb, directly. So I repeatedly wrote to Captain Webb. No response. On June 10th, I received an email from Susan Harrington. She was, she told me, "taking over" for Captain Webb. Unfortunately, she added, it was now far too close to my arrival in Qatar to arrange a visit. "Due to time constraints," she wrote me, "I do not think it will be possible to support this request since we are likely already within that 30 day window."

Don't think I was surprised. By now, I'm used to it. Whether I'm trying to figure out what the US military is doing in Latin America or Africa, Afghanistan or Qatar, the response is remarkably uniform  -- obstruction and obfuscation, hurdles and hindrances. In short, the good old-fashioned military runaround. I had hoped to take a walk around al-Udeid Air Base, perhaps get a glimpse of the jumbotron-sized screens and rows of computers in its Combined Air and Space Operations Center. I wanted to learn how the drawdown in Afghanistan was affecting life on the base.

Instead, I ended up sitting in the climate-controlled comfort of my hotel room, staring at a cloudless sky, typing these words behind double-paned glass that shielded me from the 106 degree heat outside. For my trouble, on my return to the United States, I was detained at Kennedy Airport in New York by agents of the Department of Homeland Security. Their question for me: Was I planning to fight against US forces in Afghanistan?

Base Desires in Africa
If you are an American citizen, you're really not supposed to know about operations at al-Udeid Air Base. The men and women there on your dime can't even "mention the base name or host nation name in any unsecured communications." Instead, they're instructed to say that they are at an "undisclosed location in Southwest Asia" instead of "the Deid," as they call it.

It isn't the only base that the Pentagon wants to keep in the shadows. You're also not supposed to know how many bases the US military currently has in Africa. I learned that the hard way. As a start, let me say that, officially speaking, there is only a single US facility on the entire continent that the military formally calls a "base": Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, a tiny nation in the Horn of Africa. US Africa Command (AFRICOM) is adamant about this and takes great pains to emphasize it. Internally, however, they do admit that they also have forward operating sites (aka "enduring locations"), contingency security locations (which troops periodically rotate in and out of), and contingency locations (which are used only during ongoing operations). But don't try to get an official list of these or even a simple count—unless you're ready for the old-fashioned runaround.

In May 2012, I made the mistake of requesting a list of all facilities used by the US military in Africa broken down by country. Nicole Dalrymple of AFRICOM's Public Affairs Office told me the command would look into it and would be in touch. I never heard from her again. In June, Pat Barnes, AFRICOM's Public Affairs liaison at the Pentagon, shot down my request, admitting only that the US military had a "a small and temporary presence of personnel" at "several locations in Africa." Due to "force protection" issues, he assured me, he could not tell me "where our folks are located and what facilities they use."

That July, with sparing assistance from AFRICOM, I published an article on "Secret Wars, Secret Bases, and the Pentagon's ‘New Spice Route' in Africa," in which I attempted to shed light on a growing US military presence on that continent. This included a previously ignored logistics network set up to service US military operations, with critical nodes in Manda Bay, Garissa, and Mombasa in Kenya; Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda; Bangui and Djema in the Central African Republic; Nzara in South Sudan; and Dire Dawa in Ethiopia.  I also drew attention to posts, airports, and other facilities used by Americans in Arba Minch in Ethiopia, Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, and the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean.

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US Africa Command took great exception to this. Colonel Tom Davis, their director of public affairs, wrote a detailed, irritated response. I replied to him and once the dust had settled, I asked him for, among other information, a full listing of what he called "temporary facilities" as well as all other outposts, camps, warehouses, supply depots, and anything else that might be used by US personnel in Africa. He ignored my request. I followed up. Four days later, AFRICOM spokesman Eric Elliott emailed to say Colonel Davis was on leave, but added, "Let me see what I can give you in response to your request for a complete list of facilities. There will [be] some limits on the details we can provide because of the scope of the request."

Were there ever!

That was August 2012. For months, I heard nothing. Not an apology for the wait, not a request for more time. A follow-up in late October was ignored. A note in early November was finally answered by still another AFRICOM spokesman, Lieutenant Commander Dave Hecht, who said he was now on the case and would get back to me with an update by the end of the week. You won't be shocked to learn that the weekend came and went without a word. I sent another follow up. On November 16th, Hecht finally responded: "All questions now have answers. I just need the boss to review before I can release. I hope to have them to you by mid next week."

Take a guess what happened next. Nada. Further emails went unanswered. It was December before Hecht replied: "All questions have been answered but are still being reviewed for release. Hopefully this week I can send everything your way."

He didn't.

In January 2013, answers to some other questions of mine finally arrived, but nothing on my request for information on US bases. By now, Hecht, too, had disappeared and I was passed off to AFRICOM's chief of media engagement, Benjamin Benson. When I asked about the ignored questions, he responded that my request "exceed[ed] the scope of this command's activities, and of what we are resourced to research and provide under the Public Affairs program." I should instead file a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In other words, I should begin what was guaranteed to be another endlessly drawn-out process.

I was, shall we say, irritated. Somehow, it had taken six months to get me nothing and send me elsewhere—and somehow neither Colonel Davis, nor Eric Elliott, nor Dave Hecht had realized this. I said as much to Benson. He wrote back: "Lastly, you state, ‘I've been led astray for the better part of a year and intend to write about it', which of course is your right to do in our free society. We expect that as a professional, you convey the correct facts, and ask that you note that we did research, and provide answers to the questions you posed."

Well, here you go, Ben. Duly noted. But of course, the "correct facts" are that neither Benson nor anyone else at AFRICOM ever provided answers to the crucial basing questions I posed. And Benson continues not to provide them to this very day.

When we last spoke by telephone, several weeks ago, I reiterated that I understood he couldn't offer me a list of the locations of American bases in Africa due to "security of operations," so all I now wanted was a simple count of facilities in Africa. "That's tricky. We have teams coming in and out of Africa to different locations all the time," he replied. "Places that they might be, the range of possible locations can get really big, but can provide a really skewed image of where we are… versus other places where we have ongoing operations. So, in terms of providing number, I'd be at a loss of how to quantify this."

It seemed easy enough to me: just count them and include the necessary disclaimers. So I asked if AFRICOM kept a count of where its troops were located. They did. So what was the problem? He launched into a monologue about the difficulty of ascertaining just what truly constituted "a location" and then told me: "We don't have a way that we really count locations."

It couldn't have been clearer by then. They had a count of all locations, but couldn't count them. They had lists of where all US troops in Africa were based, but not a list of bases. It was a classic runaround in action.

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