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Is this the secret US Drone Base in Saudi Arabia?
February 8, 2013 8:00 AM   Subscribe

Noah Shachtman of Wired has published Bing/Nokia satellite maps that shows what appears to be a previously unknown US drone airbase deep in the desert in Saudi Arabia.

The existence of the base became public as the Brennan confirmation hearings have brought new attention to America's drone programs. The location of the base is 19.115601 N, 50.128869 E: Bing Maps (images by DigitalGlobe) clearly shows the base at very high resolution, Google Maps shows nothing but low resolution data. Wired also has copies of images depicting runways, hangars, and various support buildings many miles from the nearest highway.
posted by Nelson (75 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Doesn't it still count as secret if it's only viewable on Bing?
posted by Strange Interlude at 8:03 AM on February 8, 2013 [37 favorites]


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.

Keep up the good work, Fourth Estate!
posted by absalom at 8:07 AM on February 8, 2013 [57 favorites]


At the Southwest corner of that satellite shot (on the Bing site itself) there seems to be a large number of semi-trailers (like 30 or 40) and industrial looking buildings and equipment. At the far southwest corners seems to be some kind of industrial plant. I'm not sure that a US base would need to have so much standard industrial equipment around. Surely resupplying would be by plane or a couple of trucks, wouldn't it? Why would they need so many trailers and rigs?

Any ideas?
posted by Brockles at 8:10 AM on February 8, 2013


The fourth estate is useless. Being "allowed" to tell the news has become more important than the responsibility to decide what actually is important and therefore news. That's how the government and media got into bed with each other. The only real news they allow for us is a comedy show where they mock themselves and our inability to affect any meaningful change.
posted by cotterpin at 8:13 AM on February 8, 2013 [5 favorites]


I like the way the internet now gives casually curious people data that would have made a Soviet spymaster weep.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:13 AM on February 8, 2013 [33 favorites]


I thought the drones covering Yemen flew out of Djibouti (yes, yes, so many things do fly out of Djibouti, this time I'm serious)?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:13 AM on February 8, 2013 [9 favorites]


It's a fashion catwalk, sillies.
posted by stormpooper at 8:13 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Any ideas?

Mobile bio-warfare manufacturing equipment left over from the Saddam era.
posted by notyou at 8:17 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


here is how Google obscured the same thing

https://maps.google.com/?ll=19.10244,50.1209&spn=0.032928,0.043731&t=h&z=15
what I find of interest is not that we have a secret base there. After all, you have to house drones fairly close to where you want to fgy them to, but rather that the Saudis kicked us out (or asked us to leave) shortly after OBLadin denounced infidels being housed--our military--in the holy land (Mecca)...at that time we moved our forces to Kuwait. Now it seems that we got to use Saudi land again so long as it was to be secret.
posted by Postroad at 8:17 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Three questions I couldn't find answers to:
  1. How do these images exist? It's awfully high resolution data for a satellite, but an airplane overflight seems very unlikely. Nearby areas of desert on Bing are not nearly as detailed.
  2. Why did Bing publish the images? Did they screw up a redaction or was the request to hide them never made?
  3. How did Wired find the Bing images? I'd suspected a leak associated with the Bremer nomination, but the Washington Post article suggests the location was an open secret. Maybe Danger Room took a look on Bing and decided to publish.
posted by Nelson at 8:18 AM on February 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


Any ideas?

It looks like the base is still under construction. I'm guessing that's why they're there.
posted by zsazsa at 8:19 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


It looks like the base is still under construction. I'm guessing that's why they're there.

Yeah, I agree. The plant at the bottom left looks like a cement plant for making concrete for the runways. It looks like they are still building the runway to the north, as it is laid out in dirt. I wonder what the circular areas to the south of what looks like the living area are, and where they get their water from.
posted by procrastination at 8:23 AM on February 8, 2013


Yeah, what zsazsa said. That pad to the left of the main one looks like it's waiting for more buildings or hangars.

According to the Wired story, they built all that, in the middle of nowhere (or "Hell" as the analyst described it), sometime after November 2010 and before March 2012.

Do you suppose the bin Laden Construction Company performed the contract?
posted by notyou at 8:26 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


What's wild is zooming out. Going from the scale at 2500 ft. to 1 mile...whoa! How did anyone find this place?
posted by dukes909 at 8:30 AM on February 8, 2013


Now it seems that we got to use Saudi land again so long as it was to be secret.

