NYT Passes Along Anonymous Denial of Civilian Deaths

We often heard during the WikiLeaks controversy that civilian deaths in Afghanistan are well-covered in the corporate media, so the revelations in the documents about such incidents were “old news.”

A report in today’s Times from Rod Nordland (“Afghans Say NATO Strikes Killed Civilians,” 8/6/10) teaches a useful lesson in how such reporting appears.

There are actually two different attacks discussed in the piece, but the more revealing coverage concerns fallout from a July 26 attack. The Afghans say 52 civilians died. But the verdict from the U.S./NATO side is very different–and the Times delivers it via an anonymous source (emphasis added):

In another case of civilian casualties, Afghan and coalition officials continued to dispute what happened in the Sangin district of Helmand Province on July 26, when United States Marines fired a missile at a house from which they had received gunfire.

A senior intelligence official for the international forces, speaking on condition of anonymity as a matter of policy because of his position, said that about six civilians were killed, as well as Taliban fighters, for a total of 14 deaths. The civilians were killed when the Marines fired a shoulder-mounted Javelin rocket at a house where Taliban had taken up positions on the roof, while keeping civilians trapped inside.

The unnamed official added more details about the level of U.S. restraint:

“The Marines were unbelievable in the length of the time they waited to return fire,” the official said, adding that they took fire from the house for more than four hours before the decision to fire the rocket was made.

So was it six dead civilians or 52? The Times gets more from their source:

Asked to explain the divergence in accounts, the international force official said, “In Helmand, there are significant political challenges going on, to put it mildly.” In addition, coalition forces were unable to visit the scene because the Taliban controlled the area, the official said.

In passing, the Times quietly noted that “officials from the international force denied at first that civilians had been killed.”

In other words, the people who at first said they didn’t kill anyone at all now say that they killed a few people–far fewer than the Afghans are claiming were killed. But you shouldn’t trust those people anyway. And also, please don’t use my name.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.