Barack Obama did something yesterday that government leaders tend not to do: He talked about the CIA drone war in Pakistan.
This admission–which, it should be pointed out, happened in a Google-sponsored Q & A with the public, not a session with reporters–made it into the papers. The New York Times (1/31/12) flagged civilian deaths as the most newsworthy aspect, headlining a report by Mark Landler “Civilian Deaths Due to Drones Are Not Many, Obama Says.” Landler writes:
Mr. Obama, in an unusually candid public discussion of the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert program, said the drone strikes had not inflicted huge civilian casualties. “We are very careful in terms of how it’s been applied,” he said. “It is important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash.”
It would have been helpful for the Times to point out that there are other sources who might comment on civilian casualties from drone strikes. The Times addressed this topic last year, challenging the CIA’s absurd claims that there were no civilian deaths at all. The British Bureau of Investigative Journalism noted (8/10/11) that between 391 and almost 800 civilians have reportedly been killed since the drone program began in 2004, including 168 children.
The Times offers a curious explanation for the government’s refusal to speak openly about their program:
The CIA’s drone program, unlike the use of armed unmanned aircraft by the military in Afghanistan and previously in Iraq, is a covert program, traditionally one of the government’s most carefully-guarded secrets. But because of intense public interest–the explosions cannot be hidden entirely–American officials have been willing to discuss the program on condition of anonymity.
Granting anonymity to official sources because of “intense public interest” in a story is a little puzzling.
The Wall Street Journal also weighed in (1/31/12), pointing out that the “U.S. says roughly 60 civilians have been killed there. Pakistani officials and some human-rights group say the number of civilian dead is far higher.”
The Journal adds that some think secrecy is bad PR:
Proponents of more disclosure inside the administration and the military argue U.S. secrecy has fueled charges in Pakistan that the drone strikes frequently kill civilians. They say releasing at least some details about the operations will help deflect criticism.
Or maybe the drones do actually kill innocents, and it’s better not to acknowledge this fact.