Two things have happened in the interim: The KSA has mostly neutered its internal Islamist militants (and/or exported them to Syria); and Obama shot Osama in the face.
posted by notyou at 8:31 AM on February 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


The drone base's Saudi location was reported by legitimate news outlets since September of last year. More here, or here.
posted by grounded at 8:34 AM on February 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


The runway looks like a game of Tetris. It can't be under construction because they needed the runway first, to bring in supplies for the rest of the plant.
posted by stbalbach at 8:34 AM on February 8, 2013


Why would they need so many trailers and rigs?

Those are probably the housings that the pilots are in to pilot the drones? I'm sure they can be piloted from elsewhere via satellite but they must have local drone piloting housings on site.
posted by gen at 8:35 AM on February 8, 2013


More on the things flying out of Djibouti.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:36 AM on February 8, 2013


The Story is not that the US has a drone base in Saudi.
But that the MSM knew and didn´t report it owing to an ''informal agreement''.
Greenwald: The collective self-censorship over a US drone base in Saudi Arabia is but the latest act of government-subservient 'journalism'.
posted by adamvasco at 8:37 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


How do these images exist?

Has to be satellite. The cost of flying a camera in a plane in that part of the world would be prohibitively expensive unless you were a national military...

If the consumer-grade satellite images are of this resolution, just imagine what the US military has access to that we don't know about. (This is not about that high-res camera drone that was in the news last week.)
posted by gen at 8:38 AM on February 8, 2013


The plant at the bottom left looks like a cement plant for making concrete for the runways.

Yeah, that makes sense especially considering the look of the runway.

The plant at the bottom left looks like a cement plant for making concrete for the runways.

Those are probably the housings that the pilots are in to pilot the drones?

I thought that was in the Northwest corner. I don't think they need all that much room for that kind of thing. The pictures I have seen have been of containers stacked 2 high for accommodation and there is enough in that area (right by the hangers makes most sense) for accommodation and operations maybe?
posted by Brockles at 8:40 AM on February 8, 2013




PRI The World: Military Practices Flying Drones Over Northern New York
posted by gen at 8:43 AM on February 8, 2013


ProPublica: Everything We Know So Far About Drone Strikes
posted by gen at 8:44 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


~Why would they need so many trailers and rigs?
~Those are probably the housings that the pilots are in to pilot the drones?


This was my thought, too. The pictures I've seen of the drone pilots' "offices" have all resembled shipping containers.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:56 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


These must be very long airtime drones, because that is just completely in the middle of nowhere.
posted by smackfu at 8:58 AM on February 8, 2013


The military also practices flying airplanes over US soil with actual humans in the cockpit.
posted by mkb at 8:59 AM on February 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


Keep up the good work, Fourth Estate!

You do understand that the idea of some kinda 4th estate is a lie right?
posted by rough ashlar at 9:05 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


but rather that the Saudis kicked us out (or asked us to leave) shortly after OBLadin denounced infidels being housed--our military--in the holy land (Mecca)...at that time we moved our forces to Kuwait.

Per Osama Bin Laden - as an act of appeasement.

Now it seems that we got to use Saudi land again so long as it was to be secret.

No need to appease the dead, right?
posted by rough ashlar at 9:08 AM on February 8, 2013


Isn't this violating President Obama's right to privacy?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:22 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]




Keep up the good work, Fourth Estate!

You do understand that the idea of some kinda 4th estate is a lie right?


You do understand the concept of sarcasm right?
posted by Etrigan at 9:34 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


These are the drones you're looking for.
posted by hal9k at 9:44 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Some news outlets are reporting that it is a CIA base, not a military base, which isn't surprising.

I'm reminded of the U-2 program in the 1950s, where it was decided that the CIA (and not the Air Force) would overfly the USSR. CIA overflights allowed us to truthfully say that we weren't conducting military operations in Soviet airspace.

These days, having the CIA fly target killing missions out of Saudi Arabia would allow us to say that the military is not conducting combat operations there.

Can anyone find quotes from US or Saudi officials saying something like that? A quick search on my end came up empty-handed.
posted by compartment at 9:45 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


not close but

"They were operating them before the United States military was involved ... and doing a good job," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said, explaining why CIA operated the armed drones in Afghanistan. "And so rather than changing that, we just left it."

Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,90318,00.html#ixzz2KKapKnTf
posted by clavdivs at 9:51 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Keep up the good work, Fourth Estate!"

You say this sarcastically, but I think its kind of neat that even today, as newspapers continue to get disemboweled by internet advertising, we still have a few that are morally capable of working against their own self interest for the common good. Really we gain nothing by knowing that this base specifically is where the drones (that these same news organizations have not been shy about reporting real news about) are coming from; no real insight, no information that can really inform us, nothing of value but a meaningless destructive gotchya and a blurry image. Yet we lose the ability to keep the people on that base safe nearly so easily by making them a target, that it is known to be in Saudi Arabia becomes yet more fuel for batshit fundamentalism, and it all can't be healthy for our already really fucked up relationship with the Saudis.

Really, fuck whomever was going to report this ultimately meaningless location regardless of the consequences. There was a time not so long ago when there were things in journalism that were considered more important than eyeballs and notoriety.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:17 AM on February 8, 2013 [12 favorites]


You say this sarcastically, but I think its kind of neat that even today, as newspapers continue to get disemboweled by internet advertising, we still have a few that are morally capable of working against their own self interest for the common good.

It appears that we all may not share the same definition of "common good."
posted by notyou at 10:24 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm with Blasdelb, mostly.
Does the US have D-notices or equivalent?
posted by Mezentian at 10:30 AM on February 8, 2013


"Does the US have D-notices or equivalent?"

Nope, we've got this instead:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
What happened here though at least used to be not that uncommon, where with stories that would sell papers but hurt the community journalists would type up the story and then hold onto it until it was either no longer damaging or someone else was trying to scoop them.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:37 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm guessing that big ring next to the trailer things is for drone pilots to do donuts during downtime.
posted by jessssse at 10:43 AM on February 8, 2013


Yet we lose the ability to keep the people on that base safe nearly so easily by making them a target

So fucking what if the drone operators become targets?

The USG has been lying, lying, lying about the drone program from day one. The more that the world knows about it, the better. Maybe if enough sunlight is shone on the program, they'll be forced to be ethical and just.
posted by dunkadunc at 10:47 AM on February 8, 2013 [4 favorites]




Surprise! The construction of the base roughly coincides with a $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

Blasdelb, I think there is a lot of value in knowing who has agreed to let the United States conduct lethal operations from their territory. There are millions of sane, reasonable Saudis who have every right to know what killings their government condones. I couldn't disagree with you more strongly.

Here is one interview with one person in Saudi Arabia who is not "batshit crazy". He concludes the interview by encouraging the reporter to air it in full, even though broadcasting his words may hurt him. Batshit fundies rely on scripture. Human rights advocates rely on their ability to speak truth to power. I want them to know more about the world in which they live, not less.
posted by compartment at 10:47 AM on February 8, 2013 [9 favorites]


Any ideas?

They are setting up the stages and PA systems for this year's Allahpalooza
posted by Renoroc at 10:48 AM on February 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


"If the consumer-grade satellite images are of this resolution, just imagine what the US military has access to that we don't know about. (This is not about that high-res camera drone that was in the news last week.)"

They could read the bars off of a sergeant's shoulder back in the 70s, and the Hubble space telescope, much of which was built with spare parts from the NRO, could read a dime off of the Washington monument in 1990. There is a reason why classified documents are never opened outside in China.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:52 AM on February 8, 2013


Blasdelb: "Yet we lose the ability to keep the people on that base safe nearly so easily by making them a target"

Alternately: The drone operators are targets now? Far out!
posted by dunkadunc at 10:54 AM on February 8, 2013


Why does everyone assume this is a US base?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:57 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yet we lose the ability to keep the people on that base safe nearly so easily by making them a target, that it is known to be in Saudi Arabia becomes yet more fuel for batshit fundamentalism, and it all can't be healthy for our already really fucked up relationship with the Saudis.

There is not a single person or organization that had A) the ability to do damage to the people on that base and B) no knowledge of that base until reading about it on Wired.

If the Saudis don't want people to know about our bases on their territory, then they shouldn't let us build them there.
posted by Etrigan at 11:10 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


I wonder if it's totally fake? We already know the military cooperates with mapping sites to blur out sensitive locations, so it seems unlikely that just one site on one mapping site would slip through the cracks.

