The Official Story: How NY Times Covers Yemen Drone Strikes

7046443151_301c8e8c02_bNews that a US drone strike hit a wedding convoy in Yemen has been getting a lot of international press attention, mostly due to the fact that over a dozen people were reportedly killed. But the New York Times‘ write-up (12/13/13) was one of the most jarring:

Most of the dead appeared to be people suspected of being militants linked to Al Qaeda, according to tribal leaders in the area, but there were also reports that several civilians had been killed.

 So most of the dead appeared to be  people suspected of being linked to Al Qaeda. That’s a whole lot of qualifiers to make the point that those who were killed were the intended targets. 

But there’s a pattern of the Times doing this.

In August of this year there were several suspected US drone attacks. Strikes on August 1 and August 8 reportedly killed several civilians, including children, part of a series of drone strikes around that time. 

The New York Times ran an AP dispatch on August 9, reporting this: 

 Three American drone strikes in Yemen on Thursday killed a total of 12 people suspected of being members of Al Qaeda, a Yemeni military official said, raising to eight the number of attacks in less than two weeks.

A news analysis on August 10 reported, “Eight strikes have been carried out in Yemen in the past two weeks, a ferocious rate of drone attacks,” before adding, “It is yet unknown who exactly was killed in Yemen during the past two weeks.” One would hope that more journalistic energy would be devoted to figuring out who the United States was killing.

And there are other examples. On May 16, 2012, the Times reported news of a drone strike the day before: 

The United States has also stepped up its drone strikes in Yemen in recent days, with 11 militants reported killed on Saturday east of Sana.

 But other accounts told a different story. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (5/15/12) reported that 

between 14 and 15 people have been killed in a double air strike on the southern city of Jaar.  Of these, as many as a dozen are being reported as civilians. Up to 21 civilians have also been reported injured.

Witnesses said the first strike targeted alleged militants meeting in a house. Civilians who had flocked to the impact site were killed in a follow-up strike. 

 And CNN reported (5/15/12):

Two suspected U.S. drone strikes killed seven al Qaeda militants and eight civilians in the southern part of Yemen on Tuesday, three Yemeni security officials said.

And one of the most infamous attacks in Yemen occurred on December 17, 2009, when the United States launched a cruise missile strike on al-Majala, in southern Yemen. That attack included cluster bombs. 41 civilians are believed to have been killed in the strike.   

The headline in the December 18, 2009 edition of the New York Times? 

“Yemen Says Strikes Against Qaeda Bases Killed 34”

On December 19, it was becoming clear that the U.S. was actually involved in the attack, so the Times ran this headline: 

“U.S. Aids Yemeni Raids on Al Qaeda, Officials Say”

 The Times added:

Yemeni officials said their security forces had killed at least 34 militants in the broadest attack on the terrorist group in years. A range of Pentagon, military and intelligence officials declined to provide details of the reported attacks, which, according to ABC News, included American missiles.

But officials in Washington offered words of support for the government of Yemen in tackling international terrorism. “Yemen should be commended for actions against Al Qaeda,” said Bryan G. Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman. “Al Qaeda poses a serious threat to Yemeni, U.S. and regional interests.”

 It would be months before the real story of that cruise missile strike would be reported in US media–a story that obviously was very different from the account US and Yemeni government officials gave at the time.

Which raises the fundamental question: Is there any reason to trust the official denials in the first place? The New York Times still seems to think so. 

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.