Undisclosed Locations

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This article originally appeared at Tom
Dispatch
.

There are
hundreds, possibly thousands of U.S.
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 U.S.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.
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 U.S.
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 U.S. facility
on the entire continent that the military formally calls a “base”: Camp Lemonnier
in Djibouti,
a tiny nation in the Horn of Africa. U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. military
presence on that continent. This included a previously ignored logistics
network set up to service U.S. 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.

U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.
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 U.S.
troops in Africa were based, but not a list of
bases. It was a classic runaround in action.

The First Casualty

And don’t think
that was the worst of it. The most dismissive response I’ve gotten recently
from anyone whose salary we pay to keep us (nominally) informed about the U.S. military came from Marco Villalobos, the
FOIA manager of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), responsible for Central
America and South America.

Last year, reports surfaced of civilians killed during operations conducted or overseen by U.S. personnel in
Honduras. In at least one instance, the Honduran Air Force shot down a civilian plane thanks in part, it seems, to
intelligence provided by SOUTHCOM. Since the U.S.
military is heavily involved in operations across Latin
America, I requested records relating to civilian casualties
resulting from all operations in the region.

That was in
July 2012. In February 2013, I got a peculiar response from Villalobos, one
I’ve never seen otherwise in hundreds of replies to FOIA requests that I’ve
ever received from various government agencies. He didn’t say there were no
such records. He didn’t tell me that I had contacted the wrong agency or
bureau. Instead, he directed me to the United Nations Statistics Division for
the relevant data.

The trouble is,
the U.N. Statistics Division (UNSD) doesn’t collate U.S. military data nor is it
devoted to tracking civilian casualties. Instead it provides breakdowns of big
datasets, like the Food and Agriculture Organization’s figures on how many
hectares of apricots were harvested in Afghanistan in 2007 (3,400) or the
prevalence rate of contraceptive use for women ages 15 to 49 in Uganda in 2005
(19.7%).

I was surprised
to say the least. And I wasn’t alone. When I checked in with the U.N., the
Statistics Division wrote back: “could you please forward us the email you
received from SOUTHCOM in which they suggest UNSD as a source, so we can
contact them if they continue to give our address out in response to such
inquiries which don’t pertain to our work.”

So I called
Villalobos to complain. It wasn’t his fault, he quickly assured me. The
decision had been made, he claimed, by the director of personnel. I asked for
his name, but Villalobos refused to give it: “He’s not a public person.”

That’s the
nature of the runaround. Months later, you find yourself back in the same
informational cul-de-sac. And when it comes to the U.S. military, it happens again and
again and again. I had a similar experience trying to embed with U.S. units in Afghanistan. I was rebuffed
repeatedly for reasons that seemed spurious to me. As a result, however, a
never-used Afghan visa for that trip sits unstamped in my passport — which
brings me back to my recent trip to Qatar.

The American Taliban?

In the airport
upon returning to the United
States, I was singled out by a Customs and
Border Protection (CBP) agent. He directed me to a “girl” at a far counter.
When I got there, I was admonished by her for being in the wrong place.
Finally, I was sent to see a third CBP officer at a different workstation. Think
of it as the runaround before the runaround.

This agent
proceeded to question me about the contents of my bag, pulled out my papers and
began reading them. She also wanted to know about my profession. I said I was a
writer. What did I write about? National security issues, I told her. She asked
what I thought about national security and the role of the U.S. military
in the world. In my estimation, I said, it tended to result in unforeseen
consequences. “Like what?” she asked. So I described my most recent article on blowback from U.S. military efforts in Africa.

Did I write
books?

“I do,” I
replied.

“What are the
titles?”

“The latest one
is called Kill Anything That Moves.”

“Kill what?”

Kill Anything That Moves.”

She turned to
her computer, promptly Googled the book, went to the Amazon page, and began
scrolling through the customer reviews. She asked if my book was, as the page
said, a New York Times
bestseller. I assured her it was. After a short while, she told me to stay put
and disappeared into a back room with my personal papers — writings, notes,
reading materials. When she returned, she told me that she couldn’t conduct the
rest of my “examination” in public. She would have to bring me “back.” I asked
if there was a problem. No. Could I have my papers back? The answer was again
no.

I was soon
deposited in “Area 23” of New York’s John F.
Kennedy International
Airport and I was
definitely the odd one out. Not that there weren’t plenty of other people
there. The Muslim man in the taqiyah.
Three women in head scarves. Another wearing a niqab. Everyone’s skin color was at least several shades
darker than mine.

I waited for a
while, taking notes, before my name was called by an Officer Mott. The badge on
his shirt made that clear, but he spelled it out for me anyway. “It seems like
you’re taking notes on everything, so I might as well get that out of the way,”
Mott said visibly perturbed, especially when I asked for his full name. “I’m
not giving you my first name,” he said with palpable disgust.

Like the
previous CBP agent, he also asked about my writing interests. I told him it
mostly centered on U.S.
foreign policy.

Are
you for or against it?”

“Am I for
foreign policy?” I asked.

“Well, I’m
reading that your last book is Kill
Anything That Moves
. That was about what?”

“The Vietnam
War.”

“What about the
Vietnam War?”

“Civilian
casualties.”

“Sensitive
topic,” he said.

“Especially for
the Vietnamese,” I replied.

“Well, in this
day and age with the whole war going on, that’s a sensitive issue you’re
writing about… Do you get any heat or problems writing about war and civilian
casualties?”

“It comes with
the territory,” I told him.

As he typed
away at his computer, I asked why I was singled out. “I think because some of
the material you have is of interest… What you’re writing, traveling with.” I
asked how they would know what was in my bag before I was detained. “Why the
officer stopped you is beyond me, but what the officer discovered is something
of interest, especially for national security… It’s not every day you see
someone traveling with information like this.”

It was probably
true. The contents of my bag were splayed out before us. The most prominent and
substantive document was “Qatar:
Background and U.S. Relations,” a report prepared last year by the U.S.
Congressional Research Service.

Agent Mott
rifled through my papers, tapped at his keyboard some more, breathed in deeply
and then launched into a series of questions designed to make sure, he told me,
that nothing “jeopardizes our national security.”

“How long have
you been writing about wars and things like that?”

“About 10
years.”

He did a double
take, looked at my passport, and typed feverishly. “I thought you were
younger,” he told me. I took it as a compliment. He wanted to know if I’d
traveled anywhere in the last five years as he flipped through my passport,
filled as it is with visas and entry and exit stamps from around the world. The
answer was obviously yes. “Pakistan?
Afghanistan?”
he asked.

Immediately, I
thought of the unused Afghan visa in my passport and started to explain. After
instructing me to get a visa, the U.S. military had strung me along
for months before deciding I couldn’t embed with certain units I requested, I
told him.

“Doing
journalistic stuff, not fighting with them or anything like that?”

Fighting? Was I
really being accused of heading to Afghanistan to join the Taliban? Or
maybe plotting to launch an insider attack? Was I really being questioned about
this on the basis of having an Afghan visa and writing about national security
issues? “Nope. I’m a writer,” I told him. “I cover the U.S. military, so I was going to cover the U.S. military.”

Agent Mott
seemed satisfied enough. He finished his questions and sent me on my way.

The next
morning, I checked my email, and found a message waiting for me. It was from
the Media Embed Chief in Afghanistan.
“You are receiving this email because in the past you have been an embed with
ISAF [International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan] or requested an
embed,” it read. “Your opinion and satisfaction are important to us.”

“You can’t make
this shit up,” an old editor of mine was fond of saying when truth — as it so
often does — proves stranger than fiction. This sequence of events certainly
qualified. I could hardly believe my eyes, but there it was: a link to a
questionnaire about how well served I was by my (nonexistent) 2012 embed in Afghanistan.
Question number six asked: “During your embed(s) did you get the information
and stories you require? If no please state why.”

Let me count
the ways.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute. An
award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the
Los Angeles Times, the
Nation
, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New
York Times bestseller Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. You can catch his conversation with Bill Moyers
about that book by
clicking here. His website is NickTurse.com. You can follow him on Tumblr and on Facebook.

Follow
TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the
newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones,
Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare
.

Copyright 2013
Nick Turse

Image by Dvidshub, licensed
under Creative Commons.

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