It seems equally plausible to me that the CIA photoshopped together a few dozen convincing looking secret sites, and asked the Bing people to plant them in satellite imagery in likely locations all over Central Asia. Enemies would probably be able to deduce that some secret sites are real and others are fake, but then as long as they don't know which is which, satellite imagery would have little value.
posted by miyabo at 11:16 AM on February 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


the three well-known approaches to protecting imagery information:

- omission: big black spot or 'no imagery is available for this location'
- obscuration: decrease resolution so no useful operational information can be derived
- misinformation: the photoshop

The problem is that that any of these can flag a region as 'interesting' for a potential exploiter. Even if you can't extract exactly what is there, you know it's something considered worth hiding.

Even so, more and more I hear talk in my professional circle of the misinformation approach invading the public sphere. Especially in cartography, this has an overwhelming psychological impact re: the phenomenon of 'if it's on the map it must be true.' While there is a vast history of using mapping to propagandize, the contemporary ubiquity of public web maps propels the act into unethical deception on the grandest scale (IMHO).

Also, betting that if the CIA cared about keeping that location secret, it would be.
posted by j_curiouser at 11:41 AM on February 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


There is not a single person or organization that had A) the ability to do damage to the people on that base
Better rethink that.
posted by adamvasco at 11:59 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


compartment: I think there is a lot of value in knowing who has agreed to let the United States conduct lethal operations from their territory.

But that has been reported since last fall, as many people have noted. The only revelation from this is the precise location (and pictures) of the base. What purpose does that serve, other than to bring dunkadunc's idiotic cheer for attacks on drone operators closer to reality?
posted by msalt at 11:59 AM on February 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


In all seriousness, the suggestion that the media was withholding info on this base out of concern for the poor drone operators is complete crap. The coverup was out of deference to the White House.

The only thing endangered by this revelation is the administration doing whatever the hell it wants.
posted by dunkadunc at 12:02 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


But again, what evidence is there that this (if real) is not a Saudi base? It's not like there is a big American flag or CIA logo on the rooftops or something. We know Saudi has their own drone program and that they meddle in Yemen to secure the Sunni minority's power, so why wouldn't this be their base?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:04 PM on February 8, 2013


There is not a single person or organization that had A) the ability to do damage to the people on that base
Better rethink that.


Better read the whole sentence before you try to refute it.
posted by Etrigan at 12:06 PM on February 8, 2013


Etrigan: the base is very close to the Yemeni border, near the miltants who are targeted. There's no reason to think they had this information before this article came out.

Now that they have the exact location and surveillance photos, what makes you so confident they can't attack it? They'd be foolish not to, really. It's probably not heavily defended.
posted by msalt at 12:09 PM on February 8, 2013


There's no reason to think they had this information before this article came out.

There's no reason to think they didn't, either. That's kind of the point of terrorist organizations -- they tend to use surprise.

It's probably not heavily defended.

If it's a U.S. base overseas, it's heavily defended. Physical security by obscurity is not a thing that the U.S. military likes to rely on.
posted by Etrigan at 12:26 PM on February 8, 2013


It's probably not heavily defended.

Yeah, I mean it's not like they have magical flying cameras circling around it or something.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:32 PM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Fox News article changed the location from "Saudi Arabia" to "the Arabian Peninsula". You can still see the original text on their mobile page. Was that change meant to protect the coordinates of the base, or to conceal the fact that we were conducting combat operations out of Saudi Arabia?

The Washington Post also placed the base in the Arabian Peninsula, not Saudi Arabia. The silence was not to protect the coordinates. It was to avoid publicizing the existence of a base on Saudi land. The wording was used out of political concerns, not security concerns.

Publishing the location of the base publicizes its existence, and that is valuable in and of itself. There is a huge difference between this and an anonymous source telling the Times of London that we built an airstrip.

We have a right to know what actions are done in our name to defend us. Until our government speaks frankly and honestly about the drone killing program, we're left to do the detective work on our own. We now know the location of a base. Great. How much is it expanding over time? That tells us about the scope of the program. Personally, I would prefer that we not build up combat forces in Saudi Arabia again. We will now have some verifiable inkling of an idea about whether that's happening. We are not left to rely solely on strategic leaks from invested authorities.

