Revelations: US Africom runs a network of drone bases integral to American assassination programmes in Africa
I had begun requesting information in May 2012, so called in additional questions in June and July, and then (as requested) put them in writing. I followed up on the July 9, mentioning my looming deadline and was told that Africom headquarters might have some answers for me on the May 10.
That day came and went, as did July 11. TomDispatch finally published the piece on July 12. “I respectfully submit that a vigorous free press cannot be held hostage, waiting for information that might never arrive,” I wrote to Davis.
When I later followed up, Davis turned out to be on leave, but Africom spokesperson Eric Elliott emailed in August to say: “Let me see what I can give you in response to your request for a complete list of facilities.”
Then, for weeks, Africom went dark. A follow-up email in late October went unanswered. Another in early November elicited a response from spokesperson Dave Hecht, who said that he was handling the request and would provide an update by week’s end. I’m sure you won’t be shocked to learn that he didn’t. So, I followed up yet again.
On November 16, he 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.” Did I get them? What do you think?
In December, Hecht finally replied, “All questions have been answered but are still being reviewed for release. Hopefully this week I can send everything your way.” Did he? Hah!
In January 2013, I received answers to some questions of mine, but nothing about those bases. By then, Hecht, too, had disappeared and I was left dealing with Africom’s Chief of Media Engagement, Benjamin Benson. When asked about my questions, he replied that public affairs couldn’t provide answers and I should instead file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
To recap, six months later, Benson recommended I start again. And in good faith, I did. In 2016, three and a half years later, I finally received a partial response to that FOIA request: one page of partially redacted – not to mention useless – information about (yep!) Camp Lemonnier and nothing else.
I would spend years investigating the bases Davis claimed didn’t exist. Using leaked secret documents, I shed light on a network of African drone bases integral to US assassination programmes on the continent as well as the existence of a secret network of National Security Agency eavesdropping outposts in Ethiopia.
Using formerly secret documents, I revealed an even larger network of US bases across Africa, again and again. I used little-noticed open-source information to highlight activities at those facilities, while helping expose murder and torture by local forces at a drone base in Cameroon built-up and frequented by Americans.
I also spotlighted the construction of a $100 million drone base in Niger; a previously unreported outpost in Mali apparently overrun by militants after a 2012 coup there by a US-trained officer. The expansion of a shadowy drone base in the Horn of Africa and its role in lethal strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; hundreds of drone strikes from Libya to Somalia and the resulting civilian casualties; and the flailing, failing US war on terror all across Africa.
Not surprisingly, Africom’s website never had much to say about such reporting, nor could you go there to find articles like: “The Africom files: Pentagon undercounts and ignores military sexual assault in Africa”
“Pentagon document shows US knew of ‘credible’ reports of civilian casualties after its attacks in Somalia”
“New data shows the US military is severely undercounting civilian casualties in Somalia”
“Pentagon stands by Cameroon despite forensic analysis showing its soldiers executed women and children”
“US troops in Africa might be in danger: Why is the military trying to hide it?”
In the years since, a parade of Africom press officials came and went, replying in a by-then-familiar fashion. “Nick, we’re not going to respond to any of your questions,” Lt Commander Anthony Falvo, head of its public affairs branch, told me in October 2017.
Did he, I asked, believe Africom needn’t address questions from the press in general or only from me. “No, just you,” he replied. “We don’t consider you a legitimate journalist, really.” Then he hung up.
That same month, I was inadvertently ushered behind the closed doors of the Africom public affairs office. While attempting to hang up on me, a member of the staff accidentally put me on speakerphone and suddenly I found myself listening in to the goings on, from banal banter to shrieking outbursts. And, believe me, it wasn’t pretty.
While the command regularly claimed its personnel had the utmost respect for their local counterparts, I discovered, for example, that at least certain press officers appeared to have a remarkably low opinion of some of their African partners.
At one point, Falvo asked if there was any “new intelligence” regarding military operations in Niger after the 2017 ambush that killed those four American soldiers. “You can’t put Nigerians and intelligence in the same sentence,” replied someone in the office.
Laughter followed and I published the sordid details. That very month, Anthony Falvo shipped off (literally ending up in the public affairs office of the USS Gerald Ford).
Today, a new coterie of Africom public affairs personnel field questions, but Falvo’s successor, Deputy Director of Public Affairs John Manley, a genuine professional, seems to be on call whenever my questions are especially problematic. He swears this isn’t true, but I’m sure you won’t be shocked to learn that he fielded my queries for this article.
After Col Tom Davis, who left Africom to join Special Operations Command (where, in a private email, he called me a “turkey”), failed to respond to my interview requests, I asked AFRICOM if his defer-and-deny system was the best way to inform the American public.
“We are not going to comment on processes and procedures in place a decade ago or provide opinions on personnel who worked in the office at that time,” said Manley.
“Our responsibility is to provide timely, accurate and transparent responses to queries received from all members of the media,” Manley told me. Yes, me, the reporter who’s been waiting since 2012 for answers about those US bases. And by Africom standards, maybe that’s not really so long, given its endless failures in quelling terrorism and promoting stability in places like Burkina Faso, Libya and Somalia.
Still, I give Manley a lot of credit. He isn’t thin-skinned or afraid to talk and he does offer answers, although sometimes they seem so farfetched that I can’t believe he uttered them with a straight face. Although he agreed to discuss his replies further, I doubted that badgering him would get either of us anywhere, so I’ll just let his last one stand as a digital monument to my 10-year relationship with Africom.
When I asked if the public affairs office had always been as forthcoming, forthright and helpful with my queries as possible, he unleashed the perfect capstone to my decade-long dance with US Africa Command by offering up just one lone word: “Yes.”
- Nick Turse is a fellow at Type Investigations and the author of Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan.