Targeted Killing: Drones

Very Strange Column by the New York Times Public Editor

By Benjamin Wittes
Monday, October 15, 2012, 7:47 AM

This is a very weird column by New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan. Sullivan, acknowledging that the Times has broken important stories about the CIA's drones program and has sought more information using FOIA on the drones program, nonetheless takes the Times to task for going easy on the government on drones policy:

But The Times has not been without fault. Since the article in May, its reporting has not aggressively challenged the administration’s description of those killed as “militants” — itself an undefined term. And it has been criticized for giving administration officials the cover of anonymity when they suggest that critics of drones are terrorist sympathizers.

Americans, according to polls, have a positive view of drones, but critics say that’s because the news media have not informed them well. The use of drones is deepening the resentment of the United States in volatile parts of the world and potentially undermining fragile democracies, said Naureen Shah, who directs the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia University’s law school.

“It’s portrayed as picking off the bad guys from a plane,” she said. “But it’s actually surveilling entire communities, locating behavior that might be suspicious and striking groups of unknown individuals based on video data that may or may not be corroborated by eyeballing it on the ground.”

On Sunday, Ms. Shah’s organization will release a report that raises important questions about media accuracy on drone strikes. But accuracy is only one of the concerns that have been raised about coverage of the issue.

“It’s very narrow,” said David Rohde, a columnist for Reuters who was kidnapped by the Taliban in 2008 when he was a Times reporter. “What’s missing is the human cost and the big strategic picture.”

Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer who has written extensively on this subject for Salon and now for The Guardian, told me he sees “a Western media aversion to focusing on the victims of U.S. militarism. As long as you keep the victims dehumanized it’s somehow all right.”

Mr. Rohde raised another objection: “If a Republican president had been carrying out this many drone strikes in such a secretive way, it would get much more scrutiny,” he said.

I find this a bewildering argument. The Times is not an advocacy organization whose job it is to "aggressively challenge" the government's claims of the rates of civilian casualties--except to the extent that those claims are untrue. And while there's certainly a debate to be had as to the right way to count civilian deaths, it's not at all clear that the government's reports of low rates of civilian casualties are off base. Ironically, the Times has actually done a terrific job compared to many other news organizations of sifting through the disparities between different claims regarding the number of civilians killed in drone strikes. See, for example, this excellent story by Scott Shane from a while back.

Sullivan's criticism seems to boil down to the fact that the Times does not spend more time acting like a law school human rights clinic or, God forbid, like He Who Must Not Be Named on This Blog. While I value the work the human rights community does and the questions that it raises, the The Times's job is different. And I would have hoped that the public editor of the Times would understand that difference.