The idea that terrorists are twiddling their thumbs for absence of known targets is simply not credible.
posted by compartment at 12:52 PM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


We already know the military cooperates with mapping sites to blur out sensitive locations, so it seems unlikely that just one site on one mapping site would slip through the cracks.

The various groups involved make mistakes, even though they have spent alot of money to justify their existence.

Microsoft - fill in your own mistakes.
US Government protection services - How much money has been spent for air protection from threats? Yet, somehow, on one day in September over a decade ago threats from the air were not responded to. An older incident would be putting airplanes in a circle noses pointing toward the center of the circle as another example of a screw up.
posted by rough ashlar at 3:16 PM on February 8, 2013


The OpenStreetMap has the base mapped now; the edits started today at 04:30Z, just 15 minutes after the Wired article was published.
posted by Nelson at 4:54 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


They could read the bars off of a sergeant's shoulder back in the 70s, and the Hubble space telescope, much of which was built with spare parts from the NRO, could read a dime off of the Washington monument in 1990. There is a reason why classified documents are never opened outside in China.
The only part of this that might be true is that the HST was built in part with elements common to reconnaissance satellites. Have you seen the declassified imagery from that era?
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 5:31 PM on February 8, 2013


The super stealth office park nearby is very mysterious, it seems they are trying to hide the total number of parking spots under mounds of sand.
posted by romanb at 6:27 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


The airbase has a name on Google now: "Umm al Melh Border Guards Airport". You can write a review and everything.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:59 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Any hint where Google got that name? Searching "Umm Al Melh" has some interesting construction-related results for it, including resumes for a couple of citing work done there: (Muhammad Jamil Noor, Syed Pasha). And here's news of the construction contract from Nov 2010.
Abdullah A M Al Khodari Sons Company has been granted a contract by The Ministry of Interior with a period of 720 days and a total cost of SAR 86,318,104 for the establishment of an airport for Border Guard in Umm Al Melh.
Then again IIRC Google crowdsources some labels for its maps, so who knows if this label is accurate. I imagine someone who read Arabic could research this much more effectively than I can.
posted by Nelson at 7:17 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ha! The Saudi Geological Survey is using a photo of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, Utah, for the header on their web page.
posted by jessssse at 7:40 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


As an example of just how much the US government wouldn't have liked this info going public, the range of this airbase to Iran is almost exactly the operational range of a Shahab-3 ballistic missile.
posted by markkraft at 7:29 AM on February 9, 2013


I like to think Islamist terrorist analysts must be having similar problems looking at satellite imagery and trying to work out what Las Vegas is for.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:42 AM on February 9, 2013


> What happened here though at least used to be not that uncommon, where with stories that would
> sell papers but hurt the community journalists would type up the story and then hold onto it
> until it was either no longer damaging or someone else was trying to scoop them.
> posted by Blasdelb at 1:37 PM on February 8 [2 favorites +] [!]

The impulse isn't limited to journos. Darwin sat on the Origin until Wallace was about to scoop him.
posted by jfuller at 8:44 AM on February 9, 2013


How do these images exist? It's awfully high resolution data for a satellite,

Not really. A quick look at DigitalGlobe's website shows their standard satellite imagery product has 50cm resolution. (This is largely a legal limit, not a technical one; it gets smaller every few years). I'm not an expert, so it's hard to judge without a test pattern or something, but looking at the images in the Wired article I'd say their resolution is pretty close to that.

Why did Bing publish the images?

There was talk a few years ago about Bing not being part of the ‘gentlemen's agreement’ that kept some places off of Google Maps, but I don't know if that's still true.

Regardless, I could imagine that for many secret areas, the risk of exposure from telling Bing not to display a region (how many people at Bing have access to the list of redacted areas?) would be higher than the risk of someone seeing some random construction in the desert and guessing what it is.
posted by hattifattener at 2:47 PM on February 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


A Killing Court
In John Brennan's confirmation hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, committee chair Diane Feinstein (D-CA) said she would explore with Congressional colleagues the possible creation of a special court to review candidates for assassination by armed drones. The idea is worth exploring. Such a judicial mechanism could be a way of meeting the well-justified concerns of many that the drone program is too much a matter of executive discretion. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court can serve as a successful model of how such a court might work. If we are to involve the judiciary before tapping a person's telephone (even when the target of the tap is a foreigner), why shouldn't we involve courts before killing the person?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:43 AM on February 10, 2013 [1 favorite]








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