Monday, August 12, 2013

Journalistic Malpractice in Reporting on Drone Strikes

Reuters, Wednesday, August 7
A U.S. drone killed at least six suspected al Qaeda militants in southern Yemen on Wednesday, officials said, a day after U.S. and British embassies evacuated some staff because of growing fears of attacks.
Retuers, Friday, August 9
Five suspected al Qaeda militants were killed in an air strike in eastern Yemen, the Interior Ministry said on Friday, in an escalating campaign against the militant group's Yemeni branch after recent warnings of possible attacks.
Associated Press, Saturday, August 10th
A suspected U.S. drone strike killed two alleged al-Qaida militants in southern Yemen on Saturday, military officials said, making it the ninth such strike in just two weeks.
Over the past two weeks, the U.S. has launched at least nine drone strikes on Yemen, killing at least 36 individuals. I'm sure that Obama is engaging in moral introspection before each strike while he's out golfing in Martha's Vineyard. 
Why did I cite the snippets from the Associated Press and Reuters, which provide the narratives that get replicated and disseminated throughout the news media?  Because we need to look at why they are all misleading.

Each one speaks of either "suspected" or "alleged" militants.  Such language merits one key criticism on form and one key criticism on substance.

Reuters and the AP both employ the passive voice when using words such as "suspected" and "alleged."  Left out of the picture is who is doing the suspecting or alleging. The CIA?  The Pentagon?  The Yemeni government? Someone else? We have the allegation and the alleged, but not the alleger.

The Reuters article is an even bigger offender against the gods of good composition and lucid writing. The individuals in question "were killed" according to Reuters.  Well, who killed them?  Who conducted the air strike?  Reuters leaves this out of its lede, conveniently hiding the role of the United States at this key moment of interaction between reader and writer.

(One must also note the difference between "suspected" and "convicted."  The drone operator maintains the right to be judge, jury, and executioner here.)

More importantly--and dangerously, these articles leave out information we've already learned about the labeling of individuals as "militants."

In the "kill list" article that Jo Becker and Scott Shane wrote in the New York Times in May of last year, we learned the following:
It is also because Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.

“It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”
The CIA, in other words, labels individuals as militants ex post facto and post mortem. We have known this information for over a year, but the wire services have developed amnesia or--perhaps more likely--willfully choose to parrot the information that the authorities give them. 
The fact that the names of those killed by U.S. drone strikes rarely ever appear should inspire at least a dose of skepticism towards the claim that drone strikes are only hitting militants.

The other day, I came across an article in the Huffington Post that offers a marked contrast.

Joshua Herst, in the Huffington Post, wrote an excellent article "Yemen Drone Strikes Bring New Round Of Terror To Embattled Country" (8/10) that looks at the effects on the ground of the U.S.'s current reinvigorated drone war. Here is how he frames the wire service reports:
At least 36 people, all of them immediately deemed "suspected militants" by the Yemeni government, were killed, according to wire service counts.
Notice the difference? Even though we still have passive voice (""), we now know who is making the allegation. Additionally, Hersh puts quotation marks around "suspected militants" to underscore the contrast between allegation and conviction--and reality---and to encourage a healthy skepticism.  The quotation marks make "suspected militants" into what the term is--a quote given by an authority figure, not a known fact.  Hersh also provides first person accounts of the effects of the strikes to show the human impact:

For Farea al-Muslimi, that's meant a week of fear and anger. "You can tell how frustrated the people here are," al-Muslimi said, when reached by phone late on Friday.

Earlier in the week, he said, when an American P-3 Orion spy plane circled over Sanaa for nearly 10 hours, loudly buzzing as residents tried to celebrate the start of Eid, residents stopped in their tracks to protest. "People were standing in the street and screaming at it," he said.

Mohammed al-Qadhi, a Sanaa-based Yemeni journalist, said that so far there is no conclusive evidence that the current attacks killed innocents. Others, including Bafana, who tracks the strikes through his own network, said the first strikes last week in Hadhramauat killed at least four civilians, including a child.

Either way, al-Qadhi said the latest strikes are producing an uptick in popular discontent and protest -- on Facebook and Twitter, in the targeted villages, and at the now-vacant American embassy in Sanaa.
"People feel they don't have a government anymore," al-Qadhi said by phone. "They feel we don't have a government to attack the militants, so the Americans are handling it for us, and they are encroaching onto the sovereignty of Yemen."

The killings, he added, "may be good for Americans but in the end it doesn't solve the problem completely, especially if some civilians are killed. It just creates a kind of sympathy with al Qaeda. And I think al Qaeda will not stop attacking. I think they will retaliate, and they will fire back again in retaliation to these attacks."

To al-Muslimi, the return of drone warfare almost reflects an aimlessness among American policymakers. "Just like troubled teenagers with bad parents might run to the addiction of drugs and alcohol when it has problems, Americans are running to drones when they have terrorism problems," he said. "Alcohol makes you forget your failures, and for the Americans it seems like drones are for when they want to forget their counter-terrorism failures. It's senseless."The way the press chooses to present this information has the power to shape public opinion on U.S. foreign policy.  Consider, for instance, a poll conducted by the Huffington Post and YouGov back in February. 

When the survey asked whether people approved of using drones to kill "high-level terrorism suspects," 54 percent approved and 18 percent disapproved. However, when the survey reframed the question to acknowledge that "innocent civilians may also be killed in the process of targeting terrorism suspects," support tanked. Only 29 percent now approved, and 42 percent disapproved. Democratic support fell more steeply than Republican support when asked the more accurate question.

The public support for the drone wars heavily depends on the belief that the drone strikes are only targeting terrorists.  But we already know that such a belief is unfounded.

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